What are Pistol Squats?
The pistol squat is an advanced lower body exercise that works on a single leg at a time. This will help build unilateral strength as you’ll be doing a full squat whilst standing on one leg. Pistol squats will test your balance, coordination, and strength. 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, while the secondary muscles worked are the abdominals and calves. The movement path of the pistol squat also engages your hip flexors.
What Level are Pistol Squats?
The pistol squat is an advanced-level exercise as you’ll be lowering your body into a squat whilst standing on one leg with your arms extended in front to counterbalance. This requires high-level balance and coordination, leg strength, and flexibility. It is highly recommended that you are able to do at least 15+ air squats comfortably for 2-3 sets before trying these exercises. You can learn how to execute air squats with proper form by checking out this air squats tutorial.
How To Do A Pistol Squat
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:
- Achilles stretch (20 seconds on each leg)
- Elevated Dorsiflexion Stretch (20 seconds on each leg)
Pistol Squat Progressions
I will show you three effective pistol squat progressions that you can practice today to develop the strength, balance, and coordination required for the pistol squat. 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 this routine at least twice a week for optimal progress.
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 squatting by holding onto a stable object in front for support. To perform this, you will:
- Stall tall with your feet shoulder-width apart, and feet slightly pointing outwards. This is your starting position.
- 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.
- Exhale as you push through your heels and return to starting position. Squeeze your glutes at the top position.
- Repeat this movement between 5-12 reps for 4 sets.
2. Pistol Box Squat
The pistol box squat has a reduced range of motion which will develop strength and endurance in the targeted muscles. Reduce the height of the box as you get stronger to increase the difficulty. To perform this, you will:
- Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart in front of an elevated object such as a chair or a plyometric box.
- 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.
- Exhale as your push back up through your heel back to the standing position. Squeeze your glutes and quads at the top.
- 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:
- Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart. On your side, grab a sturdy object such as a bar, a rail, or a table. You can also use the TRX or gymnastics rings for support.
- 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.
- Exhale and drive 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.
- Complete between 5-12 reps on one leg for 4 sets.
How To Do a Pistol Squat
Once you are able to complete the previous three progressions, 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Exhale as you drive through your right heel to ascend back to the standing position. Squeeze your quadriceps and glutes at the top.
- Complete between 3-10 reps on one leg for 4 sets.
Pistol Squat Benefits
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, and develop muscle mass, and connective tissue strength.
A 2021 study found a favorable result for a group undertaking unilateral strength exercise training, conjecturing that greater muscular activation of the calves and the vastus medialis was accompanied by the greater activity of stabilizer muscles. Reinforcing unilateral exercises will enhance sporting performance.
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.
According to Bodybuilding, unilateral training can transform your body, exercises like pistol squat not only isolate the glutes, quads, and hamstrings, but to execute them, you must balance on one leg throughout the movement.
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.
When you strengthen your weak side with unilateral training, you will certainly make gains in your traditional bilateral squats that work on both legs in a single time.
Pistol Squats Variations
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:
- 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
- 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.
- Exhale as you push through with your front heel back to the starting position.
- 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 center of your chest. To perform this, you will:
- 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.
- 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.
- Exhale as you drive through your right heel back to the top position.
- Complete between 3-12 reps on one leg for 4 sets.
The Takeaways: Single Leg Pistol Squat
Anything is possible with enough time and effort. You can go from not doing a single push-up to cranking out decline push-ups with your feet on an elevated surface (which is much harder!). There are many benefits to unilateral training which include strengthening the glutes, quads, hamstrings, hip flexors, inner thighs, calves, and core muscles through a full range of motion while developing balance and stability. You should definitely try pistol squats if air squats are too easy for you.
If you’d like to learn more about unilateral exercises for the lower body, I highly recommend you check out these two articles:
All Lower Body Exercises
I’m Pat Chadwick, a qualified Level 2 and Level 3 calisthenics coach and athlete from London, England, with six years of experience. I’ve competed in various UK competitions, including the Kalos Stenos Championships, where I achieved third place in the lightweight category. My passion is highlighting the beauty of calisthenics as an authentic and pure form of body expression. I believe that everyone has the potential to become a champion of their body and mind, and that calisthenics opens the door to personal empowerment.