How To Do A Pistol Squat

Training the leg muscles is a necessity for anybody who wants to do any sort of physical endeavor. Simply put, you’re going to be standing on your legs throughout whatever sport it is you’re playing, and stronger legs means you’re going to run faster and jump higher.

Beyond actually training the skills needed in your sport—ie: pivots, jumping, running, etc., the best way to increase the performance of your legs is progressive resistance training. This will increase your muscular power, which will aid any rapid, explosive movement you’re performing: such as sprinting, vertical leaps, and kicking.

The most obvious resistance training is that of the barbell squat and its numerous variations. Beyond the basic back squat, there’s the front squat, the overhead squat, high and low bar squats, and a julienne more. Those will be discussed in another article, but today I will bring to you the second article in my series on progressive calisthenics: the squat progression, with the end goal being the mastery of the one legged “pistol” squat.

The reasons I advocate learning the pistol squat before doing barbell squats are the exact same reasons I gave for teaching you the one-armed pushups before I wrote any articles on weighted lifts. Namely, the pistol squats will provide a base of muscular strength and prepare the fitness novice for more demanding lifts in the future, they have almost no risk of injury, and they train the body to move unilaterally, an unusual movement that can only make you stronger when you lift actual weights.


Prepare Yourself For Your Trip to Russia

Any child who played through Street Fighter II saw Zangief and his merry KGB agents doing the Kazatsky in his ending and was inspired to run outside the arcade to try doing this, only to be completely incapable of bending his knee at that angle. At which point the child probably suffered some sort of injury.


Much like the one-armed pushup, mastery of the one-legged squat requires the central nervous system to be gradually trained to move in such a manner (for a more in-depth, biological explanation of why this phenomenon exists, please see that article. And just like the one-armed pushup, doing the two-armed variation won’t prepare you for the rigors of the unilateral version, but it is the required starting point of the progression.

Step By Step

The first step of the squat progression is the standard two-legged squat, or “deep knee bend,” an exercise that your elementary school gym teachers probably made you do before they rolled out the furniture dollies to waste your time for 45 minutes.

stupid gym class games

Yeah, I’m pulling out this picture again

To do the standard squat, place your feet shoulder width, and have the feet pointing straight ahead or slightly splayed out. You absolutely do not want your toes to be point inward, as this will cause your knees to knock inward, which can cause stress to your connective tissues. It is important to note that if your ankles or knees hurt when just standing in preparation for a squat, stop immediately and reposition your feet. As this is the same position that the barbell squat is done in, fixing form is imperative before weights are added.

From here, keep the back straight and bend down until your hamstrings touch your calves and you have gone “Ass to grass.” Keeping the head up and looking straight ahead helps me keep my torso fixed, as seen in the picture. Do ten of these.

basic squat 1


#2. For obvious reasons I have censored my face

From here you progress to the heels together squat, sometimes called the diamond squat akin to the diamond pushup: put the heels together, keep the back straight, and bend ass to grass like the regular squat. This does not really require any more muscular exertion than the regular deep knee bend, but the close proximity of the feet will force you to be off balance, and your body will be forced to compensate. And of course a minor drawback is that doing this exercise will make you look like a pouting emo teenager, but that is a necessary sacrifice. Once again, do ten of these.

heel together squat 1



Similar to the one-armed pushup, the next step will also require a basketball or something of similar size. The one-and-a-half leg squat will prepare the body for unilateral movements. Kick one leg out in the air, as pictured

assisted one leg squat 1


Then bend the other leg until you are ass to grass and the leg is sticking out and straight, with the opposite hand resting on the object (ie: left foot works with the right hand, and vice versa). Positions vary here: Some advocate a flat foot and the leg held in the air as the proper position, while I personally say it’s okay to squat on the ball of the foot and have the extended leg touching the floor, as below:

If you choose to have the leg touching the floor, make sure that it is fully extended and only your heel touches the ground-otherwise that foot will assist the lift, and thus take pressure off the squatting leg. Do this for both legs.

Once you can do ten of those, do half pistols-squat down about halfway and then come up. When you can go down all the way (not necessarily coming up), with both legs, move on to the next step.

half one leg squat 1

The assisted pistol squat is similar to the assisted one-armed pushup (also similarly, I don’t have a picture of it, as I don’t own a ball currently)-extend the leg out with the heel resting on a basketball, then squat, rolling the basketball up to your knee. When you can do this 10 times with both legs, you are ready for the final step.

