Lots of people seem to disregard the effectiveness of calisthenics arguing that it’s not good enough for lower body development.
However, as I have talked in another post there are lots of calisthenics exercises to challenge your lower body.
In this article, I am going to cover one of the most famous calisthenics leg exercises, the pistol squat.
Benefits Of The Pistol Squat
Todd, I have access to weights and I regularly perform weighted back squats. Why should I consider learning and mastering the pistol squat?
Even if you are very advanced in heavy squats, there are still lots of benefits for you in mastering the pistol squat.
Here’s some of them…
Benefit #1: Improve Balance & Stability
Training for the pistol squat is going to improve your stability and balance.
The pistol squat is a unilateral movement and requires more balance than a regular two-legged squat.
Benefit #2: Increase mobility
Training for the pistol squat is going to help you increase your lower body mobility.
This is going to have a positive effect in every lower body movements you are performing.
Benefit #3: Build resilient legs
Performing a pistol squat requires that you go into extreme ranges of motion and sometimes you are going to get slightly out of alignment.
As a result, training with pistol squats is going to help you build more resilient legs.
This is one of the main reasons you will have to be careful with the progressions too.
Benefit #4: Training everywhere
Like most calisthenics exercises, the pistol squat is a movement that you can perform everywhere without the need for equipment.
So, if you need to travel and don’t have access to weights, you can easily train with pistol squats.
Pistol Squat Prerequisites
As stated previously, in performing pistol squats you are going to move out of alignment. As such, you shouldn’t train for the pistol squats without having the necessary foundations.
Here, you are going to find what the basics are and how to master them so that you can train for the pistol squat.
So, let’s start.
Prerequisite #1: Bodyweight squat
The bodyweight squat is the most basic leg exercise.
If you can’t perform a perfect bodyweight squat, you shouldn’t consider training for the pistol just yet.
Your first priority would be to be able to squat full depth with perfect form for at least 40 reps.
The bodyweight squat is an easy move. It doesn’t require much strength to be done, so don’t worry if you can’t perform many reps.
Most people who can’t do bodyweight squats, is because they lack mobility and not because of the lack of strength.
Here are some exercises that can help you increase your mobility for the bodyweight squat, in case you can’t achieve full range of motion:
If you lack the necessary strength to perform a full bodyweight squat, then you can work with assisted and partial reps until you are able to perform one. Then you should focus on building your reps.
You are going to find a beginner’s training plan later in this post.
Preesequire #2: Bottom Iso Hold
After you are able to perform 5 or more reps of full bodyweight squats, you should start training the bottom position of the pistol squat.
To perform the exercise, squat down with both legs, move the weight in one of them and slowly extend the other one. Stay in that position for 5-10 seconds.
In the beginning, you’ll likely not be able to perform the exercise without assistance. If you can’t, you can use as assistance the floor, the wall or a table.
Make sure to train both sides equally.
This exercise is going to help you develop the necessary mobility for the full pistol squat.
The goal is to be able to hold the bottom position for 15 seconds unassisted.
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Pistol Squat Progressions & Helpful Exercises
In this section, you are going to find the different progressions that you can use to achieve the pistol squat.
You are also going to find some helpful exercises that you can add to your training plan to achieve the movement faster.
Pistol Squat Exercise #1: Partial Reps
In this exercise, you are going to need an elevated surface to practice on.
As the name suggests, you are going to perform only a part of the pistol squat by going down until you sit on the elevated surface.
You should start with a surface that is a little higher than knee height and gradually work your way until full range of motion.
This is one of the easiest progressions to use for achieving the pistol squat because you can easily make the exercise harder or easier and to measure your progress.
Your aim should be to achieve 5 reps of 5 sets in a given height before advancing to a lower one. As the height decreases, if 5×5 becomes difficult, you can use as a standard 3×5 and then 3×3.
For safety purposes, you shouldn’t decrease the height by two much, 1-2 inches are usually enough.
