Pistol Squat Progression For Beginners – 7 Exercises

Pistol squats are a very challenging bodyweight unilateral movement that most athletes could benefit from. In an earlier article we discussed the 5 benefits of the pistol squat, and decided to make an exercise progression guide to teach and progress towards the full pistol squat.

In the below video we will address pistol squat mobility, exercise progressions, and key tips to nail a better pistol squat.

Pistol Squat Mobility and Warm Up

Improving mobility and fluidity is at the forefront of attaining proper joint action and movement necessary for the pistol squats. Many lifters may lack proper ankle, knee, and/or hip mobility and proceed into pistol squats, forcing the body into deep and untrained ranges of motion that could result in injury or poor movement mechanics (which can result in limitations in the future and/or overuse/compensation patterning injuries).

Be sure to address your individual mobility and joint integrity needs by properly assessing your needs. A good place to start is this article, which demonstrates how to assess and address mobility issues.

Pistol Squat Variations

The below listing is in order from least complex to most complex, and can be used as a general guide to progress a lifter/athlete that has achieved proper joint movement and basic strength. It is important to note that valgus knees (knees that cave inwards while squatting) throughout any of these motions suggest lack of strength, muscle activation, and instability, and should properly be addressed before going forward into the next progression.

1. Deep Squat

The ability to perform a deep, full knee flexion squat is needed before attempting to proceed in any of the unilateral pistol squat progressions. Assuming proper ankle, knee, and hip flexion with control and balance is the first step of this progression, as it can help to strengthen the leg muscles and make a safer transition to supporting one’s bodyweight on only one limb.

2. Rocking Box Pistol Squat (Varying Heights)

This is the first unilateral progression in this lineup, where the lifter can set a height of a bench, box, or other stable piece of equipment. The deeper the depth of the pistol (shorter bench/box) the harder the pistol squat, as the lifter must overcome greater knee and hip flexion. When performing this, the lifter can “rock” themselves back and forth to gain momentum as the approach the point at which they are lifting themselves off the box. By rocking you are able to regress the exercise to address weaknesses yet still allow the lifter to gain body awareness, control, and increase rate of force development.

3. Box Pistol Squat (Varying Heights)

This progression is done almost exactly like the above rocking variation, however the lifter must know promote movement without the use of momentum (concentric box pistol squat). This can be paired with slow eccentric pistol squats, enhancing a lifter’s strength and coordination, while then finishing the lift without momentum as they lift themselves off the supportive bench/box/etc concentrically.

4. Elevated Pistol Squat

This pistol variation now has a lifter perform a pistol squat from the standing position, and slowly descend into a pistol squat to a supportive bench/box/etc. This will allow a lifter to gain strength and control at the early stages of the range of motion. This can then be progressed into deeper ranges of motion (lower supportive benches/boxes) to increase basic strength and coordination.

5. Assisted Pistol Squat

The assisted pistol squat is a great progression to tie all the strength and full range of motion control together. I find it best to have a lifter stand in front of a squat rack, straps, or beam with their body slightly offset to allow the other leg (non-pistol squatting leg) to be extended in front of the lifter without hitting the beam. By using the post as a frontal assistance, you help a lifter learn to not fall backwards while teaching them to use their bodies as counterweight as the reach their legs and arms forwards.

6. Assisted Pistol Squat w Isometric Hold

This variation is nearly identical to the above progression, with the addition of an isometric hold at the end range of the pistol squat. This can be done by having the lifter loosely grasp the supportive beam, straps, or squat rack so that they can learn proper body and foot balance at the bottom of the pistol.

7. Rolling Pistol Squat (From Floor)

This is a good exercise to teach the full range of motion pistol squat while also enforcing proper stabilization and body control in a semi-ballistic format. In many WODs and other workouts, pistol squats are often done at high velocities, requiring a certain type of body control, strength, and connective tissues health. Use this pistol squat progression to help bridge that gap.

The Pistol Squat

There you have it! At this point, it will take you only a few more repetitions before you nail a strong and stable pistol squat. Below is a video to help you nail a better pistol squat.

Featured Image: @clind on Instagram

Editor’s Note: Jeff Licciardi, Owner of CrossFit Amoskeag and BarBend reader, had this to say after reading the above article:

“The challenging part of the pistol is controlling yourself on the way down. Once you are in the bottom, standing up is easy for most. Using assistance to get into the bottom and then relying on it less as you stand is a great way to program your body to do the pistol squat correctly.”

Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

Mike holds a Master's in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor's in Exercise Science. Currently, Mike has been with BarBend since 2016, where he covers Olympic weightlifting, sports performance training, and functional fitness. He's a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at New York University, in which he works primarily with baseball, softball, track and field, cross country. Mike is also the Founder of J2FIT, a strength and conditioning brand in New York City that offers personal training, online programs for sports performance, and has an established USAW Olympic Weightlifting club.

In his first two years writing with BarBend, Mike has published over 500+ articles related to strength and conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, strength development, and fitness. Mike’s passion for fitness, strength training, and athletics was inspired by his athletic career in both football and baseball, in which he developed a deep respect for the barbell, speed training, and the acquisition on muscle.

Mike has extensive education and real-world experience in the realms of strength development, advanced sports conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, and human movement. He has a deep passion for Olympic weightlifting as well as functional fitness, old-school bodybuilding, and strength sports.

Outside of the gym, Mike is an avid outdoorsman and traveller, who takes annual hunting and fishing trips to Canada and other parts of the Midwest, and has made it a personal goal of his to travel to one new country, every year (he has made it to 10 in the past 3 years). Lastly, Mike runs Rugged Self, which is dedicated to enjoying the finer things in life; like a nice glass of whiskey (and a medium to full-bodied cigar) after a hard day of squatting with great conversations with his close friends and family.

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