Crossfitters are unique athletes. They put themselves through brutal drills most would never attempt. Crossfit junkies seem to possess a special gene workout trait that defies exhaustion levels and pain thresholds. Pistol squats are an exercise which can defy even the fittest. But when mastered deliver huge benefits.
Pistol squats are challenging. Which is why Crossfit athletes need to pack this “party trick” exercise in their gym bags next to the K2 tape and tactical weight vest. Pistol squats beef up leg-day training routines. Add these exercises to Nancy or Diane or even a pure burpee routine and you’re ready for a leg blasting workout or WOD.
One thing to be aware of. Pistol squats get a bad rap. Mostly because beginners often injure themselves while attempting this pretty tricky exercise. Sure, there’s risk involved. And injuries can occur due to improper execution. But don’t believe the bad press. When performed correctly, pistols are safe. They also help build stronger bodies. They help create the strength, explosiveness and cat-like balance to launch any CrossFit enthusiast to the next level.
What Is a Pistol Squat?
Pistol squats are a difficult, unilateral leg-controlled mobility exercise. They combine high hip, ankle and knee flexion along with body control and strength. Begin the movement by lowering down from a standing position on one leg using your body weight for resistance. Your other leg is extended in front of you (like the barrel of a pistol).
Hinging occurs at the hips, knees and ankles. You squat till you are ‘ass to grass’ with your hamstrings touching your calf muscles. Then rise to a standing position keeping the one leg out front throughout the duration. That is one rep.
So it’s just a single leg squat.
This may sound simple. But it’s one of the most difficult motions to complete. The squat is not just twice as hard as a bilateral two-leg squat. It is multiple times harder. Execute the movement poorly and you could risk a knee or ankle injury.
Test to See If You’re Ready
You should first test yourself before trying pistol squats using these few actions:
- Stand normally. Your feet should be about shoulder-width apart. Perform an air squat by simply sitting down (without falling over) and hinging at the hip. Your chest should be up, your hamstrings touching your calves. Feet and knees should stay aligned with the weight back into the heels. Your pelvis should be square and not tilted. Then return to start position.
- Now move your feet closer together till you can perform this motion with your feet touching.
If you can do this without difficulty or pain, then you’re ready to try pistol squats.
If not or you have pain, try starting with cossack squats. Cossacks can help build up the strength and balance required to advance to pistols squats.
Proper Pistol Squat Progressions
First, you need to warm up your ankles. Using a block or calf machine, flex your toes upward and slowly stretch your calves. Alternate each leg for about 15-20 seconds. This will get your ankle ready for the deep angle the move will require.
Start with performing an assisted two-leg squat. You’re just getting your legs used to the motion. Stand next to and hold on to a squat cage, pole or anything you can use to hold your body up. From there, supported by your rack or pole, move slowly down on both legs. The chest is up and out, back straight, weight in the heels.
At the bottom of each rep slowly alternate and extend one leg out straight in front of you. Here you will begin to engage your hip flexors and feel the leg strength required for the movement.
It is at this point where most people tend to fall forward as their weight moves to their toes and their backs start to round. Poor flexibility and mobility strength are the cause. So use your support device to keep your body in the proper position. Remember, you’re bulletproofing your body against injury here. Slowly raise yourself with your alternate leg extended.
Once you feel comfortable and confident, you can execute unassisted squats by placing a chair or box under you. As you go down your butt will tap the chair or box. This will keep you from falling beyond the range you can handle.
You can also attach a band at the pull-up rack and place the band under your glutes. Here you can progress slowly to move beyond the 90 degrees knee bend. You’re bringing your hamstrings closer to your calf muscles.
Once you feel confident, move to a block or box and perform the pistol squat from here. Dangle your alternate leg off the side till you feel strong enough to extend it straight out. Once that happens, congratulate yourself. You’ve just performed one of the most challenging and beneficial bodyweight exercises out there.
