3 Alternatives to the Pistol for Single Leg Strength
While single-leg squat variations have been around for hundreds of years, many of them have been resurrected due to the recent increased interest in bodyweight training. Somehow this has led to the pistol squat moving its way to the spotlight, but does it belong there?
The pistol squat is often heralded as the perfect balance of strength, mobility, and athleticism. While I can appreciate this sentiment, I politely disagree. Despite looking cool and being popular, the pistol can be problematic and there are alternatives that are capable of delivering better returns on your training investment.
So instead of the pistol, try using these three single-leg variations to add another level of movement complexity and strength to your repertoire.
Downsides of the Pistol Squat
I think the pistol is a great exercise, but it does have a couple of drawbacks. For one, it has a steep learning curve. This may not be a problem for some, but as a coach, I only get minimal time with my clients each week and I need exercises that deliver a big punch and don’t require a large time investment.
"[T]he pistol squat position doesn’t mirror the traditional squat position much at all."
Another complication with the pistol squat is that it becomes nearly impossible to perform without at least a moderate amount of posterior pelvic tilt (PPT), aka the butt-wink. While I don’t think performing movements with some PPT is always detrimental, it is certainly not ideal.
Finally, the pistol squat position doesn’t mirror the traditional squat position much at all. Therefore, there is little likelihood it will improve your bilateral squat as much as a couple of the alternatives that I have listed below.
Knee Tap Squat
The knee tap squat is great because it is easy to learn and teach, requires no equipment, and can be regressed or progressed easily. This move is typically my go-to when teaching clients the layers of single-leg squatting.
Start by assuming a stance slightly inside shoulder width. Pick up one leg and slowly start bringing it back almost as if you were performing a reverse lunge, but instead of placing the ball of the foot on the floor, lower down to lightly touch the knee to the floor.
"The knee tap squat is great because it is easy to learn and teach, requires no equipment, and can be regressed or progressed easily."
Next, push hard into the floor with the supporting leg and drive back up to the starting position. It is important not to let the knee hit the floor hard and I often recommend that people perform the exercise while standing on a mat to reduce any impact.
Holding light weights at arm’s length can help during this variation to improve balance or you can make the exercise easier by shortening the range of motion by only going down halfway or three quarters. To add more challenge, you can use a weighted vest or hold dumbbells over your shoulders in the rack position.
Elevated Single-Leg Squat
I love this variation because it simulates a standard squat much better than the others. It also allows you keep a more upright posture and reduces the chances of going into a posterior pelvic tilt (butt wink), which is common in the pistol squat.
Stand on an elevated surface (plyo box or bench) with one foot near the edge and the other leg off to the side. Extend your arms out in front of you to encourage keeping your chest tall help with balance. Slowly bend the supporting leg knee and push the hips back, just as if you were performing a standard squat.
"[I] t allows you keep a more upright posture and reduces the chances of going into a posterior pelvic tilt (butt wink), which is common in the pistol squat."
Pause once you reach ninety degrees and then push through the supporting foot and stand back up into the starting position. You may elect to touch your non-supporting foot to the box in between repetitions to re-establish balance. If you still struggle to balance, try holding a five- or ten-pound plate at arm’s length in front of your chest.
Lateral Single-Leg Squat
This variation is similar to the elevated single-leg squat except the non-weight-bearing leg travels laterally behind the supporting leg. This move is unique because as the body descends, the hips experience some rotation that causes the body to move in all three planes of motion at the same time.
I recommend that you don’t take this exercise lightly. It is an advanced progression and requires a high level of control and a large range of motion.
The Take Home
Although the pistol squat isn’t without some merit, it certainly doesn’t deserve to rule the roost. It takes an extended period of time to learn or teach it, and it really doesn’t mimic the traditional squat position that closely.
By utilizing the three alternatives demonstrated above, you will be able to improve your single-leg strength in a faster and more intelligent manner.