Both the Cossack squat and lateral lunge look like similar exercises as the lifter is shifting their body laterally to perform a single-leg squat variation.
So what’s the difference between the Cossack squat vs lateral lunge? Cossack squats keep a wide stance throughout the exercise. Lateral lunges step the leg ‘out’ and ‘in’ between reps. Cossack squats are both a warm-up and strength-movement. Lateral lunges are a strength-movement only. Also, less weight is used for Cossack squats as you squat lower vs the lateral lunge.
In this article, I’ll cover all of the details between these two exercises so you know how, why, and when to do them. I’ll also tell you how to properly perform each movement, the pros and cons, and common technical mistakes.
Let’s get started.
Similarities Between Cossack Squats vs Lateral Lunges
Before describing the differences, the two most obvious similarities are that both the Cossack squat and lateral lunge involve lateral training (moving the leg sideways), and both are uni-lateral (single leg) movements.
These qualities are beneficial, especially for athletes who need to produce lower body force in different planes of motion or lifters who find there is a strength imbalance between their right and left leg.
Since both exercises are lateral single-leg squat variations, you could technically use them interchangeably.
However, you may find one exercise to be more comfortable than the other, or for some lifters with specialized training goals and ability levels (discussed later) will use one over the other at times.
Check out my article on the 9 Best Cossack Squat Alternatives.
Differences Between The Cossack Squat vs Lateral Lunge
While the Cossack squat and lateral lunge are closely related exercises, targeting similar muscle groups, there are enough differences between them that you should understand if you want to get the most out of your workouts.
There are 5 main differences between the Cossack Squat vs lateral lunge:
Difference #1: The Leg Position
The legs in both the Cossack squat and lateral lunge step out to the side. The goal is to have the legs wider than shoulder-width apart in order to target the upper side part of the glute (glute medius).
However, the leg position in the Cossack squat remains in a wide stance throughout the entirety of the movement. In other words, once the foot is planted in a wide stance, it doesn’t move until the set is over.
In the lateral lunge, the leg is shifting out and together in between each rep. Therefore, you are required to step your feet together to complete a single rep before moving into the next rep.
Difference #2: The Foot Position
In the Cossack squat, the foot on the leg that stays straight, i.e. the leg that you’re not lunging into, will have the toes lift from the floor as you squat lower. This is to place greater emphasis on the leg that you’re lunging into, as well as to produce a greater range of motion.
In the lateral lunge, both feet stay firmly planted on the floor, with the toes on the straight leg never lifting upward.
Difference #3: The Torso Position
It’s important that with both the Cossack squat and lateral lunge that the spine stays neutral and that there is no rounding or flexing from the spine.
However, there are some differences between the angle of your torso throughout each movement.
In the Cossack squat, the angle of the torso should be as straight up-and-down as possible.
Whereas in the lateral lunge, the angle of the torso is more forward-leaning, which requires you to hinge at the hips slightly.
Difference #4: The Range of Motion
Each movement will have an acceptable range of motion.
In the cossack squat, you should squat ass-to-grass. In other words as low as possible given your natural mobility and flexibility.
In the lateral lunge, the end range of motion is when your thighs are parallel, at which time you would drive back up to standing.
Difference #5: The Goals of Each Movement
Depending on your training goal, you may want to pick one exercise over another.
The Cossack squat has multiple purposes, including:
• Using it as a warm-up for other squat exercises. A lot of lifters like to do a couple sets of bodyweight Cossack squats to warm-up the hip and thigh muscles prior to doing their back squat or front squat workouts.
• Using it as a way to improve flexibility. If you wanted to gain greater hip and ankle flexibility you can perform 30-60-seconds static holds in the bottom of the Cossack squat. By “hanging out” in the bottom position, your muscles will begin to relax.
• Using it to build hypertrophy and strength. You can progress the Cossack squat from bodyweight to using dumbbells and barbells to grow bigger and stronger legs.