Pistol Squat Exercise #2: Assisted Reps
With this exercise, you are going to train with the full range of motion.
For assistance, you can use a wall, a table or a rope/band attached to a steady object.
Contrary to the partial pistol squats, assisted squats can be difficult to measure and as such it can be hard to judge your progress.
This is one of the reasons I prefer partial reps.
However, since assisted reps help you train the full range of motion, you should include them in your training plan.
Pistol Squat Exercise #3: Elevated Reps
One of the main difficulties of the pistol squat is holding the non-working leg straight in the air.
If you have a problem with this, you can train on an elevated surface. This will allow you to hold your leg at a lower height and thus make the exercise easier for you.
Similarly to the partial pistols, you can progress by decreasing the elevation of the surface.
Pistol Squat Exercise #4: Iso Holds
In this exercise, you are going to hold different positions of the pistol squat.
You should focus on 3 positions:
- Top of the movement
- Middle of the movement
- Bottom of the movement
You should hold each position 5-10 seconds.
The main purpose of the iso holds is to help you get used in holding the nonworking leg straight in the air.
Furthermore, the iso-holds are going to help you develop your control and balance.
In case you can’t perform the iso holds, you can use assistance.
These exercises can help you target your weak links in order to achieve the pistol squat faster.
Exercise #1: Sitting Leg Raises
Exercise #2: Hamstring stretches
Exercise #3: Balance exercises
You can find more balance exercises in this post:
Exercise #4: Ankle Mobility
The pistol squat is a complex movement that requires a lot of different qualities to be in place in order for you to achieve the movement.
These different qualities are:
- Strength. Mostly quad, glutes and hip flexor strength.
- Stability, balance and control
- Mobility. Mostly in the hips and ankles.
Knowing in which of these areas you are weak, you can make the pistol training more effective by focusing on your weak points.
For example, if you have been training with heavy squats for a while and you can already squat your bodyweight, chances are that quad, glute and hamstring strength isn’t one of the issues and you can focus your attention on the other necessary qualities of the movement.
You can easily find out what of the qualities you are missing by testing your abilities is different movements.
Testing Your Mobility
This is the first test you should perform.
If you lack the mobility to perform a pistol squat, you won’t be able to perform the other tests.
The test is pretty simple.
All you have to do is to go into the bottom position of the squat and see if you can stay in that position for 5-10 seconds.
If you can’t, see what the main issue is.
Is it because of lack of ankle mobility, or do you have a hard time holding the non-working leg straight in the air?
If you aren’t sure, you can perform the same test on an elevated surface so that your non-working leg can stay at a lower height.
Testing Your Strength & Balance
You can easily check which of these two is the limiting factor by performing an assisted pistol squat.
The assistance should be used only for balance purposes.
To perform the assisted rep, place your hard on a wall and try to perform a pistol squat while you are keeping balance with your hand.
If you can successfully perform the movement, you have the necessary strength but you are lacking balance and stability.
If you can’t, then you lack the necessary strength to achieve the movement.
If you lack balance, you can train with assisted reps trying to use less and less assistance every time.
If you lack strength, you should focus on training with partial, negative and assisted reps.
How To Train For The Pistol Squat
In this section, you are going to find some training program samples that you can follow to achieve the pistol squat.
The programs are going to be divided into two categories:
Beginner Training Program
This training program is going to help you master the bodyweight squat and achieve the progression standard (40 reps).
If you have already mastered the bodyweight squat, you should move on to the intermediate program.
The workout program consists of two workouts. The first one is going to help you increase your reps, while the second on your mobility.
A: 3x(sub-max) bodyweight squats
B: 3x(sub-max) iso bottom holds
- Sub-max means that you are going to perform as many reps as possible without going to failure.
- Rest 2-3 minutes between sets for bodyweight squats and 60 to 90 seconds for the iso holds.
- If you can’t perform full squats, use assisted reps or another progression.
