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.
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.
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.