Straight to the Bar

All Things Strength


The Pistol Squat
Posted By Al Kavadlo
Filed In : exercises | Favourites | video

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Al demonstrating the Pistol Squat.

The first time I ever tried to do a pistol squat, I remember thinking it seemed impossible – my leg quivered, my abs hurt, even the other leg hurt just trying to keep it in the air! There were a lot of reasons why I couldn’t do it right away, but regardless of the fact that my legs were too weak and my core stabilization was sub-par, the bigger problem was that I lacked the proper neurological capabilities. I know I might be starting to lose you there, but stay with me.

You probably don’t remember what it was like when you were first learning how to walk, but I’m sure that at some point you’ve watched a baby try to. They really have to concentrate and even then they always wobble and fall down a lot in the beginning. This was like me trying to do that first one legged squat. This is how you’ll probably feel the first time that you try it too. However, just like that baby who eventually learns to walk, if you keep at it, one day you will able to do a one legged squat relatively easily.

The reason for this, as I mentioned earlier, is as much about your brain as it is about your body. Whenever you try to get your body to do something that it isn’t used to doing it has to build a new neurological pathway to make it happen. Your brain has never had to send that specific message to your muscle before so it must blaze a new trail in order to arrive there. It is also psychological in the sense that you might be a bit intimidated by the exercise itself. If this is the case, hopefully you can avoid falling into the “I can’t” trap. Don’t defeat yourself before you’ve even tried – when you believe, you can achieve!

However, before you start working on learning the pistol squat, 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, maintaining good posture, keeping your knee (on the squatting leg) from tracking forward in front of your toes, and achieving parallel depth are all essential components of any safe, effective squat – regardless of if you’re using one or both legs.

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 resistance-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 the true pistol squat.

Two of the more common variations of the pistol squat (and yes, there are many others) :

With additional weight (a kettlebell in this instance, but it could be anything).

A plyometric version. Much, much harder than it looks.

NB : This article first appeared in theArticles & Logs‘ area of the forums.

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Written By Al Kavadlo
Al Kavadlo is a personal trainer based in New York, New York; and the author of superb books such as We're Working Out: A Zen Approach to Everyday Fitness (review), Raising the Bar : The Definitive Guide to Bar Calisthenics and Pushing the Limits! Total Body Strength With No Equipment (or you can grab the entire collection for a 50% discount). Swing by his blog for regular updates on bodyweight strength-training, conditioning, and nutrition. You'll also find him on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Youtube and Instagram. And, of course, in Gymchat 223 - Progressive Calisthenics. Fantastic conversation.
Drawing of Scott Andrew Bird performing a deadlift. Artwork by Vince Palko.