Bodyweight exercises have a reputation of being easy, a necessary evil if you’re without a home gym or stuck on vacation without equipment. Not only are they effective, but certain bodyweight moves are also really hard. Case in point: the pistol squat. This move has you balance on one leg, squat down while keeping your chest up, and then explode back to standing. It’s an exercise that requires coordination and balance, leg strength, and confidence. The payoff, however, is more unilateral strength and improved hip mobility.
For strength athletes, mobility and single-leg strength carries over to the deadlift and back squat. If you play other sports, expect to be more explosive, juke faster, and jump higher. And if you’re a CrossFitter, well, the pistol squat is literally a part of certain WODs (workouts of the day). Not, it’s not easy — but often the things that are worth it never are. Below, we’ll show you how to do the perfect pistol squat, provide alternatives, variations, and answer common pistol squat questions.
- How to Do the Pistol Squat
- Pistol Squat Sets and Reps
- Common Pistol Squat Mistakes
- Pistol Squat Variations
- Pistol Squat Alternatives
- Muscles Worked by the Pistol Squat
- Benefits of the Pistol Squat
- Who Should Do the Pistol Squat
- Frequently Asked Questions
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of advice and/or supervision from a medical professional. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. Speak with your physician if you have any concerns.
The pistol squat is an advanced exercise with lots of moving parts. Below is a step-by-step guide on how to properly set up for and do the pistol squat.
Step 1 — Get Set
Start by standing on one leg, with the toes pointed forward and/or slightly turned out. Pick the other leg off the floor, and fully extend it in front of you so that your quad is flexed.
Form Tip: Make sure to grip the floor with your planted foot. Do this by actively turning your toes and knee outward slightly. You should feel your glutes activate. This small tweak will help you stay stable throughout the movement.
Step 2 — Squat Down
Form Tip: It’s helpful to reach with both hands straight in front of you, to add a counterbalance to the bodyweight. Holding a light plate works well here.
Step 3 — Set Your Squat, Then Drive Up
With the weight of your body evenly distributed over the foot that’s on the ground, carefully sit back into a squat, making sure your torso has a slight forward lean. While in the deep squat position, use your single-leg strength to press through the floor, engaging the abs to allow for maximal force.
Form Tip: Apply pressure into the entire foot and stand up straight. Be sure to come to a standing position and reset yourself before your next rep, which will help you make sure of a good starting position.
Once you get sufficiently advanced, you can certainly load up your pistol squat to increase your strength even further. But you’re not going to be training this move for max strength or to find your one-rep max. Instead, you’ll likely focus on mastering the skills of the move, muscle growth, and endurance.
- For Skill Mastery: Using assistance like TRX suspension or a pistol box squat with a plyo box or a weight bench, do two to three sets of four to eight reps per side.
- For Hypertrophy: Perform three to four sets of eight to 10 reps on each side at a controlled tempo.
- For Endurance: Do two to three sets of 12-15 repetitions per side.
Use assistance or exercise modifications as needed throughout these sets and reps. The pistol squat is a very technically-demanding move, and it’s okay to adjust when necessary.
With an exercise as complex as the pistol squat, it’s easy to make mistakes. Here are some of the ones we see most often — and how to address them.
Progressing Too Quickly
There are so many benefits to pistol squatting precisely because there are so many moving parts. There are a lot of strength, mobility, balance, and coordination prerequisites that you need to build up before you hit your target. Moving on from scaled versions of the pistol squat too quickly can result in poor form and possibly even injury.
Instead, only progress with the unassisted version when you can sink all the way down into the bottom position without your heel popping off the ground. You’ll also need to be able to stand back up without overly rounding your back. Some rounding is okay, but make sure that the actual work is being done by your leg, not momentum from your upper body.
Stopping Too Soon
In an effort to feel like they’ve accomplished the pistol squat, many lifters may stop the lift prematurely. They’ll start to rise back to standing before their working thigh has broken parallel. While there is a time and place for half squats, it’s important to deploy them intentionally. If you find yourself stopping your pistol squat before you hit a full range of motion, consider using assistance and alternative movements to build up more strength.
You also might need to build up your confidence. If that’s the case, try sinking just an inch lower with each set. That way, you’ll gradually build the depth you need without forcing your brain to sink all the way down into a compromising position at once.
Leaning Too Far Forward
It’s easy to lean your torso very far forward to try and keep your balance during this move. A forward lean will also help take some pressure off your working leg. But by leaning too far in front of your legs, you’ll roll up to standing through your back instead of squatting up with your leg. In doing so, you’ll be throwing off your center of gravity, taking away from the benefits of the exercise, and potentially putting more sheer pressure on your knee.
Instead of leaning with your torso, try emphasizing straightening your arms and isometrically-held leg out in front of you. These will act as a counterbalance. If that’s not enough, re-emphasize your ankle and hip mobility before continuing.
Below are three pistol squat variations that you can use to work up to your first pistol squat. They’ll also help keep your training varied and progressive.
Pistol Box Squat
Stand in front of a chair and perform a standard pistol squat, lowering yourself until your butt touches the chair. Do not relax on the chair. Remain tense, using the chair only for some support. Hold the down position for a few seconds and then explode back up.
The reduced range of motion will help you build up skills in the movement while strengthening the muscles necessary to do the exercise. This affects your pistol squat the same way a standard box squat affects the back squat.
Tempo Pistol Squat
By controlling the tempo — both up and down — of the pistol squat, you’ll increase time under tension, movement awareness, and potentially increase your ability to activate more muscles.
Loading is often less than the non-tempo variations because of the increased time under tension.
