If I were held at gunpoint and forced to choose one lower body exercise, I would choose the pistol (see what I did there?). The pistol squat takes balance, flexibility, mobility, and strength. It even helps with vertical explosivity when combined with jumping exercises. Also, quite importantly, it helps even out the imbalances between your legs. People typically have one leg that is stronger than the other and/or one leg that is more flexible than the other—the pistol squat helps to address this imbalance.
Evaluate Your Mobility
Let’s first test out some positions to see if you have the strength and mobility to attempt a pistol squat.
Test 1 – Seated Leg Raise: Take a seat on the floor in a pike position (legs together and straight out in front of you). From here, place your fingertips on the ground just past your knees and attempt to lift your feet up off the ground. If you are unable to do this, then you will struggle to keep your non-squatting leg up while performing the pistol squat.
Test 2 – Static Pistol: Lower yourself to the bottom of a squat on both legs, feet flat on the ground, and shift your weight completely to one leg. From here, extend your other leg straight out in front of you so that you are in the bottom position of the pistol squat. If you fall over, you are lacking the mobility and/or the stability necessary for the pistol squat.
Test 3 – Pistol Negative: Stand on one leg with your other leg extended out in front of your body. Slowly lower down to the bottom position of the pistol. You should be able to lower yourself for a 10 second count without accelerating (falling) at any point. If you are unable to control the entire descent then you are lacking the strength to perform the pistol squat.
Were you able to perform all of those skills? If so give a pistol a try. If not, here are some tips to start working towards developing your pistol squat.
Progression 1: Shrimp Squats
Let’s start with a different variation of single leg squatting, the shrimp squat. In the shrimp squat, you will start by standing on one leg with your non-supporting leg bent back (heel towards your butt). From this position, you will slowly lower yourself towards the floor until your non-supporting leg’s knee makes light contact with the floor. Once it does, stand back up. Your squatting foot should remain flat on the floor the entire time, maintaining three points of contact: heel, big toe, and small toe.
Progression 2: Pistol Holds and Leg Raises
A pistol hold plus leg raise works on both the stability and mobility of the bottom position of the pistol, as well as the flexing strength at the hip needed for you to hold a leg up high enough to perform a pistol on the ground.
Start by standing on a box about 24-30 inches high and hang one foot off the side of the box. From this position, descend into the squat, letting the other leg hang straight. If you are unable to get into the bottom position (hamstring resting on calf) then use a counterbalance (hold a 5-15 pound weight in front of your body) to assist. Once in the bottom position, perform 10 leg raises with the leg that is hanging off off the box. Your leg should stay straight and progressively lift above the height of the box.
Progression 3: Pistol Negatives
Time to build strength through the full range of motion. Begin by standing on one foot with your other leg extended straight out in front of your body. Slowly lower yourself to the bottom position of the pistol squat. You should be able to take 10 seconds to lower yourself to the bottom, spreading that time out over the entire movement. Don’t go down ¼ of the way for 8 seconds and the remaining ¾ of the way in 2 seconds.
Also, be aware of the “dropping point.” This is the point where you feel yourself drop, as opposed to lowering with control. The place in your pistol squat that you feel this dropping begin to happen is the point at which you should fight the hardest to resist falling and really focus on maintaining a controlled deceleration of your squat. When you can easily perform 3-5 repetitions on each leg with a solid 10 second descent, then it is time to move on.
Progression 4: Rolling Pistols
Lastly, rolling pistols allows you some momentum to help you out of the bottom of a pistol squat while still taking yourself through the full range of motion. In this exercise, you will squat down with both feet, roll back onto your upper back, and then aggressively change directions rocking forwards back onto your feet. As you approach your feet, extend one leg straight out in front of you and bend the other leg back towards your glutes so that you end up rolling onto one foot (the position at this point is the bottom of the pistol squat). As your weight shifts onto that foot, drive through it to stand up out of the squat. This will start helping you out of the bottom position and take your knee and ankle through the full range of motion of a pistol. As you get stronger, attempt to rock less (less forward momentum) so that you have to work harder to stand up out of the bottom position.
Still Need Help Gaining Control and Strength
The pistol should be a goal for anyone looking to gain control and strength over their body. It is a great foundation for other skills and heavier loaded squats later on. A more in-depth breakdown of the pistol squat can be found in my Gymnastics Foundation Program along with upper body and core strength, mobility, and flexibility training. Go check it out!