Woman practices a single leg or pistol squat

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The Pistol Squat Is More Than Just a Fitness Flex. Here’s Why It’s Worth Your Time

Name another move that requires this much balance, strength, mobility, flexibility, and coordination.

By Lauren MazzoApril 2, 2024


Pistol squats are pretty darn impressive. Squatting your entire body weight while balancing on one leg doesn’t just look cool, but also requires a mix of fitness skills that make it incredibly difficult.

Even if you don’t care to whip out pistol squats as a party trick, there are a lot of physical and mental benefits to working toward the move. Training one leg at a time challenges your body in ways that a regular squat simply can’t—and you don’t need to be pistol squatting for reps to reap the benefits.

What Is a Pistol Squat?

“A pistol squat is a single-leg squat with the non-working leg extended straight out in front,” says Peloton Instructor Kirra Michel. Unlike typical two-legged squats, where you might stop when your hips are at about knee level, in a pistol squat, you lower your hips all the way to the floor, as low as you can possibly go. From the very bottom of the squat, you press back up to stand without touching your other foot to the floor.

Are Single-Leg Squats the Same as Pistol Squats?

“A pistol squat and a single-leg squat are often used interchangeably,” Kirra says. However, they aren’t exactly equal. Really, a pistol squat is a type of single-leg squat. “A single-leg squat might have the non-working leg bent or extended in front or positioned differently, whereas a pistol squat is a specific type of single-leg squat with the non-working leg extended straight in front,” Kirra explains.

Why Are Pistol Squats So Hard?

First of all, you’re squatting almost your entire body weight on one leg—that’s a lot, especially if you’re not used to lifting that much. Additionally, unlike other difficult exercises like push-ups or pull-ups, pistol squats require more than brute strength to get them done. You need a plethora of different fitness skills. “Pistol squats are hard because they require strength, mobility, flexibility, and balance, along with coordination and stabilization,” Kirra says. 

Muscles Worked By Pistol Squats

Pistol squats mainly work your quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves, and core, Kirra says. That’s a huge chunk of your body. However, the most intense work is done in your hips and thighs, says Dallas Reynolds, a physical therapist at ATI Physical Therapy. “Because pistol squats are unilateral [done one side at a time], they’re also great for focusing on the outside hip muscles that we use for balance and stability,” says Reynolds. That includes your gluteus medius and gluteus minimus muscles, for example, which help keep your pelvis stable when you’re walking or running.

The Benefits of Doing Pistol Squats

It can be really beneficial to incorporate single-leg squats of any type into your routine. “Single-leg squats improve balance, strength, flexibility, and stability, all of which assist in overall functional range of motion,” Kirra says. “As we age, it’s important to focus on these areas to help reduce the risk of injury. And, in general, the easier humans can move and balance, [they] tend to have a better quality of life.”

Many common strength moves are bilateral, or work on both sides of your body at the same time (think: deadlifts, bench presses, regular squats). However, it’s important that you also work your body unilaterally, or one side at a time. “Many of the activities that we participate in whether sports, dancing, going up and down stairs, or just walking involve us being on one foot,” Reynolds explains. Having balance and stability while on one leg is crucial for things like jumping over puddles or lunging to grab your kid. “Unilateral training allows us to work on these areas and do it in a way that we can start at a beginner level or more challenging based on goals,” Reynolds says.

Single-leg squats and pistol squats are also a great way to challenge yourself while working with just your bodyweight. “Pistol squats allow the target muscle groups to be stressed more than a standard squat without the need for weights,” Reynolds says.

Woman practices single leg squat exercise

SrdjanPav/E+ via Getty Images

How to Do a Pistol Squat Correctly

Here’s exactly how to do a pistol squat with proper form. Before you try the move, read the section on progressions below, and make sure you’re ready to attempt it. 

  1. Start standing with your feet parallel and your arms extended forward at shoulder height. Shift your weight into your right leg, and lift your left leg so it’s extended forward at hip height.

  2. Inhale and engage your core. Sit your hips back and begin to bend your right knee, slowly lowering your body into a squat. Keep your right knee tracking over the middle of your right foot, and allow your torso to hinge forward slightly.

  3. Pause when your knee is fully bent, your thigh and calf are pressed against each other, and your hips and left leg are hovering off the floor.

  4. Exhale and press into your right foot to straighten your right leg and return to standing, keeping your left leg straight at hip height the entire time. That’s one rep.

