Since we recently stepped into a new year some of you have maybe set a few personal fitness goals. And just maybe pistol squat is one of them. If you have already mastered the pistol squat and are still reading this – congratulations, you rock!
On the other hand, if you can’t do a pistol squat but you really want to master it stick around and keep on reading.
Pistol squat is the king of lower – body exercises and as such it is also one of the most challenging bodyweight leg exercises. It is a unilateral exercise (using each limb one at a time) that comes with great benefits.
Benefits of Pistol Squats
- Require no equipment (can be done anywhere)
- Improve balance, flexibility and mobility
- Increase lower body strength
- Help even out imbalances between two sides of the body
- Better coordination and endurance
- Makes you feel like a ninja
Here is what it looks like:
Before taking a closer look at how you can master pistol squats let’s see which muscles are involved when doing the said exercise. This way you can get a better idea what you need to focus on to progress with the pistol squats.
Like I mentioned before, pistol squats are a unilateral leg exercise meaning they primarily involve leg muscles, one leg at a time. Your gluteus, hamstrings, quadriceps and calves are working hard when you’re performing pistol squats.
Since you’re trying to balance your body on a rather narrow base of support your abdominals will work hard as well. To sum up, muscles worked during pistol squats are leg muscles + abdominals.
Easing Into It
Pistol squats are an advanced exercise which means you can’t just jump straight into it. Mastering this exercise will require a lot of hard work, patience, determination and persistence.
If you suffered a knee or hip injury in the past or are currently having problems with those areas, it would be best to avoid pistol squats. Otherwise, let’s look at how you can progress and, in the end, master pistol squats.
Before attempting to do a pistol squat make sure you can do at least 50 bodyweight squats, full range of motion. Once you’re able to do that start adding weight and lift heavier as you progress.
Other thing you should do is focus more on unilateral exercises. Unilateral or single-leg exercises help even out imbalances between two sides of the body. Furthermore, the strength you gain in unilateral training will transfer over to bilateral exercises.
I recommend you practice the following unilateral exercises:
- Bulgarian split squat
- Forward lunge
- Reverse lunge
- Elevated reverse lunge
- Step up
Practice these exercises until you’re ready to step it up then add weight as you feel more comfortable.
Working on Flexibility
One of the main problems people come across when trying to do pistol squats is flexibility. If you can’t do a full, ass to grass, squat without your heels lifting off the floor, you need to work on your flexibility.
To be specific your ankle and calves flexibility and mobility. If your calves are tight and your ankle range of movement is limited, chances are you’ll fall backwards on your butt when attempting pistol squats.
Even if you don’t fall back you’ll probably end up doing the exercises with a really bad form and increase your risk of injury.
I found 3 great articles about ankle dorsiflexion and how to improve it. If you have a problem in this area I definitely recommend you read through all of them.
- The Importance of Ankle Mobility and Dorsiflexion
- Seven Drills to Improve Dorsiflexion in the Ankle
- Ankle Mobility Exercises to Improve Dorsiflexion
Now we’re getting a little bit closer towards the end goal of mastering pistol squats. These progressive variations listed below are for you to try only if you’re able to do everything I mentioned so far.
The following will help you in coordination, balance and give you a rough idea what pistol squats feel like.
Box/Chair Pistol Squat
Bonus tips before beginning: you’ll be using a chair/box for this exercise so tip #1 is to firstly sit down and adjust your foot placement. Doing this will help your orientation and stop you from feeling like you’ll miss the chair.
So, sit down and get up like you normally would. Place your feet firmly on the ground when you stand up. This will be your starting position.
Tip #2 is to begin with a higher chair/box. If your box is high enough for you to perform this exercise comfortably and with perfect form you’ll progress quicker into a deeper box/chair pistol squat.
Biggest problem with advanced exercises like pistol squats is patience. Allow yourself to start from zero and build your way from there. The process will be much more enjoyable, easier and your chances of injuries are at the very minimum.
How to perform:
Begin by standing up straight, feet firmly placed on the ground and gaze in front of you. Lift one foot of the ground and extend it in front of you. Make sure your hips are squared and your core is engaged.
Extended your arms in front of you for counterbalance. Slowly lower your butt down to the chair. As you’re lowering down stick your butt out and allow the knee to go past your toes.
Whilst keeping one leg extended push through the heel of the working leg and lift up to starting position. You should feel this movement in your quadriceps and core the most.
Resistance Band/Assisted Pistol Squat
Another great progressive variation is the assisted pistol squat. For this exercise you can use a resistance band or your arms by holding onto something sturdy.
How to perform:
Wrap the resistance band around the object you’re using and stand firmly on the ground. Keep hold of the resistance band as you extend one leg in front and lower down to a squat.
Use the resistance band to help you get back up to starting position. Focus on doing most of the work with your leg and relying on the band only for the needed support/balance.
As you get stronger try this exercise by holding the band/object with one hand only.
Elevated Heels Pistol Squat
Remember the flexibility problem and ankle dorsiflexion I mentioned earlier in this post? Elevating your heel onto something sturdy decreases the ankle flexion angle needed for squatting all the way down.
I included this exercise as a progressive variation to help you improve ankle mobility and develop flexibility needed to master pistol squats.
How to perform:
Place a weight plate or a book under your heel and follow the same instructions as the previous exercises. Extend one leg and both arms out in front, stand tall and engage your core.
Slowly start to lower down. All the way down to a squat position. Hold it for a second then push through your heel to come back up.
Counterweight Pistol Squat
You might be thinking ‘adding weight to a pistol squat? You’ve got to be kidding me?’ but I kid you not. Adding weight can actually make it easier for you to do a pistol squat.
Holding the weight out in front of you keeps you balanced by pulling you forward. Begin by holding a 4.5 kg plate (around 10 lbs) and move on to lighter weight as your balance improves and you get stronger.
This is it, you’re ready to try your first pistol squat! I’m pretty sure you memorised the instructions by now but let’s repeat them once more.
Begin by standing firmly on the ground, keeping your spine straight and gaze out in front. Extend one leg forward and begin descending into a squat whilst keeping your core engaged.
Allow your arms to go out in front of you for improved balance. Hold the bottom position briefly then drive through your heel to come back up.
Congratulations, you did it! You probably feel like a ninja now, don’t you? (;
Feel free to include pistol squats in your workouts and work towards doing 3 – 4 sets of 8 – 10 quality reps.
Pro tip to master pistol squats: when you’re down in a squat, stay in that position for a second and then come up. A lot of people do pistol squats quickly to get the ‘bouncing off’ effect.
Holding the bottom position ensures that you’re using nothing but your strength when coming back up.
Remember that you need a lot of patience in order to master pistol squats. It might take you weeks, months or years before you’re able to do them. However, don’t give up. It’s such an incredible and rewarding feeling once you’re able to do what you once thought were impossible. Be patient, stay persistent and constantly put in the hard work! It will pay off.
Leave any questions, comments or suggestions down below! I wish you good luck and keep me updated with you pistol squats progress (: