The Pistol Squat (otherwise known as the single leg squat) is a great display of strength, stability, and mobility in the lower body. Many people struggle building up to this movement so we are going to break down each component and our top exercises to achieve a full pistol squat.
How to build up to a Pistol Squat
The pistol squat is a unilateral (single leg) movement that works the glutes, quads, hamstrings, hip flexors, and core. It requires a great deal of stability and strength not only in the leg performing the squat, but also in the hip flexor of the opposing leg which is lifted during the movement.
Hip Flexor Strength for the Pistol Squat
Most people don’t even think about this when training for pistols. They require strong hip compression at the bottom of the rep. You will not be able to perform the Pistol Squat if you cannot keep your non working leg straight and lift it off the floor because it will block you from getting a full ROM.
Try hip flexor Leg lifts for hip flexor/compression strength –
Sit on the floor, bring one knee into your chest and “hug” it. Then, extend the other leg and lift it as far off the floor as possible and hold for 5-10 seconds. Repeat 5 times each side for 3-5 sets. They will probably cramp up after these; especially if you’re not used to directly training the hip flexors.
Ankle Mobility and Stability
You may have mastered strength in your hip flexors, but you’ll also need sufficient ankle mobility and stability to get into a full pistol squat.
For these, you want to start with the mobility aspect and do a half kneeling ankle stretch.
As you do these you are going to slowly drive the knee as far as you can over the toes while keeping the foot flat. Also, think about pulling your shin muscles towards you the entire time. Hold for 5 seconds once you max out your range of motion and slowly return to normal. Try 5 reps of a 5 second hold per side x 3-5 sets.
Another great exercise to achieve this is doing a step up or a split squat
Do this in the same fashion as the half kneeling ankle stretch. For the step up, on the way down you will focus on driving your knee as far over your toe as possible. Gradually build up box height for this one. For the split squat, as you squat down with the front foot, drive your knee as far forward over your toe as possible while actively pulling in your shin muscle.
For stability, try the active box pistol holds
For this one you are going to stand on a box and drop down into a full pistol squat and hold at the bottom. While you’re holding, extend the non working leg and lift as high as you can and hold for 5-10 seconds (this is also a great compression drill). Goal is to slowly lower the box over time as you are able to lift your non working leg higher.
Pistol Squat Strength: Build strength with eccentrics
As your mobility and stability improves you can start to incorporate pistol squat eccentrics
Basically, you are just going to slowly lower down into the bottom of the rep and hold. Try 5 reps of a 3-5 second eccentric per side x 3 sets.
You can also build strength with a full range of motion pistol squat on an elevated surface
With this exercise, you basically are working your way towards the floor. You’ve built up the prerequisite single leg strength to do a full range of motion, but now we’re trying to achieve enough hip flexor strength on the opposite leg so you can lift it off the floor (when performing the pistol squat starting with both feet on the floor). Try 3 sets of 3 reps per side for this one.
Is the pistol squat bad for the knees?
Hell no! The pistol squat is the ultimate display for single leg strength and stability.
You’re taking the joints in your leg through a full range of motion, so that means your knee is going past the toes. If you have pain when the knee goes past the toes, we strongly encourage you to fix this issue – hire a good personal trainer or physical therapist to help!
How many reps should you do when training pistol squats?
We recommend starting with more sets and less reps. Since this is more of a skill-based movement, you don’t want to fatigue yourself so much each set with a ton of reps.
We would recommend sticking in the 1-3 rep range per side as you get into full rep training and/or eccentric rep training. Over time, you can increase the reps and/or hold some weight to make them more intense.
These tips will definitely get you on your way towards achieving a full Pistol Squat! Be consistent and mindful as you are performing each exercise to get the most out of them! Good luck!
If you’re looking to improve your strength and mobility, check out our fitness programs. Our Bend, Don’t Break program prioritizes functional mobility and strength through compound lifts. And if you want more, feel free to book a free interest call to chat about online coaching and working with us one on one.