The pistol squat is an advanced unilateral lower body exercise often done with bodyweight or lighter loads to increase single leg strength, balance, and improve movement mechanics of the lower body.
In this article we will discuss:
- Pistol Squat Form and Technique
- 8-Step Pistol Squat Progressions Guide
- Benefits of the Pistol Squat
- Muscles Worked by Pistol Squats
- Pistol Squats – Frequently Asked Questions
- Pistol Squat Sets, Reps, and Weight Recommendations
- Pistol Squat Variations and Alternatives
- and more…
How to Do the Pistol Squat
Below is a step-by-step guide on how to properly set up and perform the pistol squat.
Step 1: Start by standing on one leg, with the toes pointed forward and/or slightly turned out.
It is important to make sure that the knee is bent in the same direction as the toes, so that the knee itself tracks over the second toe (next to the big toe). This will help to decrease shearing forces on the knee.
Step 2: With the front leg flexed and the foot pointed in front of you, active the core and hip flexors to prime the movement.
It may be helpful to also reach both hands straight in front of you, to add a counterbalance to the bodyweight.
Step 3: With the weight distributed in the foot that in on the ground, slowly sit down into a squat, making sure that the torso has a slight forward lean (similar to the back squat).
If the heel starts to raise upwards off the floor, this may indicate the hips are not tracking backward enough or general lack of ankle mobility. It is highly recommended to address such mobility issues while also using a heel lift (like a block or weightlifting shoes) until you can perform these correctly. Lifting the heel in the pistol squat can result in excessive strain on the ankle joint, ligament, and tendons, especially under fatigue and harsh volumes.
Step 4: As you descend deeper into the pistol squat, it is highly recommended to not “catch the bounce” aggressively out of this movement unless you are highly trained.
Many novice and intermediate lifters will drop into the bottom position, rebound out of the pistol, and soon having nagging knee and ankle injuries. Lack of coordination, muscle engagement, and stability at the bottom position (which can be developed using the progression guide and pistol squat variations below) can often result in poor pistol squat integrity and injury.
Step 5: Once you have assumed a deep squat position, use your single leg strength to press towards into the floor, locking the core tight to allow to maximal effort.
Apply pressure into the entire foot, and stand up.
Step 6: Assume a stable and fully supported (knee and hip extended) standing position on the working leg, and repeat process again for reps.
Be sure to come to a standing position that is stable prior to loading into another pistol squat, as this will help to ensure proper joint positions and movement integrity.
The pistol squat is a unilateral squatting movement that targets the lower body and stabilizers, specifically:
The quadriceps are targeted greatly in the pistol squat, as it involves a high degree of knee flexion, in which the quadriceps is responsible for promoting the muscular force necessary to stand up as well as eccentrically control the lifter as they descend into the pistol squat.
Core Stabilizers (Abdominals and Obliques)
The core muscles are active throughout this unilateral exercise and aid in stabilizing the core so that the lifter can focus on proper mechanics in the pistol. The obliques are also active in that they help to resist excessive rotational forces on the spine, which can also create tension in the knees and hips if the lifter fails to resist rotating the body in the descent.
The glutes play a key role in stabilizing the lifter during this unilateral movement, which is necessary for proper functioning and control and to support the knee and hip joints.
Like most unilateral lower body exercises, balance and ankle stability are key for performance. The pistol squat not only requires a great amount of ankle flexibility, but also demands a lifter has adequate ankle ability to handle the higher amounts of balance and loading placed upon the joint.
5 Benefits of Pistol Squats
Pistol squats can offer fitness goers and athletes alike numerous benefits that can increase balance, coordination, muscle hypertrophy, movement, and performance. Below are five benefits that are offered by pistols squats.
More Unilateral Strength
Unilateral strength refers to the strength of one limb versus the other (such as left leg strength vs right leg strength). Imbalances between limbs (in this case the legs) are common, however minimization of such imbalances can improve movement, bilateral strength (such as barbell squatting) and help to minimize injuries caused by movement and muscle asymmetries.
Improved Balance and Coordination
Improving the balance and coordination of the body is key during life and athletic movements. Running, jumping, and daily acts of life are all impacted by your ability to create stability in a dynamic environment, and therefore lack of balance and coordination could result in decreased performance and even injury. The pistol squat is a good way to increase strength and balance at once.