Pause Pistol Squat
The pause pistol squat challenges end range stability, control, and concentric strength. This is an advanced variation used to help you set up a stronger and stable bottom position in the pistol squat. Plus, it will improve your balance, time under tension, and single-leg concentric strength.
To do the move, simply add a pause at the bottom of the lift. If you really want to challenge yourself, pause at different phases of the movement, like at three-quarters of the way down or up.
Below are three alternatives you can use to increase overall leg strength, address weaknesses, build muscle, and work up to your first pistol squat rep.
Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat is an excellent unilateral exercise to build leg strength, muscle mass, and address muscle imbalances. Like the pistol squat, this movement reinforces balance and stability, which is transferred to bilateral squatting.
It’s also much easier to do than the pistol squat, though it’ll still challenge your balance. Because you’re relatively more stable during this movement, you can hold a kettlebell, dumbbell, or barbell while performing the move. Actually, overloading the leg muscles in this position will build the unilateral strength needed to do a pistol squat.
Single-Leg Drop Squat
The single-leg drop squat has you perform a pistol squat but elevated so that you can better stabilize and balance. It’s like a pistol squat with training wheels.
Front Foot-Elevated Reverse Lunge
The front foot elevated reverse lunge allows you to address quadriceps strength without the demands of balance and stability that the pistol squat requires.
Plus, this exercise helps address muscular imbalances, strength asymmetries, and improves your balance.
The pistol squat is predominately a knee flexion and extension movement, meaning your quads are involved in the eccentric (flexion) and concentric (extension). The quads provide the control and the power to make the pistol squat happen.
Anytime you reduce your support base, your core stabilizers are engaged to stop you from hitting the floor. With the pistol squat, your core stabilizers allow for the transfer of power from your lower body to your upper body and to resist rotational forces on the spine during the descent.
Glutes and Hamstrings
When reducing your base of support, your ankle stabilizers are engaged to remain stable and balanced. But the pistol squats require great ankle flexibility (dorsiflexion) because of the high degree of knee flexion needed to perform this exercise. If your heel comes off the ground during this exercise, kiss your balance goodbye.
Performing pistol squats improve your balance, coördination, performance, and single-leg strength. And who doesn’t want that? Here are three benefits of doing pistol squats.
Increased Unilateral Strength
We all favor one side over the other during everyday life and in the gym. Seriously, the next time you’re standing in line, notice how you stand. Chances are you probably lean more heavily to one side than the other. This isn’t a big deal, but over time, it can lead to slight imbalances. The pistol squat helps even out those imbalances as each leg — and all of the supporting stabilizer muscles — is forced to work entirely independently.
Improved Balance and Coordination
You’re standing on one leg more often than you think. Each time you take a step while walking or jogging, you’re on one leg — even if just for a moment. Your time on one leg is only amplified when playing sports. For example, MMA fighters are constantly shuffling and throwing kicks, which has them on one leg. Football players explode off of and land on one leg when catching a ball. In CrossFit, the pistol squat is an actual movement in competition. There’s almost nothing better for your balance and coordination than being able to pull off a pistol squat.
More Muscle and Strength
Your leg is under more tension since it’s not sharing the load with your other leg. This means the amount of weight on one of your legs has nearly doubled. This increased stress can lead to more muscle growth and strength gains.
Pistol squats require a lot of body control, balance, joint mobility and stability, and unilateral strength.
While so many can benefit from this exercise, there are some groups that might want to pay special attention to this move.
General Athletes and Gymgoers
If your sport involves running, changing direction, and lots of balance requirements, training the pistol squat will improve your performance and reduce muscle imbalances to keep the muscles strains at bay. Having the goal of building up to a complex movement like this can also be a great confidence- and motivation-booster for regular gymgoers who are looking for a functional fitness challenge.
Powerlifters and Weightlifters
When you’re performing bilateral lifts for a living, muscle imbalances can happen, and this can result in injury pains. The pistol squat and its variations will reduce inequalities between sides, reducing injuries, and increasing performance. Since powerlifters and weightlifters spend so much time under barbells, it’s tremendously valuable for them to perform unilateral moves. That’s because reducing and eliminating those asymmetries that can develop with barbell exercises is likely to make you a safer and stronger lifter during your actual competition lifts.
Only One Leg
For many athletes, the elusive pistol squat is a long-revered goal. While it’s not exactly a four-plate back squat, being able to bang out rep after rep of pistol squats means that you have something more than just brute strength. Once you’re able to do pistol squats, your body will have immense movement control, efficiency, balance, and coordination. That can only mean great things for your more traditional barbell training. The more well-balanced your leg muscles are, the better your squats are bound to become.
Even the most advanced of lifters have a lot of questions when it comes to performing the coveted pistol squat. Here are some of the more common inquiries.
What if I can't do a single pistol squat?
The pistol squat is a highly advanced movement that requires lots of strength and work. Focus on the variations and alternatives above and keep chipping away bit by bit. It won’t happen overnight, but that doesn’t mean your work is for nothing.
Are pistol squats better than barbell squats?
Neither is better or worse — just different. Plus, it depends on the goals you have. If your goal is strength then barbell squats are your go-to. If you want to improve your balance and reduce imbalances, the pistol squat should be your first choice. There is room for both because no matter your goal. The nice thing, too, is that one will improve the other.
Are pistol squats bad for your knees?
Pistol squats involve a high degree of knee flexion and if your stability and mobility of your hips, knees, or ankles are lacking, it might not feel great for your knees.
However, pistols squats are not bad for your knees when performed well with the required stability and mobility. But if you do have knee issues or movement asymmetries, check in with a doctor. See if you can perform scaled versions while working on your mobility.
Featured Image: Xamyak/Shutterstock