If you take a moment to look at most lower body strength training exercises, you’ll quickly see they have something in common: they work both legs at the same time. Fitness experts call these bilateral exercises.
Bilateral exercises, such as squats, deadlifts, leg extensions, leg curls, and leg presses, are relatively straightforward to perform and great for building muscle size, strength, and endurance. Most are also good for your joints.
However, as useful as bilateral exercises are, they are not always the most functional. After all, when was the last time you laid on your back and pushed a heavyweight up with your legs (leg press), or laid on your front to lift a weight by bending your knees (leg curls)?
The law of exercise specificity states that you are fit for the type of training you do. So, if all you do is bilateral exercises, you won’t develop much unilateral strength. Lunges and step-ups are useful unilateral leg exercises, but there is another exercise you can use to develop single-leg strength, and it’s called the pistol squat.
This article explains how to pistol squat and why it’s time to add this unilateral leg exercise to your training regimen.
What Is a Pistol Squat?
A pistol squat is a single leg squat that can be done using just bodyweight or with weights. However, for most people, the bodyweight version is more than challenging enough.
As a unilateral exercise, it has several advantages and benefits over bilateral exercises like regular squats, including:
Increased functional strength – pistol squats have a significant carry over to many everyday activities, like walking and running, and increasing sports performance. If you want to run faster or jump higher, pistols can help.
Increased balance – balance is your ability to keep your center of mass over your base of support. Single leg exercises like pistols require and develop your balance. Balance declines with age and poor balance is a leading cause of falls in the elderly. Better balance will also boost athleticism.
Identify and fix left to right strength imbalances – most people have one leg stronger than the other. While such imbalances are normal, poor posture and injury can be the result if they are too pronounced. Pistol squats can reveal and then fix these imbalances.
Increased mobility and flexibility – pistol squats require and develop good joint mobility and muscle flexibility. In fact, pistols are as much a gymnastic move as they are a strength training exercise. Think of pistols as a leg exercise that would not look out of place in a yoga class!
Convenience – pistols require little in the way of exercise equipment, making them ideal for home workouts.
Safety – you don’t need a lot of weight to make pistols effective. This means no heavy barbells on your back. Because of this, pistol squats involve very little spinal compression, which makes them potentially safer than heavy back squats and other loaded exercises.
What Muscles Do Pistol Squats Work?
Pistol squats are a compound leg exercise. That means they involve several joints and many muscles working at the same time.
In fact, pistols work virtually every muscle in your lower body, providing a comprehensive and time-efficient leg workout. That said, the main muscles trained during pistol squats are:
Quadriceps – located on the front of your thighs, and known as the quads for short, this group of four muscles extends your knee and flexes your hip. The four quadriceps muscles are vastus lateralis, vastus intermedius, vastus lateralis, and rectus femoris.
Hamstrings – made up of three muscles, the hamstrings flex your knee and extend your hip. Located on the back of your thigh, the hamstrings are the biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus.
Adductors – located on the inside of your thigh, the adductors draw your thighs in toward the midline of your body. The three adductors are longus, brevis, and magnus.
Abductors – the abductors lift your legs out and away from the midline of your body. The main adductors are the gluteus minimus, gluteus medius, and the tensor fascia latae, or TFL for short. These muscles are located on the outside of your hips and thighs.
Gluteus maximus – known as your glutes for short, the is the largest muscle in the human body. Its primary role is hip extension.
How to Pistol Squat
The best way to get the most from any exercise is to do it correctly. This will not only produce the best possible results but will also decrease your risk of injury. Follow this step-by-step guide to doing pistols.
- Stand with your feet together and your arms by your sides. Look straight ahead and adopt a tall posture.
- Extend one leg out in front of you. Keep it straight and hold your heel a few inches off the floor. Raise your arms, so they’re level with the floor.
- Maintaining a tight core, bend your supporting leg and squat down as far as you can. Keep your other leg out in front of you, and do not allow it to touch the floor.
- Drive your foot into the floor and stand up. Keep your non-weight-bearing leg out in front of you. Do another rep on the same leg or switch legs as preferred.
Pistol Squat Variations and Alternatives
As good as pistols are, they ARE a challenging exercise to master. Also, you’ll soon get bored of them if they’re the only leg exercise you do. Here are some variations and alternatives you can use to become a pistol-master and liven up your workouts.
Air squats – if it’s been a while since you trained your legs, you may not be ready to even try pistols, let alone pull one off successfully. Build up some basic leg strength with air squats. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart, toes turned slightly out. Push your hips back, bend your knees, and squat down as far as you can without rounding your lower back or lifting your heels off the floor. Stand back up and repeat.
Box pistol squats – pistol squats are traditionally done all the way down until your hamstrings touch your calves. This large range of motion is part of what makes this exercise so hard. With box pistols, you squat down to a knee-high seat or box.
This gives you a target to aim for and reduces your range of motion, making them considerably easier. Move to a lower box as your strength, balance, and mobility improves.
Band-assisted pistol squats – this variation takes some of the stress off your leg, making pistols a little easier. Simply attach a belt or strap to a waist-high anchor and hold it in your outstretched hands. Do your pistol squats as usual but use your arms to maintain your balance and provide additional assistance. Gradually wean yourself off the strap as you get stronger.
While this will put more load on your leg, holding a weight often makes balancing easier. Start with a weight equal to about 10% of your body weight.
Do you have questions about pistol squats? We’ve got answers! Check out these FAQs for even more information about pistol squats.
Can everyone do a pistol squat?
While the pistol squat is not the hardest exercise in the world, it IS very challenging. In fact, it’s such a tough exercise that some people may never be able to do it. If you are very heavy or have poor mobility or flexibility, pistol squats could be beyond you.
That said, losing weight and stretching more will increase your chances of doing pistols, and you should also follow a progressive plan, starting with air squats followed by box and assisted pistols, to build up to doing full pistol squats unaided.
How hard is it to do a pistol squat?
The honest answer is pretty darn hard! Even if you can squat 300lbs, that’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to do a single pistol squat. Pistols require a high degree of balance, mobility, coordination, and strength.
While these are trainable fitness components, even very fit people may have a deficiency that makes pistols very hard to do.
That said, there is no way to know if you’ll be able to do pistols unless you try, and the very fact that they are so demanding is why they’re such a useful exercise.
Are Pistol Squats bad for the knees?
Done correctly, pistols are no worse for your knees than barbell squats, lunges, leg presses, or any other leg exercise. Most pistol knee problems come from going deeper than your knee health allows, descending too fast and bouncing up, and unstable, wobbly knees leading to issues of balance.
Providing you do them correctly, progress gradually, and don’t abuse this demanding exercise, it’s no worse for your knees than all the other compound leg exercises.
Single leg exercises can be very beneficial. They train your body as it works in nature – one limb at a time. As such, unilateral leg exercises like pistols can have a significant impact on your performance, both in and out of the gym.
As an added benefit, pistols (like push-ups and pull-ups) are an excuse-free exercise as you don’t need any equipment to do them so that you can work out anywhere and anytime. The main disadvantage of pistol squats is that they are hard to learn and master.
That’s true even if you are a strong and experienced exerciser. But, with practice and perseverance, most people can develop the strength needed to do box or assisted pistols, even if they can’t pull of the full movement.
Build the lower body of your dreams, one leg at a time, with pistol squats!