How to Do a Cossack Squat to Improve Hip Mobility and Lower-Body Strength

With its combo of strength-building and hip-opening benefits, the low-impact cossack squat should be a staple in your fitness routine.

Cossack Squats

There's nothing wrong with making classic squat variations such as the back squat or goblet squat the mainstay of your fitness routine. But after a few months, these exercises can become so second nature that your workouts become incredibly tedious or your progress hits a plateau.

One way you can spice up your lower-body workouts and warm-ups? Mix the cossack squat, a low-impact, mobility-boosting, and strengthening exercise, into your training program. Ahead, find out exactly how to do the cossack squat, as well as advice on how to modify and progress the move, and learn all the benefits the exercise has to offer.

How to Do the Cossack Squat

Much like the side lunge, the cossack squat is a lateral exercise that involves squatting down on one leg while extending the other leg straight out to the side. But in this case, your feet stay firmly planted on the ground — no side-stepping required, says Bianca Vesco, an NASM-certified personal trainer and fitness instructor in Nashville. “It’s essentially a deep squat on one leg and a one-half of a split on the other,” she adds. “The squatting leg is going to be challenged by reaching that full flexion at the hip, knee, and ankle. And then on the other leg, your hamstrings and adductors are put under a very serious amount of stretch.”

To get a better idea of how the cossack squat plays out IRL, watch Vesco demo the move below. 

A. Stand with feet one to three steps wider than shoulder-width apart, toes turned slightly outward, and arms fully extended in front of chest, palms facing toward one another.

B. On an inhale, shift weight into right side, then sit back into hips and bend right knee to lower into a squat until right thigh is parallel with the floor, keeping left leg fully extended out to side. Keep chest up and right heel flat on the floor and prevent back from rounding.

C. On an exhale, press through right foot to straighten right leg and return to standing. Pause, then repeat on the opposite side.

The Key Cossack Squat Benefits

Although the cossack squat involves just your body weight, it shouldn't be underestimated. Here, Vesco breaks down some of the major benefits that come with performing the exercise regularly.

Challenges Your Body In the Frontal Plane of Motion

Many go-to lower-body exercises — squats, deadlifts, lunges, for example — train your body to move efficiently and with strength in the sagittal plane of motion, meaning you’re moving forward and backward. The problem: That’s not the only direction your body moves in real life, says Vesco. And that’s why the cossack squat — which involves moving laterally and trains your body in the frontal plane of motion — can be beneficial, she explains. “It offers that side-to-side movement, which will train your lower body in different directions than you’re most likely used to, help prevent muscle imbalances, and improve that multi-planar performance,” says Vesco. In turn, the cossack squat can help prevent compensated movement patterns which can ultimately lead to injury, according to the American Council on Exercise.

Supports Hip Mobility

In addition to its ability to fend off muscle imbalances, the cossack squat also opens, strengthens, and stabilizes your entire hip joint, says Vesco. As you sink down into and rise up out of the squat, you'll flex and extend your hip joint on the working leg. Simultaneously, your hip adductors (muscles along your inner thigh) in your extended leg will receive a serious, feel-good stretch, and both of these movements help to improve hip mobility over time, she adds. Plus, as you get comfortable with the exercise and build strength, you’ll be able to sink even lower to the floor, thus moving your hip through a greater range of motion.

Keeps Joints Safe

Since your feet are firmly planted into the ground throughout the entire movement, the cossack squat is completely impact-free. That’s why the lower-body exercise can be particularly beneficial if you’re experiencing ankle or knee issues, says Vesco. “Taking the step out takes out a lot of room for injuries — there’s no chance of you stepping so hard into your foot that your ankle or your knee [is harmed].” Plus, it also makes the lateral movement, which may not feel so natural, a bit less intimidating, she adds.

