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Bodyweight exercises should be easy, right? That may be right for some, but when it comes to a skill like a pistol squat, they can be highly challenging.
If you have seen someone perform a pistol squat in the gym, you’ve seen some looks of amazement from the people watching.
It’s an exercise that is certainly a head-turner, but be careful before you jump into attempting one of these because it looks cool. Pistol squats are a fantastic unilateral exercise, but they can be tricky if you don’t have the necessary mobility in your lower body. Skill exercises require a different approach and must use the correct progressions to ensure you can do the move safely.
Lucky for you, we will go over how to do the pistol squat today. Here is what the article will cover:
The pistol squat is an advanced single-leg squat using only your body weight. Using your power and control, you’ll lift one leg and keep it in the air while you squat down on the other leg until your hamstring covers your calf and the other leg is straight out in front of you. This requires extreme full-body control, and the exercise will highlight any imbalance in your hip, knee, and ankle joints.
Since it is so challenging and has some mobility requirements, it is often difficult for someone to jump right into doing full pistol squats. Many modifications and progressions of this exercise allow people to start at whatever level they need to and improve from there until they can perform a pistol squat.
Bodyweight skill exercises like the pistol squat will challenge a gym goer to use progressive overload with their practice and not simply add weight each week. This can feel defeating, but nothing sweeter than the first time you execute a proper pistol squat, and everyone in the gym looks at you in amazement.
Okay, so you just saw someone bust out a few pistol squats in the gym, and you feel like you want to try it. That’s awesome! But there are a few things you need to think about before trying the regular pistol squat.
The first question you need to ask yourself is, have you been doing any single-leg training? This can refer to step-ups, lunges, split squats, and many other exercises. If the answer is no, chances are you are a newer lifter, and you should start with some of those foundational exercises before attempting the pistol squat. You need to develop strength using unilateral exercises first because even though it’s a bodyweight exercise, the pistol squat is very advanced.
The second thing you should consider is asking yourself how your body feels. What we mean by that is, do you have healthy and mobile joints? The pistol squat will highlight any imbalances, tightness, or weakness in the hip, knee, and ankle joints. If your ankle is too tight, your heel is going to come off the floor and won’t be able to support your body. If you have achy knees, this exercise is a lot of stress on that joint since it’s supporting your entire body weight. If you have tight hips that don’t move very well, using your glutes to stand up from the bottom of the squat will be challenging.
We don’t want to scare you away from the pistol squat, but you should know that this move isn’t for everyone. If you have pain or past injuries that affect these joints, you probably have better options. Having said that, the cool thing about this exercise is that if you want to learn and conquer it, there are starting points for everyone. You can practice the pistol squat with modified versions, and as you can stronger, you can move to the following progressions until your pistol squatting.
We will go more in-depth on other modifications and progressions, but for this portion, we will highlight the end goal, the bodyweight pistol squat. It is an advanced exercise with several vital details, so follow these guidelines to conquer a full pistol squat.
Pistol squat practice can alleviate some of these common mistakes we see people often committing.
The most common mistake is when people try to jump right into the pistol squat if they aren’t ready. As we discussed earlier, you must consider a few things before trying this exercise. If you aren’t doing single-leg training, start with some foundational exercises to build strength. Or, you may need to work on ankle mobility and hip mobility so your body will grant you the range of motion required to do the exercise. Once you’ve done those, you may have more success starting with an assisted pistol squat before jumping off the cliff and diving into the advanced version.
At the bottom of the pistol squat, your heel will tend to come off the ground if you have poor ankle mobility. You need adequate dorsiflexion so your body can sit back into your heels and achieve the bottom range of motion. This can be as simple as standing or seated calf raises to build strength and stretch the ankle. A proper warmup with ankle stretches will also help loosen the areas before trying this movement.
It’s essential to keep an upright posture with your arms straight out in front of you so you can use your glutes to stand up from the bottom of the squat. If you find your back arching and falling forward during the ascent portion, you need to strengthen your core or glutes to make sure you can maintain an upright torso.
