When it comes to single-leg exercises, Pistol Squats and Bulgarian Split Squats are two of the most effective and challenging movements to add to your workout routine. Both exercises require balance, stability and strength. They also target basically the same muscle groups in the quads, hamstrings, and glutes.
Pistol Squats are a one-legged squat, where the non-working leg is extended in front of you while you lower your body on one leg until your glutes essentially touch your heel, then stand back up.
Bulgarian Split Squats, on the other hand, are performed by stepping one foot forward while keeping the other foot elevated behind you on a bench or box. From there, you lower your back knee until it almost touches the ground, then drive back up.
While both exercises are effective, they have distinct differences. In this article, I’ll compare Pistol Squats and Bulgarian Split Squats, exploring their advantages and disadvantages to help you decide which exercise is best suited for your training goals.
- None (If doing a modified Pistol Squat a box or bench to squat to will be needed)
- Stand on one leg with the opposite leg straight and slightly out in front of the body.
- Squat down on the single leg by hinging back at the hips first and then bending the knee and hips until the crease of the hip crosses below the knee.
- Keep the heel flat and your weight distributed between your heel and mid-foot.
- Keep your torso as vertical as possible while maintaining balance and a flat foot.
- The opposite leg should stay straight and extend out in front of you as you squat down (tight hamstrings will make this almost impossible!)
- Once you reach the bottom of the squat, drive the foot through the floor and stand tall.
- Instructions are the same as above, except the athlete will squat down to a box (or bench) instead of freely in an open space.
- Make sure the foot is close enough to the box so that the box is not missed when squatting down to touch it. (I’ve seen it happen)
- Control the descent to the box and sit as softly as possible. A light touch-and-go is ideal if possible. My favorite cue for this was to “treat the box like a glass coffee table.”
If you’re not able to do a Pistol Squat the first time trying, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Most athletes I’ve worked with have to start by using a bench for pistol squats. The first thing you need to do to start progressing is to figure out where your real weakness is: strength or flexibility.
Some lifters simply don’t possess the strength at first to perform a full pistol squat on air. On the other hand, many of the athletes I’ve coached actually have the strength to do a pistol squat, but they lack the mobility to be able to go through the full range of motion without falling or their opposite foot crashing into the ground.
Figuring out where to focus your energy is the first step toward improving your Pistol Squat.
If you’d like some Pistol Squat alternatives, here are 10 Pistol Squat alternatives that will develop single-leg strength.
Some potential benefits of pistol squats include:
- Improved balance and stability: Because Pistol Squats require you to balance on one leg, they can improve your balance and stability.
- Increased lower body strength: Pistol squats work all the muscle groups of the legs, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes.
- Improved flexibility: Pistol squats require a good range of motion in the ankles, knees, and hips. Doing this exercise can help to improve the flexibility of these joints.
- Enhanced core strength: Pistol squats require you to engage your core muscles to maintain balance and stability. As a result, they can help to improve the strength of your core muscles, including the muscles of the abdomen and lower back.
Bulgarian Split Squats
- Bench, Box or Stack of Bumper Plates (essentially anything stable enough and tall enough to place your foot on)
- Grab two dumbbells, one in each hand
- Get set up in front of your bench, reach one foot back and place it on the bench. Make sure you feel comfortable and balanced before proceeding.
- Squeeze the shoulder blades and engage the lats to create a stable back to help with bracing the upper body and to keep the dumbbells from swinging unnecessarily.
- Keep the chest as upright as possible and drop the back knee to roughly one inch from the floor.
- Now drive through the heel and midfoot of the front foot to drive yourself back up tall.
- Repeat until all reps are completed on that leg and then switch sides.
Coaching Points (Fixes to Common Mistakes)
When you step out, make sure to keep the feet shoulder-width apart. If you’re feeling very off-balance in your set up there is a good chance that you are placing the lead foot directly in front of the back foot (essentially placing yourself on a tight rope).
Keep the front foot flat on the floor when in the lunge position. One of the most common mistakes is raising up onto the ball of the front foot. One of the reasons for this is often the next most common mistake that I see with Dumbbell RFE Lunges…
Make sure to take a big enough step. Often times I see athletes give themselves way too little distance from the bench. This leads to lunge being extremely cramped and can lead to a whole host of other issues (like coming up on the ball of the foot as mentioned above).
Benefits of Bulgarian Split Squats
Single Leg Movements like Bulgarian Split Squats are an extremely important addition to any athlete’s workout regimen, regardless of sport.
Many (if not most) athletic movements are often done on one leg. This includes sprinting, jumping and cutting.
Single Leg Exercises help improve leg strength, balance, stability and also show any strength imbalances the lifter may have from one side to the other. Single Leg Exercises can also be part of the solution if and when an asymmetry is found.
Pistol Squat vs Bulgarian Split Squat: Which is Better?
Now, let’s take a look at the two exercises side-by-side to see if one is better than the other for some common lifting goals.
Better For Developing Strength: Toss Up
This is almost impossible to say.
Part of me wants to say Bulgarian Split Squat because the ability to increase the amount of resistance (weight) used is much easier. Pistol Squat lends itself better as a bodyweight exercise (although you can absolutely do them weighted).
However, for most people, developing enough strength to do one true Pistol Squat (let alone a set) is a tremendous accomplishment. And, if necessary, it is possible to hold a weight (or even a barbell like a Back Squat) to increase the difficulty.
Ultimately, I would suggest incorporating both into your workouts. Having both will challenge your body with different stimuli and having both will help add variety and keep your strength program from getting stale.
Better For Beginners: Toss Up
I think both exercises can be safe and effective for beginners to utilize in their training early on in the process.
If doing Pistol Squats, I would suggest starting off with doing Pistol Squats down to a bench as described above in the Pistol Squat instructions. This is the safest way to introduce the exercise to a beginner and the best way to allow them to start to develop single-leg strength.
If starting with Bulgarian Split Squats, I would suggest starting with just bodyweight (no additional dumbbells or barbell) and a low box or even plate to set the back foot up on.
This way a beginner can begin working on balance, coordination and strength. Once they become comfortable and proficient with the movement then weight and/or a more elevated bench can be used.
I’ve just spent the last section of this guide discussing which is better – Pistol Squats or Bulgarian Split Squats. But, as I mentioned previously, there is no reason (assuming you have the necessary equipment) that you shouldn’t have both exercises in your strength training program.
Both exercises are excellent single-leg movements that will develop not only strength but balance, coordination and mobility as well. It’s one of the reasons why Pistol Squats are one of my favorite Bulgarian Split Squat alternatives.
So, instead of trying to decide between these two exercises, figure out a way to incorporate both Pistol Squats and Bulgarian Split Squats.