The pistol squat has been one of my favorite bodyweight exercises for a long time, but it seems to get a lot of criticism from others.
While I don’t deny that the potential to harm oneself is relatively high with this exercise, the same is true of any advanced movement – even in weight training!
Would you try to teach a weak, tight individual to do a kettlebell snatch or a barbell clean and jerk?
You shouldn’t try to teach them to do a pistol squat either. Not yet, at least…
There’s always a chance that a shortsighted or ignorant person will hurt themselves doing something foolish, but I believe that when progressed properly and practiced with attention to detail, the pistol squat is a fantastic exercise, particularly if you are lacking equipment.
As a prerequisite, I would strongly recommend getting comfortable with the two-legged variety of squats before attempting single leg progressions. The ability to perform forty consecutive, deep two-legged bodyweight squats is a good baseline.
As such, it can take months before you’ll safely build to anything close to a full pistol squat.
Even people with strong legs should approach the move in a progressive manner when they are new to it. When I first encountered the pistol, I was able to barbell back squat almost double my body weight, yet the exercise was still beyond my reach.
Check out the video below for some examples of progressions you can use to gradually work your way up to a full pistol:
Pistol Squat Mistakes
Once you can perform a full pistol squat on both legs, it’s likely that there will still be aspects of your form that you can continue to refine.
That’s right – even after you’re able to bang out a few reps, there’s a good chance you may be making as least one of these technical blunders:
1 – Heel Coming Up
Ankle flexibility is usually the culprit here, so if you’re having a hard time getting to the bottom of a pistol squat without your heel coming off the floor, make sure you’re stretching your calves. Other times the issue is simply a lack of strength in the legs, glutes and abs.
Either way, you can try elevating your heel on a surface that’s higher than your toes. This allows you to push through your heel to help recruit your glutes and hamstrings without needing to flex your ankle as far.
Raising your heel also makes the leverage slightly more favorable, rendering the move less difficult. As you progress, you can gradually work your heel closer to the floor.
2 – Sitting Too Far Back
A pistol squat should be more or less a pure up-and-down movement. In order to do this, your hips must move back slightly at first, but as you get lower down you’ll need to bring them forward again. Your hamstrings should be pressed into your calf in the bottom position.
Many people mistakenly sit too far back, which can make it more difficult to balance and/or force you to have to round your back excessively.
Again, ankle flexibility can contribute to this problem for some people, but for others it’s simply a matter of bringing more awareness to this aspect of the movement pattern.
3 – Excessive Hunching
A certain degree of rounding in the spine may be unavoidable in the pistol squat, and as I’ve always said, since your spine isn’t loaded with weight, it shouldn’t be a problem.
But the more upright your posture, the more challenging and effective the exercise becomes. It just looks better, too!
As mentioned, this can often be related to the problem of sitting too far back, but it can also happen independently of that.
The fix for this one is to think about squeezing your shoulder blades down and back while bracing your abs and lifting your chest in order to minimize rounding your spine.
Again, sometimes it’s just a matter of bringing your awareness to this aspect of the movement. There’s a lot going on when you do a pistol squat!
4 – Airborne Leg Bending/Shaking
The phrase one-legged squat is a bit misleading . The leg on the ground is not the only one that has to work hard to achieve a perfect pistol.
People who are new to this exercise are often surprised by how hard the non-squatting leg has to work just to stay straight and keep from hitting the floor.
If you’re struggling with this, try holding onto the toes of your airborne leg for as much of the range of motion as you can in order to help that leg stay extended.
5 – Not Enough Full-Body Tension
The pistol squat is really a full body exercise. Don’t shy away from this aspect of it – embrace it – especially at first.
As you get better at pistols, you will learn how to use just enough full body tension to complete a clean rep without depleting yourself too quickly. However, in the beginning I encourage you to actively think about bracing your abs as hard as you can, especially during the bottom portion of the exercise.
6 – Bouncing
For a lot of people, the hardest part of the pistol squat is initiating the upward ascent from the bottom position. However, if you bounce out of the bottom position, you don’t need as much strength to come up. This is something I used to do myself when I was getting started with pistol squats. Once I realized what I was doing, I began improving my technique. I can’t do as many reps as I used to be able to when I would bounce out of the bottom position, but the reps I can do feel better and are far more challenging.
Lately, one of my favorite ways to practice pistol squats is to use a pyramid training protocol.
This means that after a brief warm-up and a set or two or two legged squats, I do just one rep on each leg. Then after a short break I do two on each leg.
I do three reps on the third set and continue to add a rep on every set until I reach the point where I can no longer complete a set with good form. At that point I begin taking away a rep on each set until I work my way back down to just one rep per leg.
The breaks between sets will naturally become longer with each set. Take as long as you need to recover and focus on technique more than anything else.
Watch the video below for more: