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How to Do a Pistol Squat: Everything You Need to Know

How to Do a Pistol Squat: Everything You Need to Know

There aren’t many movements that showcase a combination of strength, stability, coordination, and skill quite like the pistol squat.

As a performance goal, the pistol squat presents you with an amazing opportunity to challenge yourself and see what you’re capable of with hard work and consistent practice — all while building some serious lower body strength and balance along the way.

Mastering the pistol squat is a very popular goal, but getting started and figuring out how to progress can feel overwhelming. Whether you want to achieve your very first pistol squat or increase the number of reps you can do, in this article, I’ll give you step-by-step guidance to get there.

You’ll learn:

Plus, I’ve added a fun bonus challenge you can tackle when you’re ready!

What Is a Pistol Squat?

A pistol squat is an advanced, unilateral, lower-body exercise in which you perform a single-leg squat, descending until your glute almost touches your heel (i.e., a “rock-bottom” position) while holding the opposite leg out in front of you. It requires strength in your quads, glutes, hamstrings, hip flexors, calves, and core, and your feet and ankles do a lot of stabilizing work.

Essentially, the pistol squat is a strength skill — an exercise requiring both strength and skill — that can be developed through consistent practice. But there’s a twist. Unlike other strength skills, the pistol squat also requires balance (a whole lot of it) and mobility. This combination makes it a particularly challenging exercise!

What to Know Before You Pistol Squat

Two questions come up frequently regarding pistol squats, so let’s address those first.

Question #1. Do Pistol Squats Hurt Your Knee?

The most common question about the pistol squat is, “But won’t that hurt the knee?”

This is a valid concern considering many people have been taught — often, adamantly so — that the knees should never travel past the toes when squatting. However, experience has shown that for individuals who don’t have knee issues, deep squats can absolutely be safe.

That said, certain exercises may never be appropriate for every unique body.

Pistol squats may not be right for you if you currently have (or have a history of) pain and discomfort in your:

  • Knees
  • Hips
  • Lower back
  • Ankles
  • Feet

Question #2. What’s the Appropriate Footwear?

Many people wonder if they should wear shoes or go barefoot when doing pistol squats.

Pistol squats are best performed with your foot (including ball and heel) rooted firmly into the floor, with all toes pressing down. Because of this, a shoe with a thick, squishy sole will make it significantly harder to balance during a pistol squat. Most folks tend to have better balance barefoot or while wearing shoes with a very thin and flexible sole.

When you’re starting out, you might find that wearing a sturdy shoe with a slightly elevated heel (for example, a Nike Metcon or an Olympic-lifting shoe) will give you a slight advantage and can compensate for a lack of mobility. That said, we encourage you to work on your mobility so you’re not relying on a specific shoe in order to perform a pistol squat.

Interested in working one-on-one with me, Head Coach Jen Comas, to accomplish your health and fitness goals? Learn more about our GGS Coaching program.

7 Progressions to Help You Master the Pistol Squat

Before we dive into how to do a full pistol squat, let’s start with the progressions you can use to make sure you’re advancing safely, rather than tackling the pistol squat before you’re ready. The following exercises will help you develop the strength and stability necessary for safe pistols.

Throughout this article, you’ll notice I encourage you to create tension in your arms and squeeze your fists. Maintaining tension in your arms and fists will help you balance. To better understand this idea, think about someone walking a tightrope — their arms are never soft and loose at their sides; instead, their arms are extended with plenty of tension throughout.

1. Narrow-Stance Squat with Counterweight

Before you can get to a rock-bottom squat with one leg, you have to be able to do it with two! That’s why I recommend starting with a narrow-stance squat using a counterweight.

Here’s how you do it:

  • Stand with your feet together.
  • Hold a light plate or dumbbell (10 pounds or lighter) out in front of you to use as a counterweight, which will help with balance.
  • Descend into a rock-bottom position while keeping your feet firmly planted on the floor. Avoid lifting your toes, rocking around on your feet, or raising your heels.
  • Stand up in a smooth and controlled manner. Resist the temptation to “bounce” out of the bottom position.

Aim for 5–8 reps, keeping the reps smooth and controlled. When you can do that, set aside the counterweight and try it with just your bodyweight.

Once you can perform the narrow-stance squat (either with or without a counterweight) for 5–8 reps, you’re ready to move on to the next progression.

Note: The narrow-stance squat, with or without a counterweight, will always be a fantastic warm-up movement. I encourage you to include 5–8 reps of it before doing any additional pistol squat work. 

