Editors Note: Make sure to check out this more recent pistol squat tutorial.
The one legged squat is a lot like a regular two legged squat except that you are standing on only one leg. I’m sure that seems pretty obvious, but my point in stating that fact is to remind you that the same elements that make for good form during a regular squat must still be considered. Maintaining good posture, initiating the movement from your hips and achieving parallel depth (or lower) are all essential components of any safe, effective squat–regardless of if you’re using one or both legs.
Before you are going to begin working towards doing single leg squats, there are a few prerequisites that you ought to have out of the way to ensure a solid foundation. You should be able to perform a proper two legged squat with resistance that is equal to your body weight (ladies this goes for you too!), or if you aren’t into going for one rep maxes, you should be comfortable squatting at least 65% of your body weight for multiple reps. Additionally, you should ensure that your form while doing these is safe by having a qualified supervisor watch you and look for any red flags. For example, if your heels come off the ground while you do your squats then you are probably not ready to try a single leg squat yet.
Now that we’ve gotten that taken care of, there are a few ways to approach training your body to do a one-legger. One method is to start from the bottom up. While sitting down on a bench, lift one foot off the ground. Lean forward and use the heel of your other foot to push into the floor while squeezing your abs tight, puffing your chest out, and reaching your arms out in front. Once you get to the top, try to lower yourself slowly and repeat. You will likely lose control during the lowering phase and wind up plopping down onto the bench at the bottom. That’s fine for now. In time your control will improve to the point where you no longer need to sit on the bench.
Another method to employ while practicing towards doing a one legged squat is to practice from the top down. Stand on a bench, a bit off to the side with one foot hanging off the edge. Squat down so that one leg drops below the level of the bench. Make sure you stick out your hips and butt, and lean forward a bit–otherwise your balance will be off. If you are having a hard time balancing with this, hold onto something to guide you. A resista-band that is securely in place or a cable machine balanced with a full weight stack are great options. A broom handle works well too if you are doing these at home. If you have a training partner, have them assist you by either holding your hand or standing right by you so that you can grab them if you lose your balance. This is an exercise that I will literally hold my client’s hand through the first time they try it!
In time you can progress to doing them on your own. Then you can try coming down off the bench. When you’re standing on the ground, you’ll reach your other leg farther out in the air and hold it as close to parallel with the ground as you can. This is commonly referred to as a pistol squat. A lot of people find holding the other leg out to be the real challenge of performing a solid pistol.
Another variation is to perform them with your secondary leg crossed over the squatting leg. This gives extra stability and is sometimes easier for beginners. However, for those of us with tight hips, this position adds a flexibility challenge that isn’t a concern with the pistol squat. Each variation will be a unique experience on your journey, and a unique challenge to you as an individual. As always, experiment with as many variations as you can. And of course, don’t just sit there reading this–get out there and live it!