Pistol Squats

The pistol squat is a fantastic exercise for building lower body strength, balance and flexibility. But of course there’s a catch – you have to be strong, well balanced and flexible in order to even do one!

The main muscles involved in the pistol squat are the quads, glutes and hamstrings, though a strong core is also essential. Like all advanced bodyweight exercises, pistols require a high strength-to-weight ratio, so if you’re carrying around a lot of excess body fat, you’ll need to clean up your diet and shed some pounds before trying to learn this exercise.

I’ve blogged about the pistol squat before, but it’s a topic that I get asked about often, so it’s worth discussing again.

The Flex Pistols
When you do a pistol squat, there are three joints involved: the hip, knee and ankle. In order to achieve a full range of motion, you will need to be flexible in all three. People who overlook the ankle flexibility will wind up shooting themselves in the foot (so to speak). You have to dorsiflex in order to perform a true pistol. Your knee should slide right up by your toes without your heel coming off the ground, otherwise you’ll fall back on your butt. If your heel does come up, you may be able to maintain your balance, but the change in leverage can be harmful to your knee.

Pole Position
Once you get comfortable with going deep on a standard two legged squat, you can do self assisted pistols by practicing in front of a vertical pole. Begin by standing in front of the pole, loosely grasping it with one or both hands. Now reach one leg in the air as you squat ass to ankle on the other, using the pole to guide yourself through the full range of motion.

When practicing pistol squats, it helps to think about squeezing your abs, particularly on the way up. Also bear in mind that keeping your other leg outstretched can be just as demanding as the squat itself. Squeeze that leg tight and reach it away from your body.

Pistol Progressions
For the advanced trainee who can perform several pistols in a row, there are many ways to add a new challenge. You could try my twenty pistol squat challenge or grab a kettlebell and do weighted pistols. Holding you hands behind your head is another way to add difficulty – this seemingly minor change in leverage will make the exercise significantly harder. If those get easy for you, try pistols balancing on top of a bar. If you’re more concerned with explosive power, you could even attempt a plyometric pistol squat.

For more information, check out my book, Pushing The Limits! – Total Body Strength With No Equipment.

This entry was posted in Body Weight Exercises, Working Out Your Legs. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Robby-Taylor/44409147 Robby Taylor

    dang. that sounds about right to me, as i can do the advanced shrimp and i find it to be harder than a pistol with hands behind the head.

    i was messing with incremental shrimp progressions between second arm out and behind the back. first variation is grabbing opposite shoulder (wrapping arm around your front), then arm behind back, about elbow level of the other arm, *then* the full advanced shrimp. i found these intermediate versions quite helpful in progressing to the advanced shrimp. but, ultimately, i find the pistol to be more versatile and practical, since you both get a full range of motion and don’t have to touch your knee to the ground (not always desirable, especially in dirty public places).

  • Anonymous

    If your non-working leg isn’t straight, would you consider that bad form? Also, whatever leg isn’t pressing seems to stiffen and ‘lock out’ after a while. Would that just be poor flexibility?

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    It certainly wouldn’t be ideal form, but it’s a start.

  • Lordluqa

    Hi Al, you would still be squatting the same weight if the non pushing leg is bent, so apart from improved flexibility, are there any other benefits of keeping it straight?

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    It’s harder with the leg straight.  The balance changes and you have to use your abs more.

  • Rob White

    Hey Al, what are the shoes you are wearing in the pics in this article? I love the look of them and they look quite ‘minimal’ and flexible. I want to get a pair!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    These sneakers are made by Vans.  They are the classic slip-on style.

    Check this out for more: http://www.alkavadlo.com/2010/05/running-the-brooklyn-half-marathon-2010/

  • Rob White

    Ta Al. I found them on sale on amazon UK. 
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Vans-Classic-Slip-On-Checkerboard-VEYEBPJ/dp/B000PGM7A0/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1338221686&sr=8-1 Nice! Just ordered myself a pair of the black / pewter checkerboard style. 

