Pistol Squat Ultimate Guide: Muscles Worked, Benefits, Exercise Demos, and More

In this ultimate exercise guide, we will discuss everything you need to know about the pistol squat, such as:

  • Muscles Worked
  • Pistol Squat Benefits
  • 8-Step Pistol Squat Progressions

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What Is a Pistol Squat?

A 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.

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 previou 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.

Muscles Worked

The pistol squat is a unilateral squatting movement that targets the lower body and stabilizers, specifically:

  • Quadriceps
  • Core stabilizers (abdominals, obliques)
  • Gluteals
  • Ankle stabilizers

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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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.

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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.

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