Building Single Limb Leg Strength

Master the Pistol Squat

The pistol squat is one of the most valuable exercises an athlete can have in his little black book of tricks when training for strength, power, and increased muscle. Of course, that depends on whether or not the athlete can actually perform pistols. The truth is most can’t and won’t without a lot of work. After trying a few times and failing, most give up and never try again.

Balance & Strength

The pistol squat requires balance and strength. It is a unique exercise, easy for some and incredibly difficult for others. Going straight into performing a pistol without any prior one-legged training will probably leave you falling on your ass. This is where the exercise progressions come in. They ease you into the swing of things and get you squatting on one leg.

There are many athletes who are extremely powerful with weighted squats well over 500 pounds, but fail every single time they attempt pistol squats. Then there are those who have an unusual talent for making pistols look easy. Many gymnasts are able to pump out repetition after repetition of this exercise. Pistols strengthen the hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes, and hips, but one of the most valuable benefits they provide is injury prevention. They significantly strengthen the knee structure over time. They can also even out strength imbalances because you perform them on just one leg.

When compared to barbell squats, single leg squats greatly reduce the stress placed on the lower back and spine making it a more ‘back friendly’ exercise option for those with back problems. No other body weight exercise builds lower body strength like pistols do, but they can take time to master, so I’ll show you the best exercises to use to build up to them. If you attempt them and fall down, don’t frown. Just get back up and start working on the progressions. Pistols are a very advanced exercise and it takes time to become proficient with them. However, the benefits and strength gains they produce are more than worth the work.

Pistol Squats

  • Improve strength and flexibility
  • Can be performed anywhere, anytime, and without any equipment
  • Can even out strength imbalances, bringing the weaker leg up to speed
  • Improve mobility in the knee, ankle, and hip joints
  • Promote good barbell squat technique because they force you to sit back, maintain good posture, and keep the whole body tight
  • Reduce the stress on the lower back making them great for those with back problems

Pistols are also a cool party trick because it's funny to bust out repetitions of pistols with ease while your friends all try and fall on their asses.

Standard Pistol Squat

To perform a standard pistol squat, start by standing on one leg with the foot on the floor flat and the other leg outstretched straight in front of you ideally at hip level. Some trainees may struggle slightly to do so if hamstring flexibility is poor. Don't allow your heel to lift off the floor and come on to your toes. This is a knee injury waiting to happen. Aim to keep this leg straight throughout the entire exercise.

Squat down, descending slowly and getting as low as possible. Pause briefly and then press back up while keeping upright posture. You want to sit back with your butt to be able to press up using the full strength of your leg on the way up. Keep good balance throughout. You should aim to sit back so that the hamstring rests on the calf at the bottom of your supporting leg. I recommend stretching your arms out in front of you because it helps keep you balanced. With so much of your body weight shifting back on to one leg, lean forward with your upper body and arms to evenly distribute the weight. However, aim to stay as upright as possible so that you can still sit back on to your calf and press up powerfully.

Holding a weight plate in your hands or a very light dumbbell in each hand to serve as a counter balance can help tremendously when first beginning pistol work. I can't recommend this enough. Keeping your arms straight the entire time, start the exercise with the dumbbells by your sides and raise them up to shoulder level as you descend. Then do the reverse on the way back up. This also serves to help keep you balanced. Try to keep your abdominals tight and lean slightly forward with the top of your body and slightly back with the bottom half of your body to keep good balance. Too much either way will cause you to fall over.

Definitely don't rush the descent because rushing and dropping too fast could injure your knee. Keep the movement slow and controlled on the way down. However, you can bounce a little at the bottom to take advantage of the stretch reflex and power your way back to standing position a little easier. This is kind of like stretching an elastic band and then pinging it. Pistol squats can take time to develop. They require tremendous hip flexor strength, which many male athletes lack.

Pistol squat progressions and variations

Uneven basketball pistol squat: This movement is exactly the same as the traditional pistol, except that the heel of your outstretched leg is resting on a basketball, soccer ball, or medicine ball (or maybe a chair or stack of phone books). This is a great stepping stone for athletes who aren't yet strong enough to do full pistol squats. It also offers a way to ease into unilateral one-legged training if you perform them on a stable surface. If you choose to perform them with the outstretched foot on a ball, it can be much more challenging due to the instability and the fact that you can reach a much deeper squat. Experiment with different surfaces and see which lends better to your current level of training. If you have trouble with stability because the basketball keeps moving around, use a more stable object such as several phone books stacked on top of each other at roughly the same height as the ball.

