The Complete Guide to the Pistol Squat (Benefits, Proper Form and Muscles Worked)

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July 22, 2022

What is a Pistol squat?

The Pistol Squat is a single-legged squat. It is performed with one leg while the other leg is extended forward without touching the ground during the movement.

An exercise that not only requires unilateral strength (balanced amounts of strength between the two sides of the body) but also balance, coordination and mobility mainly in the hip, knee, and ankle.

Let’s dive into more details on the pistol squat.

Benefits of the Pistol squat

Great movement quality assessment

When performed with proper technique, the pistol squat is a great exercise to assess the quality of movement between the two sides of the body. If one side of the body has a mobility or strength issue, the pistol squat will show it and will help you build unilateral strength.

Builds ankle strength and mobility

This type of squat requires great ankle flexibility in order to get into a deep squat position without your heels coming off the ground. By performing the pistol squat the ankles will develop mobility, while the calves build both flexibility and strength.

However, most people will probably need to build through exercise regressions in order to achieve full depth and achieve those benefits.

Improves balance, coordination, and proprioception

Standing on one leg requires balance. Performing a squat with one leg requires even more balance.

The pistol squat is an amazing exercise with a huge carryover to everyday life as well as sports such as tennis, football, and basketball. This is mainly because both our lives and sports are basically unilateral movements that require a mix of balance, coordination, and proprioception (running, carrying a bag of groceries on one side, walking on an off-road trail, performing a lay-up while playing basketball).

It is important to coordinate our different body parts to efficiently work together with harmony (coordination) while being aware of our own movements and position (proprioception).

Builds muscle in a functional way

Muscle is not only built by lifting weights. Instead, bodyweight movements have been proven to be more important than weightlifting. Performing a bodyweight squat may become very easy as you become better, limiting the stimulus for muscle hypertrophy. However, the pistol squat is such an advanced exercise that will help you build muscle for a much longer time.

Muscles Worked by the Pistol squat

The pistol squat is a lower-body exercise that works nearly every muscle in the leg and hip while engaging the core as well. Below is a list of the muscles worked with the pistol squat:

Glutes: The main hip extension and hip stabilization muscles in the body.

Quads: The main knee extension muscle, performs hip flexion as well (during the pistol squat, the non-working leg is also activating the quad to prevent the leg from hitting the ground).

Hamstrings: An important hip extension muscle that helps drive your body up when standing up from a squat, while also aiding in knee stability.

Calves: The calf helps with body balance while keeping the knee stable during the squat.

Hip adductors: These muscles work to help your hip and knee be safe and balanced.

How to Perform the Pistol Squat with Perfect Form (Step-By-Step Guide)

To perform the pistol squat the right way:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes pointed forward.
  2. Raise your arms straight in front of you at shoulder height.
  3. Engage your core and slowly lift the non-working leg straight so that it won’t touch the ground while performing the squat with one foot.
  4. Push your hips back and lower yourself into a squat while maintaining an upright torso. Make sure your heel does not come off the ground.
  5. When you are at the deepest possible position (without your back arching or your heel coming off the ground), push the ground with your working leg and extend your hips and knee to a standing position.

Pistol Squat Progression

The pistol squat requires tremendous leg strength and mobility. When starting out, most people won’t be able to perform a full pistol squat with proper form. Thus, I have listed some pistol squat regression exercises in order to help you achieve your first pistol squat safely.

Air Squat: First and foremost, you’ll need to master the air squat. I’m sure you are able to perform a lot of them, but you have to make sure that your form is almost perfect in order to be able to safely progress. Take a picture of yourself at the bottom position. Do you hit full range of motion? Is your torso upright? Do you have the ankle mobility to get your knees over your toes without your heel coming off the ground?

Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift: This exercise will help you build posterior chain strength while also working your single-leg balance.

Bulgarian Split Squat: The Bulgarian Split Squat is a unilateral movement. It starts looking more like a pistol squat than an air squat. The back leg is elevated and helps you balance your body while the front leg is the working leg. This is a great exercise to assess muscle imbalances and build single-leg strength.

Elevated Pistol Squat: This exercise will help you get a feeling of how the pistol squat is performed. The working leg is standing on a box or a bunch of plates. The best way to progress is to start with a low height to take some of the range of motion away and build up to a height that allows you to go through all the range of motion without the non-working leg touching the ground. Next, start removing the elevation off the exercise, and try to lift your non-working leg forward so that it won’t touch the ground. As you get closer to the floor it will become harder and harder to maintain it off the ground.

Box Assisted Pistol Squat: Now that you have built your way down to the ground, start performing pistol squat with a bunch of plates or a box behind your back. Begin with a higher box and perform the pistol squat until your butt touches the box. Slowly remove the height until you are able to complete a full pistol squat.

Goblet Pistol Squat: It may sound weird that a weighted pistol squat is a regression exercise of the common pistol squat. However, holding a light plate or kettlebell slightly in front of you at shoulder height will help you maintain balance and an upright torso.

Common Pistol squat Mistakes

Are Pistol Squats Bad? You’ve probably heard someone say that he has hurt himself doing pistol squats. This is most likely a case of someone who either did not work through progressing from the exercises mentioned above or did not have the ability to perform a good pistol squat either due to limitations in single-leg strength or joint mobility, mainly at the hip or ankle.

