Squats come with a lot of reputation and honor, and for good reason, as they’re one of the finest functional strength moves out there. But they’re frequently restricted to the two-footed kind. That’s correct: You can perform a squat on one leg, and it’s just as difficult as you’re envisioning.
The pistol squat (also known as the single-leg squat or one-leg squat) is a top-tier strength move that necessitates equilibrium, flexibility, and a whole lot of strength. But the fulfillment when you finally master it? Absolutely worth the hours of practice.
Ahead, everything you need to know about this one-leg squat variation, including the advantages the pistol squat has to offer, the muscles it targets, and tips on how to incorporate it into your routine, whether you’re a complete beginner or an expert looking to enhance your workout.
How to Perform a Pistol Squat
Essentially, a pistol squat involves maintaining balance on one leg, extending the other leg in front of your body, then bending the knee of your working leg to slowly lower your buttocks to the floor, says Krystyn Diane Macatangay, a registered kinesiologist and certified personal trainer in Toronto. Your arms can either be extended in front of your chest to assist with your balance or crossed against your chest for an added stability challenge, she explains. Regardless, you’ll want to squat until your working leg’s thigh is at least parallel with the floor, and the deeper you go, the more strength and flexibility the move demands from you, says Macatangay.
Confused? Watch Macatangay’s demonstration of the pistol squat below. If it appears feasible for you, follow the step-by-step breakdown of the move to give it a try.
A. Stand on the left leg with the entire left foot firmly planted on the floor, the right leg lifted off the floor and fully extended in front of the body. Extend both arms out in front of the chest.
B. Bend the left knee and move the hips backward, reaching the arms forward while extending the right leg forward, lowering the body until the hips are at or below parallel. Keep the right leg lifted off the floor throughout the movement.
C. Contract the glutes and hamstring to halt the descent, then push through the floor on the left foot to rise back up to the starting position.
The Key Benefits of Pistol Squats
Besides appearing incredibly impressive, you can expect a variety of functional benefits from working on mastering the pistol squat.
What makes the pistol squat (or one-leg squat) so remarkable is that it’s not just a builder of strength — it also challenges your mobility. “This exercise requires a great deal of hip, knee, and ankle mobility,” says Rachel Mariotti, a certified personal trainer in New York City. In case you didn’t know, mobility refers to your ability to actively control and utilize your full range of motion within a joint. And during the pistol squat, you’ll have to utilize the entire range of motion in these joints to achieve your desired depth and keep your foot firmly planted on the ground. Aside from enhancing your performance, focusing on mobility can help maintain the health of your joints, decrease the chances of injury or pain during high-intensity activities, and make everyday movements much simpler, as Shape previously reported.
Spotlights Muscle Discrepancies
As the name suggests, the single-leg squat is performed on one leg at a time, building strength in the hips, glutes, quads, and hamstrings on only one side of your body at a time, according to Mariotti. By doing pistol squats, you can identify any strength or mobility differences you may have, Mariotti adds. Give them a try and you might discover that one leg is significantly stronger than the other (typically the dominant side of your body).
The issue: When there are noticeable muscle imbalances, the stronger side of your body may compensate for the weaker side during bilateral movements, leading to overuse injuries. Alternatively, muscles on the weaker side that typically aren’t activated may be recruited to assist in completing a movement, which can also increase the risk of injury, as Shape previously reported. Thankfully, pistol squats and other one-sided movements can help you identify those discrepancies and even out your strength.
It’s no surprise, but the pistol squat can truly test your balance, requiring the stabilizing muscles in your lower body to keep you upright as you lower your buttocks to the ground, says Macatangay. Remember: Balance is not an innate ability, and you must continuously work on it, particularly as you age, to stay free of injuries both in the gym and in your daily life. “The ability to stabilize and balance prepares you to be more aware of your body, which can help reduce the risk of injury,” Yonnie Procter, a physical therapist in California, previously told Shape.
Muscles Worked during Pistol Squat
The pistol squat aids in developing strength in your glutes, quads, and hamstrings, as these muscles control your descent and provide the power to return to a standing position from the lowest point of the squat, according to Macatangay. Additionally, it activates the smaller muscles surrounding your ankles and knees for stability, as well as your core, explains Macatangay. She emphasizes the importance of the core in this movement and highlights how keeping it engaged allows for better and smoother execution of the squat.
