What are Pistol Squats?

The pistol squat is a unilateral lower body exercise where you perform a full squat on a single leg. You will require a high level of strength, balance, and flexibility. This exercise will help you to build unilateral strength, along with enhancing your balance and stability. Training this will prepare your body for physical activities such as running, jumping, and sudden changes in direction in sports. It is ideal that you master normal squats before you try this variation to ensure faster progression.

What Muscles do Pistol Squats work?

The primary muscles worked are the glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, and hip adductors. The secondary muscles worked are the abdominals and calves.

What Level are Pistol Squats?

The pistol squat is an advanced-level exercise as your entire body weight will be rested on one leg whilst executing the movement. It requires balance and coordination, leg strength, and flexibility. But, it’s beginner-friendly as the progressions you will be practicing will include basic exercises.

How to do Pistol Squats?

It is important to stretch out your ankles and calves before you perform any squatting exercise and alleviate any stiffness or pain. Taking time to stretch before and after your workout will develop strength and flexibility which can reduce any discomfort and improve your range of motion. Perform each stretch one straight after the other for 3 sets.

These are the two best stretches that you should practice:

  1. Achilles stretch (20 seconds on each leg)
  2. Elevated Dorsiflexion Stretch (20 seconds on each leg)

Pistol Squat Progressions

There are three best pistols squat progressions that you can practice today. These progressions are ranked from easy to hard, therefore you can assess where your current fitness level stands and implement them into your training regiment accordingly. Practice 1-2 exercises for 3 sessions a week.

1. Deep Squat 

A deep squat is s squat whereupon you squat your hips below the height of your knees. The goal is to be able to touch your glutes to your calves. This exercise increases the mobility in your calves and ankles, improving your range of motion for the pistol squat. You can also practice deep squat by holding onto a stable object in front for support. To perform this, you will:

  1. Stall tall with your feet shoulder-width apart, and feet slightly pointing outwards. This is your starting position.
  2. Inhale as you bend your hips followed by your knees as if you’re sitting on a chair. Engage your core to keep your torso straight. Squat until your hips fall below the knee level, and your heels should remain flat on the floor. If this is difficult, you can grab onto a chair in front of you. 
  3. Exhale as you push through your heels and return to starting position. Squeeze your glutes at the top position.
  4. Repeat this movement between 5-12 reps for 4 sets.

 

 

 

2. Pistol Box Squat

Chair box squat has a reduced range of motion compared to the pistol squat as you will briefly set your body weight on the box as you lower down. This will help you to build up strength, endurance, and mobility to perform this exercise. You can reduce the height of the box as you get stronger. To perform this, you will:

  1. Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart in front of an elevated object such as a chair or a plyometric box. 
  2. Inhale as you push your hips back and bend your right knee. Keep your core tight. Lower down until your butt touches the box. Bring your arms and left leg out in front to counterbalance.
  3. Exhale as your push back up through your heel back to the standing position. Squeeze your glutes and quads at the top.
  4. Complete between 5-12 reps for 4 sets on each leg.

3. Assisted Pistol Squat

This exercise is great for developing the full range of motion required for the pistol squat with the support of holding onto an object such as the TRX, gymnastic rings,  a chair, or a rail. This will assist you with balance, along with supporting some of your weight by taking the load away from your leg, therefore you are lifting less. To perform this, you will:

  1. Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart. On your side will be a sturdy object such as a bar, a rail, or a table. You can also use the TRX or gymnastics rings for support.
  2. Grab both hands onto the object and lower down into a squat on your right leg. Engage your core to keep your torso straight. Stretch your left leg out in front to counterbalance. Inhale as you do this movement. 
  3. Exhale and drive through your heel through the ground as you rise up to the standing position. Use your leg to push up rather than using your arms to pull up.
  4. Complete between 5-12 reps on one leg for 4 sets.

4. Pistol Squat 

Once the box pistol squat and the assisted pistol squat becomes easy, you can progress to the full pistol squat, which is a single-leg full squat. The goal is the lower down so that your glute touches your calve. To perform this, you will:

  1. Stand tall on your right leg, with toes pointing forward. Lift your other leg off the floor and extend it slightly in front of you so that your quadriceps are engaged.
  2. Inhale as you lower down on the standing leg, going as low as you possibly can whilst engaging your core to keep your torso straight. Reach both hands out in front along with your left leg to counterbalance.
  3. Exhale as you drive through your right heel to ascend back to the standing position. Squeeze your quadriceps and glutes at the top.
  4. Complete between 3-12 reps on one leg for 4 sets.

What are the benefits of Pistol Squats?

Improve Unilateral Strength 

Training a single leg at a time will help to prevent overusing or overtraining on the dominant side, therefore it helps to isolate and improve any muscle imbalances, enhances balance, utilize abdominal muscles, helps in injury prevention, develop muscle mass, and connective tissue strength.

Improve Balance and Coordination

By training unilaterally, your core stabilizing muscles fire away to assist the loaded muscle imbalances to promote sound movement patterns. Anytime you load a single side of the body, it’s going to work and strengthen the core which will improve your balance and coordination. 

Muscular Strength and Hypertrophy

Pistol squats will increase tension on your leg as your entire body weight will be carried on a single leg. The isolation of this individual movement can put more stress on your muscles which can lead to strength gains and muscular growth.

Pistol Squats Variations

Split Squat 

The split squat is a lunge variation that works on the same muscle groups as the pistol squat. This is a regression to the pistol squat as both feet will be on the floor whilst performing this movement, and it will assist you with balance. It is a great variation to build your unilateral strength. To do this, you will:

  1. Stand tall and take a large step forward (about 4 feet) with your right leg. Your forward foot should be flat, and the heel of your rear feet should be elevated. This is your starting position
  2. Inhale as your lower your body down until your right thigh is parallel to the ground. Engage your core to keep your torso straight. Your front knee should be behind your front toe, and your rear knee should be 2-3 inches off the ground.
  3. Exhale as you push through with your front heel back to the starting position.
  4. Complete between 8-12 reps for 4 sets on each leg.

Goblet Pistol Squat

This is a progression to the pistol squat which makes it the ultimate unilateral leg exercise. It will build strong muscular legs that are equally balanced and better equipped for your everyday activities and sports. Moreover, it will require more balance and coordination as you will have to hold a weight at the centre of your chest. To perform this, you will:

  1. Stand tall on your right leg, with toes pointing forward. Lift your other leg off the floor and extend it slightly in front of you so that your quadriceps are engaged. Hold a kettlebell or a dumbbell at the center of your chest. Keep your weight on the middle foot and rear heel.
  2. Inhale as you lower down on the standing leg, going as low as you possibly can whilst engaging your core to keep your torso straight. Pause for 2-3 seconds. 
  3. Exhale as you drive through your right heel back to the top position.
  4. Complete between 3-12 reps on one leg for 4 sets.

About the Author

My name is Pat Chadwick, I am a calisthenics coach with over 4 years of experience in helping people from all backgrounds to achieve their calisthenics goals. My goal is to become the number one calisthenics coach in the world as it is my passion to help people change their lives through inspiring bodyweight movements. I believe everyone deserves the right to feel good about their health, body, and be delighted inside and out.