In general, NO, the pistol squat is not bad for your knees, just like squatting isn’t bad for your knees. Rather, a poor pistol squat is bad for your knees…
In an earlier article I discussed five reasons why you, and most athletes, can benefit from pistol squats. The key to determining whether or not the pistol squat will be bad for your knees is whether or not you have any pre-existing injuries (ankle, knee, or hips), lack of mobility, weak unilateral leg strength and performance, or any muscular imbalances that should be addressed prior to going into full range of motion pistols.
Forcing the body into positions it cannot control and/or exert force in a controlled manner is always a bad idea. In this article we will lay out everything you need to know (and what not to do) if you are serious about building a healthy, safe, and knee saving pistol squat!
The Pistol Squat
The pistol squat is an advanced unilateral leg movement typically done with bodyweight or other loading modalities to increase leg strength, joint mobility and integrity, and total body control and balance.
Pistol Squat Exercise Demo
Below is a great video on how to perform some pistol squat progressions and the pistol squat. Note, that without proper joint flexibility, mobility, and structural (joint, muscle, and connective tissues) stability, all movements can create injury, not just pistols. Therefore, be sure to master bilateral and basic unilateral movements first (squatting, unilateral leg exercises, etc.) before going full pistol squat mode.
Proper Pistol Squat Progression(s)
In an earlier article I compiled the ultimate pistol squat progression guide for beginners (it is so good it is really for nearly every level)! When looking to nail a healthy, strong, and stable pistol squat, proper progressions are key, just like any exercise. Without proper mobility, joint and muscular control, coordination, and strength throughout the entire range of motion, pistol squats, just like deadlifts, squats, dips, running, swimming, and just about every other human movement can be susceptible to joint issues and injury. The above guide will help you diagnose your mobility issues, build basic leg strength and balance, establish better body control, and progress throughout the entire range of motion to build a better pistol squat from the ground up (and even from the top down).
What NOT to Do
Below is a listing of three ways you can make pistol squats very jarring, painful, and detrimental to joint, tendon, ligament, and muscular health. Generally speaking, I recommend most lifters and coaches adhere to the above progression guide when teaching and performing pistol squats, and doing their best to not commit any of these faults below for their body’s sake. That said, with proper progression, strength, mobility, and control, some of these “faults” may be less “faulty” than others.
1. Crashing into the Bottom of the Pistol Squat
We all have seen this, and many of us (myself included) are guilty. Diving into the bottom of the pistol, just like diving into a heavy back squat, is never a good idea unless you have trained the pistol using strict reps, at full range of motion, without the bounce first. By using a “bounce” in the pistol, you are placing all the loading on the tendons, ligaments, and small joints in the ankle and knee. Once you have built strength and coordination, just like a back squat, and have practiced the “bounce” with integrity, then it may be OK to use it sparingly, with the understanding that is a great amount of stress upon the connective tissues and bones in your foot, ankle, knee, and hip.
2. Lifting Heel Off Floor
Squatting on your toes is seldom a good idea, so why would a single leg squat to an even fuller range of motion be any better? Nine times out of 10, when the heels come up at the bottom the the squat or pistol it is due to lack of joint mobility in either the knee, ankle, or hip (don’t always assume ankle, so make sure to test each joint). Note, there are exceptions to this, specifically in certain yoga poses or other movements where the lifter is actively and consciously performing them this way, not by necessity but by choice. The immobility in a joint can lead to compensation patterning and excessive stress onto other joints, ligaments, and tissues. If you cannot keep the heel planted in a pistol squat, you should cut the range of motion shorter and work on end range mobility and control.
3. Using Excessive Heel Lift for Assist
In the event you have issues keeping the heel planted in a pistol squat, you may be told to use a heel assist (such as weightlifting shoes, plate under the heel, etc). While this is an effective “band-aid” for lack of mobility in the ankle, knee, or hip, it can lead to similar issues in the above fault if the underlying lack of mobility and control is not addressed. If you are to use a heel assist, be sure to not use an excessive assist (anything over 2 inches or so), and do not performing high volume pistols until you adequately establish mobility and can perform pistols without an assist (which in that case you would now not need the assist).
There you have it. Like squats (and nearly every exercise), proper progressions, mobility, body control, and stability/strength is needed to ensure sound joint mechanics and movement integrity. Taking short cuts or overusing “band-aids” (external tools or tricks to mask deficiencies…such as heel assists) can quickly lead to injury if not addressed. Be sure to maximize performance by using the above resources in the earlier sections of this article.
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