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Pistol Squats and Beyond

Single-leg squats are a journey, not just a move. Commit to a classic lift for
strength, balance, and mobility!

Pistol Perfect: One-Legged Squats And Beyond

Pistol squats pop up all over the place, but that doesn't make this classic movement any easier. Commit, do the work, and let Al Kavadlo be your guide!

When I began my fitness journey in the early '90s, machines and free weights ruled the world of strength. But recently, the pendulum of popular fitness has begun swinging back toward the minimalist end of the spectrum, and advanced calisthenics exercises like the pistol squat have been getting a lot more attention.


Pistol Squat Progression
Watch The Video - 01:48



You can see them in a wide range of programs, from pure calisthenics to kettlebells and even circuit training. While I'm obviously excited to see bodyweight strength training getting its due from the mainstream, it makes me wonder: Where does the pistol squat fit in to the fitness regimen of the average gym goer?

Though many may think they can start right in with this exercise, the truth is that fitness pros often get so eager to show off a cool-looking new move or technique that they forget it's inappropriate for 95 percent of the general population.

Even if you've been strength training for a long time, performing a one-legged bodyweight squat with your opposite leg held in front is a unique skill that requires patience and practice to master.

Though the pistol squat is my favorite lower-body exercise in my own training, I recognize it's not appropriate for most of my clients—yet. It may be a nice long-term goal for many of them to work toward, but they need to be realistic, and so do I as their coach. Just like you wouldn't load 300 pounds onto the bar if you were teaching a beginner to do a deadlift, you can't jump right into a full pistol squat with a novice, or even intermediate-level athlete.

Before you even think about beginning to work specifically toward a pistol, make sure you can do at least 40 consecutive two-legged bodyweight squats with a full range of motion. Until you can, you shouldn't worry about any of these variants. Assuming that prerequisite has been met, however, here are a few progressive variations that you can use to work your way up to a full pistol squat ... and beyond!

Bench Pistol

Stand right in front of a bench, box or other low object and reach one leg into the air. Now sit back onto the object as slowly as you can. You'll likely lose control on the way down the first bunch of times— this is fine.

Plop down if you have to, then squeeze your abs—and your whole body—as you reach your arms out in front and pitch yourself forward to get up. Over time work toward squatting onto a lower object.

Assisted Pistol

Stand in front of a pole, doorframe or any other sturdy, vertical object that allows you to reach your opposite leg around it. Grasp the object with your hands and lower yourself down to the bottom of the pistol position with the heel of your squatting leg remaining flat on the floor. From here, lightly use your arms for assistance to pull yourself back to the top and keep your balance.

Focus on doing as much of the work as possible with your leg, only using your arms to make up the difference. You may need to use your arms a lot at first, but as your legs get stronger, you'll rely on your upper body less and less.

Elevated Pistol

Stand on top of an object with one leg hanging off of the side. Reach your arms in front and slowly lower to the bottom of a squat while your opposite leg drops below your squatting leg. Allowing your extended leg to hang down gives you more favorable leverage to complete the squat. It's also easier to balance this way as opposed to holding your free leg straight out in front.

When you've built up to a few good reps, you should try practicing on something lower. Ideally, you'll be able to find a platform just high enough to keep your outstretched foot from dragging on the ground.

Counterweighted Pistol

Pistols are one of those rare exercises that can actually be made easier for most people by adding weight—to a point, anyway. Holding a dumbbell or other heavy object in front of your chest can keep you balanced by pulling you forward, offsetting the weight of your hips moving back on the way down. Start with 10 or 15 pounds, gradually moving toward lighter weights as your balance improves.

Pistol Perfect

In theory, anyone who can do a full range-of-motion barbell back squat with their body weight on the bar should be able to do a pistol. In reality, this is rarely the case. The core strength, balance, and coordination needed to perform the pistol are unique and require skill-specific work.

Like anyone else, I had to put in my time and learn the mechanics of this move the old-fashioned way: practice. If I make pistols look easy, it's only because I've been practicing them consistently for more than a decade. A beginner should not expect to get a pistol without months—or possibly years—of dedicated training. Work your way through the progressions, milking each step for all you can.

Once you've built the strength and control to perform lots of standard pistol squats, there is still room to continue to challenge yourself. If pistols with your arms held in front are becoming too easy, try placing your hands behind your back; this simple change in leverage will make the move significantly more difficult. If you've become advanced with one-legged squats, you can begin to explore plyometric jumping pistols. The sky's the limit!

Wow, Strong Legs!

No matter your current strength level, these variations on the one-legged squat are relevant for anyone interested in building serious leg strength. Include them on your leg day along with weighted two-legged squats or practice them a few times each week as part of a full-body calisthenics program. Build up to 3-5 sets of 5-10 quality reps before moving on to the next step.

