Pistol Squat – How To Perform Them


Pistol Squat

 On leg day, much of your workout probably revolves around the squat. In all likelihood, you start off your routine with some sort of a squat (if you don’t begin with a squat or a deadlift, you should as these lifts use the most muscle groups and can lift the most amount of weight).

Maybe you’re going for size and you want to add another 45-pound plate to your barbell.

Or perhaps you’re focusing more on the depth of your squat to improve mobility.

However you squat, there is a good chance you’re missing out on another excellent squat exercise known as the pistol squat.

But wait, what in the world is a pistol squat?

We’ve got all the answers to your questions right here.

Alright, What Exactly is the Pistol Squat?

When you think of a squat, you probably think of a loaded up barbell.

Maybe you like to switch it up with dumbbells, but for the most part, there probably is heavy weight involved. This is where the pistol squat is different. You don’t use weight with the squat. This is a move designed to improve not only your strength but flexibility as well.

This may be more important than you realize.

Stretching is an important part of a healthy workout routine. While it doesn’t burn the calories you need for a shredded six-pack, nor does it help build muscles, without proper stretching, it can reduce your overall movement capability, and as your muscles become larger, this range of movement will continue to shrink without proper stretching. The pistol squat helps take care of both of these aspects.

The pistol squat helps take care of both of these aspects.

The pistol squat is also known as a one-legged squat. 

This is because all of your other appendages are out in front of you as you lower yourself down. With your arms stretched out in front of you as if you’re the Frankenstein Monster and one leg elevated out like you are frozen mid-step, you’ll lower yourself down with the one leg.

You lower yourself down until your elevated thigh is parallel to the ground before lifting yourself back up.

The move sounds easy enough, right?

If you’ve never done this before and you don’t practice many extended stretching exercises (such as yoga or Pilates) you may find this is actually a much more difficult move to master than it sounds.

How to Perform a Pistol Squat

Balance and form are two important elements in performing a pistol squat.

Don’t be frustrating if this isn’t something you are able to do on your first try.

There are several variations you can perform to help strengthen your stabilizing muscles while improving your balance.

To begin, start in a standing position. Raise your arms out in front of you, palms facing down. Now, lift one leg out. Keep the entire hip through ankle in a straight line. Hold here for a moment until you have complete balance.

Once you are balanced, lower yourself down slowly until your lifted thigh is parallel with the floor. It is alright if there is a slight bend in your elevated knee, but keep all of your legs off of the ground. Your extended arms and legs act as a counterbalance to the rest of your body, which is located just behind your stationary, grounded leg.

When you have hit the lowest point of the squat, hold here for a two count. The longer you hold here the more you’ll feel the burn in your quads. it also helps with your sense of balance.

Slowly lift yourself back up to the starting position. This is one rep for the first leg (Girls Gone Strong, 2017).

I Can’t Master My Balance and Arm/Leg Extensions!

This is a move you can do at your house.

If you’re struggling with your balance or extending your legs, you may want to practice a bit.

However, what are you suppose to do if you just can’t master the combination of balance and fully extending your arms and legs at the same time?

There are several variations you can use to build yourself up to the complete pistol squat move.

If you have a chair with a flat, hard surface (you can do this on a stool as well or really anything else that is elevated off the ground that doesn’t prevent your range of motion), stand on the seat with your anchor foot on the edge and your other foot hanging off. With this, you’re going to simply practice the pistol squat movement.

Figuring out the best way to lower yourself down is important. Once you have it down you can then move to focus on extending your other leg.

Slowly squat down until you reach the lowest point. You don’t need to have your off leg fully extended, but just keep it from touching the ground (or the chair). If you can, have your arms extended out just to practice your arm movement. As you become more accustomed and comfortable with this squat form, you can begin to extend your off leg out (T Nation, 2011).

Does your gym have a pole installed?

Perhaps there are the dance poles for another class in place?

You can use this pole to help you develop excellent form and balance. With the pole directly in front of you, you’ll perform the pistol squat, but use your hands to hold onto the pole and use it as an anchor. You’ll want your off leg fully extended, but if you start to wobble or tilt in any direction grab hold of the pole to steady yourself. Eventually, you’ll develop the necessary strength to maintain your balance and you won’t need the pole.

When you perform the pistol squat, do you go down too low and you are not able to lift yourself back up without some assistance?

If so, place a low stool or even a stack of books behind you. As you squat down your butt will push back behind you. When your gluteus tap the object behind you, push yourself back up. You can start with a higher bench and then as you become accustomed to the height, slowly reduce the height until you can go all the way down.

Maybe you’ve done all of these moves but your hips are still struggling.