The pistol squat is done with the same form as the half pistol. Squat down all the way with one leg extended fully. You will probably have to start out by resting your hand on the floor—as before, do opposite hands and feet. Gradually take your hands off the floor. Perhaps you can embrace your inner cossack and cross your arms over your chest? While I can do the pistol squat, I admit I do not have the balance to do the hopak.

half one leg squat 1



However you choose to integrate this exercise into your workout, it is a lower body exercise all athletes should learn.

Read More: 6 Tips To Build More Muscle During Your Workouts

42 thoughts on “How To Do A Pistol Squat”

  1. Thank you for the excellent article.
    I always appreciate “how to do [exercise name] properly” articles because doing an exercise incorrectly is almost as bad if not worse than as not exercising at all.

    1. It’s quite obvious.
      1. You take the pistol
      2. You do the squat
      = pistol squat.
      Enemies will fear you !
      BOOM !

  2. In the picture your heel is raised. This makes it easier to get into the squat, but much harder to get out of, because most of the force is in the calf trying to stabilize the leg – I just tried it myself. It also places more stress on the knees because you do not have a stable base. Keeping the heel down forces you to develop ankle flexibility and strengthen your shin to be able to do it properly.
    Keep your heel down. When you base is all wobbly, you can injure yourself like that.

    1. Glad someone else noticed. Without heel flat its almost impossible to engage glute and stabilise the femur at the hip. Also overuses quad making a kneeinjury more likely.

  3. Looks like it will hard on the knees, and being in my late 40s seems it would be a bit difficult. Is there an interim warmup or other excercize to work up to this?

    1. english bob (the commenter here) told me about “convict conditioning” which has the pistol squat and other advanced moves like one-arm pull-ups. i’ve looked into it and it looks like there isa series of 10 moves of increasing difficulty for each exercise and you master each level before moving up to the next one, with #10 being the advanced ones like the pistol squat. i’ve been very tempted to try it, just need to figure out if 30 minutes a day is enough, because that’s about all the time i have to work out.

    2. I would start with regular squats on a bosu until you are confident and then add a nice heavy dumbbell or kettlebell. All things being equal, his ramp up here is pretty straight forward. It takes a lot of patience, but it is doable.
      If done right it will not be too hard on the knees. Back in 2010 I had surgery to repair my ACL MCL and LCL after an accident involving stupidity and tequila (the knee is the reason behind my name). Doing these wrong would hurt. However, doing them right is an excellent work out and will build strength in your dynamic stabilizers which, if strong, will counteract the effects of age on the static ones in your knees.

      1. The mystery of the origin of the name is solved!
        Was wondering, and had come to the interim conclusion it was a combination of laughing and the Norse God of Mischief….

        1. a fair assumption. No, My knee went 90 degrees sideways and the recovery was incredibly long and painful.
          In order to cope with the massive depression that came from being a cripple, not being active, gaining weight and becoming a prescription drug addict I started writing a blog.
          It’s still on tumblr and has some points of interest if you care to read. Do keep in mind that I was fucked to death high on oxi for about 8 months.

    3. im in my late 40s too, I can hear my knee creaking i do this exercise, i can manage on my left leg, but the right knee cant handle it.

  4. Good article. Pistol squats were one of the things that took a very long time for me to be able to do. It is a terrific full body exercise. Instructions for build up are spot on. Well done.

  5. Pistol squats are one of the worst exercises that you can do for your knees. They literally destroy the knees and should be avoided at all costs. They are more of a stunt than an exercise. The best leg exercises are unquestionably the front squat and the romanian deadlift. They are all you need.
    Sources in order of importance:
    PS: This is coming from someone who could do 15 perfect form ATG pistols in a row as well as jumping pistols and some other variations but had the sense to stop before they destroyed his knees.

    1. Virtually every rigorous exercise is “bad” for the major joints in your body if performed too frequently. I know people with bad knees, backs and shoulders from variously exercises, using weights or not, performed chronically. This is why it is good to change up your routine from time to time.
      The human body has not evolved to handle chronic repetitive stress.

      1. Agreed. From what I heard shoulder issues are starting to become quite common among people who do bodypump. Which might come as a surprise to some since they user very little weight in those classes. But it’s a combination of bad technique, existing problems, and the repetitive nature of the exercises.

        1. yeah, bad technique and overdoing repetitive motions will get you every time. i know a fat guy who’s trying to lose weight and refuses to lift. instead, he gets cranked up on caffeine and does two hours of stair stepper every time he goes to the gym. if he somehow manages to keep it up, i imagine his knees and back will be in bad shape pretty soon.