Greater Joint Integrity and Movement
Once you have established proper mobility and joint mechanics necessary to perform a pistol squat, you can then enhance and resolidify those attribute by performing pistol squats in a controlled fashion. Be sure not to rely solely on the ballistic nature of fast paced pistols, as this can result in overuse injury and excessive strain to the connective tissues, often giving pistol squats a bad wrap for knee and ankle health.
Enhanced Muscular Activation
Unilateral training has the ability to increase muscular activation. Increased balance, time under tension, and complexity of this movement can stimulate new muscle fibers to be called into action. Such things can result in a great amount of muscle fibers being inverated and activated, which then can be developed and used in successive training sessions, regardless of the movement.
Sport Specific Skill
CrossFit athletes, runners, and other athletes must rely on unilateral leg health and movement for sport, making the pistol squat a pivotal exercise achievement. Proper progression and training of this exercise can unlock all of the above performance benefits discussed, and help to keep athletes more injury resilient when done correctly.
Pistol Squats – Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Below are three of the most common questions (and answers) regarding the pistol squat.
Are Pistol Squats Better Than Barbell Squats?
While pistol squats do fall within the domain of squatting movements, they are slightly distinct in that they require greater amounts of joint mobility, balance coordination, and strength as a lifter must support all of their weight (and any external load) on one foot. In my previous article, Pistol Squats vs Barbell Squats, I discussed why both the barbell squat and pistol squat are highly beneficial to lifters and athletes of all sports.
Are Pistol Squats Bad for Your Knees?
In a previous article I answered the question, “Are pistol squats bad for your knees?”, covering many reasons as to why any movement done poorly, without proper movement and joint integrity, mobility, and strength can be detrimental to joints and connective tissues. That said, pistols squats are inherently not bad for your knees, however if you do have knee issues or movement asymmetries, proper clearance by a physical and exercise progressions should be done prior to dropping into this highly advanced unilateral squatting movement.
Who Should Do Pistol Squats?
Pistol squats are a foundational bodyweight movement that requires body control, balance, joint integrity (hip, knee, ankle), and unilateral strength. Therefore, for the purpose of movement integrity and performance, most athletes should have the skillset to perform a basic pistol squat. In the event they cannot, this may suggest general muscular imbalances, poor movement mechanics, mobility issues, or general lack of fitness in the lower body. Progressing towards a pistol squat via the 8-step progression below can help to improve overall functional fitness and movement health in most lifters, regardless of sport.
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8-Step Pistol Squat Progression
In my recent article I laid out the entire 8-step pistol squat progression, complete with video demonstrations and instructions. You can view the full guide here, which goes in greater detail than the below overview.
1. Deep Bodyweight Squat
This bilateral (both legs) bodyweight squat is the foundational movement necessary to develop leg strength, mobility, and awareness at the end ranges of motion. This should be done for the deepest possible depth one can attain, without pain, instability, and loss of balance.
2. Rocking Box Pistol Squat
Start by sitting on a box, placing one foot in front of you. Sit back and use momentum to get the body rocking forward off of the box, simultaneously using the grounded leg to stand up.
3. Box Pistol Squat
This is nearly identical to the exercise regression above, however the lifter does not use the rocking motion to gain momentum for assistance, but rather must uses their concentric strength to initiate the movement, lifting themselves off of the box. This exercise, as well as the rocking regression, can and should be done from a wide array of box heights to build angular specific strength.
4. Elevated Pistol Squat
Start by standing on a box with one leg hanging off, and the other flat on the box. Slowly descend off the box with full control of the movement, which is supported by the leg on the box. This will help increase body balance and eccentric strength necessary for the pistol squat. Increase the depth one can squat to off the box until the lifter can do this movement to the fullest possible range of motion.
5. Assisted Pistol Squat
This can be done using bands or straps. Simply have the lifter use the assists for balance and overcoming their own body weight at certain sticking points in the full movement.
6. Assisted Pistol Squat with Isometric Holds
Similar to the above regression, this movement has a lifter perform a full pistol squat with assistance straps/bands and then pause (isometrically contract) at certain stages of the movement (top, halfway, bottom, etc) to gain greater muscular strength and awareness throughout the entire range of motion.
