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Mastering the Pistol Squat Once and for All

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  • Post last modified:September 25, 2023

As a certified personal trainer, in terms of fitness (and life) I firmly believe that anything is achievable with sufficient time and exertion. I’ve progressed from being unable to perform a solitary push-up to successfully executing decline push-ups (also known as demanding push-ups performed with elevated feet). For years, I was incapable of doing a pull-up, but through consistent effort, I can now perform five consecutively. By continuously moving forward (both literally and metaphorically), I have participated in ultramarathons and become a personal trainer.

But there was one exercise that always eluded me: the pistol squat.

What Is a Pistol Squat and Why Are They So Challenging?

Pistol squats are unilateral exercises, which means they target one leg at a time. A pistol squat involves squatting down on one leg until you are seated on your heel, then pushing back up using the same leg. Throughout the movement, your non-working leg should be approximately parallel to the ground. Pistol squats test the strength of your glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, feet, and calves, in addition to mobility and balance.

What I Discovered by Pushing Myself to Do Pistol Squats

I always believed that pistols were intended for gymnasts and fitness enthusiasts, not someone like me. However, when I started experiencing knee pain and consulted physical therapist Missy Albrecht, D.P.T., she informed me that most individuals should strive to incorporate some form of pistol squat into their routine, even if they can’t achieve the full range of motion. When performed correctly, all squats should engage your glutes. Nonetheless, many people spend prolonged periods sitting in chairs, which leads to shortened hip flexors and elongated glute muscles (thus “deactivating” them). With a pistol squat, it is imperative to properly engage your glutes (that is, learn to activate them) for optimal outcomes. Therefore, if I worked on my pistol squats, it would enhance the strength of my glutes, alleviating my knee pain since I wouldn’t need to rely on other muscles as much, according to Albrecht.

“Pistol squats are particularly fascinating as they expose various inefficiencies, movement dysfunctions, and mobility limitations,” explains Albrecht. When executed correctly, muscles in the foot, ankle, shin, thigh, glutes, and pelvic floor collaborate to generate power during pistol squats.

Numerous individuals’ buttocks have a proclivity for idleness even amidst pistols, thus acquiring the skill to execute a pistol squat accurately can serve as an excellent approach to rejuvenate your buttocks.

How to Progress Towards a Pistol Squat

With the assistance of Albrecht, I devised a plan to finally conquer the pistol squat. Three times per week, I would begin with some activation exercises for the glutes and upper back, as well as exercises to enhance mobility in the hips and ankles. Following that, I would perform three sets of five pistol squats, utilizing a plyo box to support my buttocks, gradually transitioning to lower boxes as I gained strength.

There are alternative methods to modify the pistol squat as you work towards achieving it without assistance. Utilizing TRX straps or an elastic band to hold onto while squatting, or holding a light weight in front of you, can make balancing slightly easier. However, I opted for the box method because I found myself relying heavily on my arms when using the TRX. Throughout the course of the month, I gradually lowered the box until it was no longer needed. Success! Well, at least on one side.

Learning how to execute a proper pistol squat proved to be a humbling experience, even for a personal trainer who exercises five times a week. It required significantly more effort to motivate myself to complete the three sets of five pistol squats than I initially anticipated. I discovered numerous excuses to avoid doing them more frequently than I care to admit (“I don’t work out in the evenings”), which provided me with empathy for the difficulties associated with any lifestyle change. Additionally, it made me realize that I already had a solid foundation to begin with – a well-formed squat with both feet grounded and excellent hip and ankle flexibility. However, this movement, which once appeared unattainable and reserved solely for the “elite,” became possible through focused effort and determination.

After four weeks had passed, I could confidently perform two consecutive pistol squats with my right leg, while barely managing to do one with my left leg, which resulted in a collapsing knee. I was aware that my right side possessed more strength than my left, but I had no idea the difference was so substantial. My goal is to strive for improved balance, not only for the sake of pistol squats, but also to prevent long-term injuries. The work is never truly finished.

How to Progress Towards a Pistol Squat

If you desire to learn how to perform pistol squats as well, incorporate the following progression into your existing workout routine three times a week. You can either perform it independently or after completing your workout.

Warm-up: Begin with a 10-15 minute cardiovascular warm-up (if you haven’t just exercised) and then prepare your squatting muscles. Complete three sets of 10 bodyweight air squats, glute bridges, and one minute of ankle mobility exercises on each leg.

Modified Pistol Squat: Locate a chair, plyo box, or bench that falls somewhere between thigh and shin height. This will allow you to lower yourself onto it and then stand back up on one leg with relative ease.

(You might only be lowering your posterior eight inches, and that’s acceptable!) Accomplish 3 sets of 5 repetitions of one-legged squats on each limb, descending your posterior to tap the chair/box/bench. If you feel prepared after completing the workout a few times, squat onto a lower platform.

Isometric Hold: Conclude each workout with three 30 second isometric one-legged squat holds on each limb.

Remember that it necessitates considerable gluteal potency and will likely require a substantial duration to attain the complete range of motion — but have faith in the progress, put in the effort, and, akin to myself, you can unquestionably achieve it.

Thanks for your input!