When performing this exercise, you must ensure your knee, hip, and ankle stay in line with each other. Focus on a slow descent and keep these things in line, or your body will fall into its imbalances. If you feel your knee caving in during the squat, your hips will shoot out the other way, and you’ll find your body twisting through the movement.
Sometimes beginners are so excited to achieve their first pistol squat rep that they fall to the bottom range of motion. Make sure to slow down, control the negative, and protect your joints during the eccentric portion of the movement.
If you find yourself only squatting halfway down, try assisted pistol squat variations first to build strength in the range of motion that needs to be built up first. Once you’ve done that, stick to the same rule of moving slowly the entire way down and controlling the movement to ensure you aren’t falling to the bottom.
Pistol squats require multiple muscle groups to work in unison in order to properly perform them. Below we cover the main muscles that are engaged when doing pistol squats.
Pistol squats are one of the harder leg bodyweight exercises to execute but they come with some amazing benefits. Below we cover some of the upsides of learning the pistol squat and incorporating it into your workout regimen.
Every person has a dominant side, and things will never be perfectly symmetrical and balanced regarding strength and aesthetics. It’s still extremely important to perform unilateral exercises to balance this out as much as possible, or you will likely have injuries down the road. Chances are you likely lean and favor one side most of the time. Try to notice how you stand throughout the day even. The pistol squat helps strengthen all the stabilizer muscles, which will help improve your balance as well.
It may not seem like it, but most of the movements you do in your everyday life and certainly in your sport are performed on one leg. Walking is our most common activity, and if there are imbalances in one side of your body, they will only be reinforced with every step you take every single day. Mobile hips, ankles, and strong stabilizer muscles will help build strength and balance, so your body can handle whatever movements you repeatedly ask it to perform.
Since you ask your body to handle your entire body weight on one leg, you will seriously increase the strength of the lower body muscles. With progressive overload, a stronger muscle will almost always be a bigger muscle. Keep in mind mobility is a form of strength as well, and if you can move better, you can handle more weight and get stronger, especially if you can progress to weighted pistol squats.
Don’t let the look of a pistol squat scare you away. Yes, it can appear intimidating, but the cool thing about bodyweight skill work like this exercise is that it’s straightforward to scale it to your starting level. Whether you need to address ankle mobility or increase strength at a specific range of motion, there is a progression for everyone.
This isn’t the end all be all when deciding what exercise to do, but we would be lying if we didn’t say that pistol squats are just downright cool. There is a serious sense of accomplishment when you practice and practice and are finally able to nail that first rep in a crowded gym. It’s less popular than the bench press, but sometimes that’s why it’s much more impressive to see someone do it.
Now that went over the good aspects of pistol squats we also wanted to cover some of the drawbacks as well.
1. They will humble you
The pistol squat isn’t something you can’t just “out tough.” What we mean by that is sometimes it’s not a matter of will. It can be difficult if you don’t know why you can’t perform a pistol squat and have no idea where to begin. It can also be humbling if you are a reasonably strong lifter but are surprised when you can’t do this exercise. Follow the progressions and attack your weak points, and you’ll be well on your way to knocking these out if you have some patience and discipline.
2. Stress on joints
This movement can put double the stress on the knee joint, and even if you are in great shape, some people’s bodies will not like this movement. Especially if you have poor mobility in other areas, it may be too risky to try this movement. As always, there is no need to be married to a single exercise, and if this one is causing you pain, stick to other single-leg exercises.
3. It doesn’t happen overnight
Any skill exercise will take some time to perform the final pistol squat progression. It can be frustrating to feel like your progress is stalling or that you will never be able to do it. Keep it fun, and remember that this can be a playtime portion of your workout.
If you can't do a pistol squat properly don't fret as we've covered some simpler versions below that will help you make progress in some common weak areas many people have when attempting pistol squats.
