How to Progress into a Pistol Squat
A step-by-step guide to help you build up to the ultimate lower-body move
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The best climbers and skiers aren’t just strong—they can harness and coordinate their strength through complex movements. “When it comes to mountain sports, we’re moving through three-dimensional terrain and dealing with a high degree of instability and off-axis movement,” says Zahan Billimoria, an International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations–certified mountain guide and the owner of Samsara Mountain Training. “So we need to integrate the athleticism of our sports into the way we train.”
Billimoria, who recently launched a bodyweight training program targeted toward climbers, skiers, and other mountain athletes, considers the pistol squat one of the three foundational movement patterns for functional fitness, alongside a plank progression and balance work on a stability ball. (For the duration of the pandemic, he’s offering one of his video workouts free of charge on his website.)
The unilateral movement strengthens the glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, hip adductors (the muscles along the inner thigh), calves, and core muscles through a full range of motion, while training balance and stability. But even if two-leg air squats are too easy for you, the single-leg pistol squat can be difficult, since it essentially doubles the load on one leg. Leaping from one to the other can feel out of the question. “It’s like curling a 100-pound dumbbell one day, and saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to jump to a 200-pound dumbbell the next day,’” Billimoria says. “That’s just too big of an adaptation for the body to make overnight.”
Usually, you’d work your way into a pistol squat by increasing the weight used during a two-legged squat until a one-legged squat was within reach. But if you don’t have access to a gym or equipment—like many of us who are stuck at home right now—you can still gradually progress into a pistol squat. Just follow this series of moves developed by Billimoria.
Start by mastering a standard squat, then work your way through the levels below. Don’t move to the next level until you’re able to complete three to five sets of each exercise with good form. “In order to benefit from the exercise, you want to do high-quality reps with excellent body control, and stop one rep short of total failure,” says Billimoria. Add the exercise you’re working on to your leg day or your bodyweight program, or mix it into rest periods during a hang-board workout.
Billimoria recommends doing the exercises barefoot on a firm surface to train stability and develop neuromuscular control. “Training is really another word for practice,” he says. “If you’re standing on a soft surface and wildly out of control, you’ll just be reinforcing negative movement patterns. Good practice allows us to reinforce the behaviors we want to cultivate.”
Preliminary Ankle-Mobility Assessment
Even if your legs are strong enough to perform a full pistol squat, ankle-joint mobility, otherwise known as dorsiflexion range, can be a common roadblock to doing it correctly. Before you dive into the progression, complete the weight-bearing lunge test (knee-to-wall test) on both legs to assess your ankle-joint mobility and symmetry. If the distance is anything less than five inches, or if it differs between ankles, work through a routine of ankle mobilization and calf-stretch exercises (outlined here) until it improves.
Stiff ankles will push your body backward, throw your weight off-center, and make the exercise feel all but impossible. Limited dorsiflexion range not only inhibits your ability to perform a full pistol squat but can also lead to a whole host of injuries farther up the kinetic chain, in the ankles and shins, knees, hamstrings, and hips.
What it does: Strengthens the glutes, quads, hamstrings, and core muscles.
How to do it: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes pointed forward. Hold your chest and head high, pull your shoulders back and down, and engage your core muscles. (Think of pulling your belly button in toward your spine.) Bend your knees, and hinge forward at the hips like you’re sitting down in a chair. Hold your arms out in front of you for counterbalance if needed. Continue lowering, keeping your back straight and your torso upright until your thighs are nearly parallel to the ground or as far as you can with good form. Engage your glutes, and push through your heels to stand for one repetition.
Once you can manage three sets of 15 repetitions, progress to the next level.
Volume: Eight to twelve reps
Single-Leg Isometric Hold
What it does: Strengthens the glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves, and core muscles.
How to do it: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes pointed forward, then squat using both legs, as described above, until your knees are bent to around 120 degrees. Maintain this joint angle, and lift one foot off the ground. Hold this position on one leg for six to eight seconds. Then return your free leg to the ground, and stand using both legs. The idea is to approach maximal effort with the single-leg hold, but stop short of complete failure.
Keep your torso straight and your knee centered and stable throughout the movement. If your knee wobbles excessively or tracks inward so that it’s out of line with your hip and ankle, it could lead to joint pain. If that’s the case, first work on side steps and backward skates with a resistance band to strengthen your knee stabilizers before continuing with the pistol-squat progression.
The closer you get to a 90-degree knee angle, the more difficult the squat will become. Starting at an obtuse angle, such as 120 degrees, makes the exercise easier. Try to go a little lower each training session until you can comfortably complete the exercise with your knee bent to 90 degrees, then move on to the next level.
Volume: Three to five reps on each leg. Rest for ten to twenty seconds between each rep so you can maintain maximal effort.
Single-Leg Squat to Box (Assisted Pistol Squat)
What it does: Strengthens the same muscle groups mentioned above in both the eccentric (lowering) and concentric (standing) movement phases, while limiting joint angle to modify the difficulty.
How to do it: Stand with your back to a chair, box, or bench that’s around knee height (the higher, the easier). Complete a single-leg squat: move slowly and maintain control all the way down, lightly tap the box with your butt (but don’t weight it), then slowly push back up to standing for one repetition. Complete all reps on one leg, then switch to the other.
Progress the exercise by decreasing the height of the box. An easy way to do this at home is to start with a low box or chair and stack textbooks on top. As you get stronger, remove a book from the stack to increase the depth of the squat. Once you can do five solid reps with your knee at 90 degrees or less, bump up to the next exercise.
Volume: Three to five reps on each leg
Rolling Pistol Squat
What it does: Uses the complete range of motion and momentum to aid in the more difficult concentric phase of the movement (standing) as you build up to a full, unassisted pistol squat.
How to do it: Stand on one foot, and lower into a squat. Continue all the way to the bottom of the squat (when your butt touches or nearly touches your heel), slowly and in control, then gently roll onto your back. Roll forward, and carry your momentum to come back up onto your foot and stand up for one repetition. Complete all reps on one leg, then switch to the other.
To make the exercise harder, progressively use less speed to bring yourself back up into the pistol squat. When you can come back up onto one foot, stabilize for a second or two, and then stand, you’re ready for the real deal.
Volume: Three to five reps on each leg
What it does: Strengthens the glutes, quads, hamstrings, hip adductors, calves, and core muscles while training balance and stability.
How to do it: Stand on one foot, and extend the opposite leg in front of you. Hold your chest and head high, pull your shoulders back and down, and engage your core muscles. Then bend your knee, and hinge forward at the hips to lower into a squat. Hold your arms straight out in front of you for counterbalance. Continue lowering, keeping your back straight and your torso as upright as possible, until you reach the bottom of the squat, with your butt at your heel (the complete range of motion). Engage your glutes, and push through your heel to stand.
Volume: Three to five reps on each leg. Complete all reps on one side, then switch to the other.
If you’d like learn some more about this awesome movement, and see it all in action, check out the video below!