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.

72 thoughts on “Pistol Squats

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  • By Daledykes - Reply

    Another timely post, Al. I typically see two progressions recommended for the pistol: (A)  squatting to lower and lower elevations or (B) the assisted full-range pistol which you’ve referenced here.

    My question is, do you recommend (B) over (A), and if so, why ?


    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

      I think both can be effective, Dale – especially if used in conjunction.  The first method you described is more or less what I talk about in my original pistol squat tutorial.  The link is in the post above.

      • By Tim - Reply

        A lot of good info. I started doing pistols on a chair using the back for support. Then a picnic table then two 3# weights. Recently I was doing pistol ladder outside. Next week I will start doing them inside (only because it is harder for me to do I prefer outdoor exercise).

        So my question is about foot placement. My right leg is my weak leg. When doing close squats, Chinese squats or pistols I have find it hard keeping my right foot straight. It ends up at about 1 or 2 degrees facing out. I have not had any joint or back pain. Do the feet have to be perfectly straight?

        • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

          Hey Tim, there’s nothing wrong with turning your foot out a bit during pistols.  Keep up the god work!

          • By Ty -

            Are there tricks to keeping track of where the foot or knee is facing during pistols? Directions become more confusing with how the pelvis can rotate so easily around the femur.

  • By Anonymous - Reply

    Al, great post. Pistols are a great demonstration of single leg strength and lower limb mobility. What are your thoughts on thoracic and or lumbar flexion during squatting movements? My immobility in my t-spine prevent me from doing a perfect pistol.

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

      As long as you aren’t using additional weight, I think it’s okay to give yourself some leeway with the form when starting out.  With right practice you should be able to use it as a tool to improve your mobility over time.

  • By Caveman Home Companion - Reply

    I tried to do one. My g/f went over and got the neighbor to help me up. I probably shouldn’t have waited until I was 63 to start getting in shape.

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

      Better late than never.  You can always get stronger!  Next time use something to spot yourself though.  :)

  • By Darrin - Reply

    Finally started working on these! I need to use a kettlebell to assist me at the bottom of the squat, but I’m looking forward to ditching it and doing “genuine” squats once my sense of balance gets a bit better!

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

      Sounds good, Darrin!  Keep practicing!

  • By Matt Swider - Reply

    A Door jamb can make a great indoor substitute for a pole on the assisted pistols.  

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

      I concur.  But I like training at the park better!

  • By Justin Termini - Reply

    Thanks, Al! I’ve been working on these lately, so it’s nice to get some inspiration. The other day I happened to be on the beach and decided to try out some pistols. To my surprise, I could do 2-3 (fairly sloppy) reps on each leg. When I got back home I tried to do some more on a hardwood floor and could only get down to the floor, yet couldn’t get back up (as per usual). Do you think the slight incline in the sand (which caused and elevated heel) at the beach allowed for a greater range of ankle mobility than I have on flat ground?

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

      Hey Justin – interesting story – anything’s possible!  I bet you’ll get a pistol on level ground soon if you keep practicing!

  • By John - Reply

    One thing I noticed about pistols is that they’re much easier to do when you have sneakers on as opposed to being barefoot.  Do you think doing them that way somehow removes some of the benefits of the exercise?

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

      Hey John – I think pistols are easier with sneakers because the bottom of a sneaker is flat, so it’s easier to balance.  Doing them barefoot also involves more of your feet muscles (kinda like how barefoot running works your feet more than running in shoes.)  While doing pistols barefoot may have extra benefits, it’s still a good exercise barefoot or not.

  • By Todd Dosenberry - Reply

    I tried one of these the other day… oh boy… can’t wait to be able to do a few at at time. I just need to work on my balance!

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

      Hey Todd!  Like many advanced bodyweight exercises, the pistol can be deceptively challenging – keep at it!

  • By Jess - Reply

    The ankle flexibility issue is a big part for some people. Namely, me. The problem is that stretching the ankles makes marginal gains. For me, it seems like I reach a point where the joint just doesn’t want to go any farther. Almost like bone on bone. With both pistols and shrimps, I just reach a point where I can do something like 10 reps at a given range of motion, but not a single rep just barely below it.

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

      Hey Jess – Have you tried the self assist method I discussed in this article?

      • By Rob - Reply

        Yes, my ankle stays on the floor during the self assist method, but if i try letting go of the ‘door frame’ or whatever i am using to assist me, I just fall backwards. I guess it might be a case of keep at it.

        • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

          You said it!  Pistols take lots of practice!

          • By Rob -

            I have been going over my general squatting form, and just looking at your amazingly awesome dorsiflextion photo, i think i am way off. I have been concentrating on bending from the hips, keeping heels on the floor etc. But my tail turns in at the bottom of the squat, curving my back. Are there any exercises that I can do to help loosen up my back/hips?

