A pistol squat is a single leg exercise that builds lower body and core muscle strength. It’s one of the most challenging bodyweight exercises that most people have to work up to. Pistol squats are different from standard single leg squats because the upper leg goes lower than parallel to the floor, requiring mobility through the foot and ankle complex and knee. The point of hip flexion is lower than the point of knee flexion. And, the extreme knee flexion from this exercise will build strength primarily in the quads and secondarily in the hamstring and glute on the squatting leg. The entire movement system is taxed during this exercise in a good way that supports most fitness goals.
Because the pistol squat is such a difficult exercise, it’s a great fitness goal if you’re looking for more fitness motivation. Since most people have outcome goals like weight loss or increased muscle size (hypertrophy), this is a good performance and short term goal that aligns with larger objectives. In fact, this is a great exercise to work into a fitness challenge with your friends or clients. Assuming you have good knee and ankle mobility, with no other muscular imbalances, work this exercise into your fitness program. A comprehensive fitness assessment will help you determine if you have any muscular imbalances or issues preventing you from doing this exercise.
Here, we’ll cover:
- Pistol squat benefits
- How to do pistol squats correctly
- Exercises to progress to a single leg pistol squat
- Advanced progressions from a pistol squat
Learn this and more about the secrets personal trainers know with EMAC Certifications.
What Are The Pistol Squat Benefits?
Gaining leg strength isn’t the only thing you’ll get from learning how to do a pistol squat. As a matter of fact, most people will find at least one reason why they should do this exercise, if not all. The benefits of this variation of a bodyweight squat include:
- Leg strength (quadriceps, hamstrings, glute complex
- Improved spine and hip mobility
- Single leg balance
- No equipment needed (another at-home exercise!)
- Easy to do regressions
- Various progressions
- Good for all program goals- weight loss, functional fitness, and hypertrophy
- Intrinsic motivation enhancements
How To Do Pistol Squats Correctly
Once you develop the lower body strength and mobility to manage this exercise correctly, the motion is simple. Follow these steps.
- Standing shoulder width apart, slowly accept the weight onto one foot.
- Allow the non working leg to migrate forward, keeping the knee straight.
- Squat down as deep as possible on the working leg.
- Allow the upper body and lumbar spine to round forward to balance your center of gravity and keep balance.
- The non working leg should be just inches above the ground, hovering in place.
- Activate the quads in the working leg to start going back up.
- Follow through hip extension using the hamstrings and glutes until you return to the standing position.
- Repeat the exercise on the same leg.
Learning How To Do A Pistol Squat
If you’re new to exercise and want to learn how to do this movement, don’t worry. You can work up to it following these exercises. This list of exercises advances in order. Begin where you can, performing each exercise for 30 seconds, working your way up if you need to.
- Bodyweight squat: Perform a bodyweight squat, working yourself as low to the ground as possible. Allow your trunk to round forward so you start learning the motions. To develop more strength, and before progressing, add weight with a barbell squat.
- Deep squat: As you progress from the standard bodyweight squat, begin challenging yourself to go even deeper. You can use assistance such as a suspension trainer (TRX strap) to get lower without losing your balance.
- Weighted Lunge: A lunge, or split squat, will start progressing you from two legs to one leg. It’s an in-between exercise. Opt for heavier weight here to work on lower body strength, specifically in the quads.
- Single leg squat: This exercise will help you with balance. Remember, a single leg squat is different from a pistol squat in that the point of hip flexion is higher than the point of knee flexion. This means your upper body will tip forward more during the motion and your non working leg will migrate back. A single leg squat targets more of the glute muscles and the pistol squat targets more quads.
- Lateral step up: Using a platform, begin stepping up onto the box in a sideways motion, rather than stepping forward. This will help with single leg strength as well as balance. By stepping to the side, you’re teaching your body how to keep the floating leg either next to you or in front of you.
- Slow lateral step down: Using a box or platform again, control your step down with a three second count. Work your way up to a six second count. This is building eccentric strength which is most critical for mastering the single leg squat.
- Assisted pistol squat: Here you’ll use another way to support yourself other than the squatting leg. The best support is the suspension trainer (TRX strap). This is because it allows you to distribute the weight correctly without leaning to the side to hold a bench or bar. You can also use a moveable arm cable machine. In this instance, you would hold the cable handles above your head and use the weight from the machine to offset your own body weight. As you get stronger and more capable, decrease the weight on the machine.
- Supported pistol squats: This is the last step before you don’t need any external support. As you squat down, allow the foot on the non working leg to lightly touch the ground. Use it to help you push up and out of the deep squat position.
- Alternating leg pistol squats: At this point you can do at least one full single leg pistol squat without any external support. However, you likely will only be able to do one or two. This isn’t a complete set. So, as you step up, alternate the squatting leg from the right foot to the left and so on.
Advanced Pistol Squat Progressions
Once you learn how to do this advanced body weight exercise, you can still advance! Check out how to do any of these advanced pistol squat variations to your workout.
- Kettlebell pistol squat: Perform this by holding a kettlebell in toward your chest, like you would during a goblet squat and perform the exercise as normal.
- Resistance band pistol squat: Use a band with handles. Holding onto the elastic band in under your shoulders, this adds more resistance as you stand back up.
- Single leg box jump: With the strength you get from a pistol squat, you can now do single leg box jumps.
- Alternating jump pistol squats: Perform the exercise as normal, except explode up and switch legs with each exercise. Control the movement on the way down though. This is avery advanced form of the exercise and should be practiced with caution.
Advancing exercise and taking your fitness to a new level is fun. You can learn how to develop workout programs for yourself. Or, you can learn the secrets personal trainers know with our EMAC Personal Training Certification. You’ll learn the art behind fitness coaching, getting clients great results, and how to make a side or full time career.
TRX Pistol Squats
An assisted pistol squat is the last step before transition to a full bodyweight pistol squat