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Why Pistol Squats Are So Hard (And How To Do Them Anyway)

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Pistol squats are among the most impressive feats of bodyweight strength in the world, right next to things like backflips or a perfect handstand. Well, I can’t do the other two, but I can knock out some pistol squats. Let’s talk about what fits inside you.

quad strength

Let’s cover the most obvious first. To squat down and up on one leg, that leg must be able to support the weight of your entire body. You need strong quadriceps — that is, your quadriceps, the muscle group on the front of your thighs.

Say you weigh 200 pounds. A standard, two-legged air squat challenges each of your legs to take responsibility for moving 100 pounds of bodyweight (that is, half your weight) down and up. If you make a gun, ask one take over leg full 200 pounds.

So if you want to make pistols, you need strong legs. At a bare minimum, you should be able to squat with your own body weight. In other words, the 200-pound person in our example should be able to squat with a 200-pound bar behind their back and ask both their legs to move a total of 400 pounds.

Well that is my hypothesis. I’m not promising it’s an immutable law of nature or anything, but it seems consistent with my experience and that of others I know. It’s also a minimum. The stronger your legs are, the easier pistols will be.

strength on one leg

Just being good at two-legged squats doesn’t guarantee it Everyone the strength you need to squat on one leg. As discussed, moving your body up and down primarily requires power from your quads. But if you’re on one leg, you Also to need:

  • hijacker Strength (using the muscles of your buttocks and the outside of your hips) to keep your leg from collapsing inward.
  • adductors Strength (in your inner thigh muscles) to support the quads and balance the abductors.
  • hip flexors Strength (in the muscles that attach at the front of your thighs) to hold your free leg up in the “pistol” position.

If you want to make pistols, you have to work on that stuff too. You can target each muscle directly, but you’ll get a really good bang for your buck if you do unilateral (unilateral) leg exercises like:

  • Step-ups, increasing the height of the box over time and adding weight as needed
  • Lunges (forward and/or backward)
  • Bulgarian split squats (back foot on a bench) or any other type of split squat
  • Step-downs, where you control the lowering portion of the movement and then use your free leg to push yourself back up
  • squatting shrimp Progressions using your free leg behind you
  • Squats in B positionwho have both feet on the ground but use one leg more than the other
  • Pistol squat to a crate, where you sit on a crate or bench behind you, and then stand up using only one leg (I sometimes call these “one-legged stand-ups.”“)

All of these exercises can be weighted. Hold dumbbells in your hands for step-ups or swing a kettlebell onto your shoulder for boxing guns.

While you’re working on your hip flexor strength (seated and hanging leg raises are great, by the way), you can take them out of the equation for now by holding your toes with your hand as you descend into your squat.


Since you’re doing all these single-leg exercises, you might find it difficult to balance on one leg. That is normal! It’s also a skill that you can level up very quickly. Practice standing on one foot and imagining your foot as a tripod (big toe, pinky toe, heel) or do like me and imagining you’re wearing quad roller skates and trying to balance your weight between the four wheels to balance your feet at the four corners.

Single leg exercises will help you build this balance, but so will standing balance exercises, like standing on one leg while brushing your teeth. Once you’re stable while standing, try to move and bend your knee. Notice how you have to move your butt back and your chest forward to maintain balance as your knee bends. That’s going to be very important.


Pistol squats are most impressive when performed “ass-to-gras,” meaning going as low as your body will allow. This means your butt is almost touching your shoes, and your knees usually need to be pretty far in front of your toes. (And no, you won’t ruin your knees by crossing your knees over your toes.)

The most common thing that prevents people from deep squatting is ankle mobility. In order for your butt to get deep, your shins need to tilt forward. In order to keep your foot flat on the ground while your shins tip forward, the Achilles tendon at the back of your ankle needs to be able to stretch quite a bit. Here are some tips for ankle mobilitywhich include stretches, but also some quick fixes like wearing heeled shoes.

As you descend into the pistol squat position, notice if you feel resistance anywhere else. Depending on your body proportions, you may need to stretch or build strength in other areas.


Finally, we come to the truth that skillful movements take practice. The stronger and more agile you are, the less practice is required, but ultimately you have to learn how to do a pistol squat. Being able to balance on one foot while standing is not the same as being able to keep your balance when fully crouched, and you need to be able to keep your balance when you are goes through all positions in between.

As you practice your pistols, you may find that stopping on the ground helps you regain stability before getting back up. or you might find that you prefer to get a quick jump off the ground to send you back up.

One way to practice before you’ve made the full downward movement is to lower yourself on one leg, roll onto your back, and then try roll forward again, balance on your foot and stand up. This will give you some momentum, which will help if you don’t have quite the strength to accelerate to the top.

Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to how to get your first pistol squat. Some people have the strength but lack the mobility or vice versa. Some people are disadvantaged in one way but have an advantage in another; For example, I have hamstrings that are miles long, which means I have to get into a pretty extreme knee-over-toe position, but I also have good ankle mobility to get there and be strong in that position. Find out what you’re missing and eliminate your weaknesses. And if you’re not sure what your weak point is, just work on everything. You will get there soon enough.

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