          • By Al Kavadlo -

            When you do a pistol, it’s almost impossible not to round your lower back a bit.  Though you probably wouldn’t want to do that for a barbell squat, it is acceptable form in this case.  As for improving flexibility in your hips, daily stretching is your best bet. 

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  • By Don Weiss - Reply

    I have found if I do the pistol while standing on a very slight incline (facing downhill), I can squat all the way, on a flat surface, not so much. It may be the ankle flexibility issue, or the balance issue. Either way, worth a try while learning.

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

      Hey Don – Like you said, an incline can make the balance easier as well as requiring less flexibility.  It might be a good way to start, though I still suggest working up to a true pistol for the full benefits of the exercise.

  • By Crash - Reply

    I read in Pavel T’s book “the naked warrior” that your Tibia must be straight-up plumb during the exercise. I a number of pictures I see the knee moving over the toes. How much range of motion are you allowed? Does the Tibia only stay plumb at the bottom of the pistol squat?

    BTW Love the flag progressions in CC2

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

      Thanks, Crash – glad you’re enjoying CC2!

      As for your question, this is one instance in which I disagree with Pavel.  As long as the heel stays down, I think it’s beneficial for the tibia to tilt forward a bit.

    • By Blair Norwood - Reply

      That was something that confused me in the naked warrior becuase all of his pistol squat photos showed the ankle in flexion.

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  • By Ty - Reply

    The dorsi-flexion problem is huge for me. Clearly we need flexible soleus muscles, but I guess they also need to be strong too. I wonder if we did seated calf raises with balls of feet elevated on a block for greater depth if this would be helpful in getting that.

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

      Only one way to find out right?

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  • By Anonymous - Reply

    Al, I stumbled upon your sight a month ago and really appreciate all you have to offer. It’s not ubber whelming with a lot of flash and music. I find the tutorials most helpful and enjoy your upbeat approach vs the muscle head-ed ones.
    Roger Mursick (USMC-ret) and professional Standup. http://www.rogermursick.com

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

      Thanks, Roger!

  • By Robby Taylor - Reply

    Al, I find that I can do pistol squats in my work boots, but I can’t do them barefoot reliably; I keep falling backward! I figure it’s because of the weight of the boots and/or the height they provide. However, I can do them barefoot if I hold a dumbbell in my hands and hold it out by the free foot. Is this a good idea, or does this put my back in danger? In terms of strength, does the weight make the exercise more difficult, or does the weight help “pull” you up out of the bottom position? it seems more difficult to me than a nonweighted one, in terms of strength, but surely not as much as it would be holding the weight by my body!

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

      Hey Robby – It sounds like you’re doing a good job of figuring out the mechanics of a pistol for yourself!  Keep practicing – you’ll get a barefoot freestanding pistol eventually.

      • By Robby Taylor - Reply

        Thanks, Al, I now have a little “trick” that helps me stay balanced while also maximizing the stretch in the nonworking leg and as well as the force on the working leg. I simply hold my free foot with my hand and stretch out my leg, then balance so that the leg is horizontal. This pulls you forward, keeping you balanced, which in turn keeps the leg stretched and allows you to much more easily keep it horizontal, thus maximizing the work necessary of the nonworking leg. Of course, ideally you would have your fingers interlaced behind your head while keeping the leg straight and stretched without assistance. I’m pretty sure you did this in the pistol squat tutorial video. We’re working out!! 

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  • By Robby Taylor - Reply

    Hey Al, I’m curious, how much harder is a pistol squat with your hands behind your lower back when compared to doing them with your hands behind your head? I can do them with my hands behind my head but I can’t even get to the bottom without falling over when I try it with my hands behind my back! It must be pretty darn hard! Can you compare it to the advanced shrimp squat?

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

      The hands behind the back version is MUCH harder than the hands behind the head version, but it sounds like you already know that from firsthand experience!  The advanced shrimp is about halfway between the two in terms of difficulty for me.

      • By Robby Taylor - Reply

        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).

  • By Anonymous - Reply

    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?

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

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

  • By Lordluqa - Reply

    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?

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

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

  • By Rob White - Reply

    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!

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

      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/

      • By Rob White - Reply

        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!

        • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

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

  • By Joel - Reply

    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.

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

      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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  • By John D - Reply

    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

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

      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!

  • By Tom B-D - Reply

    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!

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

      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.

      • By Tom B-D - Reply

        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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  • By SJ - Reply


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



    • By RobbyTaylor - Reply

      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.

    • By Al Kavadlo - Reply

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

      • By RobbyTaylor - Reply

        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.

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