Why Mastering the Pistol Squat Should Be Your Next Fitness Goal

Also called the single-leg or one-leg squat, this difficult move will show you just how strong you are. Here's why the pistol squat is worth your time and attention.

Pistol Squats

Squats come with a lot of fame and glory, and for good reason, as they're one of the best functional strength moves out there. But they're all too often limited to the two-footed variety. That's right: You can do a squat on one leg, and it's just as hard as you're imagining.

The pistol squat (aka the single-leg squat or one-leg squat) is an elite strength move that requires balance, mobility, and a whole lot of strength. But the satisfaction when you finally nail it? Totally worth the hours of practice.

Ahead, everything you need to know about this one-leg squat variation, including the benefits the pistol squat has to offer, the muscles it works, and tips on how to add it to your routine, whether you're a total newbie or a pro looking to level up your workout.

How to Do a Pistol Squat

Essentially, a pistol squat involves balancing on one leg, extending the other out in front of your body, then bending your working leg's knee to slowly lower your butt 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 mobility the move requires of you, says Macatangay.

Confused? Watch Macatangay's demonstration of the pistol squat below. If it looks doable for you, follow the step-by-step breakdown of the move to try it yourself.

A. Stand on left leg with entire left foot rooted firmly into the floor, right leg lifted off the floor and fully extended in front of body. Extend both arms out in front of chest.

B. Bend left knee and send hips backward, reaching arms forward while extending right leg forward, lowering body until hips are at or below parallel. Keep right leg lifted off the floor throughout the movement.

C. Squeeze glutes and hamstring to stop the descent, then push through the floor on left foot to press back up to the starting position.

The Key Pistol Squat Benefits

Besides looking incredibly cool, you can expect a bunch of functional benefits from working on mastering the pistol squat.

Tests Mobility

What makes the pistol squat (or one-leg squat) so impressive is that it's not just a strength-builder — it also puts your mobility to the test. "This move requires a ton of hip, knee, and ankle mobility," says Rachel Mariotti, an NCSF-certified personal trainer in New York City. ICYDK, mobility is your ability to actively control and access your full range of motion within a joint. And during the pistol squat, you'll need to tap into those joints' entire ranges of motion in order to hit your desired depth and keep your foot flat on the ground, says Macatangay. Aside from improving your performance, working on mobility can help keep your joints healthy, reduce your odds of injury or pain during higher-intensity activities, and make everyday movements much easier, as Shape previously reported.

Spotlights Muscle Asymmetries

As the name implies, the single-leg squat is performed on just one leg at a time, so it builds strength in the hips, glutes, quads, and hamstrings on just one side of your body at a time, says Mariotti. In turn, performing pistol squats can help you pinpoint any strength or mobility asymmetries you have, adds Mariotti. Give them a whirl, and you might realize one leg is way stronger than the other (usually the dominant side of your body).

The problem: When the muscle imbalances are particularly prominent, the stronger side of your body may overcompensate for the other during bilateral movements, which can lead to overuse injuries. Or, muscles on the weaker side that typically aren't recruited may be called on to help complete a movement, which can also up your odds of injury, as Shape previously reported. Thankfully, pistol squats and other one-sided movements can help you pinpoint those discrepancies and balance out your strength.

Challenges Balance

It's no surprise, but the pistol squat can seriously challenge your balance, and you'll call on the stabilizing muscles in your lower body to keep yourself upright as you sink your butt to the ground, says Macatangay. Remember: Balance isn't a natural ability, and you need to continuously work on it, particularly as you age, in order to keep yourself injury-free in the gym and in your daily life. "Being able to stabilize and balance sets you up for just being more proprioceptively aware of your body, which can help reduce the risk of injury," Yonnie Procter, P.T., D.P.T. a physical therapist in California previously told Shape.

