The pistol squat is an amazing exercise for leg strength, development, and stability, and it can also assist in correcting imbalances between dominant and non dominant sides. It has also earned a reputation as being one of the toughest leg exercises around, and almost no one can do it on their first try. Even those that can squat twice their body weight with two legs will not necessarily be able to do it without training for it.
Since jumping right into it is pretty much impossible, I've put together a progression for it that will take you from 0 to pistol squats. Master each exercise and then you are ready for the next one.
Not technically part of the progression, but a proper warm up is very important and will assist with gaining the required range of motion to perform the pistol squat movements.
Start with foam rolling the calves, as this will increase range of motion in the ankles. I follow this with my favorite dynamic ankle stretch, knee over toes. Contrary to what many have been told, the knee can certainly travel over your toes as long as the heel of that foot maintains contact with the ground or supporting surface. Let the knee travel in line with the outer toes and repeat 10 times on each leg.
For a dynamic warm up, I perform the dynamic side lunge (Cossack squats) shown in the video. The goal is to keep the heel of the supporting leg on the floor and go for depth in the lunge. This movement will get the blood flowing to the quads and glutes, and begin to utilize the previously performed foam rolling.
You can also add in bodyweight squats or any other dynamic leg movements to prepare the body for the workout to come.
Step 1: Single Leg Wall Sits
For the single leg wall squats, we want to focus on driving through the heel of the working leg to activate the glute muscles, and on watching the alignment of the knee with our outer toes to prevent injury.
Begin with the foot of the working leg about 1.5-2 feet from the wall, or far enough so that your leg will create a 90 degree angle when you descend. Brace your entire back against the wall, and allow yourself to lower to a point where you’ll be able to come back up. Drive through the heel of the working foot, keep the knee aligned with the outer toes, and keep the core muscles braced. As you progress, placing your working foot closer to the wall will allow your body to implement greater mobility in the ankles and hips.
Master these and get to where you can do 10 or 15 each leg, and then you are ready for the next step.
Step 2: Single Leg Box Squats
The points of focus with the single leg box sits are similar to that of the single leg wall sits. We want to drive through the heel of the working leg, maintain alignment of the knee over the outer toes, and brace the core muscles. With this variation, you can achieve some assistance from momentum if you need to by using the upper body to lean forward as you stand up. To progress, you can focus on limiting movement in the upper body and you can use a lower surface. Once you've got these down, it's time for the next movement...
Step 3: Assisted Pistol Squats
You are almost there with this one! Assisted pistols squats can be performed with either TRX bands or a stationary surface like a wall, door frame, or column. In this variation, the body is performing the full range of motion for a pistol, but utilizing a bit of assistance from the upper body. Focus on controlling the lowering portion; the body builds a lot of strength from the eccentric portion of movements. Do not try to drop down quickly and 'bounce' back up out of it. Once you are pumping these out with ease, you are ready for the real deal.
Step 4: Pistol Squats
Upon mastering the strength, mobility, and endurance to complete the previous movements, you will be ready for pistol squats. On your first attempt, we recommend doing them next to a stable surface that you can reach out and grab for support if need be. That way if you lose your balance, you can regain it with the help of your upper body. Only use this assistance if you absolutely need it though. Once you have it down, you can do it anywhere.
Control the eccentric portion of the movement, then drive through the heel. Maintain alignment of the knee throughout the movement. You can also use breathing to help add strength and stability—big inhale on the way down, big exhale on the way up to help create core tightness and stability.
Step 6: Get fancy and add weight, or even stretches
Once you are pistol squatting like a boss, you can add weight, or throw in a stretch to challenge yourself even more. Just remember to progress slow and steady, and stay focused on form over weight.
This movement takes time to master, but it is beneficial, fun, and really rewarding to take it from start to finish. Practice the progressions on a weekly basis, allow time for recovery, and you will get there. Happy squatting!
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