What is a Cossack Squat and How Do You Do It?

What is a Cossack Squat and How Do you Do It

One of the most popular and common exercises in workout routines is squatting. But here’s the thing-- there are many different types of squats! 

And although most squats will target the same or a similar group of muscles, the different variations will add specific focuses and targets on certain muscles, and they will serve specific purposes with a unique set of benefits. If you have limited access to gym equipment or are just looking for variety in your routine, check out this article on the best hack squat alternatives.

Another squat variation that you might not have heard of, is the Cossack squat. It might seem simple at first, but it can be one of the most challenging squat variation exercises, and it comes with a great set of benefits that you might be highly interested in.

Let’s get right into what the Cossack squat is, the benefits it offers, how to do it, and much more!

What is a Cossack Squat?

Let’s start by explaining exactly what a Cossack squat is.

It’s basically a type of squat, a single-leg variation that works your balance, mobility, and coordination.

The squat is performed by stepping onto one leg to the side, descending into a deep squat position, with the opposite leg lifted off the floor, kept straight, and with the toes pointing upward.

The Cossack squat is most commonly done with bodyweight only. However, for more advanced levels, it can sometimes also be performed while holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in front of the body.

Other single-leg squat variations, such as the lunge or the split squat, have the legs either moving backward or forward.

But as we mentioned, the Cossack squat requires you to move your leg to the side, performing it first to the right, and then to the left.

But in order for the squat to be as effective as possible, the range of leg motion needs to be a lot bigger than with other squat variations. The hips and knees must travel through a bigger joint angle.

This turns the Cossack squat into one of the most advanced of all squat variations, and it requires a few things in order to be performed safely and properly:

  • Good mobility in the ankles, hip, and knees.
  • High flexibility in the inner thigh and hamstrings.
  • Excellent balance through the use of strong stabilizer muscle groups.
  • Good body awareness and coordination.

So basically, the Cossack squat isn’t exactly ideal for beginners, as it takes good levels of balance, flexibility, and coordination.

But once you get to the right level, this is an excellent squat to perform, and it can work for certain muscle groups a lot more than other squat variations.

What muscles does a Cossack Squat work?

Knowing which muscles the Cossack squat works is vital for understanding what purpose the squat serves, and for understanding which parts of your body you are working on when you perform it.

As a type of squat, it essentially works most of the same muscles that a normal squat does. However, different squat variations will have a more specific focus on certain particular muscles, and that’s the reason why they exist.

The muscles that are worked with the Cossack squat are:

  • Quads
  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings
  • Adductor Magnus (the inner thighs)
  • Obliques (the side abs)
  • Calves

However, there are three muscles in particular that the Cossack squat works more than the traditional squat does, and these are as follow:

The glute medius:

The glutes are made out of three different muscles, and the glute medius is the muscle situated on the upper side. This muscle is essentially in charge of rotating the hip externally so that the legs can move laterally (aka, sideways).

And as the Cossack squat is all about moving sideways with a great range of mobility, it is no wonder that this muscle is working more than usual.

To be exact, the glute medius is being worked harder than usual because the legs are having to dynamically move out to the side, in a lateral way, with every single rep of the squat.

This movement pattern is completely executed by the gluteus medius, and so it is being targeted by the exercise.

The quadriceps:

The quadriceps are pretty much always engaged in any type of squat. However, with the Cossack squat you are supposed to go down into a deep squatting position, and the further you bend your knees, the more your quads will be targeted by the exercise.

Basically, if you drop your hips below parallel, your knees will instantly need to push forward so that you can gain the extra range of motion necessary for the deeper squatting position. And the further your knees go forward, the more your quads need to work.

You can easily feel how your quadricep muscles are targeted by testing out a squat, and then testing it out again with a deeper squatting position, lower down.

Through repetition and practice, you will develop higher mobility in hips, ankles, and knees, and your squatting position will be able to go lower and lower, as the quads will be stronger and more capable!

The obliques:

The oblique muscles are the two abdominal muscles on the side of your torso. These muscles essentially provide your trunk with flexion and rotation, so that you can twist your upper body sideways.

The external oblique in particular is a lot thicker, and it runs from the lower ribs, all the way to the iliac crest.

During the Cossack squat, the oblique muscles are targeted and activated because they’re in charge of preventing you from twisting your body as you squat down.

And keeping you upright and straight as you move sideways, takes a surprising amount of strength! And as these muscles are active throughout the entirety of the squat when you are performing it, they’re getting a pretty intense workout.

Benefits of the Cossack Squat

As we have mentioned, the Cossack squat is not exactly ideal for beginners, as it takes good levels of body coordination, balance, and flexibility.

Not to mention that your muscles need to be minimally used to working out in order to perform the squat safely and successfully.

But once you’re at a good enough level, it is highly recommended that you give this squat variation a go, as it is a great workout and it provides some amazing benefits that you might not get in the same way through other squat variations.

Let’s go over some of the main benefits that the Cossack squat has to offer, and you’ll see that they are reason enough to want to master this squat variation once you are at the right fitness level.