2. Slow Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift to Single-Leg Balance

Excellent balance is non-negotiable for the pistol squat. Like so many other skills, balance is something you can improve significantly with consistent training. One drill I love for developing balance is the slow single-leg Romanian deadlift to single-leg balance.

Here’s how you do it:

  • Stand with your feet about hip-width apart.
  • Firmly plant your right foot into the floor.
  • Extend your right arm out to your side and create tension throughout your arm, squeezing your hand into a fist.
  • Keep your head and spine in a neutral position and lock your gaze onto something that isn’t moving, preferably something on the floor several feet in front of you.
  • Keep your hips and shoulders square, hinge at your hips, and lift your left foot off the floor, raising it behind you as your upper body tilts forward.
  • Stop once you can’t push your hips back any further or when your upper body is parallel with the floor.
  • Reverse the movement to stand up straight.
  • As you stand, raise your left knee until your thigh is parallel with the floor and balance for 3–5 seconds on your right foot.

Aim for 5–8 reps per side, keeping the reps smooth and controlled.

If the full drill is too challenging right now, eliminate the single-leg Romanian deadlift portion and just work on the single-leg balance part of the drill for 5–8 reps per leg, holding each rep 5–10 seconds. You can do this throughout the day while completing other tasks, such as brushing your teeth or waiting for your coffee to brew.

Once you can perform both the narrow-stance squat for 5–8 reps and the slow single-leg Romanian deadlift to single-leg balance for 5–8 reps per side, you’re ready to move on to the third progression.

Note: Much like the narrow-stance squat, this balance exercise will always be a fantastic warm-up movement or an exercise to revisit periodically to continue working on your balance. 

3. Alternating Single-Leg Balance with Counterweight

The alternating single-leg balance drill will help you develop strength and balance in the bottom position of the pistol squat. It’s also excellent for developing the hip flexor strength necessary to hold the opposite leg out in front of you.

Here’s how you do it:

  • Stand with your feet together.
  • With a firm grip, hold a light weight out in front of you as a counterweight and create tension through your arms.
  • Slowly descend into a rock-bottom position while keeping your feet firmly planted on the floor.
  • Once you’re in the rock-bottom position, slowly extend one leg out in front of you for a few seconds.
  • Work to hold steady and eliminate any wiggling.
  • Bring your leg back to the rock-bottom squat position and extend your opposite leg.

Alternate legs, holding each rep for 2–5 seconds for a total of 3–6 reps on each side. When you can perform this drill, set aside the counterweight and try it with just your bodyweight.

Once you can perform the alternating single-leg balance (either with or without a counterweight) for 3–6 reps per side, you’re ready to move on to the next progression.

4. Box-Assisted Pistol Squat

You’ve made it this far, and you’re well on your way to achieving a pistol squat! It’s time to start tying everything together with box-assisted pistol squats.

In a box-assisted pistol squat, you perform a single-leg squat down to a box (or chair), then you stand back up.

Start with a box height that allows you to squat until your thighs are parallel with the floor. As you progress, slowly lower the height of the box to make it more challenging.

Here’s how you do it:

  • Place the box behind you.
  • Stand close to the box with your feet together.
  • Firmly press your right foot into the floor. Imagine you are rooted to the ground through your toes, the ball of your foot, and your heel.
  • Balancing on your right leg, lift your left leg and extend it out in front of you, flexing your left foot.
  • Extend your arms out in front of you and squeeze your hands into fists, creating tension through your arms.
  • Descend into a single-leg squat until you sit down on the box behind you.
  • Once you’re seated, squeeze your fists a little tighter, engage through your core, and use the strength and balance of your right leg to stand back up.

Aim for 5–8 reps per side.

Once you can perform this drill with a box height that has you squatting below parallel, you’re ready to move on to the next progression.

5. Pistol Squat to a Box

The pistol squat to a box is different from a box-assisted pistol squat. In this drill, you won’t sit down on the box — you’ll just lightly tap it with your glutes before standing back up. This is the next step in building strength and balance, taking you one step closer to your pistol squat.

For this drill, you’ll need a box height that allows you to squat until your thighs are parallel (or just below parallel) with the floor.

Here’s how you do it:

  • Place the box behind you.
  • Stand close to the box with your feet together.
  • Firmly press your right foot into the floor. Imagine you are rooted to the ground through your toes, the ball of your foot, and your heel.
  • Balancing on your right leg, lift your left leg and extend it, flexing your foot.
  • Extend your arms out in front of you and squeeze your hands into fists, creating tension through your arms.
  • Descend into a single-leg squat until you can lightly tap the box with your glutes. (Remember, you’re not sitting all the way down!)
  • As soon as your glutes make contact with the box, squeeze your fists a little tighter, engage through your core, and use the strength and balance of your right leg to stand back up.