7. Rolling Pistol Squat from Floor
This is a dynamic pistol squat movement that has the lifter start lying down, with the back on the floor. When ready, they should rock their body upwards aggressively, planting one foot underneath them and standing up onto one leg. This will help them understand balance and develop strength at the bottom the other pistol squat, using movement as an assistance.
8. Pistol Squat
Once you have mastered the above regressions, you should be tardy to progress into bodyweight pistol squats done at slow and controlled speeds.
How to Program the Pistol Squats
Below are four sets, reps, and weight (intensity) recommendations for coaches and athletes to properly program the pistol squat specific to the training goal. Note, that the below guidelines are simply here to offer coach and athletes loose recommendations for programming.
Movement Integrity – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations
This should be done with a light to moderate load for moderate repetitions in a controlled fashion to instill proper control and coordination.
- 3-4 sets of 8-10 repetitions with light to moderate loads, at a controlled speed (focusing on proper eccentric/lowering of the weight), resting as needed
Muscle Hypertrophy – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations
If the goal is muscle hypertrophy it is key that a lifter performs this movement with moderate loads at a controlled tempo to increase time under tension.
- 2-3 sets of 12-15 repetitions with moderate loads, keeping rest periods 45-90 seconds
Strength – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations
For more strength focused work, be sure to used moderate to heavy loads in still a moderate repetition range. It is not advised to lift with maximal or near maximal loads, as this is an accessory movement.
- 3-4 sets of 8-10 repetitions with heavy loading, resting as needed
Muscle Endurance- Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations
While the pistol squat may not necessarily be a lift that is trained for muscle endurance, some lifters may want to train more repetitions to increase training volume, and muscle hypertrophy. The below rep ranges can work best for this type of goal.
- 2-3 sets of 15-20 repetitions with light to moderate loads, keeping rest periods under 30-45 seconds
Pistol Squat Variations
Below are three (3) pistol squat variations that can be used by coaches and athletes to keep training varied and progressive.
Tempo Pistol Squat
By performing tempos, a controlled concentric and eccentric cadence, one can increase time under tension, movement awareness, and potentially increase a lifter’s ability to activate muscles. Loading is often less than the non-tempo variations.
Pause Pistol Squat
The pause pistol squat, like most used squatting variations, challenges end range stability, control, and concentric strength. This is a more advanced movement that can be used to help lifters establish a stronger, more structurally stable bottom position in the pistol squat. In addition, it can help to increase balance, pattern proper joint loading, and minimize movement dysfunctions at the ankle, knee, and hip.
Pistol Squat on Box
By performing a pistol squat while on a box, most lifters can reach deeper depths than they typically would standing on the ground. In the normal pistol squat, the lifter must be able to hold their front leg up away from the floor, which takes great amounts of flexibility, core strength, and hip flexor endurance. If this is the limiting factor, pistol squats from a box can be used to allow the front leg to be place lower while still allowing for fell knee and hip flexion while using the blocks.
Pistol Squat Alternatives
Below are three (3) pistol squat alternatives coaches and athletes can use to increase overall leg strength, address weaknesses, and build muscle.
Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat is a unilateral exercise that can be used to build leg strength, muscle hypertrophy, and address muscle imbalances. Like the pistol squat, this movement reinforces balance and stability that can be transferred to bilateral squatting. One additional benefit to the Bulgarian split squat is that it can be loaded to a greater degree than the pistol squat, making it a good option for strength and hypertrophy building.
Side Step Up
The side step up is similar to the pistol squat on a box, however the lifter can drop the front leg to the floor for added stability in the bottom position. This is a good exercise to build the strength and control necessary to master a pistol squat, and should be done with strict form and tempo (and make sure not to push off the floor with the foot to aid in the movement).
Front Foot Elevated Reverse Lunge
The front foot elevated reverse lunge allows a lifter to address quadriceps hypertrophy and strength without the high demands of balance and stability that the pistol squat requires. Similar to the Bulgarian split squat, this exercise can be used to address muscular imbalances, strength asymmetries, and general lack of control/balance in the lower body.
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