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September 10, 2021 10 min read

If you’ve ever seen the Cossack dance, also known as the Hopak, you’ll know exactly what this squat variation is all about. You’ll also probably realize how much leg strength and mobility it’s going to take to perform correctly.

Much like the dance, the Cossack squat works each leg unilaterally as you alternate sides throughout the reps, making it a great leg exercise. Although it’s not a great movement solely for building muscle or developing strength, it has incredible carry-over benefits to daily life, to other lifts, and to overall wellness.

Along with more of its benefits that we’ve outlined below, we’ll also take a look at proper form and any  common pitfalls to avoid.

If you want to get the most out of the Cossack squat and lower body exercises in general, then this is the article for you. 

Muscles Worked

The Cossack squat is a compound movement that primarily works the lower body muscles, especially the entirety of the hip flexor region. The quadriceps are the primary movers in the Cossack squat. This muscle is made up of four different muscular groups and is therefore fairly sizeable. If you’re looking for hypertrophy with your training, putting out several sets of Cossack squats can give you impressive growth in this area.

Leg muscle anatomical structure, labeled front, side and back view diagrams

The next is the glutes. The Cossack squat will work the maximus, medius, and minimus portions of this muscle, but it’s the medius that gets the most work with this squat variation. If you’re looking to improve your squat, both the quads and the glutes are important muscles to develop and strengthen. The hamstrings also help out your quads during this movement.

The adductors are found on the inside of the thighs, being very important for hip joint flexion and explosive power generation. Developing the adductors will also improve your leg power. There are also several stabilizing muscle groups that are used in the Cossack squat.

The core is an important muscle group that needs to be engaged in order to maintain stability throughout the movement and help you stay upright. The obliques will also help you remain upright by engaging in order to prevent twisting. This will help your lumbar region avoid unnecessary stress.

Cossack Squat Benefits

While the Cossack squat is a relatively light exercise-- best utilized as an accessory lift-- it still has plenty of important benefits that can help us in many different activities—both inside the gym and outside.

Improvements in Mobility

The key defining feature of the Cossack squat is the amount of mobility it takes to perform. Incorporating this exercise regularly into your routine is bound to increase the range of motion in your hips, knees, and ankles. Furthermore, you’ll also see better flexibility in your adductors and hamstrings.

Other than just being overall more flexible and mobile, this will also help you avoid injuries such as groin pulls, or injuries in the hamstrings. Improving range of motion, and then utilizing this extra motion in other exercises, is a great way to unlock further benefits from exercises.

Develops the Frontal Plane

There are three planes of motion that all movements belong to the sagittal, horizontal, and frontal planes. The sagittal plane is forward and backward (walking, for example), the horizontal is down and up, and the frontal plane is from side to side.

Most movements are done in the sagittal plane, which means that this ability is often overdeveloped at the expense of the frontal plane. Developing your ability to move in the frontal plane is both great for improving mobility and overall strength, while also avoiding injuries that might occur otherwise.

Tendon Resiliency

The Cossack squat puts a lot of pressure on your joints and soft tissues—that much is obvious. However, it also does it in such a way that helps to make these tissues more resilient, especially with knee, hip, and ankle mobility.

As you’ve probably guessed, greater resiliency in these areas will help you avoid injuries such as a hamstring pull or a groin pull. And the more injuries you avoid, the more time you’ll have for hitting the gym and working out.

Squatting Improvements

The Cossack squat’s need for mobility means good news for getting more out of your squats in general. The depth of the Cossack is relatively exaggerated, after all.

There’s a lot of flexion required in the ankle, hip, and knee, and if you’re having trouble getting low enough in conventional squats, the Cossack can prove very helpful in getting you where you need to be in terms of mobility.

The fact that this is a unilateral movement (in which each side of the body performing a rep independently), means that you’re also going to be developing each of your legs independently.

This helps because exercises that utilize both sides usually rely on the stronger side of your body to move more weight, meaning that that side is always going to be a bit more developed. With the Cossack squat, each side of your body gets the same amount of attention. 

How to Cossack Squat

Before you begin you’ll want to warm up with either some lower body exercises or some stretches. This is especially useful for something like the Cossack squat where you’ll be needing to be as limber as possible to go through the full range of motion.

The movement can either be done with a dumbbell or kettlebell or just using your bodyweight.

While weight will add some increased tension to the squat, it can also make the movement easier since the counterbalance helps you stay standing upright—just make sure you don’t go too heavy. This counterbalance will help you get a stretch for a full range in your knees, hips, and ankles, without falling over. If you prefer not to use a load, you can also just stick out your arms in front of you.

  1. With the weight in your hands (or arms out in front of you), find a stance that’s relatively wide. A good starting position is having your heels about 4 feet apart, with your toes either pointing outward or straight ahead. The key to choosing a stance is that you want to find something comfortable and a distance that will still let you complete the exercise without any movement compensations.
  2. Shifting your weight onto a leg, enter into a deep squat on one side. Both of your heels should remain on the ground throughout the movement. As you go down into the squat, you need to externally rotate the leg on top, allowing your toes to lift off the ground as the heel stays in place. How much rotation you perform is up to you, but it’s mostly used to take some of the stretch away from the adductors and place it on the hamstrings.
  3. At the bottom of the movement, the squatting leg should be fully bent at the ankle, with the knee right over the toe. The leg on top should be straight and your torso should remain upright. Pause for a few counts in this position.
  4. Once you’re ready to come back up, press through the bent leg, into the floor. Bring up your body to the starting position, rotating the straight leg so that your toes come back into contact with the floor. At the top of the movement, you should be standing tall, back in the wide stance.
  5. Repeat while alternating sides.