Pistol Squat Progressions: How to Build Up to This Difficult Exercise

“The key to progressing into a pistol squat is building up your unilateral strength and balance,” Reynolds says. That takes time. So, unless you’re already a highly trained athlete, you’ll want to progress slowly rather than toss pistol squats into your workout tomorrow.

In general, work on increasing your ankle, knee, and hip mobility as well as hip flexor strength and leg strength, Kirra says. If single-leg strength moves are too tough when you’re starting, you’ll want to drill double-leg strength moves, like regular squat variations, first. 

Once you can easily do most of the pistol squat modifications below, you should be equipped to try pistol squats on your own. Keep in mind: At first, it’s normal if you can only do a single rep or have an easier time on one side.

Pistol Squat Modifications to Try

Drill these moves, listed in order of increasing difficulty, to work your way towards pistol squats. You can also take Kirra’s August 24, 2023 yoga conditioning class, which focuses specifically on movements key to pistol squats: strength, mobility, and balance work. 

Try Peloton Yoga Conditioning: Lower Body Class

Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats (aka Bulgarian Split Squats):

Peloton Instructor Callie Gullickson demonstrates a rear foot elevated split squat

Place one foot elevated behind you on a bench or step, and squat with most of your weight in your standing leg. Add weight to increase the intensity. This will help develop the single-leg strength you’ll need to do a pistol squat, Kirra says.

Deep Step-Ups: Perform step-ups onto a bench or step. “The higher the step, the harder it is,” Kirra says. “Don’t use momentum; use your strength and mobility.” Gradually increasing the height will train your body to press out of the very bottom of the pistol squat, when your knee and hip are deeply bent.

Lateral Step Down:

1. Start standing on top of a bench or step with one foot hanging off the side.

2. Bend your knee and hip to lower into a squat position until your hanging food lightly touches the ground; then return to the starting position.

“Maintain good posture during the movement and don’t allow your hip to drop to the side while you’re squatting,” Reynolds says. Start with a step of 6-8 inches tall. “As this becomes easier, you can move to a higher surface, challenging you to squat deeper to touch the floor,” he says.

Assisted Pistol Squats: Perform pistol squats while holding onto a support such as a TRX or gymnastics rings. Slowly lower yourself to the bottom of the pistol squat, and then reverse to stand. Gradually decrease the amount of assistance as you build strength, Kirra says. You can also try doing assisted pistol squats with your back pressing into a stability ball that’s against a wall, Reynolds suggests.

Box Pistols: Sit on a box or bench, extend one leg, then stand up using the other leg. “The lower the box, the more challenging it becomes,” Kirra says. You can lower with both your feet on the floor and just drill the upward motion on a single leg, or you can perform the whole movement on one leg to get closer to pistol squatting on your own.

Safety Considerations When Doing a Pistol Squat

In general, you should ease into pistol squats to reduce your risk of injury. “Start with a small range of motion and gradually increase depth as your strength and mobility improves,” Kirra says. And while you’re working on building strength, hold onto a support for safety, she adds.

Pistol squats might not be a good fit for everyone’s workout routine, and that’s ok. “Pistol squats create increased stress on the knee joint and can cause injury or can exacerbate current knee conditions,” Reynolds says. “They can also cause increased strain to your lower back.” If you deal with either knee or back pain, consult with your doctor or an exercise professional before working towards a pistol squat.

Pistol Squat: Common Mistakes to Avoid

Don’t forget about your core. Keep your core tight to stabilize your body throughout the movement, Kirra says. This will help you balance and move more safely and efficiently.

Don’t allow your standing heel to lift. Keep your standing foot heel on the ground throughout the movement, Kirra says. “If you can’t do this, put something under your heel like a small wedge or weight plate,” she says.

Don’t look around. Like you might do during balancing poses in yoga, find a focal point and keep your gaze fixed there to help you balance, Kirra says.

Don’t drop your leg. To maintain proper pistol squat form, keep your non-working leg extended straight out in front of you, parallel to the floor, throughout the entire movement, Kirra says.

How to Add Single-Leg Squats to Your Workout Routine

Reynolds suggests adding single-leg squats (whether pistol squats or modifications) into your lower-body strength workouts. Try adding two pistol-squat progressions into your routine two or three times per week. And don’t forget that bilateral strength moves, like traditional squats, glute bridges, or hip thrusts—anything you’ll find in a Peloton Strength class, really—will help you build pistol squat power, too.


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