It’s great for warming up before other squats:

It is very common, especially amongst powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters, to use the Cossack squat as a warm-up exercise for other squats, including the normal one.

This is because the Cossack squat does a great job at activating certain muscles, preparing them for workouts.

Particularly, the Cossack squat achieves two things:

  • It stretches the muscles of the lower body:

When you perform the Cossack squat, you are stretching the calves, hamstrings, and inner thighs. This can help warm them up for a deeper squatting position when it comes to other more traditional squat exercises.

  • It activates small muscles that stabilize bigger muscles:

Activating muscles that play a role in stabilizing bigger muscles in charge of mobility, is key to performing various exercises without causing any damage. With the Cossack squat, you especially work out the gluteus medius.

This muscle then is in charge of keeping the knees over the toes properly in traditional squats, so you will have warmed it up and prepped it for action.

It helps build strength and hypertrophy in the lower body:

The Cossack squat is highly effective at building strength and muscle mass in the lower body, making it the ideal exercise for that exact goal.

It is especially suited to building strength and muscle in the gluteus medius, which is the upper part of the glute. So if that is what you are aiming for, then this is the squat variation for you.

It is also used by people who not only want to build mass on the top of the glutes, but that have a glute deficiency and are in need of activating and working that particular muscle, through a more focused exercise.

It is a unilateral exercise:

A unilateral exercise is an exercise that is performed on one side of the body, and you should then switch to perform it on the other side, performing progressions that vary between left and right.

The Cossack Squat is a unilateral exercise because you perform it by stepping onto your right leg and lifting the left, and then you switch to do the same the other way around.

This can be a huge advantage, as it allows you to spot any major differences between one side or the other, and can allow you to notice any weaknesses or differences between the muscles on either side.

It also means that it is a lot more effective at solving any imbalances you might have between the right and left leg.

On top of this, unilateral exercises can help you become more resistant to injuries, can help improve your overall balance, and enhance technique and movement patterns.

Plus, unilateral exercises also activate the core a lot more, and this can be seen in the Cossack squat by the way in which the oblique muscles are targeted.

It enhances levels of motor control:

When we talk about motor control, we refer to the capability of directing and moving your body in a purposeful way, with as much control over it as possible.

There are some fitness exercises that don’t require a lot of motor control, because you’re lifting or moving on a single plane, and it’s more of an overall body movement rather than using specific muscle groups.

With the Cossack squat, however, there is very little room for error, as it is quite a technical exercise that requires high levels of motor control.

You are working on one leg at a time, in a lateral movement, while both legs are on uneven planes (one is on the floor and the other is lifted). 

This means that you have to have a higher level of precision in the way that you move, and not having the necessary motor control will result in a failed squat.

So over time, the more you practice the Cossack squat, the better and easier your motor control will become!

It increases your range of motion:

The Cossack squat is also often used as a stretching case, in which case it is recommended to be performed at the end of your workout, as a final stretch.

Using it as a stretching exercise helps you enhance the range of motion of your hips, knees, and ankles.

As a stretch, instead of performing various reps of the squat, you would do a fewer amount of squats, and hold them for a longer amount of time when they are in the deepest squatting position.

While you hold that position, your hips sink further down, and the calves and inner thighs are forced to loosen up a bit.

This essentially forces the body to stretch itself, and over time, this can increase your overall range of movement and flexibility for those targeted muscles.

It’s a good exercise within your fitness routine:

When you find a few exercises that you enjoy, and you become good at them, it’s very easy to fall into a comfortable pattern of performing them, and not bothering to explore or try out any other variations.

However, this can be negative in the long run, as it means that your body becomes used to the repetition of those limited exercises, and you end up stalling your progression.

Switching up your exercises every now and then will challenge your body in slightly different ways so that different muscle groups are targeted, and so that you work them and activate them in different ways.

The Cossack squat can be a great variation to introduce into your workout routines, especially at more advanced levels, and it will provide an excellent challenge.

How do you do a Cossack Squat?

Now that we’ve talked about what the Cossack squat is, and what muscles it works, and what benefits it has to offer, it’s time to get to the main question: how do you do a Cossack squat?

As we’ve mentioned (sorry to keep repeating this, but it’s pretty important!), the Cossack squat is not suited to beginners.

So if you’re just starting to work out, leave it for a later date. If you’re sufficiently advanced, then you can give the Cossack squat a try.

You should also have pretty much mastered the traditional squat and the lunge before moving on to the Cossack squat.

You should also start out by using just your bodyweight with the Cossack squat and leave using any added weights until you’ve properly mastered the Cossack.

It might take a few weeks to get used to the Cossack squat, and it will definitely feel weird or hard at first. But with practice and resilience, you will be able to master it for sure!

Here is a step-by-step guide with instructions, on how to perform a Cossack squat:

1. Get into a wide stance:

Start by getting into a wide stance. Your feet should be apart at a distance that is twice the amount between your shoulders.

 Something that can really help to stabilize this stance is wearing the best shoes for squats. These will keep you firmly gripped to the floor, reducing the risk of slipping and losing balance.

You should also flare your toes outward, at around 15 to 30 degrees, for better stability.

