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a man performs the pistol squat

The single-leg-squat variation known as the pistol is an aspirational lower-body exercise. To squat with one leg planted and one leg fully extended in front of you — and to go a depth that brings your hips to your heel with balance, control, and great form — requires tremendous flexibility, mobility, stability, and reflexes.

Mastering this challenging exercise can take years; for some, a full pistol may never be possible.

But the pistol’s benefits — including strengthening the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and core — are not reserved solely for those who have nailed the move. Thanks to modifications and variations, it’s possible to find a version that fires up your strength, power, balance, and confidence.

By personalizing the single-leg squat, you can improve your strength and mobility over time. Perhaps someday you’ll do a full pistol. And if not, that’s OK, too. If the point is to get stronger and more functionally fit while honoring your body, you’re on the right track.

These tips can help finesse your single-leg-squat form, no matter which variation you choose.

  • Gaze forward and keep your neck neutral.
  • Stay active through the core and arms. Alternatively, as a counterbalance, try holding a light weight in front of you or grasping your extended leg.
  • Keep your hips squared, and lower yourself only as far as you can with control. If stability is an issue, try squatting partway to a bench or box, or use TRX straps for support.
  • Press actively through both feet.

Instructions

  1. Start standing with feet shoulder width apart, core engaged.
  2. Extend both arms and one leg out in front of you. Ground down through the standing foot.
  3. Hinge at your hips and bend your standing knee to descend into a squat.
  4. When you reach the end of your range of motion, press through your standing foot and return to standing with control.

How to Pregress to the Pistol Squat

Pregress: Single-Leg Squat With TRX

  • Stand in front of a set of TRX straps. Grasp both handles with arms extended.
  • Lift one leg, actively extending it in front of you. Keeping core engaged and chest lifted, bend the standing knee and descend into a squat, using the TRX to stabilize yourself.
  • To stand, use as much of your own leg strength as you can while pulling on the TRX as needed for extra assistance.

Pregress: Single-Leg Squat With Chair

  • Stand in front of a chair (or bench, box, or other elevated surface), as though you were going to sit down.
  • Lift one leg, actively extending it in front of you. Keeping your core engaged and chest lifted, bend your standing knee and lower your hips.
  • Tap your butt against the chair, then stand back up. If a chair or bench is too low to squat to with control, stack books or weight plates on top to elevate the surface further. As you build strength over time, you can lower the height.

Note 1: You can also set up to start this move in a seated position; it can be more comfortable for some people to find the right muscle engagement and form this way, and it allows you to sit and reset instead of tapping and immediately repeating. To try this, sit on a sturdy surface and extend one leg in front of you to hip height. Brace your core and, without rocking forward for momentum, press through your planted foot to stand up. From the standing position, reverse the move with control to squat down and return to a seated position.

Note 2: Pregress the move even further by working on just lowering or just standing with one leg. For instance: Start standing, extend one leg, and lower yourself with control to sit down. Plant both feet to stand back up and repeat. Or: Start seated, extend one leg, and press through your planted foot to stand up with control. Use both feet to lower yourself back down to a seated position.

Progress: Pistol Squat Roll

  • Start standing with feet shoulder width apart and core engaged. Extend both arms and one leg out in front of you. Ground down through the standing foot.
  • Hinge at your hips and bend your standing knee and squat down, lowering your hips to your heel. Pause, then lower your butt further, rolling down to the floor and rocking onto your back.
  • Roll forward again, find your footing on the same standing side, and stand up.
  • Make this move even harder by jumping when you return to standing on one leg.

This article originally appeared as “The Single-Leg Squat” in the December 2021 issue of Experience Life.

Photography by: Kelly Loverud; Styling: Pam Brand; Fitness Model: Kyler Eid
Maggie
Maggie Fazeli Fard

Maggie Fazeli Fard, RKC, is an Experience Life senior editor.

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