The lateral lunge is typically only used to build hypertrophy and strength, not as a warm-up or to improve flexibility.
What Are Cossack Squats?
The Cossack squat is a single-leg squat variation that combines various physical skills including balance, coordination, mobility, and strength.
While there are many single-leg squat exercises, the Cossack squat is one of the more challenging variations. Many lifters find simply performing a set of 10 reps using just their bodyweight to be incredibly difficult.
In order to feel comfortable doing the Cossack squat you need to have flexible hips, hamstrings, and ankles, and have a high degree of balance, being able to stabilize on a single leg under load in deep ranges of motion.
How To Do Cossack Squats
I suggest that you already have a solid understanding of how to squat and lunge prior to attempting the Cossack squat. You should also feel confident in your flexibility and mobility so that you can obtain the required depth without feeling uncomfortable.
Here’s how to do the Cossack squat:
• Take a wider than shoulder-width stance
• Flare your toes slightly (around 15-30 degrees)
• Start shifting your weight over to one leg and bend the knee
• The opposite leg should stay as straight as possible
• Cue your torso to remain upright as you sit your hips downward
• As your hips drop below parallel, begin to lift the toes on the leg that is straight
• The toes that are lifting should be pointing upward toward the ceiling
• Go as far down as your mobility/flexibility allows
• Push strongly through the floor to stand up
• Switch sides and go back and forth to complete the prescribed number of reps
Cossack Squat Mistakes
There are a few mistakes that you need to avoid when doing the Cossack squat:
• The torso should not twist. As you squat down, you want to keep your obliques strong so that your torso remains squarely forward. You want to avoid twisting.
• The back angle should not be too bent-over. You want to maintain an upright torso without hinging too far forward with the hips that would cause your back angle to be more parallel to the floor.
• The back should not round. You shouldn’t start to round your back to try to gain ‘extra depth’. As soon as you can’t keep your back neutral, you should reduce the range of motion or load until that position is achieved.
• The tempo should not be too fast. Don’t drop into the squat position uncontrolled. You want to maintain constant tension on your muscles throughout the full range of motion.
• Don’t be tempted to add more weight than you can handle. Always prioritize proper mechanics during the Cossack squat before lifting more weight.
Cossack Squat Pros
There are several pros to the Cossack squat:
• It can be used for multiple purposes. The cossack squat can be used as a warm-up for other squat variations or simply to improve one’s natural flexibility, in addition to its main purpose, which is to build strength.
• It can improve mobility and flexibility. If you struggle with hip, hamstring, or calf flexibility then you can perform the Cossack squat as a static stretch to improve range of motion.
• It can work out any imbalances between the right and left side. As a unilateral (single leg) exercise, you can overcome any strength imbalances that exist between each leg.
• It is can be used as an advanced single-leg variation. After you’ve mastered exercises like the lunge, Bulgarian split squat, and step-up, you can progress to the Cossack squat, which offers a more advanced variation for already skilled lifters.
Cossack Squat Cons
The cons to the Cossack squat are:
• It may feel uncomfortable. Due to the high flexibility and mobility demands, most people will feel uncomfortable attempting this exercise unless they have superior range of motion.
• There is a steep learning curve. Due to the combination of balance, coordination, and strength required to complete this exercise, it may take a long time to master the technique (especially for beginner lifters).
• There may be other exercises that can get you to your goals quicker. If your goal is to build lower body strength or mass, you may be able to select other, less complex exercises that facilitate your goals quicker.
What Are Lateral Lunges?
The lateral lunge, also called the “side lunge”, is a single-leg variation, which focuses on building lower body strength and mass.
There are several lunging variations, including front lunges (lunging the leg forward), reverse lunges (lunging the leg backward), walking lunges (lunging as you walk forward), and Bulgarian lunges (lunging with your back foot elevated).
What makes the lateral lunge unique is that the leg is lunging sideways. This is an important range of motion to train, especially for athletes that need to build strength in a 360-degree fashion around the body (football, hockey, soccer, etc.).