If you need some extra balance as you are learning the pistol squat, using the TRX straps or rings to have something to hold onto is a great option. The straps allow you to use them as much as you need to or as little as you need to as you get stronger.
This variation is the next step in performing this movement without the assistance of the rings. The box allows you to sit to the necessary depth, and keeping your other leg down will provide extra stability until you are ready to lift it.
It’s time to practice balancing on one leg at a time. The chair will still be there for you to achieve proper depth and provide some stability, but now one leg is doing all of the work.
Once you remove the box, you will have much less stability at the bottom portion of the squat. If you aren’t quite able to stand up yet, this negative version allows you to strengthen the eccentric on one leg and use both legs to stand up from the bottom until you build more strength.
Congrats, you are almost able to knock out a bodyweight pistol squat! This counterweight reach will help balance the bottom portion of the rep.
Once you've mastered the pistol squat there are a few ways you can turn up the intensity to give yourself more challenges. Try these two pistol squat progressions if you're up for it.
Slowing down your tempo is an easy way to make the pistol squat more difficult without adding weight. This requires more body control and time under tension, which will provide a serious challenge. Think 3-5 seconds down and 3-5 seconds up.
This is another way to manipulate your time under tension. Pausing will also help you build strength at your weakest points during the lift. Identify which part of the squat is the hardest and make that your pause point. It can be on the way down or on the way up.
When you finally have been pumping out a few bodyweight pistol squat reps, it’s time to add some resistance to the movement. This won’t be the same weight as your bilateral goblet squat, so start light and build from there. You can use a dumbbell or even a weight plate to start.
Using the kettlebell allows you to hold the weight in a different position. The single rack position helps engage your shoulder, and adding weight to one side of your body will further challenge your core stabilizers to fight rotation during the movement.
If you're unable to perform pistol squats, there are a few alternative exercises that you can do if you want to target similar muscle groups. Below are three alternative pistol squat exercises to add to your workouts.
Split squats are a fantastic single-leg exercise that will fix imbalances, build strength, and help increase mobility in those areas that affect your ability to pistol squat. Once you master the version with both legs on the floor, you can elevate your front or rear leg for an added challenge.
This single-leg variation is excellent for working in a similar range of motion that you would for a pistol squat. It will help build the glute and hip strength needed to stand up from the bottom of the squat.
This variation will help you master the descent portion of the single-leg squat. It will require a slow eccentric to allow the leg to get accustomed to supporting your entire body weight.
We will include pistol squat progressions for this workout on a lower body strength day. Always remember that if you have extra tight ankles or hips, give them extra attention by stretching them.
|TRX Assisted Pistol Squat
|Barbell Hip Thrust
|Pistol Squat To Bench
|Bulgarian Split Squats
|Pistol Squat Negatives
|Standing Calf Raises Heel Elevated
Pistol squats are extremely challenging due to the mobility requirements and the skill aspect of learning the exercise.
You must move well and have significant single-leg strength to do a pistol squat.
It’s not an appropriate comparison to say one is better than the other. A Pistol squat is an advanced unilateral exercise, whereas a squat is a bilateral movement. You need both!
If you continue progressing, the single-leg squat can undoubtedly replace the squat if you prefer it. It will not build the maximum strength a squat will due to the limitations of adding heavy loads.
The best things to help are increasing your hip and ankle mobility and practicing the correct progressions.
You can train yourself by figuring out your starting point and practicing until you can move on to the next skill progression.
If you have never done any pistol squats, try adding one of the progressions to your lower body day first. Then as you build strength, you can practice each day until you can perform a rep.
Pistol squats are a tremendous single-leg exercise with tons of benefits. They are still just a piece of a leg program and should be used as a tool.
With the correct practice and progression, anyone can do a split squat if their body is healthy enough to.
If you made it this far then you might be seeking more challenging bodyweight exercises. If that's the case then make sure to check out our post that covers the Superman exercise in all its glory.
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