The pistol squat, or one-legged squat, is a classic bodyweight skill display of leg and hip strength. When you are able to perform them, it means you have well balanced lower body strength, flexibility, and balance.
And it can feel so difficult the first time you try it that it seems either you can do it or you can’t.
Obviously there is a requisite level of strength as well as adequate ankle and hip flexibility to even get to the bottom position, especially when you achieve this with a proper upright posture.
Fortunately even though the pistol is a tough movement, that doesn’t mean it’s out of reach. We’ve created this comprehensive tutorial to 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 and consistent hard work, you’ll be able to achieve it much quicker than you might think.
Here’s Why the Pistol Squat is So Tough – and What You Can Do About It
The pistol squat involves extending one leg in front of you, sitting back and down into a squat, and then standing back up.
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 You Work On Pistol Squats…
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.
The basic bodyweight squat isn’t necessarily an “impressive” skill but it’s one of the most important exercises to spend a significant amount of time on.
Depending on your starting point, the basic squat might be quite challenging for you, in which case you should work on getting comfortable with that before moving on to single leg strength exercises like the pistol.
Once you’re comfortable with the basic squat, the pistol squat is a logical next step. Below I’ll share my favorite method for teaching this impressive single leg strength skill.
Build Your Pistol Squat in 7 Steps
The most common way for people to train for the pistol squat is by basically dropping down over and over with the hope that they will eventually learn to lower with control.
That method works for some people, but it also produces a lot of frustration.
My favorite method for teaching the pistol squat reverses the process, working from the bottom up. I’ll describe why I prefer this method below, but first, here’s how it works:
Here are the step-by-step instructions I show in the video above:
Pistol Squat Step 1 – Deep Squat
- 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.
Pistol Squat Step 2 – Lie Down
- Lie down with your feet about hip-width apart, bend your knees, then grab your ankles.
Pistol Squat Step 3 – Roll Up Into Squat
- Holding on to your ankles, roll your body up into a deep squat position.
- Work on this progression until you feel comfortable enough to move on.
Pistol Squat Step 4 – Extend One Leg
- Roll your body up into a squat position, but this time, keep one leg straight, and pop up very slightly with your bent leg.
Pistol Squat Step 5 – Pop Up to Standing
- Work on popping up a little higher each time you roll up, until you can pop up into a standing position.
Pistol Squat Step 6 – Go Back to the Top
- 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.
Pistol Squat Step 7 – Do a Full Pistol Squat
- Work on the previous 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:
Focus on the details and you’ll get much farther than if you skip them over.
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.
Build a Base for Single-Leg Training
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.
Of course, advanced skills such as the pistol or any other single leg exercises must first be built on a solid foundation.
If there are holes in your strength, flexibility, or balance, the pistol squat is not the first place to start. Our foundational program, Elements, was designed to help you build the base you need to move on to more challenging exercises.
Build a Foundation for More Complex Skills
Elements uses essential locomotive patterns to build strength, flexibility, and control, so that you can work on what you want down the line.
Don’t get discouraged if you can’t perform the pistol squat right away!
Remember that, like any complex skill, it just takes patience, proper instruction (like we’ve shown above), and a realistic path from where you are now to where you want to go.