That may sound like an endless commitment, but remember that each of these steps is a unique and valuable strength challenge in and of itself, and you will see benefits from them. Take your time working through this progression and respect your level. If you are dedicated in your practice, you'll eventually get to the full pistol squat. Good things come to those who train!




Related Articles

About The Author

Al Kavadlo, CSCS is one of the world's leading experts in bodyweight strength training and calisthenics.

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pagansaint

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pagansaint

Knee positioning and angle of descent is HUGE with pistol squats. Develop a bad habit in either of those, and can cause some serious harm. But do them right? Awesome body weight only results.

Sep 23, 2013 5:57pm | report
 
AlKavadlo

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AlKavadlo

Agreed - proper form is key!

Sep 24, 2013 5:45pm | report
mutantdogbreath

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mutantdogbreath

I tryed these for the first time a month ago, my fat *** barely did one... still felt accomplished.

Sep 23, 2013 9:03pm | report
 
AlKavadlo

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AlKavadlo

Haha - nice! Don't see a lot of guys doing pistols at 25% bf.

Sep 24, 2013 5:45pm | report
IIISpartacusIII

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IIISpartacusIII

Looks great for bodyweight workouts.

Sep 23, 2013 9:51pm | report
 
AlKavadlo

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AlKavadlo

Hell Yeah.

Sep 24, 2013 5:46pm | report
darrenash

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darrenash

How the heck did that chap perform that pylo pistol squat at the end of the video? Hat's off.

Sep 24, 2013 2:33am | report
 
AlKavadlo

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AlKavadlo

Thanks! That move took some practice!

Sep 24, 2013 5:46pm | report
RelaxImJoking

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RelaxImJoking

I have to try these, in every one of his pictures this guy looks extreamely happy doing these.

Sep 24, 2013 8:33am | report
 
AlKavadlo

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AlKavadlo

Haha - I love getting to work out!

Sep 24, 2013 5:46pm | report
loufogel

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loufogel

Hey I have a pair of those sandals in your picture (www.xeroshoes.com). Now I want to be able to do pistols like that picture, too!

Sep 24, 2013 1:18pm | report
 
AlKavadlo

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AlKavadlo

Right on! Follow the progressions and you'll be on your way!

Sep 24, 2013 5:47pm | report
whiteboychef

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whiteboychef

Im so glad to see Al Kavadlo featured on BB.com. I ran across one of his videos long ago doing general search on fitness and I admire his approach & great attitude toward fitness & coaching others. He has inspired me & I have done more body weight exercises because of him & his brother. The videos are very inspiring & you would think some of the exercises are easy when watching, until you try them...correctly. I'm more of a meathead but body weight exercises, imo, are a integral part of ANY fitness plan for flexibility & strength.

Sep 24, 2013 7:08pm | report
 
AlKavadlo

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AlKavadlo

Thanks! I'm very excited to be writing for BB.com!

Sep 25, 2013 7:09am | report
frveryng

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frveryng

love this advice and the al kavadlo approach. you got me doing the assisted pistol squat in one of your other presentations - they're hard! but i like them! this article is encouraging to just keep working along and let them develop.

Sep 24, 2013 8:50pm | report
 
AlKavadlo

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AlKavadlo

Thanks! Keep it up!

Sep 25, 2013 7:10am | report
g1fthorse

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g1fthorse

These are going straight into my regime, assisted first of course, after all you have to start somewhere

Article Rated:
Sep 25, 2013 2:33am | report
 
AlKavadlo

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AlKavadlo

Right on! One step at a time...

Sep 25, 2013 7:10am | report
g1fthorse

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g1fthorse

I tried them last night with the girls at zumba, shocking results but definitely a whole body challenge now. I'm going to get the guys at Tae kwon do with these babies on Sunday, let the games commence

Sep 26, 2013 2:24am | report
aakashsharma20

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aakashsharma20

i was reading elliot hulse(i consider him as my mentor) blog ...it was there i saw your name...............i have this in my training program in 5th and 6th week under power block.........it was a nice article though but i am following mark lauren (you are your own gym) once done there you are next on my list.

Sep 25, 2013 5:06am | report
 
AlKavadlo

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AlKavadlo

Thanks! Elliott Hulse and Mark Lauren are both great guys!

Sep 25, 2013 7:11am | report
mexicanalinda18

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mexicanalinda18

nevered tried but looks hard. I don't want to fall at the gym so I will practice at home. Lol.

Sep 25, 2013 6:01am | report
 
AlKavadlo

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AlKavadlo

Haha - definitely try it in private the first time! :)

Sep 25, 2013 7:12am | report
g1fthorse

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g1fthorse

I think that I will be practicing these at home defo for a while yet

Sep 26, 2013 2:25am | report
RobertTKahn

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RobertTKahn

remember when there was bodybuilding

Sep 25, 2013 7:15am | report
 
Showing 1 - 25 of 47 Comments

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