When it comes to calisthenics, you’re looking to get stronger with your body.
It’s obvious how to become really proficient with most muscle groups…but what about legs?
You can do bodyweight squats and sprints all you want, but what if you want to build powerful, athletic legs that can help you dunk or jump or run faster?
Truthfully, there’s only one calisthenics exercise with those goals in mind: Pistol squats.
In this article, we’ll go over what pistol squats are, the benefits, the muscles used in a pistol squat, how to perform them, and how to incorporate them into your workout routine.
Also, stick around until the end, where we give you a full pistol squat workout to get those lean, shredded legs for maximum strength and power.
Let’s get moving!
What Are Pistol Squats?
One of the most impressive calisthenics leg exercises, the pistol squat requires exceptional balance, raw quad strength, and superior knee flexion.
All this to say, you must be a badass to pistol squat.
As the name implies, it is a squat variation.
What makes it a pistol, is what makes it incredibly difficult: You squat with one leg.
One leg stays planted on the ground while the other is suspended mid-air, jutting out in front of you.
Repeat the squat motion for the desired amount of reps, then switch legs.
There are slight variations you can do for this exercise, but the gist of it is fairly simple.
Pistol Squat Benefits
The cool aspect of pistol squats is not only do they give you the benefits of a traditional squat, there are additional benefits as well:
- Improve your other squats: When you get better at pistol squats, your normal squats are equally increased. Once you get to weighted pistols, your back squat and front squat will become equally powerful.
- You can do them anywhere: No gym? No problem. Pistol squat are a terrific exercise to use simply your bodyweight. At the park, on the beach, or at home, get a solid leg workout anywhere, anytime.
- Increase your balance: Seeing as you’re only using one leg at a time, you’re forced to establish better balance with each repetition. Unlike a traditional squat, where you’re practically grounded, one-legged squats work the strength and balance of your muscles.
- Enhance your flexibility: When you do pistol squats, you go as far as you can to the bottom of the movement; essentially, “ass to the grass.” This stretches your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and ankles; more than other leg exercises by going as far as possible.
- Saves your spine: With a normal squat, you put the barbell on your back. This weight vertically compresses your spine. The load could be enough to mess with your vertebrae and lead to complications like sciatica or bulging/herniated discs. Instead, pistol squats allow you to use your bodyweight or dumbbells on your shoulders, preserving your posture.
- Superior leg strength: The name of the game, right? You can easily improve your pistol squat, going from assisted to bodyweight to weighted, continuously adding weight and continuously getting stronger legs. From the quads to the glutes to the hamstrings (and even the calves), you get a full-leg workout from a single exercise.
- You look like a badass: Need we say more?
What Muscles Are Used in Pistol Squats?
The pistol squat is actually quite close to running, as they both work out the same muscles:
- Gluteus maximus
They also engage your core. As you go down, you have to keep your balance and posture upright, making your abdomen and lower back work a little.
Are Pistol Squats Bad for Your Knees?
This is an important question, because leg injuries – specifically knee ailments – are nagging dilemmas that could potentially derail your lifting career.
However, the answer to this question might surprise you: Yes…and no.
Pistol squats are one of the undeniable benchmarks of fitness, making it an exercise many people try to rep.
Oftentimes, they do it without proper form or training for their bodyweight. Poor knee control leads to severe knee injuries.
However, if you have exceptional form and you aren’t using too much weight, pistol squats shouldn’t be too difficult to stay safe on.
If you don’t feel comfortable with your form yet, utilize Bulgarian split squats to increase knee and leg strength. You can also add knee sleeves for extra protection.
Then you can move up to assisted or bodyweight pistols.
Powerful legs keep your legs safe, so be smart and get strong with your pistol squat.
How to Pistol Squat
Pistol squat form: For a step-by-step guide, check out this video explaining the full form for the perfect pistol:
Pistol Squats For Beginner
If you aren’t comfortable with doing pistol squats yet, a great trick is to begin by getting stronger on your Bulgarian split squats. Add weight to that variation of single-leg squats until you reach a decent weight. Then move onto assisted pistol squats.
Assisted Pistol Squats
This is where you start on your journey to having amazing legs. While standing straight up and down, balance on one leg with your suspended leg in the air in front of you.
Grab onto a vertical bar slightly in front of you. Slowly lower your entire body, keeping your chest up and your butt back.
Get all the way down so your leg is parallel to the floor, hovering right above the ground. Keep your upper body straight up the entire time.
Flexing your quads, glutes, and hamstrings, lift yourself back up, assisting yourself with your bar and upper body. (If you don’t have a vertical bar, a door frame or TRX bands work well for assistance.)
Pistol Squat Progressions
Once you get to high enough reps on assisted pistol squats, remove the vertical bar completely and go hands-free, full bodyweight.
If you can’t get all the way down without falling, that’s okay; a trick is to strategically “fall” onto your backside, then using momentum to get back up and complete the squat.
Or, you can use a low bench to get down and back up.
Once you’re proficient in the classic pistol squat, it’s time to add some weight. Start with 5-pound dumbbells in each hand, resting on your shoulders.
Continue to add 10 pounds when you get to 6-8 reps for every set at a certain weight.
If you can get to half of your bodyweight in total dumbbell weight, those legs are gonna be looking beastly!
Including Pistol Squats Into Your Training
Thankfully, adding pistols is a breeze to your regular workout programming.
You can replace your normal squats with pistol squats, or you can supplement them with your other leg exercises.
The ideal strategy is to incorporate it into your workout routine outside of the gym.
Either way, this exercise needs such a high level of form and attention that it should be the focal point of your workout.
Continue to progress in your pistol squats, adding weight when you can.
If you want even more assistance with including pistol squats into your workout, check out our pistol squat workout below!
Pistol Squat Workout
The reps, sets, rest periods, and frequency included in this workout are all optimized for muscle hypertrophy (a.k.a. muscle growth):
- Pistol Squats: 3×5-8 (rest 2-3 minutes)
- Sissy Squats: 2×6-10 (rest 2 minutes)
- Curtsy Lunges w/ Jump: 2×8-12 (rest 1-2 minutes)
- Sprints (Hill or Flat): 3×50 yards (100% effort) (rest 1-2 minutes)
Do this workout 1-2 times per week, separated by at least 3 days. (For example, Monday/Friday or Tuesday/Saturday.)
All in all, the pistol squat is one of the most fundamental ways to gain strength, power, balance, and flexibility in your lower body.
By far the best calisthenics leg exercise in existence, pistol squats work all of your major leg muscles, have a wide array of benefits, and are super easy to implement into your weekly workout routine.
So long as you stay safe and practice good form, your legs will become freaks of nature.
Take a stab at the pistol squat workout above and get to work on your pistols.
For beastly legs, you need a beastly exercise. Pistol squats are you new workout game changers.