Tips and Mistakes to Avoid

Since this is mostly a bodyweight movement, you’re going to want to make sure that you’re doing it with as perfect form as possible. This will allow you to get the most out of the exercise, and help you prevent injuries occurring over the long term.

The first common mistake is going too fast through the movement. You don’t want to be making jerky movements. Not only will this get in the way of effectively carrying out the correct movements, but it will also minimize the time your muscles are  under tension—which means bad news for muscular development.

You also want to avoid leaning forward as best you can. It helps if you imagine yourself “sitting back” into your glutes, which will help you keep your weight balanced in check. You’ll have better form support and balance when you don’t lean forward.

Adding onto this, it’s also important to avoid rounding the back. Keep your back straight in order to maximize the results you get from the exercise. This will also ensure that you avoid injuries to your spine since you won’t be placing any unnecessary stress on this area.

Finally, make sure you’re keeping your heel on the ground as you come down into the bottom position. If you’re being tempted to take your hell off in order to be able to squat deeper, it’s best to adjust the depth of the squat instead to avoid this.

Proper Programming

Cossack squats are primarily an accessory exercise, meaning that it’s not extremely useful for strength training or to build muscle. The most useful programming will implement the Cossack squat as a way to develop balance, neuromuscular control, and mobility.

The Cossack squat is a great option for warming up or using the later parts of a warm-up. This is because the squat requires a fair amount of “warming up” mobility on its own. Putting it at the end of a warm-up session can make it easier to complete and improve your following workout. For a warm-up, complete 1 or 2 sets of 5 to 10 reps on either side.

If you want Cossacks to develop your mobility, you should include them earlier in your training session, but after the warm-up. Doing them at this point will allow you to approach them without much fatigue, and you can even use them as the main exercise if you’re doing a light training day. For mobility, complete 3 to 4 sets of 5 to 10 reps on either side.

Cossacks can also be used as part of a circuit if you’re working on your conditioning. Doing them will improve your ability to continue moving while already fatigued. It’s best to combine them into a high-intensity circuit that involves a conditioning activity, an explosive movement, and an upper-body movement.

Finally, Cossacks can also be used for hypertrophy, but they aren’t incredibly effective. You’ll want to hold some sort of weight for these, to be able to boost the intensity a bit. While not super effective, they’ll still provide an excellent workout. For muscle growth, perform 5 to 7 sets of 8 to 10 reps on either side.

Cossack Squat Variations and Alternatives

The Cossack is a useful item to have in your workout toolbelt—that much is obvious. However, there are also good reasons for having alternatives at the ready, just in case.

The obvious reason for a variation is to emphasize a slightly different part of the muscles that are worked by the Cossack. If you’re aware of your starting fitness level and your goals, you can easily cater your exercises to where you want to be. However, the Cossack also takes a significant amount of mobility from the get-go, which means that it might be difficult for beginners to perform.

If you choose an alternative, it can become much easier to work your way up to the Cossack squat without pushing yourself too far. Furthermore, other alternatives also give the option of loading more weight on (with a barbell, for example), in case you want to give the target muscles a bit more of a challenge.

The Lateral Side Lunge

The lateral lunge often gets talked about with the Cossack squat, since the motions are so similar to one another. While the engaged muscles are very similar, there are some important differences. For one, you won’t be using a wide stance like with the Cossack. Instead, the lateral lunge has you stepping out to the side and then bringing your feet together.

The fact that the parallel plane is never crossed as you come down to the ground also makes this a movement that requires less mobility—an excellent option for moving up to the Cossack squat.

The Bulgarian Split Squat

Like the Cossack, this squat variation will also work only a single leg at a time. While similar muscles will be engaged, there will be more of an emphasis on a different area of the glutes.

This movement can be brutal, and it definitely gets results. It differs from the Cossack in that it’s done going forward rather than side to side. For those who aren’t able to externally rotate their hip enough, this is a good alternative to the Cossack squat.

The explosive power developed by the Bulgarian split squat makes it a great movement for athletes that require lower body explosive power, such as sprinters. Unlike the Cossack squat that only really requires your own bodyweight (and a kettlebell/dumbbell if you have it), the Bulgarian split squat will require a bench for you to place your leg onto.

The Pistol Squat

This is a very advanced exercise that is sure to engage your leg muscles to a great degree—and also impresses onlookers to a great degree. This is another unilateral leg movement, allowing you to train each leg independently. It also requires a lot of balance and leg strength, making it a good exercise to improve on in these areas.

Athlete practicing pistol squats

If it’s the side-to-side movement that you’re having trouble with in the Cossack, the pistol squat can be a good option. However, it’s going to require more activation in the glutes, more overall strength, and more balance.

Cossacking to Greater Wellbeing

The Cossack squat is an amazing supplementary exercise for almost any training routine. Whether you’re looking to improve your big, lower body lifts, or looking for some extra mobility, a properly implemented Cossack squat can get you what you want. However, you’re going to need to support your training with an appropriate lifestyle.

Whether you’re using the Cossack squat to improve your heavier lifts or you’re just looking for increased flexibility, your diet is going to be absolutely essential for bringing you to your fitness goals. Maintain a diet of healthy carbs, fats, and proteins, and you’ll be compounding the results gained in the weight room.

Along with the proper workouts and the proper diet, the final piece of the puzzle is enough rest. As opposed to popular belief, your muscles don’t grow and develop in the gym—they get bigger and stronger when you’re asleep.

The better the  quality of your sleep, the more gains you can expect to garner from your workouts. Not to mention all of the other lifestyle improvements that a full night’s rest can give you.

The Cossack squat is just one tool to bring you one step closer to your goals—but if it’s implemented along with other aspects of a healthy lifestyle, it can push your progress to new heights.