Pistol Squats are an extremely challenging single-leg exercise that requires a great amount of strength and mobility. Most athletes will begin with an easier variation (squatting down to a box or bench) and then progress toward a full pistol squat.
In this guide I’m going to teach you how to do a pistol squat, a good progression to get you to your first pistol squat and some alternatives you can do in place of it.
How To Do a Pistol Squat
- 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 figuring 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.
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.
Pistol Squat Progression
If you can’t do a full Pistol Squat on air (yet!), here is a good progression to get you there.
Pistol Squat to a Bench
Use a weight bench to squat down to and sit on. Think of it like a single leg bodyweight box squat.
Make sure you’re a proper distance from the bench so you don’t squat down and miss the bench (I’ve seen it happen). Focus on pushing the hips back and slowly lowering yourself to the bench.
The goal is to be able to control your body all the way to the bench without ‘plopping down’ the last few inches. My favorite coaching cue is to treat the bench as if it’s made of glass. Sitting down too hard on the bench will cause it to break.
Once you get good at controlling yourself down to the bench, start standing on a weight plate. This will increase the range of motion and will be a little more challenging. Once you’ve mastered that you’re ready to move onto Single Leg Step Downs.
Single Leg Step Downs
For Single Leg Step Downs you’re now going to start by standing on the bench or a box. (A box is preferred because it’s a more stable surface than a cushioned bench)
Position the bench close to the rack so you can reach out and grab the rack to regain your balance should you lose it. Push your hips back and squat down, letting the opposite leg lift up and out in front of you.
Squat down to a full pistol squat and then drive yourself back up – using the rack to assist you where needed.
When you’re ready, start trying full Pistol Squats from the floor.
Band Assisted Pistol Squats
Here’s another alternative progression you can try if you don’t have a bench to squat down to or off of.
Loop a resistance band around the rack and then step into it and position the band just above your waist.
Now you can perform band-assisted pistol squats. Once you get good at using a thicker band you can progress to smaller and smaller bands until you’re able to do them without.
Muscles worked on a Pistol Squat are basically the same as any single leg movement – Quads, Glutes and Hamstrings.
Pistol Squat Alternatives
Most single-leg lower body movements can be used as alternatives, or substitutions, for Pistol Squats. (Check out my 10 favorite alternatives for Pistol Squats)
Having said that, considering Pistol Squats are a bodyweight movement that is a great strength and stability builder – I would strongly consider trying Pistol Squats even if you aren’t good at them at first. Start with a high box and sit down to the box and stand tall.
Step-Ups would be my first suggestion as an alternative for Pistol Squat. They can be done with a barbell, dumbbells or even body weight. They’re also simple, straightforward and easy for even beginners to pick up quickly.
Lunges is another single-leg movement (probably my favorite single-leg movement) that can replace Pistol Squats. Like Step-Ups, Lunges can be done with a barbell, dumbbells or even just with body weight.
Related –> How To Do DB Lunges
More Links and Info
Want even more lower-body exercises? Check out the Lower Body Lifts section of our Exercise Library. There you’ll find dozens of exercises, all with complete step-by-step instructions.