Tip: If you experience balance issues you can try to use a counterweight. Holding a 10-15lb plate in front can assist you through the motion. This will help keep you from falling backward and maintain proper alignment. But you are also adding more weight which can make your squat more difficult. Always test the variations and stay within your own ability. The key is slow, focused and controlled progression.
Which Leg Muscles Are Being Activated?
Pistol squats hit all parts of your leg skeletal muscle. The leg muscles activated are the same muscles you engage when running. Calves, glutes, hamstrings, quads and hips get a tremendous workout from single-leg squats. Your hamstrings keep your weight in the back of your heels. Your quads are part of the power push and provide knee support. Your hip flexors and quads are also stimulated on your alternate extended leg to maintain the extended position in front of you.
Core Muscle Engaged
Pistol squats put all your body weight force upon the small surface of the foot holding you up. Your foot is your only point of contact. This is why your core muscles come alive and stay engaged throughout the movement. Your core helps stabilize and balance your knees and spine. Your core keeps you from tipping forward, back or side to side. Without a strong core, you have no chance of executing pistol squats properly and staying injury free.
Weight Training Benefits
Many bodybuilders and weight training athletes ignore bodyweight exercises for improving strength. But pistol squats can be a powerful addition to any training regime. The cross-training benefits help activate muscles that might need some attention. And single leg squats can help to iron out imbalances in strength between legs. Squatting with a single leg will help increase your ability to push more weight inside the squat cage in traditional squats.
When executing barbell squats and leg presses, we generally favor our more dominant leg. Over time, we develop one leg to be stronger than the other. This creates an imbalance. A unilateral load pistol squat develops your legs to equal strength.
Also, pistol squats engage your core more than double leg squats. Normal squats begin at a balanced position and require moderate core strength. But unilateral squats instantly activate the stability and core muscles. They help develop better body balance composition.
In time, you can add weights to your pistol squat. This helps balance you through the movement but also tacks on more resistance. Doing your squats in this manner will give you the same or more benefit of barbell squats without exposing yourself to lower back injuries.
Competitive Sport Rewards
Almost every movement in sports uses unilateral motion. For example, jumping or moving off one foot, pulling and pushing with alternating arms. Many lower body CrossFit exercises test this ability to perform unilateral movements with good form.
Unilateral squats force you to practice and improve bilateral movements. Proper form shields your body against unnecessary injury and helps to develop a balanced body. This carries over to other sports.
Pistols are another powerful training crossover technique for martial artists.
Gymnasts Reap Huge Benefits
Gymnasts are always looking for more power, poise and explosive muscle action in their routines. Floor exercises and jumps require huge amounts of lower body strength and balance. This can determine their success in competition. Exploding off one foot requires the stability, strength and flexion a pistol squat builds. Pistol squats add the perfect training for a gymnast to perfect their tumbling or balance beam performances.
Better Brain Health Bonus
There is one more bonus that comes with doing pistol squats: a brain workout. There’s a strong connection between physical training and brain health, particularly spatial cognition and memory. In a recent 2017 study, 40 healthy adults improved their memories by engaging in physical training that demanded good balance. Participants used wobble boards, one and two leg routines over a three-month period. The results were huge improvements in memory recall. Just one more great reason to add single leg squats in your routine.
Older CrossFit athletes that are looking to iron out imbalances while reducing the absolute load on joints can benefit from adding single leg squat training to their workouts.
If you're having trouble performing pistols, due to injury or fear of injury, try using compression knee sleeves. Not only will they help protect your knee but they can add some support and the psychological advantage of knowing you have some extra help.
Pistol squats are control power motions and require more muscle activity from your body than just your leg muscles. The running, jumping, and sudden twists of CrossFit and most sports require lower body muscles and core strength and balance to work in unison. Adding pistol squats to your routine will help you achieve this superpower.
CrossFit fan. Ex-personal trainer, triathlete, and cross-country mountain biker. Masters Competitive CrossFit athlete. Writer and blogger.