This is because your balance is off. If your balance is off you need to add some counterbalance to the opposite side of your torso.

How do you do this?

Grab a weight plate.

25 pounds should work (you’re free to go bigger or smaller if you like). When you lower yourself down into the squat, extend the weight out with your arms. This counterweight helps with your balance issue. You might think a weighted pistol squat is a way to go, but realistically it doesn’t work your quads that much more. In fact, it reduces your balance as you depend on the weight, limiting the effectiveness of the move.

So, as you become accustomed to the weight, slowly reduce it. This will force your hips to compensate and adjust to the reduced counterbalance. Eventually, you won’t need a counterbalance and will be able to perform the squat weight free.

What Muscles Do The Pistol Squats Work?

The main muscular target of the pistol squat is the quads.

As the move relies heavily on balance, nearly all of the muscles in your lower body (including your lower back and lower abdominal muscles) are engaged. It is not a real workout for these other muscles, but it does help improve flexibility and muscle endurance in these other areas.

Now, it is important to realize this is not a move that is going to give you size. However, even if you are going for size gains with your lower body workout this is still an excellent move you should consider adding (Muscle and Fitness, 2017).

If you don’t want to bulk up but instead want lean muscle mass, this is a great move. It helps stretch out your quads, hamstrings and gluteus, all while improving your everyday strength. Combined with lower weight lifts, it is an excellent move while you want the sleek, toned, lower body.

If you’re going for size, this is also a great move, when combined with your heavier lift moves.

This is because it stretches the muscle fibers out. By stretching out the muscle fibers and strengthening your quads, you will see improvements in your other, heavier weights. Plus, by improving your range of motion you’ll reduce your chance of injury with the heavier lifts and see a boost in agility as well. This makes it an excellent move if you’re an athlete in training.

You can even use this move on your off-day workout when you’re away from weights and focus on stretching, endurance, and mobility.

Pistol Squat Workout Routine

When working your lower body, you fall into one of three categories.

First, you want to improve strength as much as possible, so you hit the weights heavy and shoot for around three-four reps per set. If you’re going for an emphasis on size, but you still want to improve strength, you’ll shoot for eight to 12 sets per rep. Or, if you want to maintain lean muscle and burn calories, you’ll go over 12.

What in the world are you suppose to do with the pistol squat?

As you’re not going to build size or strength directly from the workout, you can aim for more than 12 per leg. Due to this, you can do it as much or as little as you’d like. You may want to consider turning it into a burnout move at the end of your workout routine.

If you do turn it into a burnout, you have two options.

The first is to simply do as many as you can while going as fast as you can without reducing the quality of your form.

When you are unable to do more, wait 30 seconds, then switch to the other side. Repeat this once more for a capper on your leg workout.

The other option is to go slow.

Lower yourself down slowly, then hold yourself at the bottom of the squat. The longer you stay at the bottom of your squat, the longer you have your quads engaged. The first week you do it, hold for a count of two, then slowly lift yourself back up.

The second week, switch to a count of five or 10 in the low squat position.

Remember the wall-sit exercise where you act as if you’re sitting in a chair with your back against the wall and you hold the position for 30 seconds or a minute?

You can treat this move exactly like that. You’ll really feel the burn after performing this kind of a squat hold. That is what is great about the pistol squat. As you are not using any weights there are no real rules regarding how many you do. You can tailor make it to fit your workout.

So experiment with going quickly or holding it.

You’ll find what works best for you. 


It is always important to bring in as many different leg exercises as you can. You don’t need to do all of your leg lifts and moves on the same day, but instead, you should rotate some in and take some out from time to time.

This keeps your muscles guessing as to what comes next, which in turn helps continue muscle growth and strength gains. The pistol squat is an excellent move to perform when you want to elongate your quad muscles while improving balance and range of movement.

The squat is surprisingly difficult, especially if you are not used to balancing based lifts. Once you gain the hang of it though, you’ll quickly discover just how great of a move it is, regardless of if you’re going for size, strength or lean muscle gains.

-Terry Asher

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Terry Asher

Owner & Founder at Gym Junkies LLC
After changing his best friend’s life by helping him lose over 70lbs, dropping him down to an amazing 7% body fat, Terry was inspired to be a full-time internet trainer knowing he could do the same for many more. In 2010, Terry published his own diet and fitness e-book that can be purchased on this website. Let Terry help you change your body for the better!
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  1. […] 9. Pistols –  A one legged air squat.  If only you could get half a point for just the downward part.  Because it’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the sudden stop at the bottom and then trying to come back up.  Yes we know, use a counter weight.  All the tricks in the world don’t stop the fact that it feels like my knee cap is going to explode out of my leg like a bullet, hence the name, maybe. […]


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