Below I have listed some of the most common mistakes that happen during a pistol squat. Make sure to avoid them.

Mistake #1: Heel coming off the ground

This is a common mistake that happens to people with limited ankle mobility. By lifting your heel off the ground you put tremendous stress on the knee joint possibly hurting it, either acutely or in the long term. Working on your ankle mobility and your knee tracking over your toe will definitely help.

Mistake #2: Leaning too far forward

By leaning forward you’re taking some work off your leg and putting it on your hips and lower back. It won’t necessarily hurt you, but it does take away many of the benefits of the exercise. Try performing the Goblet Pistol Squat, it will help you maintain an upright torso.

Mistake #3: Bouncing your way up

As expected, the most difficult position of the pistol squat is the bottom position. That’s why many people can’t perform a pistol squat with a slow tempo or a full pause at the bottom. Instead, they’ll hit the bottom hard and bounce their way up. This puts more stress on your joints, mainly the knees, and will not provide you with the benefits of performing the pistol squat in a slow and controlled fashion.

Mistake #4: Stopping halfway

This mistake is made by people who suffer from mobility and strength issues. They’ll stop the movement when the hip is slightly higher than the knee and stand back up, leaving many benefits on the table.

Mistake #5: Progressing too quickly

The pistol squat is a demanding exercise. Take your time to work on the regressions and do not rush to achieve a pistol squat. Work on maintaining proper form and making the most out of the regressions before moving on to the full pistol squat.

Tips to improve your Pistol squats

Below I’ve listed some ways that will help you improve your pistol squat form and progress without injuring yourself on the way.

Tip #1: Warm-up properly

The warm-up is an integral part of every workout session. Thoroughly warming up:

  • It helps you bulletproof your body against injuries.
  • Improves flexibility and mobility so that you can achieve a better range of motion and proper form.
  • An exercise performed with a warmed-up body provides more benefits than if performed without a warm-up prior to it.
  • Warming up also improves overall performance.

To warm up properly for the pistol squat, I recommend:

  1. 5:00 of foam rolling (calves, shins, quads, hamstrings, hips, glutes, adductors, and lower back)
  2. 5:00 of easy cardio (bike, running, rowing)
  3. Activation exercises:
    1. 3×15 Banded Glute Bridges + 3x(8+8) Single Leg Glute Bridges
    2. 3×15 Jump Squats
    3. 3×20 Alternating L-Sit Raises (floor)
    4. 3×30” Deep Goblet Squat Hold

Tip #2: Work on your ankle mobility

Anke mobility is the most common limiting factor for properly performing the pistol squat. It also benefits most lower body exercises while helping you prevent knee and hip injuries.

Tip #3: Take your time working on the regression exercises

I highly recommend spending enough time working on the easier pistol squat exercises. That way you will prepare your body the correct way before attempting a pistol squat, while also making your body bulletproof against injuries. When you’re able to perform the pistol squat you will notice that you will progress much faster because your body is already familiar with the movement.

Pistol squat Variations

If you are able to perform the pistol squat with proper form, you may want to spice things up a little bit and try some variations. However, don’t forget to warm up properly before, and don’t rush if you still need time to work on your technique.

Pistol Squat Rollout: This exercise will have you descend into a deep squat position, then roll down on the ground and roll back up with a pistol squat.

Pausing Pistol Squat: This exercise will help you build strength and improve balance in the deep squat position

Hawaiian Pistol Squat: This variation demands more balance and hip mobility on the non-working leg.

Floor Pistol Squat: When full depth is achieved, sit on the floor and try to stand back up by doing a pistol squat.

Prisoner Pistol Squat: The Prisoner position is performed with your hands behind your head. That way you do not have the balance benefit of your arms.

Front Rack Barbell Pistol Squat: Hold a barbell the same way as if you were to do front squats.

Overhead Pistol Squat: Hold a barbell as if you were to do overhead squats. This is one of the most difficult pistol squat variations

Pistol squat Alternatives

Here are some pistol squat alternatives that you may want to try out as well if you want to build unilateral leg strength.

Split Squat: A type of lunge that has your feet stay planted during the whole set of reps.

Box Step-up: Step up on a box, either using your bodyweight or a pair of dumbbells/kettlebells.

Walking Lunges: Make steps forward, getting into a lunge in each step.

Bulgarian Split Squat: A split squat performed with the back leg elevated.

Equipment needed (if any)

The full pistol squat may not need any equipment for it to be performed. However, here are some tools that may help you along the way.

  • Box or plates
  • Weight for counterbalance (dumbbell, kettlebell, plate, etc.)
  • TRX or rings for support

Pistol squat FAQs

Is the pistol squat a bad exercise?

If performed correctly, the pistol squat will build unilateral leg strength, coordination, balance, and proprioception. However, there is some risk involved when not performed with proper form.

Who is the pistol squat for?

The pistol squat can be a part of any lower body training plan. Sports athletes can also benefit from increased performance by doing pistol squats.

What should I do if I can’t do a pistol squat?

Work on the easier regression exercises before attempting a pistol squat.

Is the pistol squat better than a back squat?

Both have tremendous benefits. The back squat builds more core and absolute strength while the pistol squat improves unilateral strength, balance, and mobility.

About Damect Dominguez

Co-founder of BoxLife Magazine. Author: Training Day: 400+ Workouts to Incorporate in Your Training.