Anyone who has attempted a pistol squat, also known as a single leg squat, knows how challenging they can be. One of the reasons why this movement is so tough to master is because it requires the perfect marriage of strength, mobility, and balance. If anyone of these is lacking, the pistol squat can be impossible to execute without assistance. Even though this is a challenging exercise, it can be mastered with some practice and patience.
Let’s take a look at the main elements of a pistol squat and explore how you can improve each one:
Photo by Jason Espinoza Photography
In order to do a pistol squat, you need the necessary strength to squat all the way to the floor and back up on one leg. You also need the strength to hold your opposite leg out in front of you long enough to complete the movement, which is a surprising challenge for the hip flexors and quads. A few exercises that can help you improve strength in these areas are:
Assisted pistol squats: use a partner, stall bar, chair, etc. to hold on to while completing the exercise.
Box pistol squats: use a box, chair, bench, or another elevated platform to reduce the range of motion. As you get stronger, gradually lower the height of your surface closer to the floor for more challenge.
Step-ups: Step-ups onto a box, chair, bench, or other elevated surface are a great way to build your single-leg strength. As you get stronger, gradually raise the height of your surface for more challenge.
Standing Leg Raises: while standing on one leg, lift the other leg as high as you can while keeping your knee perfectly straight. Do not use momentum or lean back as you lift your leg. This exercise will help you build the strength of the lifted leg in your pistol squat.
One of the most common limiting factors in the pistol squat is mobility. Executing a full single-leg squat requires excellent ankle mobility and decent hamstring flexibility. In order to increase mobility in these two areas, try the following exercises:
Achilles stretch: stand with one foot about 6-8 inches from a wall. Using your hands for balance against the wall, bend your knee and push it toward the wall until you feel a stretch in your achilles. You can either hold the stretch or pulse in and out of the stretch.
Standing or seated pike stretch: fold your chest over the top of your legs while keeping legs together and as straight as possible. This can be done in either a seated position or a standing forward fold.
Balance: Since the pistol squat is done entirely on one leg, the stability element of this movement can be a big challenge for some. Any exercise that improves single-leg balance can help you improve in this area, such as:
>> Assisted pistol squat (described above)
>> Standing on one leg for time
>> Other stability exercises such as lunges, single-leg deadlifts, or step-ups.
As you work to improve your pistol squat, remember that practice and patience are key. This is a skill that can take a long time to master, and it’s okay to take your time and enjoy the process. No matter how proficient (or not) you get at pistols, you’ll improve your lower body strength, single leg balance, and ankle mobility along the way!
P.S. Did you know that mobility work translates into the ability to learn new skills? Here's a FULL-LENGTH free mobility video for you!