Half range of motion pistol squats: For the complete pistol novice, pistol squats using only half of the range of motion can be an excellent way to ease into the other variations. The lower down you squat when performing pistols, the more challenging it becomes and the more difficult it can be to press back up from the bottom of the movement. Squat half way down. Try to at least break parallel so that your legs create a 90-degree right angle. Then press back up by driving your feet into the floor with most of the power coming from the heel pressing into the floor.

Lamppost/door frame assisted pistol squats: To help ease you into one-legged squats, perform the pistol while holding on to a door frame or lamppost in front of you. Try to use your arms as little as possible during this exercise and let the legs do most of the work. As you become stronger, you will use your arms less and less.

Basketball assisted pistol squats: In this pistol squat assistance exercise, we use a basketball or similar sized ball to create a bounce at the bottom of the squat and make the movement easier for those who struggle to get back up once they hit full depth. The bottom position of all types of squats is always the most difficult. This is especially true for pistols. The basketball assisted pistol squat will allow you to start getting full depth and pressing back up so that you can make faster progress toward the more difficult traditional pistol squat.

Rolling pistol squats: At the bottom of the squat, roll on to your back, tucking your chin in, and use the momentum to roll back up and stand up out of the squat.

Box/chair sitting pistol squats: The box pistol is much like the reduced range of motion squat in that the more shallow depth allows newer trainees to ease into standard pistols using the box as a measure of progress. Simply perform a pistol squat, lowering yourself until your bottom sits on the box. Pause for a second, letting the box take your weight, and then press back up. The box height can be lowered as the athlete becomes stronger and more confident with the exercise. Slowly keep lowering the box until you're comfortable at ground depth. You may add weight to box pistols by holding weight plates or dumbbells in your hands as a way to measure progress and increase difficulty without increasing depth.

Box/bench standing pistol squats: This variation allows you to reach full depth without having your non-supporting leg at hip level. Instead, it's down by the side of the box/bench/wall completely straight. Raising the leg at hip level makes the pistol much more difficult, so this variation allows you to get practice squatting full depth and maybe even doing so while holding dumbbells or extra weights for added resistance to build you up to the standard pistol. As you become stronger at these, you may raise the foot and leg in front of you more and more until you're strong enough to have the leg straight at hip level like with a standard pistol.

Paused reps: Descend into the squat and hold the bottom position for three to five seconds. Then press back up to a standing position. This eliminates the stretch reflex mentioned earlier and makes the upward movement much more difficult.

Slow eccentrics: To perform these, descend extremely slowly and then press back up to a standing position quickly and explosively. Ideally, you should descend so slowly that it takes you five seconds to reach the bottom of the squat.

Weighted pistol squats: As with almost any exercise used for strength training, progress can be made by adding resistance. Most of the time this is done in the form of weights. One-legged squats become a whole different ballgame when you start adding weights to them. You can choose to hold two dumbbells by your side or hold a single weight plate out in front of you, as mentioned earlier. Another option involves wearing a backpack with weight plates in it while performing these. You can also use bags of potatoes or something similar if you don't have any access to weights. Holding on to a medicine ball or dumbbells works very well, too.

Overhead weighted pistol squats: These are the most challenging of all the variations. Holding a weight overhead stretches out the core and forces you into a weakened position where it becomes extremely difficult to get up from the bottom of the pistol squat. Hold either one weight plate or two dumbbells overhead, keeping the arms locked out and the elbows completely straight throughout the movement. This exercise isn't for the faint of heart. It's very difficult to master. If you're feeling extremely brave, try performing the overhead weighted pistol squat with a barbell overhead.

Plyometric pistols: Now here is the ultimate party trick pistol. Squat down into a one-legged squat, bounce using the stretch reflex at the bottom, and explode straight up to jump on to a box, table, chair, or wall. Whatever surface you're jumping on to, start small at first (perhaps a one-foot high surface to begin with). Only try these when standard pistol squats are very easy.

No matter what level of strength and stability you may have, I hope you've found something useful in this article that you can take away and start to implement in your training. I recommend practicing any of the above at the start of your workout rather than midway through or toward the end. When learning any new skill, it's vital to practice while completely fresh.

Start slow, take your time, and don't try to rush your progress. The pistol is a very challenging exercise and can have even the strongest of athletes falling on their butts very easily. For more body weight strength videos, subscribe to my YouTube channel.