The lateral lunge is not as hard as the Cossack squat because the range of motion is less, so it doesn’t require as much mobility and flexibility.
How To Do Lateral Lunge
Since the lateral lunge requires a lot more hip-hinge movement pattern than the Cossack squat, I recommend having the hip-hinge mastered before doing the lateral lunge.
The hip hinge is the ability for you to bend forward at the hips while keeping your knees straight and your back and pelvic neutral. You should also be able to balance on the mid-part of your foot without feeling like you’re falling forward or backward as you perform the hinge.
You can practice the hip hinge by doing an exercise like Romanian deadlifts.
Here’s how to do the lateral lunge:
• Start with your feet shoulder-width apart with your toes pointing forward
• Lunge one leg out to the side so that the stance now becomes twice shoulder-width apart
• The foot on the leg that is lunging should still be pointing forward
• Shift your weight to the bent leg while at the same time pushing your hips back (this is the hip-hinge)
• As you lower your body the opposite leg is kept straight and the foot remains flat on the floor
• The knee of the bent leg should be pointing over the foot (not out to the side)
• Your torso can be slightly bent over as long as the back is flat
• Lower until your leading leg is bent at around 90-degrees and then push up and return to the starting position
Lateral Lunge Mistakes
• The knee on the leading leg pushes outward. It’s common for lifters to push their knee outside their foot (literally) as they lunge sideways. As much as you can, you want to try to keep your knee tracking in front of your foot.
• You’re not sitting back and hinging enough. You need to shift your weight back on your heel and hinge at the hips. If you feel the weight on the ball of your foot, then you’re too far forward in your squat position.
• You step too wide. While you want to step the foot laterally, if you step too far to the side you will have a difficult time bringing your feet back together in between reps.
Lateral Lunge Pros
There are several pros to the lateral lunge:
• You can build strong adductors. In order to step the feet back together in between reps, you will use a lot more adductor strength compared with the Cossack squat.
• It’s a unilateral exercise. Like the Cossack squat, you will be able to train each leg independently, which works out any imbalances between the sides.
• It doesn’t require as much mobility. While the Cossack squat requires extra mobility to get deeper into the range of motion, the lateral lunge only requires you to squat to 90-degree knee bend.
• It creates resilient athletes. The lateral lunge can build strength in different planes of motion, which leads to more resilient and less injury-prone athletes.
Lateral Lunge Cons
The cons to the lateral lunge are:
• Not the best option for lifters with knee injuries. If you have any sort of knee injury, the lateral lunge will probably not be a safe exercise for you to do until you’re 100% pain-free.
• Easy to sacrifice technique. If you’re using a heavy weight it’s easy to move away from the optimal technique. Little shifts in form can make it incredibly difficult to execute the movement.
Which Exercise Is Best For You?
Use the following criteria in deciding when you should incorporate the Cossack squat or side lunge into your training program.
When To Use Cossack Squats
• Have you already mastered other movements like the squat and lunge?
• Do you want to challenge your stability, balance and coordination?
• Do you already have a high degree of mobility and flexibility in your hips, hamstrings, and ankles?
• Are you an advanced lifter looking to add a new single-leg variation to your program?
When To Use Lateral Lunges
• Have you already mastered the hip-hinge through movements like the Romanian deadlift?
• Do you want to build lower body strength and mass?
• Do you have proper knee tracking ability (keeping knees over toes)?
• Do you have adequate hip and hamstring flexibility?
• Are you someone that needs to build lateral strength because of your sport demands?
The Cossack squat and side lunge can be used interchangeably. However, the Cossack squat is a more advanced variation given its additional mobility/flexibility demands.
In addition, you won’t be able to use as much weight with the Cossack squat, as typically just using your own body weight is enough resistance. As such, the side lunge will allow you to build greater levels of max strength by utilizing heavier loads with dumbbells.
I would try each exercise to see if you have a preference for either exercise, and then decide what your training goals are before opting for one over the other.