Pistol Squat Muscles Worked

The pistol squat helps build strength in your glutes, quads, and hamstrings, as these muscles slow your descent and give you the power to return back up to standing from the bottom of your squat, says Macatangay. You'll also activate the small muscles around your ankles and knees to keep you stable, as well as your core, she says. "The core is really overlooked in this movement," she adds. "Your core is the key building block to stability, so as long as you're keeping your core engaged, you're able to execute the movement better and more smoothly than if you were to let go of your core and just move through the motion up and down."

Pistol Squat Variations

Perfecting the pistol squat doesn't come easily, and before you give it a shot, you'll want to work on forward, reverse, and lateral lunges to build up strength and stability in each leg. But when you're ready to give the single-leg squat the old college try, practice these modifications. Once you nail down the move, consider amping up the challenge with a progression.

Modification: Eccentric-Only Pistol Squat

To start progressing toward a traditional pistol squat, try practicing the move while holding onto TRX straps or a pole for support or holding a dumbbell horizontally at chest height with your arms extended, which will help counterbalance the weight of your torso.

You can also squat down onto a bench or a box, rather than lowering all the way to the floor, in order to get a feel for the movement pattern and build up strength without the risk of toppling to the ground, suggests Macatangay. But if you don't have any equipment on hand, try practicing just the eccentric (aka lowering) portion of the single-leg squat, which helps you develop control and stability, she adds. At the bottom of the squat, you'll place your raised leg back on the floor and return to standing using both feet.

Progression: Dragon Pistol Squat

The simplest way to progress your single-leg pistol squat is to hold a weight close to your chest, says Macatangay. But you can also up the balance challenge by making the surface area beneath your foot smaller (think: by standing on a kettlebell's handle) or holding your hands behind your back, she adds. To test your stability and mobility, try the dragon pistol squat, during which you drive your extended leg back behind you and wrap it around the outside of your working leg — all while you squat, says Macatangay.

Common Pistol Squat Mistakes

When lowering into the pistol squat, think of sitting the hips back versus pushing the knee forward. To get the full benefits of the move, try not to let your extended leg touch the ground, and remember to keep your foot flat on the floor (read: no raised heels), says Macatangay. Aim to keep your spine long and back flat (meaning, don't round forward or arch back) and core engaged to stay stable and prevent back discomfort. If you can't do the movement without faltering in your form, back up to an easier modification. Remember: Maintaining proper form is so much more important than nailing the hardest variation of the single-leg squat on your first try.

How to Add the Pistol Squat to Your Routine

Before you add the pistol squat to your list of fitness goals, get clearance from your health-care provider if you have experienced or are currently dealing with knee or hip injuries, as the exercise may put additional stress on these joints, says Macatangay. If you get the go-ahead, practice strength-building, unilateral moves (such as reverse lunges and Bulgarian split squats) so your body is capable and ready to tackle the single-leg squat, she suggests.

Once you're feeling confident, do a few reps of the traditional pistol squat, paying attention to where your form is faltering. "It's definitely important to try the exercise a few times and see where you might need extra work — what phase of the exercise itself — and then work toward building strength or mobility in that specific area," says Macatangay. Struggling to keep your non-working leg extended? You may need to work on your hip flexor strength. Can't seem to lower to the floor with control? Focus on strengthening the muscles throughout your lower body, suggests Macatangay.

Since the pistol squat is generally seen as more of a skill-based exercise to include on your bucket list than a staple movement, there isn't one set number of reps to aim to complete, says Macatangay. "One rep may be really good for one person, but another person's goal may be to do it five times in a row with perfect form," she says. Still, you'll generally want to practice your single-leg squats at the end of your training session, as your muscles will be fully warmed-up and ready to fire up, she adds. "You want to make sure your body is prepared physically and even mentally to start trying [the pistol squat]," she says. "Your muscles always work best when they feel warm and they know you're about to start moving."

While you shouldn't expect to nail down the single-leg squat overnight, all the time and energy you put into learning the exercise is well worth the hassle. "I think the pistol squat is definitely beneficial for everyone to try and push their body's capabilities — to know that your body's able to move and even get into that position," says Macatangay.

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