        2. Some exercises are more high risk than others even when these are properly executed. And single leg exercises are high risk, as can be seen in those clips that Apollo posted.
          A few more examples of higher risk exercises:
          – leg extensions
          – upright rows
          – behind the neck pull-down
          – smith machine squat
          Besides the knee issues that are mentioned in the first clip there’s something else that needs to be mentioned:
          When you’re doing squats, deadlifts, rows, etc, the lumbar spine must be kept straight. Low back injuries happen when flexion occurs.
          So a rounded back is a big negative. That first picture in this article of the guy doing pistol squats is cringe-worthy.

        3. I’m 55, and don’t remember the frequency of shoulder problems that are occuring now. Never heard of them as a boy, but in the last maybe 10 years I’ve talked to many, many people who’ve had rotator cuff sugeries. And not all my age either, but many younger people. I’ve had two surgeries, but because of accidents.

        4. That would make sense. Nowadays there are all these fad programs that people participate in and what-not. Some are better than others, but people who follow fads aren’t the type to take the time master an exercise properly.
          Sometimes that way a program is set is the root of the problem. Take for example crossfit. Crossfitters use olympic weightlifting exercises which are not suitable for high rep work. The clean & jerk is a technical exercise, and when you perform this exercise in high rep fashion the technique will become sloppy at the end. Add to this the fact that this is an exercise that takes a long time to master properly, and you have a recipe for shoulder problems.

        5. Yeah, a fad is almost always manufactured by some industry for investors to cash out in. Like acai berries. . .No better than blueberries, but a shit-load of farmers had them in SA and somebody had the idea of promoting them as the greatest anti-oxidant on Earth. The craze has been going on for years now. I think staying away from fads, ESPECIALLY in works outs and fitness is a very basic part of Red Pill thinking. I always think of Mr. T in that Rocky movie: Rocky went maintstream and became average. But they showed Mr. T working out with hand-made equipment and training as his instincts guided him.

        6. Regarding the Rocky movie, that is a great analogy. I actually watched it again not too long ago.

        1. That’s complete nonsense im afraid. A better guide would be “dont solely rely on your quads, use your glutes correctly”. Easier said than done.

    2. Great information, Tom Purvis really knows his stuff.
      The article is very informative as well. I especially like the final thought:
      Many people in the fitness industry avoid to admit that they have been occasionally wrong. So, they continue to spread outdated/false knowledge in order to avoid staining their reputation and hurting their ego. Admitting that you might have been wrong at some point of your career and re-evaluating your work isn’t a sign of stupidity but a sign of intellectual honesty that shows commitment for progress. Learning never ends and people who love their jobs should always see themselves as eternal students… always staying alert and constantly open to advances of science and new ideas!

  6. He DOES say to work into these and not try them straight out, so bear that in mind. I will be referencing these articles for some exercises once I get my basement gym going here in a couple months.

  7. Excellent article. It took me about a little less than a year after referring to Pavel Tsatsouline’s Naked Warrior & Paul Wade’s Convict Conditioning to be able to perform at least 3 legitimate pistol squat reps per leg. I found it easier to achieve progress on the pistol squat than the one handed pushup for some reason. Still working on adding a few more reps to both techniques.
    For the record, I prefer Pavel’s Naked Warrior approach for achieving the pistol squat. Doesn’t require the use of a basketball unlike Convict Conditioning.

  8. This looks like something my son would like. He is far more action oriented. When we do a bug-out camping trip, I like to set up a base-camp near the road. I enjoy the lawn chairs, making good grub, listening to radio. Like my camping gas stove perclalator coffee like at home. He wants to take a pup tent and go further into the woods with an couple of MRE’s. I just want to sit in the woods, practice remmbering things, he wants skills that will help him doing more hard core bivouacing as he is in ROTC and wants to go military.
    This article is more for someone action oritented as opposed to geezer oriented.

  9. Say goodbye to your knee, say hello to the surgeon. Combine this exercise with deadlifting and arround 40 you won´t be able to walk anymore.

  10. So happy to see an article on the pistol! Such an incredible bodyweight excersise; I’ve been doing them since I was 15 (though lately not as often as I should). Still have yet to do a good one arm pushup though 🙁

  11. One of the reasons I didn’t want to do figure skating when I was 6 y/o… You ain’t gotta do that kinda crap in hockey… I’ll embrace my inner Cossack by whipping pussy with a riding crop.

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