Pistol Squats are a challenging single leg exercise — great if you can’t get to the gym, or if you suffer from lower-back pain and can’t do weighted squats. They also look cool!
The Benefits of Pistol Squats
There are many advantages of including single leg squats in your workouts…
- Build strong legs
- No equipment or gym required
- Improve strength imbalances — most people have a strong side and a weak side, or even one leg shorter than the other!
- Increased balance and coordination
- Better lower-body mobility
Before You Start Doing Pistol Squats
You should already be able to do full-depth bodyweight squats using both legs, without your heels lifting off the ground. I find that many training clients are initially unable to this, so don’t be disheartened if you’re one of them.
IMPORTANT — If you can’t do bodyweight squats with both legs, then you shouldn’t even attempt a pistol squat, otherwise you could damage yourself.
A useful mobility exercise is to squat to the floor, and whilst keeping both of your heels down (and holding onto something), rock forward and backward to loosen up the hips and ankles. Do this for a minute, and repeat daily.
Doing calf raises on a block, can also help to stretch the calves and provide more movement.
Don’t forget to warm up before starting any exercise routine. Click here for a dynamic warm up.
How To Do Pistol Squats
- Stand up straight and stretch out both arms in front of you — you can clasp them together, but it is easier in the beginning to keep them apart and have something within reach that you can grasp if you lose balance.
- Lift one leg, and extend it in front of you. Try to clamp your knees tight together — it helps with stability.
- Descend with control until your glutes reach your calves, whilst further elevating the raised leg, so it doesn’t touch the floor.
- You’ll find you’ll find you need to sit back and lean forward at the same time, to avoid falling backwards.
- Stand up, without bouncing in the bottom position, or touching your raised leg on the floor.
Aside from the balance issues, pistol squats feel a lot different to squatting with both legs. You’ll find that you need to make minute adjustments in your hips and ankles, to get into a position where you are sitting on your calf at the bottom of the movement, without falling over backwards.
If you have lack of hamstring flexibility or ab strength to keep your raised leg straight and high enough, you can sometimes get a few inches higher, if you point your toes on the elevated straight leg.
Pistol Squats for Beginners
Unless you can do about 40 bodyweight squats or weighted squats with at least half your bodyweight on the bar, at full-depth, then pistol squats will be extremely challenging for you at the beginning.
Aim to achieve 10-12 reps of 3-5 sets at each stage, before moving to the next level.
- Box Pistol: A good way to start is doing the pistol squat, is to squat down to a bench or chair. Although this is only a partial movement, you’ll start to get a feel for the balance required.
- Negative Pistol: If you can achieve 12 reps of the bench pistols, then you can try negatives. Find something to hold onto, like a vertical pole, or door-frame, and lower slowly on one leg for four seconds, then use both legs to stand back up. Be very careful not to increase the number of negative reps too quickly, otherwise you may become extremely sore or damage yourself, if you’re not strong enough. Most people can start with 4-6 reps.
- Assisted Pistol: Attempt to go both up and down on one leg, whilst holding onto a vertical bar or other object, and using it less and less to pull yourself up. Aiming eventually for just fingertip assistance for balance in the end. Holding onto gymnastic rings or a TRX can also be useful, but will be more challenging than a static support.
- Pistol with Counterweight: Now it’s time to let go of the support, and hold a small weight in your outstretched arms. It’s one of the rare exercises where adding a weight can make the exercise easier…it helps with balancing.
If you’re still struggling to keep your elevated leg from touching the floor, then in the beginning you can stand on a step, to give you some additional ground clearance.
Also remember to always work your weakest leg first, and perform the same number of reps on each leg.
Advanced Pistol Squats
Okay. So now you can do pistol squats. Congratulations!! How do you make them harder?
- Change your balance: Put your hands behind your back — you’ll fight the urge not to fall over.
- Jump Pistols: lower down to the bottom, then start raising up (and once you have tension) explode up. Land with a slightly bent knee and lower back to the floor with control. You can also jump onto elevated objects.
- Add weight: Hold a weight to your chest (not outstretched in front of you), hold dumbbells by your side, or wear a weighted vest. You can also do it with a barbell across the front of your shoulders, but I don’t find it very comfortable.
Take your time to learn the pistol squat, and keep challenging yourself to improve at each workout — eventually you’ll get there.
George D. Choy
Personal Trainer & Calisthenics Instructor
Gymnacity in Oxted, Surrey, United Kingdom
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