Pistol Squat Variations
Mastering the pistol squat takes practice, and before attempting it, it is advisable to focus on forward, reverse, and lateral lunges to enhance strength and stability in each leg. However, once you feel ready to tackle the single-leg squat, you can try these modifications. Once you’ve mastered the basic move, you can challenge yourself further with a progression.
Modification: Eccentric-Only Pistol Squat
To gradually progress towards a traditional pistol squat, you can practice the move while holding onto TRX straps or a pole for support. Alternatively, you can hold a dumbbell horizontally at chest height with your arms extended to counterbalance the weight of your torso.
Another option is to squat down onto a bench or box instead of lowering all the way to the floor. This will help you become familiar with the movement pattern and build strength without the risk of falling. Macatangay suggests that if you don’t have any equipment, you can focus on the eccentric portion of the single-leg squat, which involves lowering yourself. This helps develop control and stability. At the bottom of the squat, you will place your raised leg back on the floor and return to a standing position using both feet.
Progression: Dragon Pistol Squat
Macatangay recommends holding a weight close to your chest as the simplest way to progress with the single-leg pistol squat. However, you can increase the balance challenge by reducing the surface area beneath your foot (e.g., standing on the handle of a kettlebell) or by placing your hands behind your back.
To assess your stability and mobility, give the dragon pistol squat a try. During this exercise, you push your elongated leg towards the rear and encircle it around the exterior of your active leg—while simultaneously performing a squat,” says Macatangay.
Common Pistol Squat Errors
When descending into the pistol squat, consider shifting the hips backward rather than pushing the knee forward. To fully reap the benefits of the exercise, strive to keep your extended leg from touching the ground, and remember to maintain a flat foot on the floor (meaning, avoid raised heels), according to Macatangay. Aim to keep your spine elongated and your back level (in other words, refrain from rounding forward or arching backward) while engaging your core to stay balanced and prevent discomfort in the back. If you find it difficult to execute the movement without compromising your form, regress to a simpler modification. Remember: Maintaining proper form is much more crucial than immediately conquering the most difficult variation of the single-leg squat.
How to Incorporate the Pistol Squat into Your Routine
Prior to adding the pistol squat to your list of fitness aspirations, consult with your healthcare professional if you have previously experienced or are presently dealing with knee or hip injuries, as this exercise can place additional strain on these joints, advises Macatangay. If you receive clearance, focus on unilateral exercises that enhance strength (such as reverse lunges and Bulgarian split squats) so that your body becomes capable and prepared to tackle the one-legged squat, suggests Macatangay.
Once you feel self-assured, perform several repetitions of the traditional pistol squat, paying careful attention to where your form begins to falter. “It is certainly crucial to attempt the exercise multiple times and identify the areas in which you might require additional work—the specific phase of the exercise itself—and then strive to strengthen or increase mobility within that particular area,” says Macatangay. Struggling to keep your non-working leg extended? It may be necessary to focus on enhancing the strength of your hip flexors. Unable to descend to the floor with control? Concentrate on strengthening the muscles throughout your lower body, advises Macatangay.
Since the pistol squat is generally regarded as more of a skill-based exercise to include on your bucket list rather than a foundational movement, there isn’t a set number of reps to strive for, says Macatangay. “One repetition might be satisfactory for one individual, whereas another person’s aim may be to perform it flawlessly five times in a row,” she explains. Nonetheless, it is generally recommended to practice your single-leg squats towards the conclusion of your training session, as your muscles will be thoroughly warmed up and primed for action, she adds.
You want to ensure that your body is prepared physically and even mentally to begin attempting [the pistol squat],” she states. “Your muscles always function best when they feel warm and they are aware that you are about to commence moving.
Although you should not anticipate mastering the single-leg squat immediately, all the time and effort you invest in acquiring the skill is highly valuable. “I believe the pistol squat is certainly advantageous for everyone to attempt and challenge their body’s abilities — to recognize that your body is capable of moving and even assuming that position,” says Macatangay.
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