B: 2x(5-10) cossack squats
- Rest 1-2 minutes between exercises
- If you can’t perform cossack squats, use assistance.
- You can perform this workout as a warm up and cool down.
Sample Training plan
The rest of the weeks are going to have the same format.
You should follow this plan until you can complete 40 reps of bodyweight squats.
Every 4th week can be a deload week, but it’s not necessary since this program isn’t very taxing to the nervous system.
Intermediate Training Program
If you can already perform 40 bodyweight squats, then you can start training directly for the pistol squat.
There are going to be 3 workouts it this training program. Two for strength development and one for mobility, control and balance.
A: 5x(1-5) partial pistol squats (per leg)
- Rest 3-5 minutes between sets.
- When you can perform 5×5 decrease the elevation to increase the range of motion.
A: 5×5 assisted pistol squats
- Rest 3-5 minutes between sets.
- Try to use the least assistance possible.
A: 5-10 minutes helpful exercise of your choice
B: 5-10 minutes helpful exercise of your choice
- The exercises you choose should focus on your weak links. Such exercises can be the iso-holds and the helpful exercises in the “Pistol Squat Progressions & Helpful Exercises” section.
Sample Training Plan
Every 4th week should be a deload week in which you decrease the intensity of the workouts.
You should alternate between W-1 and W-2 every other day.
Beyond Pistol Squats
Todd, what should I do after I master the pistol squat?
Fortunately, the pistol squat isn’t the last and only bodyweight exercise for your leg development.
After you master it, you can proceed on to master even harder calisthenics leg exercises depending on which strength quality you want to focus on.
Some of the different skills are:
If you want to focus on becoming more explosive, you can start training with jumping pistol squats.
In the beginning, you can start with by adding a jump at the top of the movement. After getting good at this, you should start jumping on the top of an object that its height is less than knee height. Gradually, you should increase the height of the box.
For even greater balance, stability and control
If you want to add a mental challenge to the pistol squat, you can start practicing on different surfaces that challenge your balance.
A great example is Al Kavadlo’s pistol squat on a bar.
Another thing you can do is to focus on increasing your reps in the pistol squat.
Being able to do 20 or more pistol squats is a feat in and of itself.
If you have access to weight, you can train with weighted pistol squats.
Learning other skills
The last option is to focus your attention on learning other advanced calisthenics leg exercises.
Such exercises are:
Frequently Asked Questions
In this section, I am going to answer some of the most common questions I’ve been getting in regards to the pistol squats.
Question #1: Are pistol squats superior to back squats or is the opposite actually true?
None of these movements is superior to the other.
It all depends on your goals.
If your goal is to build lots of muscle and gain weight, then heavy squats is a better option.
If you want to build more resilient legs, balance, stability and control, then pistol squats is a better option.
If you want both and have access to weights, then nobody is stopping you from training with both exercises (which, by the way, is a great option).
Question #2: Can I get huge legs with pistol squats?
If you want to have legs that look like the ones power-lifters have, then the answer is no.
Pistol squat can’t provide the muscles with the same stimulus heavy back squats do. So, you can’t have the same results with someone who is squatting just by doing pistols.
Keep in mind, that if you follow muscle building parameters for your progressions, it’s going to take a little longer to achieve the pistol squat, than if you follow strength training ones.
Question #3: How long is it going to take to achieve the pistol squat?
This depends on a lot of factors.
If you already have strong legs, balance and the necessary mobility, then it’s only a matter of learning the movement and it may take just a few days.
If you are a beginner, however, more time will be needed for you to develop all the necessary qualities to achieve the pistol squat.
Usually, it takes 4-8 months.
The pistol squat is one of the greatest calisthenics exercises for your lower body development.
If you are a beginner it might seem that it’s a hard exercise and almost impossible for your knees to handle.
However, with patience and hard work you are going to achieve the movement in no time at all.
Do you have any questions in regards to the pistol squats that were left unanswered?
Post them in the comments sections below.
I’d love to help you out.
– Bodyweight Todd