Single leg strength is a premium in the gym and on the sporting field. Most of the time, athletes are juking, sprinting, and jumping mainly off of one leg, so the ability to be strong on both sides is very important. For this, we like the pistol squat — a single-leg squat variation that is a test of strength, balance, coordination, and mobility. Being able to do a pistol squat is an accomplishment. Here’s what you need to know about doing pistols.
In this article we will discuss:
- How to Do the Pistol Squat Step by Step
- Benefits of the Pistol Squat
- Muscles Worked by Pistol Squat
- Who Should Do the Pistol Squat
- Pistol Squat Set, Reps, and Programming Recommendations
- Pistol Squat Variations and Alternatives
- Frequently Asked Questions
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 and perform the pistol squat.
Step 1 — Get Set
Start by standing on one leg, with the toes pointed forward and/or slightly turned out. This is a matter of personal preference and balance.
Form Tip: It’s important that the knee is bent in the same direction as the toes, so that the knee tracks over the second toe. This helps to decrease shearing forces on the knee. Make sure you grip the floor with your foot for a solid base.
Step 2 — Squat Down
With the front leg flexed and the foot pointed in front of you and engage your core and hip flexors to get ready for your descent.
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 weight plate works well here.
Step 3 — Set Your Squat
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.
Form Tip: If your heel raises up from the floor, this may show a lack of hip or ankle mobility or the hips and not sitting back enough. You should address these issues before attempting pistol squats or regress the movement.
Step 4 — Drive up
While in the deep squat position, use your single-leg strength to press through the floor, engaging the core to allow for maximal effort.
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, as this will help you make sure of a good starting position.
Performing pistol squats improve your balance, coördination, performance, single-leg strength, and can cut your chances of injury. And who doesn’t want that? Here are four benefits of doing Pistol squats.
Increased Unilateral Strength
We all favor one side over the other during activities of daily living and in the gym. This is why it’s important to do unilateral exercises like the pistol squat to strengthen imbalance between sides and reduce injuries due to movement and muscle imbalances.
Improved Balance and Coordination
In and out of the gym we find ourselves in single-leg situations. Whether walking upstairs or evading an opponent we need stability and balance in a dynamic environment. The pistol squat is a great exercise to increase strength and balance at the same time.
Better Muscle Activation
When you reduce your base of support, you increase the amount of muscular tension to perform the same movement. For example, barbell squat or a barbell split squat. This results in improved balance, time under tension, and because of the complexity of the pistol squat will engage new muscle fibers.
Sport Specific Skill
Most athletes rely on single-leg strength, balance, and being out on the field of play. Proper training and progression of the pistol squat will have a huge carryover to your performance on the field and to make sure you stay thereby reducing your chances of muscle imbalance injuries.
This unilateral squatting movement targets your lower body muscles and stabilizers, specifically the:
The pistol squat is predominately a knee flexion and extension movement which means 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 base of support, 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 the upper body and to resist rotational forces on the spine during the descent.
Glutes And Hamstrings
The glutes and hamstrings stabilize and control the eccentric part of the movement and are vital for lockout (hip extension) and to support the knee and hip joints during the entire movement
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.
Pistol squats require a lot of body control, balance, joint mobility and stability, and unilateral strength. While everyone can benefit from this exercise, here are two groups that should consider working them into their routine for improved performance.
If your sport involves running, changing of direction, and lots of balance requirements then training the pistol squat will improve your performance and reduce muscle imbalances to keep the muscles strains at bay.
When you’re performing bilateral lifts for a living muscle imbalances can happen, and this can result in injury niggles. The pistol squat and its variations will reduce imbalances between sides, reducing injuries, and increasing performance.
Below two recommendations if your goal is for performance or improved muscular hypertrophy and endurance.
Perform with a moderate resistance in a controlled fashion to ensure proper control and coordination. Do three to four sets of eight to 10 reps each side at a controlled speed, focusing on the eccentric portion and rest as needed.
Hypertrophy & Endurance
When the goal is hypertrophy/endurance the key is to perform pistol squats with light to moderate loads at a controlled tempo to increase time under tension. Do two to three sets of 12-15 repetitions with moderate loads, keeping rest periods to 45 to 90 seconds.
Below are three pistol squat variations that can be used to work up to your first pistol squat and to keep your training varied and progressive.
Assisted Pistol Squat with Isometric Pauses
Perform a full pistol squat with the assistance of straps/bands and pause at certain stages of the move for 3-5 seconds (top, halfway, bottom, etc.) to increase muscular strength and awareness throughout the entire range of motion.
Tempo Pistol Squat
By controlling the concentric and eccentric tempo 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.
Below are three alternatives you can use to increase overall leg strength, address weaknesses, build muscle and to work up to your first pistol squat rep.
Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat is an excellent unilateral exercise that’s used to build leg strength, muscle hypertrophy, and address muscle imbalances. Like the pistol squat, this movement reinforces balance and stability which is transferred to bilateral squatting.
Plus, BSS improves leg drive which is essential for locking out your deadlift.
Single Leg Drop Squat
Similar to a side step up and a pistol squat your non-working leg touches the floor for added stability in the bottom position. It’s a great exercise to build the strength, stability, and control necessary to master the pistol squat.
Front Foot Elevated Reverse Lunge
The front foot elevated reverse lunge allows you to address quadriceps hypertrophy and 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.
What If I can't do a single pistol squat?
The pistol squat is a highly advanced movement that requires lots of sweat equity and luck of the genetic draw to do. Work on the variations and alternatives above and keep chipping away bit by bit.
Are pistol squats better than barbell squats?
There is no better or worse, only 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 squats should be your first choice. There is room for both because no matter your goal, 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 hip, knee or ankle are lacking then yes it could be bad 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 then performing a regression and working on your mobility is your best bet.
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