2. Shift your weight onto one side:

To begin the squat movement, you will have to shift your weight to one side, by putting all of your body weight onto one foot while you bend your knees and hips downwards.

While you do this, lift the other foot and draw the toes up to the ceiling. You can adjust the angle of your heel, which stays on the floor to hold your balance properly.

Make sure this leg stays straight, while the leg you are squatting on is bent.

3. Lower your hips down but stay upright:

You should lower your hips down as low as you can, the deeper the squat the harder you will be working your muscles and body.

However, as you do this, you should maintain your torso and back as upright as possible, just as you would with a traditional squat.

This is easier if you sit your hips down, instead of pushing them back. Because if you push your hips back, you will instinctively lean forward.

4. Go as low as you can:

Whilst holding on to the proper technique (this squat requires a good technique in order for it to be successful).

The lower you squat down, the better the squat will be, and the more intense the workout will be. However, you should do this gradually, by going a bit lower every time you perform the squats.

Also, if you feel any pain at any given moment, you should stop. Be careful not to push yourself too hard.

You might notice that the lower you go into the squat, the more you have to adjust your stance in order to keep the balance up.

5. Stand back up:

Once you have held your position for long enough, it’s time to get back up again.

To do this properly, place even more weight onto your bent leg, and dig your foot into the ground to push yourself off from it so that you can stand up in one movement.

Once you have stood up, repeat the entire process on the other side, alternating the Cossack squat between one side and the other.

And that’s it! It might seem a little hard at first, but stick to the steps and keep at it until it becomes muscle memory.

Once you have mastered the Cossack squat, you can challenge yourself more by either going down deeper into the squat position or by adding some extra weight, using either a dumbbell or a kettlebell.

Cossack Squat Progressions You Can Perform

If you’re a beginner when it comes to the Cossack squat, a good idea is to perform a series of progressions, as a form of practice for the squat itself.

You can move on to different progressions as your level improves, and ultimately you will reach the squat itself.

1. Progression 1:

Stretching your hips and hamstrings.

Having a good level of flexibility in your hips and hamstrings is vital in order to perform the Cossack squat. So stretching both your hips and hamstrings will prep them and train them up towards that squat.

For this progression, use a band and place it under your foot, with your foot up in the air while you lie on your back. Use this to stretch.

2. Progression 2:

Hold onto something for balance.

This essentially consists of performing the Cossack squat while assisting your balance, so that it’s slightly easier.

You can hold on to a wall or similar, and repeat the squat multiple times until you feel confident enough to balance yourself on your own.

3. Progression 3:

Bodyweight repetitions.

For this progression, it is an update to the previous one. You essentially perform the Cossack squat without using the wall as support for your balance, with reduced sets that focus on maintaining the form and technique.

So essentially, this is a way of focusing on perfecting the form, before you start pushing the muscle groups to a higher intensity.

4. Progression 4:

Weighted repetitions.

Once you have mastered all of the previous progressions, and you’ve managed to start performing the Cossack squat unaided, you can move on to the next level by adding on some extra weight.

When you first perform the Cossack squat, you should do so just with bodyweight. But once you feel ready, you can start using dumbbells or kettlebells.

Should you be performing the Cossack Squat?

Now that we’ve covered everything about the Cossack squat, from what it is to what it provides and how to do it….you might be wondering whether or not you should actually perform it. Is the Cossack squat worth it for you?

Our overall answer to this is a simple yes. The Cossack is an amazing squat variation for those at a more advanced level, and it can be a good challenge for your workout routine, especially as it will focus on muscle groups that other types of squats overlook.

Whether you use it as a warm-up exercise, as a squat to build muscle strength and mass on your legs and targeted muscles, or as a stretch to enhance overall flexibility and mobility, the benefits are well worth the effort that goes into it.

Before you decide to perform the Cossack squat, however, it is worth asking yourself whether or not you are ready for it.

Do you have the necessary motor control? Do you have the right amount of balance and form? Do you have sufficient flexibility in your hips and hamstrings?

Of course, the squat will help enhance and improve all of these, but a minimal level is required so that you can perform the squat safely, without causing yourself any type of pain or injury.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I improve my Cossack Squat?

If you’re looking to improve your Cossack squat, you should focus on increasing mobility in your hips, knees, and ankles. You can also improve your form by practicing different types of progressions, and by going deeper into the position.

What are Cossack Squats good for?

Cossack squats are good for many different things, as they provide plenty of benefits. One of the main things they are good for is building up strength one leg at a time, as well as building muscle mass in the specific targeted muscle groups.

What muscles does the Cossack Squat work?

The Cossack squat practically works the same muscles as the traditional squat, and of similar squat variations.

But specifically, the Cossack squat works the gluteus medius, the quadriceps, the obliques, the calves, and the hamstrings.

In Conclusion

The Cossack Squat is a unilateral exercise that is performed on one side, and then on the other, by shifting your weight onto one leg or the other.

As a variation of the traditional squat, it uses similar muscle groups, but it specifically targets the quadriceps, the gluteus medius, and the obliques. 

Kevin Harris