Aim for 3–5 reps per side.

Once you can perform this drill with a box height that has you squatting below parallel, you’re ready to move on to the next progression.

6. Assisted Pistol Squat

You’ve been working so hard to get here. It’s time to put all that practice to the test with the assisted pistol squat.

The assisted pistol squat is an awesome way to train the movement pattern and get you practicing full pistol squats with just a little bit of help as you continue to fine-tune the strength and skill required.

You have a few options for assistance: something sturdy, like the side of a squat rack (as shown in the demo video below); a suspension trainer, such as a TRX system; or even your workout partner’s hand.

Here’s how you do it:

  • Stand with your feet together.
  • Firmly press your right foot into the floor. Imagine you are rooted to the ground through your toes, the ball of your foot, and your heel.
  • Grab the side of the squat rack (or your chosen assistance option) with your right hand.
  • Extend your left arm out in front of you and squeeze your left hand into a fist, creating tension through your arm.
  • Balancing on your right leg, lift your left leg and extend it, flexing your foot.
  • Descend into a single-leg squat.
  • Once you reach the rock-bottom position, squeeze your left fist a little tighter, engage through your core, and use the strength and balance of your right leg to stand back up. At the same time, use your right hand on the squat rack to get as much assistance as you need to pull yourself back up.

Aim for 3–5 reps per side. Most folks find it’s best to alternate legs each rep to give their working leg a little break.

Once you feel comfortable with this drill, it’s time to try full pistol squats!

7. Pistol Squat With Counterweight

You made it! Are you ready? Of course, you are!

When attempting your first pistol squat, a counterweight can be incredibly helpful for finding and keeping your balance. Grab a dumbbell, a kettlebell, a weight plate, or anything else that’s easy to hold. We recommend a light counterweight. For most folks, 5–10 pounds is perfect for starting out.

Here’s how you do it:

  • Holding your counterweight, stand with your feet together.
  • Firmly press your right foot into the floor. Imagine you are rooted to the ground through your toes, the ball of your foot, and your heel.
  • Get a firm grip on your counterweight and extend your arms out in front of you, creating tension through your arms.
  • Balancing on your right leg, lift your left leg and extend it, flexing your foot.
  • Descend into your pistol squat.
  • Once you get to the rock-bottom position, squeeze your counterweight a little tighter, engage through your core, and use the strength and balance of your right leg to stand back up.

Now, try the same thing on the other side!

Don’t be surprised if your pistol squat feels a lot stronger on one side — being stronger or having better balance and coordination on one side is common and to be expected. Continue training both sides.

Once you’re ready to ditch your counterweight, it’s time to try a pistol squat with just your bodyweight.

How to Do a Proper Pistol Squat

Now comes the really fun part — the full pistol squat! If you’ve worked through the progressions, a lot of this will feel familiar to your body by now.

Here’s how you do it:

  • Stand with your feet together.
  • Firmly press your right foot into the floor. Imagine you are rooted to the ground through your toes, the ball of your foot, and your heel.
  • Balancing on your right leg, lift your left leg and extend it out in front of you, flexing your foot.
  • Extend your arms and squeeze your hands into fists, creating tension from your shoulders to your hands.
  • Descend into your pistol squat.
  • Once you reach the rock-bottom position (or as low as your body safely allows you to go), squeeze your fists a little tighter, engage through your core, and use the strength and balance of your right leg to stand back up.
  • Repeat for reps, or change sides.

You did it! Congratulations!

Now that you’re familiar with pistol squat progressions and the pistol squat, let’s go over some common mistakes and roadblocks to refine your technique and help keep you strong and safe.

3 Common Pistol Squat Mistakes to Avoid

There’s no denying it: The pistol squat is a tricky exercise, and technique errors can easily slip into your training. Let’s go over three common mistakes and how to avoid them.

Mistake #1: Bouncing Out of the Bottom Position

The first common mistake is bouncing out of the bottom position, or in other words, descending very quickly into the rock-bottom position and attempting to use the body’s momentum (instead of strength) to stand back up.

This approach is quite risky and can make your joints very unhappy. Instead of using momentum, slow down. Try to increase your strength and control your tempo so you can perform your pistol squats safely.

Mistake #2: Moving Around on the Stabilizing Foot

The second common mistake is rocking and rolling around or lifting the toes on the stabilizing foot. This is typically a form of compensation for a lack of balance — except it does the opposite.