Cossack Squat Muscles Worked

The cossack squat doesn’t leave too many lower-body muscle groups untouched. The exercise challenges your quadriceps, hamstrings, hip adductors, and your glutes — specifically the gluteus medius. This muscle is a part of your hip abductors, and it’s responsible for stabilizing your pelvis while balancing on one leg, rotating your legs inward, and abducting your legs (read: moving them away from the midline of your body), according to the National Library of Medicine. Surprisingly, the cossack squat also targets your obliques, aka the abdominal muscles that run along the side of your trunk. These muscles need to remain active throughout the entire movement to keep you from twisting your torso as you lower into the squat, says Vesco. 

Cossack Squat Variations

Although the cossack squat looks like a piece of cake, it shouldn’t be the very first exercise you try if you’re a total fitness newbie, says Vesco. Before you give it a shot, master the traditional lunge and squat, which are pretty safe if you’re lacking mobility in your lower-body joints, she says. Then, practice moves such as curtsy lunges, sumo squats, and single-leg deadlifts to build up strength in the gluteus medius, she suggests. When you feel confident in those moves, try the cossack squat, modifying and progressing the move as needed with the below ideas.

Modification: Cossack Squat with Ankle Support

If you haven’t built up enough ankle mobility to keep your entire foot on your squatting side on the floor throughout the movement, consider placing a towel, weight plate, book, or yoga mat underneath your heel, suggests Vesco. Doing so increases the angle at which your ankle is bent, which can make the exercise more comfortable, she says. You can also make the move a bit easier by holding TRX straps out in front of your chest, which eases some of the load if you don’t have enough strength to return to standing unassisted. 

Progression: Cossack Squat with Full Range of Motion

While the cossack squat is typically done with just your body weight, you can progress the move by holding a weight at your chest or one front-racked on your side, both of which will amp up the core challenge. “You need to really, really keep that core activated and keep the chest up — anytime you’re going to front rack weights, your body's automatically going to want to go into a rounded, hunched position,” says Vesco.

You can also progress the cossack squat by increasing the range of motion — aka how low you can squat to the floor. Remember: A good rule of thumb is to squat until your thighs are at least parallel with the floor, says Vesco. “But if you have the mobility in your hip and your ankle to sit all the way down to the floor, that is the hardest expression of the exercise,” she says.

Common Cossack Squat Mistakes

While performing the cossack squat, it’s important to keep your spine neutral and avoid allowing your ribs to fall to your thigh, says Vesco. “The biggest mistake I see is collapsing forward during the squat,” she notes. You’ll want to maintain a slight hip hinge, “but if you think about how you sit down into a chair when you're having dinner with someone, you don't completely collapse your chest forward.” And the same proud chest should be maintained during a cossack squat.

You’ll also want to make sure your heel is flat on the floor; if it’s lifting off the ground, that’s a sign you’ve gone too low into your squat, and you should work on improving your ankle mobility before dipping any lower, says Vesco. On the same token, your best bet is to do the cossack squat barefoot — if you have the foot strength, she adds. Shoes with thicker, cushy soles can throw off your balance, and if you're attempting to lower your butt all the way to the ground, shoes will make the progression impossible. The reason: "Your outside foot has to slide a bit to make room for your bum to sit on the floor," and sneakers prevent that small movement, says Vesco.

How to Add Cossack Squats to Your Routine

Before you mix cossack squats into your lower-body workouts, chat with a doctor if you’ve had any reconstructive surgeries on your hips, knees, or ankles; lateral and single-leg exercises such as the cossack squat can be particularly taxing on these joints, says Vesco. 

Ready to give the cossack squat the old college try? Do a few reps as a hip-opening warm-up move before you tackle an intense muscle-building workout, or use it as a lower-body exercise while strength training. In general, you’ll want to do one to three sets of 10 to 15 reps if you’re looking to build muscular endurance (which helps you perform for a prolonged period of time) and eight to 12 reps if your goal is hypertrophy (read: muscle growth), according to the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

Still, your cossack squat routine doesn’t have to be so formal, and even just a few reps à la exercise snacking could do you some good, says Vesco. “Especially for people who work from home and sit all day [resulting in tight hips], if you have two minutes and you could only pick one exercise to do, make it this," she suggests.

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