If You Can Pull Off This Workout Move, You’re In Damn Fine Shape
— Nadir Keklik/Shutterstock
Even couch potatoes are able to knock out a rep of most bodyweight exercises. But many men who consider themselves fit can’t bust out even a single pistol squat. If you’re one of them, it’s a sign that you lack strength in your quads, hamstrings, and glutes, and your lower body flexibility is borderline dreadful. It also means you’re missing out on a highly effective bodyweight exercise.
Unlike other unilateral lower-body workouts that engage both legs (split squats, lunges) the pistol squat — a move where you squat on one leg while keeping your opposite leg extended in front of you — truly puts the demand on a single leg. The move requires serious quad strength, ankle and hip mobility, and balance to pull off — and it’s worth the effort to train up to it.
“Pistol squats are a great option for improving lower body strength when you have limited time or no equipment available,” says Alex Penner, an assistant strength & conditioning coach at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “They work all the same muscles as your typical back squat while also challenging hip stability and ankle mobility.”
If you can’t yet do a pistol squat — or have never attempted one — this workout progression can get you there in eight weeks. Sure, that might seem like a long time to work on one move, but it takes time to develop single-leg strength and improve mobility in the ankles and hips — while ensuring you don’t injure yourself along the way.
The mobility exercises in this progressive series can be performed daily, even multiple times throughout the day if your schedule allows. At a minimum, train the movements three times per week. Add the strength exercises to your workout routine three to four times per week to strengthen the muscles needed for the pistol squat and train the movement pattern.
How To Build Up To A Pistol Squat
Strength Movement: Single Leg Box Step Down
How To Do It: Stand on a short- to medium-height box or weight bench. Keep your left foot off the box as you balance on your right foot. Push the hips back and bend at the right knee to descend and step down, tapping the left heel on the floor before driving the right foot through the box to stand up. Three to five sets of 8 to 10 reps per side. Increase box height weekly.
Mobility Movement: Half Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch
How to Do It: Place your right knee on the floor and step your left foot forward. Keep your torso tall as you gently push your hips forward, squeezing your right glute. Hold the stretch on each side for 30 to 40 seconds. Repeat two to three times per side.
Why We Love It: This stretch mobilizes your hip flexors and quads, helping you perform a smooth squat.
Strength Movement: Single Leg Squat to Box
How To Do It: Stand three to four inches from a box or weight bench. Facing away from the box, stand tall and lift your right foot in front of you. Push the hips back and bend the left knee as you descend into a single-leg squat on your left foot — you won’t be bending down all the way into a full squat. Once your hips tap the box, push through your left foot to stand tall. Repeat on the right side. Three to four sets of 8 to 12 reps per side, decreasing the height of the box every few days so you squat lower.
Mobility Movement: Single Leg Calf Stretch
How To Do It: Stand tall with the ball of your foot positioned on a stair or other elevated surface, two to three inches off the floor. Slowly lower your heel towards the ground, feeling a stretch in the calves and achilles. Repeat for a total of three to four 30-second holds.
Why We Love It: This stretch improves flexibility in the calves and achilles while improving ankle mobility.
Strength Movement: Assisted Pistol Squat
How To Do It: Grab onto a squat rack, a pair of gymnastic rings, or any anchored equipment. Begin standing and lift your right leg in front of you. Slowly bring your hips back as you bend at the left knee to squat on your left foot. Drive your left foot through the floor to stand up. Use as little assistance as needed to perform the assisted pistol squat. Three to four sets of 8 to 12 reps per side.
Mobility Movement: Extended Arm Lizard Pose
How To Do It: Begin on your hands and knees on the floor. Step your right foot forward to the outside of your right hand. Let the left leg go long behind you. Reach both arms straight out away from your torso. Gently lower your chest toward the floor, feeling a stretch in the right hip. Hold the pose for 30 to 60 seconds, then switch to the other side. Repeat two to three times on each side.
Why We Love It: This stretch helps mobilize the ankles, calves, hamstrings, quads, and glutes. Keeping the rear leg straight improves flexibility in the hip flexors.
Strength Movement: Counterweight Pistol Squat
How To Do It: Grab a light dumbbell or kettlebell. Begin standing and lift your right leg in front of you. Slowly bring your hips back as you bend at the left knee, pushing the dumbbell or kettlebell away from your chest as you squat. Drive your left foot through the floor to stand up. Repeat on the left leg. Three to four sets of 8 to 12 reps per side.
Mobility Movement: Lizard Pose
How To Do It: Begin on your hands and knees on the floor. Step your right foot forward to the outside of your right hand. Let the left leg go long behind you. Slowly press your right elbow to the floor, feeling a stretch in the right hip. Hold the pose for 30 to 60. Repeat two to three times on each side.
Why We Love It: A progression from the extended arm lizard pose, this mobility exercise intensifies the stretch in your ankles, calves, hamstrings, quads, and glutes. Lowering your upper body closer to the floor increases flexibility in the muscles crucial for executing a pistol squat.
It’s Pistol Squat Time!
At the end of the eight-week progression, you should be ready to perform the pistol squat. Your legs should be stronger, your hips more flexible. But if you’re not able to complete one, there’s no shame in running through the progressions again and spending more time with each step. You don’t want to rush through.
If you are ready, congratulations! Start by adding two to three sets of 2 to 4 reps per side at bodyweight to your leg day. As you build strength and confidence with this move, work up to two to three sets of 8 to 12 reps per side. Once that becomes easy, use a weighted vest to intensify the challenge.