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How To Do A Pistol Squat

  • By Kate Moore
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Pistol squats are an advanced movement that requires strength, balance and coordination. This is a functional exercise that you’ll have to work your way into achieving over time. With all of that said, learning how to do pistol squats is worth the effort.

With this exercise you can work out more muscles in a shorter amount of time. You’ll also master a challenging exercise that you can do from anywhere.

How to do a pistol squat
Demonstrating a pistol squat

What Muscles Do Pistol Squats Work?

Similar to the traditional squat movement, pistol squats work all of your large lower muscle groups. That includes the thighs, hips, butt and hamstrings. In addition, pistol squats have a special emphasis on working your core as well as the proprioceptors that help balance your hips and ankles.

  • Erector Spinae
  • Gluteus Maximus
  • Hamstrings
  • Quadriceps
  • Calves
  • Abdominals

Pistol squats not only help with the overall strength of your regular squat, but they also help with hip and ankle mobility. That’s a useful step for getting involved with more advanced fitness goals.

How To Do Pistol Squats With Proper Form

If you’re attempting to do pistol squats for the first time, start with some progressive exercises. Without proper strength, you can overload the knees.

A pistol squat with good form will have minimal lean in your head and chest. You should not be collapsing forward during this moment.

The whole body should be facing forward. Avoid leaning to the side. If you cannot do a pistol squat without leaning, go back to a few progressive exercises until you have enough strength and balance to perform the movement.

Move slowly as you squat down into the bottom position. This will really work your balance muscles and give you the most bang for your buck in terms of performance.

Sit back into your squat and don’t let the heal come off the floor. If your heel is coming off the floor, put more emphasis towards working on ankle mobility.

4 Progressive Exercises To Learn The Pistol Squat

Single leg squats

Single leg squats are the first step in strengthening your body to get ready for a pistol squat. Place a box or a bench about a foot behind you. Do a few two legged squats down to the bench and back up to get warmed up. When you feel comfortable, squat down to the bench with one leg and stand back up. Once you can feel that you can comfortably achieve this movement, move on to Bulgarian pistol squats to gain some strength.

Bulgarian squats

Bulgarian squats are a great way to build the strength necessary to work up to a pistol squat. Start by placing a bench or a box about a 12 inches behind you. Facing forward, place one foot on the box. With the leg you are standing on, squat down as far as you can go. Make sure to lean back into your squat towards the box. Perform 10-15 reps at a time and be sure to exercise each leg equally.

Bulgarian pistol squat progression

Stability ball squats

Using a stability ball, you can start to build the strength and balance for a pistol squat on your own. Stand up against a wall with your back towards it. Place the stability ball between you back and the wall. Get into a comfortable position and begin by doing regular two legged squats with your back rolling up and down the ball.

As you get comfortable with the positioning, move towards doing a one legged squat. You can use the ball to help balance your body as you squat down. Again, perform 10-15 reps on each leg.

TRX pistol squat progressionAssisted pistol squats

One of the last progressions is assisted pistol squats. For this exercise you will need a TRX band, or upright to hold onto. If you are learning pistol squats at home, using a doorway will work well.

Using one arm, hold onto the doorway or upright. Sit back and perform the pistol squat as you would without a spotter. Make sure to keep proper form in mind. Do not lean into the wall or lean too far forward. You may only have the strength to perform one or two reps of this exercise at first but that’s ok! Pistol squats are all about progression and with enough assisted pistol squats under your belt you’ll soon be able to perform the exercise without assistance.

Advanced Pistol Squats

Pistol squats are a challenging movement just by themselves but if you’re finding them too easy there are ways to push your strength even further. Holding onto a dumbbell or kettlebell as you perform the pistol squat will make the exercise immensely more difficult.

Holding the weight closer to your body will really start to throw your weight off. Consequently, you’ll find that holding the weight out may make the balancing easier.

Adding Weight

Weighted pistol squat

Adding Instability

You can really up your pistol squat game by adding balance elements. Be careful here, as this exercise is not for the faint at heart! We recommend only adding instability trainers while squatting without extra weight.

Try to perform a pistol squat on an unstable surface like a gymnastics mat or balance ball trainer. You can even find people performing pistols on a slack line!

No matter how you choose to push your body, pistols can be a fun way to gain strength and balance which will certainly help with any other exercise in the long run.

Advanced pistol squat exercise

CrossFit Pistol WODS

Fast air squats are going to give you a leg up in any CrossFit® workout that calls for squats. These are some of the most common WODS (workout of the day) that use squats are:

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