How I Finally Mastered the Pistol Squat — and How You Can, Too
As a certified personal trainer, when it comes to fitness (and life) I strongly believe that anything is possible with enough time and effort. I've gone from not being able to do a single push-up to knocking out decline push-ups (aka challenging push-ups you do with your feet elevated). For years, I couldn't do a pull-up, and with consistent work, I can now do five consecutively. By putting one foot in front of the other (literally and figuratively), I've run ultramarathons and become a personal trainer.
But one exercise continued to evade me: the pistol squat.
What Is a Pistol Squat and Why Are They So Difficult?
Pistol squats are unilateral exercises, which means they work one leg at a time. A pistol squat is essentially where you are squatting down on one leg, until you're sitting on your heel, then pressing back up with the same leg. Your non-working leg should be roughly parallel to the ground the entire time. Pistol squats challenge the strength of your glutes, hamstrings, quads, feet, and calves — not to mention mobility and balance, too. (Related: What Is Unilateral Training and Why Is It Important?What Is Unilateral Training and Why Is It Important?)
What I Learned from Challenging Myself to Do Pistol Squats
I always thought that pistols were for gymnasts and gym rats, not "people like me." But when I started having some knee pain and saw physical therapist Missy Albrecht, D.P.T., D.P.T., she told me that most people should work toward some type of pistol (even if it's not the full range of motion). Done correctly, all squats should use your glutes. But plenty of people spend their days in chairs, thus shortening our hip flexors and stretching out our glute muscles ("de-activating" them). With a pistol squat, you must use your glutes properly (aka learn to activate them) for best results. So, if I worked on my pistol squats, it would help my glutes become stronger, and then my knee pain should dissipate, since I wouldn't rely on other muscles as much, she said. (Related: These Supportive Sneakers Completely Eliminated My Knee Pain During Squats)
"[Pistol squats] are particularly cool because they bring out a lot of inefficiencies, movement dysfunctions, and mobility restrictions," says Albrecht. When done correctly, muscles in the foot, ankle, shin, thigh, glutes, and pelvic floor work together to power pistols. Many people's glutes tend to be lazy even during pistols, so learning to pistol squat properly can be a great way to help you reactivate your glutes.
With the help of Albrecht, I came up with a plan to finally master the pistol squat. Three times a week, I'd warm up with some glute activation and thoracic spine (i.e. upper back), hip, and ankle mobility exercises. Then I'd do three sets of five pistol squats tapping my butt onto a plyo box for assistance, and I'd slowly squat to lower boxes as I got stronger. (See: Plyo Box Exercises That Aren't box Jumps)
There are other ways to modify the pistol squat as you work toward performing one at bodyweight. Holding TRX straps or an elastic band with your hands as you squat, or holding a light weight out in front of you also makes balancing slightly easier; however, I chose to lower to a box because I found myself pulling hard with my arms and not pushing or powering myself to stand up with my butt when I used the TRX. Over the course of the month, the box got lower and lower until it disappeared. I did it! Well, I did it on one side.
Learning to do a proper pistol squat was a humbling experience, even for a personal trainer who works out five times a week. However, it took way more work to make myself do the three sets of five pistol squats than I would have guessed. I found excuses not to do it more often than I'd like to admit ("I don't workout at night"), and it gave me empathy for how challenging any lifestyle change can be. Not to mention, I already started from a good place — I had a solid squat with two feet on the ground, and good hip and ankle mobility. But this movement that once seemed impossible to me, reserved for "the elite," became possible with focus and energy. (Related: What's More Important — Flexibility or Mobility?)
At the end of four weeks, I can confidently do two pistol squats in a row with my right leg and can barely eke out one with a collapsing knee on my left. I knew that my right side was stronger than my left, but I had no idea the difference was this great. I want to work to become more balanced, not just for the pistols but to prevent injury over the long run. The work is never over.
How to Work Toward a Pistol Squat
If you're looking to learn how to do pistol squats too, work this move progression into your existing workout routine three times a week. You can do it on its own or after your workout.
Warm-up: Do a 10-15 minute cardio warm-up (if you didn't just work out) and then warm up 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: Find a chair, plyo box, or bench (somewhere between thigh and shin height) that you can lower yourself onto and stand back up on one leg without too much difficulty. (You might only be lowering your butt eight inches, and that's okay!) Do 3 sets of 5 reps of pistol squats on each leg, lowering your butt to tap the chair/box/bench. If you feel ready after doing the workout a few times, squat onto a lower platform.
Isometric Hold: Finish each workout with three 30 second isometric pistol squat holds on each leg.
Remember that it takes a lot of glute strength and will likely take a long time to be able to do the full range of motion — but trust in the process, put in the work, and, like me, you can absolutely get there.