Pistol squats are among the bodyweight strength world’s most impressive feats, right next to things like backflips or a perfect handstand. Well, I can’t do those other two, but I can knock out a bunch of pistol squats. Let’s talk about what goes into one.
Let’s cover the most obvious thing first. To squat down and up on one leg, that leg needs to be able to support the weight of your whole body. You need strong quads—meaning your quadriceps, the group of muscles on the front of your thigh.
Say you weigh 200 pounds. A normal, two-legged air squat asks each of your legs to take responsibility for moving 100 pounds of body weight (that is, half your weight) down and up. When you do a pistol, you’re asking one leg to take on the full 200 pounds.
So if you want to do pistols, you need strong legs. At an absolute minimum, you should be able to barbell squat your own bodyweight. In other words, the 200-pound person in our example should be able to squat with a 200-pound bar on their back, asking their two legs to move a combined total of 400 pounds.
Now, this is my hypothesis. I don’t promise that it’s an immutable law of nature or anything, but it seems to jibe with my experience and that of others I know. It’s also a minimum. The stronger your legs are, the easier pistols will be.
Just being good at two-legged squats does not guarantee you have all the strength you need to squat on one leg. Moving your body up and down requires strength mainly from your quads, as we discussed. But when you’re on one leg, you also need:
- Abductor strength (using the muscles of your butt and the outside of your hips) to keep your leg from collapsing inward.
- Adductor strength (in your inner thigh muscles) to assist the quads and to counterbalance the abductors.
- Hip flexor strength (in the muscles that attach to the front of your thigh), to hold your free leg up in the “pistol” position.
If you want to do pistols, you need to work on this stuff, too. You can target each muscle directly, but you’ll get a really good bang for your buck by doing unilateral (one-sided) leg exercises like:
- Step-ups, increasing the height of the box over time, and adding weight as needed
- Lunges (forward and/or reverse)
- Bulgarian split squats (with your back foot on a bench) or any other type of split squat
- Step-downs, in which you control the lowering-down portion of the movement and then use your free leg to help push you back up to the top
- Shrimp squat progressions, using your free leg behind you
- B-stance squats, which have both legs on the ground but use one leg more than the other
- Pistol squats to a box, where you sit down on a box or bench behind you and then stand back up using only one leg (I sometimes call these “one-leg stand-ups”)
All of these exercises can be weighted. Hold dumbbells in your hands for step-ups, or rack a kettlebell on your shoulder for the box pistols.
While you work on your hip flexor strength (seated and hanging leg raises are great, by the way), you can take them out of the equation for the moment by holding your toes with your hand as you descend into your squat.
As you’re doing all of these one-legged exercises, you may find it difficult just to stay balanced on one foot. That’s normal! It’s also a skill you can improve very quickly. Practice standing on one foot, imagining your foot as a tripod (big toe, little toe, heel) or do as I do and imagine you’re wearing quad roller skates and try to balance your weight between the four wheels at the four corners of your feet.
One-legged exercises will help you build this balance, but so will standing balance exercises, like standing on one foot while you brush your teeth. Once you’re stable standing up, try moving around and bending your knee. Notice how you have to move your butt back and chest forward to stay balanced as your knee bends. This will become very important.
Pistol squats are most impressive when they’re done “ass-to-grass,” going as far down as your body will allow. This means your butt is nearly touching your shoes, and typically your knees will need to go pretty far forward of your toes. (And no, you won’t ruin your knees by putting your knees over your toes.)
The most common thing preventing people from getting into a deep squat is ankle mobility. For your butt to get low, your shins have to tilt forward. To keep your foot flat on the ground while your shins tilt forward, the Achilles tendon at the back of your ankle needs to be able to stretch a good bit. Here are some tips for ankle mobility, which include stretches but also a few quick fixes like wearing shoes with an elevated heel.
As you descend into a pistol squat position, take note of whether you feel resistance anywhere else. Depending on your body proportions, you may need to stretch or build strength in other areas.
Finally, we come to the truth that skilled movements take practice. The stronger and more mobile you are, the less practice it may take, but ultimately you need to learn how to do a pistol squat. Being able to balance on one foot while standing up isn’t the same thing as being able to balance when you’re fully in the squat position, and you’ll have to be able to balance as you descend through all the positions in between.
As you practice your pistols, you may find that pausing at the bottom helps you to regain stability before standing back up; or you may find that you prefer to get a quick bounce out of the bottom to send you back up.
One way to practice before you’ve gotten the full move down is to lower yourself down on one leg, roll onto your back, and then try to roll forward again, balance on your foot and stand up. This gives you some momentum, which helps when you don’t quite have the strength to accelerate yourself upward yet.
Ultimately, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to how to get your first pistol squat. Some people have the strength but are missing the mobility, or vice versa. Some people are at a disadvantage in one way but have an advantage somewhere else; for example, I have mile-long thighbones, which means I have to get into a pretty extreme knees-over-toes position, but I also have good enough ankle mobility to get there and to be strong in that position. Figure out what you’re missing, and eliminate your weak points. And if you aren’t sure what your weak point is, just work on everything. You’ll get there soon enough.
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