    I previously have been training in Vivo Barefoot Ra’s http://www.vivobarefoot.com/uk/mens/ra-black-leather.html and they are great. They are very lightweight, and the shoe has hardly any sole to it so you really feel like you are practically going barefoot. The broad fronts means your toes can spread out, and you can move and work them independently without being scrunched up. I have been wearing them for years now and my feet have actually gotten broader, stronger, and bizarrely more muscular!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Cool!  My feet also grew a bit when I stopped squishing them into ill-fitting footwear.

  • Joel

    Hey Al, I have a question, I was doing pistol squats at my local community center gym and one of the trainers came up to me and said not to go below parallel on pistol because he believes it put to much strain on the knee. I told him I didn’t feel any strain on my knee while doing them and he replied that if I continued I would need knee surgery by the time I turned 25 (i’m 16 right now). I thought the trainer was a bit stupid, but I was just wondering if theirs any truth to what he was saying.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    He’s not necessarily stupid, just misinformed. I believed a lot of ridiculous fitness myths when I was a new trainer, too. Keep doing your pistols and tell this trainer to check out my site if he bothers you about it again.

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  • John D

    I’m 62 and can do a pistol squat…..I have had people come up to me at times and give me that “This is bad for your back and that is bad for your knees etc. ” business.
    I asked them if they could do those exercises and if not, how did they know that it is bad for you ?
    There are a lot of “experts” out there, especially in gyms, who are more than willing to share their misinformation with anyone who will listen.
    You are a polite guy Al using the term “misinformed”….I must admit to not being so polite or patient at times. LOL
    Your advice is always on the money

  • Tom B-D

    Hi Al,
    I’ve been following your blog and tutorials since finding you through MDA. I’ll be in NYC in October–will look for you in TSP!
    But I have a question on pistols–I’ve been working my way into these and have the same problem as many posters here re ankle flexibility. I had been holding on to a table but wanted to go hands-free. So I took someone’s advice and put my heel up on an incline (I wear VFFs) and on rep #4 or 5 today heard some crunching sounds in my knee. Hurts a bit, but nothing really scary. Still, I hate having to take time off, but live and learn. I noticed in your post you said about heel off the ground “the change in leverage can be harmful to your knee.” Did you mean simply having your heel elevated, or changing from flat to elevated in mid-rep? I think my problem was too much too soon/not enough warm-up, but when I do get back to it, am wondering if I should not cheat by elevating my heel. Thanks for all your helpful info!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks for the comment, John. Too many people read something in a textbook and assume it must be true, even if they’ve never had any firsthand experience. Good thing you and me know better than that!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Hey Tom – As you seem to have discovered firsthand, I was talking about having the heel elevated to any significant degree. Any more rise than a standard sneaker heel provides is asking for trouble, but you’re best doing pistols barefoot. The common misconception that pistols are inherently bad (mentioned in a couple of the comments below) comes from people getting injured due to sloppy form. I always stress not being in a rush to get to advanced exercises, but sometimes we need to find that out the hard way. Experience is the best teacher – hopefully you’ve learned from this.

  • Tom B-D

    Thanks Al, you’re awesome.
    And yes, I have learned from this…a lesson I’ve learned several times in the past!!

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  • SJ


    what would be the best way to teach this exercise to groups of youth athletes?



  • RobbyTaylor

    There are no shortcuts; the same progressions apply! If you don’t have enough poles for everyone to practice with support, you can partner everyone up to assist each other. Conceivably, this could be done by either standing behind the trainee and lightly pressing their back as they go down, or by standing in front and lightly holding their hands, pulling them forward. This should give them enough assistance to not fall over, but they should be doing as much of the work as possible.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    I wouldn’t recommend doing pistols at all with a group of youth athletes. Have those kids focus on the basics.

  • RobbyTaylor

    Is there an age range you have in mind? When he said youth athletes in the context of pistol squats, I figured he meant like a competitive high school team; something where advanced exercises would actually be beneficial.