The pistol squat, or single-legged squat, is one of those exercises that people look at with utter amazement, just wishing they could do the same.
It’s a great demonstration of balance, coordination, flexibility, and strength. You need to have good ankle and hip flexibility to even get to the bottom position, especially when you achieve this with a proper upright posture.
Even though the pistol is a tough movement that requires a lot of strength and flexibility, that doesn’t mean it’s out of reach.
This tutorial will show you how to build the strength, balance, and mobility required to perform a perfect pistol squat. And you’ll find that, with our unique method of training the pistol, it’s not really as hard as it looks.
What Makes the Pistol So Tough?
Well, there are a few things.
Many people lack the core strength and flexibility needed to lower themselves fully into a deep squat with one leg extended – let alone stand back up with stability.
The primary reason so many people have issues with the pistol squat is they aren’t following the proper progressions to get there. They just try to jump right into it, and they might even give up before they’ve gotten anywhere.
Before jumping into an advanced move like the pistol squat, you need to work on building a strong foundation, focusing on basic movements before moving on to more advanced skills. And perhaps most foundational of all before working on a one leg squat is to make sure you have the mobility and correct performance of the two legged full squat.
(You can find the proper way to do the full bodyweight squat in this tutorial video. Get your regular full squat nice and solid and then you can move on to working on the pistol.)
Build Your Pistol Squat in 7 Steps
In this tutorial video, I’ll show you easy step-by-step instructions for working up to getting that not-so-elusive-after-all pistol squat:
The Key Progressions:
- Start by making sure you can get into a deep squat, bringing your butt close to your heels while keeping a straight back. Work on that until you are ready to move on to the next step.
- Lie down with your feet about hip-width apart and bend your knees.
- Hold on to your ankles and roll your body up into a deep squat position. Work on this progression until you feel comfortable enough to move on.
- Roll your body up into a squat position, but this time, keep one leg straight, and pop up very slightly with your bent leg.
- Work on popping up a little higher each time you roll up, until you can pop up into a standing position.
- Next, you’ll go in the opposite direction: Stand up and squat back, keeping one leg straight, and roll your body down to a supine position.
- Work on this progression until you can squat down with control, and stand back up with control.
When you break down the movements like this, you’ll be much more successful in the long run. By starting with a basic movement like the deep squat, you’ll build the strength and flexibility that will help you eventually achieve the one-legged squat.
If you’re doing it right, these progressions will take quite a bit of time, but don’t get frustrated. Be patient with yourself as you work your way toward a full pistol squat.
Why the “Bottoms-Up” Method?
When most people learn the pistol squat, it’s from a standing position. So why are we showing this from the “bottom up”?
Starting from the bottom and going up gives a better sense of the correct positioning at the bottom. This is key to getting the pistol, as you can waste quite a bit of energy if you are pushing through your body incorrectly. It’s also crucial to be comfortable in this position and to be able to pause and maintain balance and control.
It takes time, so beginning every rep in this bottom position will improve your form and strength at every session.
The pause at the bottom is great for correct form, but it also helps develop strength from a “dead stop,” as there’s no stretch reflex from dropping down fast from the top and “bouncing” off the bottom.
Doing that might help you to get the rep, but it won’t help you get as strong as doing it the right way.
Also, just as you improve your positioning by practicing at the bottom, you will learn to better recruit your hips this way. Conversely, when dropping down from the top and coming up again, there can be a tendency to emphasize the quadriceps and neglect the powerful glutes and hamstrings.
Whether or not you follow the bottom-up method, you have to be very aware of your form with the pistol squat. This video will offer further help with learning to do a pistol with proper form:
Pistol Squat FAQs
I know the pistol squat can seem daunting, and we get a lot of questions regarding the specifics of this skill. Below, I’ll address some of the most common questions, which will (hopefully) ease any concerns you may have.
Is it normal to feel a stretch in the front of the shins and front of the ankle? Is that a “part of the process” and will it go away after I become more flexible, or should I work on my flexibility first?
Yes, this position is, for many people, not a normal everyday posture to be in. So there is going to be a “breaking in” period where your body adapts to the movement.
This is normal and natural and also indicates that you don’t want to progress too fast or force yourself into positions you aren’t ready for. This is why we emphasize proper form and deliberately going through the steps we show. Nothing slows you down more than getting injured.
Will pistols improve my jumping?
Well, the ability to do pistol squats correctly will definitely make your legs stronger. But that may or may not improve your vertical jump. There are a lot of factors involved in jumping. Jumping is a whole body movement involving strength, timing, rate of force development, and other factors to improve height, speed, and accuracy.
My legs rotate out quite a bit at the hips and I also pronate (I’m flat footed). Is this going to make it really hard to be successful at the pistol?
It may make it harder, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t be able to do it. You’ll have to be more aware of your foot/ankle and knee positioning and work harder to keep the straight alignment between them. Doing this will get you in the best positioning for your muscle recruitment and power.
My knee travels forward of my toes, it’s just the way I’m built. Why would you emphasize keeping it back?
It isn’t because you’ll have a problem with the knees going over the toes. We aren’t perpetuating the myth that it will hurt your knees by doing that.
Rather, you’ll get a better pistol if you think of sitting back behind the foot rather than trying to lean forward.
It takes a lot of hip mobility to get the butt to the heel and the chest to the knee. So this improves your hip mobility and also creates a better angle for the use of your hip extensors (gluteals and hamstrings), which can create a lot more force than just your quadriceps.
I notice your low back is rounded at the bottom of the pistol squat. Isn’t it better to be neutral? Aren’t you going to hurt your back?
No. The back doesn’t need to be neutral. There’s no reason it would need to be, as it’s not bearing weight. It’s made to bend, and if you drop the hips low, most people will need to bend the spine.
Again our bodies are meant to move and have options for movement. Back flexion and extension in the full range without pain is exactly what we want to have.
Would I have to be much stronger in my (barbell) full squat to be able to do a pistol?
There’s no accurate approximation. Pistols require completely different balance and mobility than a barbell squat. It’s not a comparable skill. Just practice the pistol, and you can get one, regardless of what your barbell squat looks like.
How would I adjust these instructions to make it more explosive? I do Crossfit and one of the workouts is to do as many reps as you can for time.
The first thing is to make sure your pistol form is perfect. And I really do mean perfect. Adding explosive movement sounds nice, but if your regular pistol form is super-solid, you’ll be getting stronger as you practice.
Over time, you can bang them out more easily, and they take less time. Eventually, they will be so fast they are explosive.
Let explosiveness be a byproduct of great form and great strength – don’t chase it as a goal.
What muscles does the pistol squat work exactly?
It’s best not to think in terms of which muscles are worked. This isn’t a bodybuilding exercise – it’s a movement exercise. If you do it right, you’ll be using most of the large muscle groups together rather than targeting a specific muscle for hypertrophy.
Add Some Single-Leg Squatting To Your Routine
The pistol squat is a great bodyweight skill to have in your pocket.
It displays a very good level of hip and ankle flexibility as well as lower body strength, balance, and coordination. But it’s not the endpoint of leg training by any means. Once you are able to do the pistol comfortably, you should definitely move on to explore other leg exercises to improve your strength, flexibility, and balance skills.
Don’t get discouraged if you can’t perform a skill right away!
Follow proper instructions like we’ve shown here and put in good effort and time and you’ll achieve your goals.
If you’re having trouble getting into a deep squat, be sure to try out the pistol squat progression outlined in this post.
In fact, you can download a PDF and video of the progression here so you can print it out or take it with you on your mobile device next time you train.