The less surface area your foot has in contact with the floor, the harder it will be to balance. Focus on improving your balance with the drills outlined above so you’ll feel strong and stable when standing on one foot.

Mistake #3: Attempting Pistol Squats Without Adequate Mobility

Lastly, I often see folks attempt pistol squats without having the required mobility to perform them correctly.

Providing a solution for every mobility challenge standing between you and a pistol squat is beyond the scope of this article. However, I’ve included some warm-up exercises (along with video demos) below that you may find helpful for improving your mobility. If you’re experiencing mobility limitations, we recommend working with a trainer or a physiotherapist to help you address your specific needs.

Warm-up

  • Bodyweight squat x 10
  • Deep squat with rotation x 10 per side
  • Ankle rock x 10 per side
  • Squat to forward fold x 10
  • Downward dog with heel drop x 10 per side

Are you a health and fitness professional? Make sure you avoid these five coaching mistakes when you work with female clients.

Troubleshooting Roadblocks

Even with step-by-step guidance, you might run into two common roadblocks. Let’s troubleshoot!

Roadblock #1: Difficulty Holding the Opposite Leg Up

Some folks get all the way to a pistol squat, only to realize it’s not the squatting that’s giving them trouble. Instead, they’re struggling to hold the opposite leg in position.

If that’s the case for you, try practicing pistol squats off a box.

Solution: Pistol Squats Off a Box

Pistol squats off a box allow you to keep practicing and building strength with the movement and provide a little wiggle room so you don’t have to hold your opposite leg up quite as high.

As you continue practicing your pistol squats, you’ll develop hip flexor strength, which will help you keep your leg extended.

For this drill, you’ll need a box that’s about 12 inches tall — just enough to give your leg a little room if it needs to drop down.

Here’s how you do it:

  • Holding your counterweight, step onto the box and stand with your feet together.
  • Firmly press your right foot into the box. Imagine you are rooted to the ground through your toes, the ball of your foot, and your heel.
  • Grip your counterweight firmly and extend your arms, creating tension from your shoulders to your hands.
  • Balancing on your right leg, lift your left leg and extend it out in front of you, flexing your foot.
  • Descend into your pistol squat.
  • Once you get to the rock-bottom position, squeeze your counterweight a little tighter, engage through your core, and use the strength and balance of your right leg to stand back up.

Aim for 3–5 reps per side, alternating sides between reps.

Roadblock #2: Trouble in the Bottom Position

Some folks can get down into a pistol squat but feel very unstable in that rock-bottom position. They struggle to come up out of it. If that’s the case for you, we recommend the seated pistol drill.

Solution: The Seated Pistol Drill

The seated pistol drill is an excellent way to develop strength, stability, and confidence in the rock-bottom position.

Here’s how you do it:

  • Sit on the floor and extend your left leg out in front of you, flexing your foot.
  • Bend your right knee and draw your heel in close to your glutes, keeping your right foot flat on the floor.
  • Extend your arms out in front of you, and squeeze your hands into fists to create tension through your arms.
  • Engage through your core, press your right foot into the floor, and lift your hips and left leg off the floor (get that left foot up too!).
  • Hold for 3–5 seconds, then return to a seated position.
  • Switch sides.

Aim for 3–5 reps per side, alternating legs between reps if you need to.

Bonus Challenge: Rollback Pistols

After all this hard work, let’s have a little fun with a drill called the rollback pistol! This is a great way to include some playtime in your training. It can also have beneficial carryover to your pistol squat practice because it requires a lot of awareness to “stick” the landing.

Here’s how you do it:

  • Stand with your feet together.
  • Extend your arms out in front of you, and squeeze your hands into fists to create tension through your arms.
  • Slowly lower yourself down into your narrow-stance squat.
  • Gently land your glutes onto the floor behind you.
  • Tuck your chin into your chest and let yourself roll backward; then, using a little momentum, roll forward.
  • As you roll forward, extend your left leg and bend your right knee.
  • Root your right foot firmly into the floor.
  • Engage through your core, squeeze your fists, and use your strength to lift your left leg off the ground.
  • Hold for a second or two, and then tuck your chin and roll back again.
  • This time, try the other side!

Looking for your next squat challenge? Try these five advanced squat variations.

While pistol squats can be intimidating initially, with consistent training — and some patience — you can absolutely get there! Listen to your body, work through the progressions we covered, and take all the time you need to make sure you’ll be strong and safe when you’re ready to tackle the full pistol squat. And remember to have fun — enjoy the process and take pleasure in all the amazing things your body can do!

Published at Sat, 05 Dec 2020 02:52:01 +0000

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