Single Leg Squat is a tremendous lower body exercise. Among many other things it greatly improves:
- Lower body strength
- Knee and ankle stability
- Jumping and landing ability
- Tactical movement skills (ability to engage and disengage the ground using only one leg in case the other one is hurt)
In the video below you will find some progressive movement strategies that will help you to master the Pistol. The outlined list is not final by any degree, but it should give you some good ideas on not only how to work up to a legitimate Pistol Squat, but also on how you can diversify your lower body strength training. Enjoy!
Here is the breakdown of the movements shown in the video:
1) Assisted Pistol
Beginners should use some sort of a stable support here, like a door frame or a pole. More advanced folks can use less stability, like a pair of rings or a TRX. And people who are fairly close to performing a freestanding Pistol should use a couple of rubber bands, as it will assist you with balance, but will not help you much in terms of strength.
2) Pistol Bottom Balance Hold
This exercise obviously will greatly improve the bottom position of the Pistol. It is important to own this position first before “connecting the dots” – then it will be much easier and safer.
In the beginning it is acceptable to: a) slightly hold on to something to get the position down; b) hold a light counterbalance in front, like a med ball; c) put a thin board under your heel to compensate for the lack of ankle flexibility and eventually work up to a thinner board and then none; d) perform this exercise off the low box or a bench in a case of poor hamstring flexibility and subsequent inability to keep the non-working leg off the floor.
Needless to say, in case you have to use any of the above strategies to get it done, strive to reduce the amount of the crutch being utilized overtime.
3) Negative Pistol + Positive Squat
This progression allows you to build upon your established balance base and develop some strength by utilizing the negative portion of the exercise, which most folks should be much stronger in – it is much easier to lower yourself under control, then to rise up at this point. The key point here is to go down slowly and under control. Another key point is a brief pause on the bottom, which keeps reinforcing the strength and balance in that position.
4) Rolling (Rocking) Pistol
This progression allows you to put some momentum into the positive portion of the exercise, giving it some much needed juice to make it back to the standing position. Eventually, you will need less and less momentum, as you keep getting stronger. The keys are to lower yourself under control as slow as possible, as well as the momentary pause at the bottom.
5) Freestanding Pistol with a counterbalance
This progression builds upon the base of strength, balance and stability that you developed with previous exercises, yet still gives you a bit of help with the introduction of the counterbalance, such as a light kettlebell or a med ball. Such counterbalance could be a useful tool when working on the Rolling Pistols as well.
Another option here, for those with limited ankle mobility is to stick a thin (0.5 to 1.5 inches) board or a plate under the heel of the working leg. Overtime, look to lessen the thickness of the plate as your ankle mobility improves.
6) Pistol off the box
This progression helps those folks with limited hamstring flexibility and allows them either to progressively work up to an actual Freestanding Pistol overtime as the hamstring flexibility improves or, at the very least, allows them to enjoy the benefits of the Pistol Squat despite their personal flexibility limitations.
7) Freestanding Pistol
Here you can put all the skills you have been practicing before to the test. Keep it slow and controlled. At first, as you just getting your first Pistols in, tense up your whole body, including the hams, abs and lats and keep the tension throughout the entire range of motion, while employing power breathing. Once your level of strength improves, begin to employ selective tension and use just as much as you need to go up and down.
8) Toe Hold Pistol
This progression allows you to express and fine-tune your single leg strength skills while simultaneously improving hamstring flexibility in the “non-working” leg. My hamstrings could use some more flexibility, so those of you with better ham flexibility could keep their leg much straighter.
9) Bottom Pistol Cossack Switch
This progression introduces some dynamic stabilization and mobilization skills into the lower position of the Pistol Squat. It also prepares you for some more dynamic, plyometric variations of the Pistol Squat down the road, as well as improves your dynamic muscle recruitment and therefore strength, by teaching you to engage your body in a stable manner on the spot.
10) Bottom Switch Pistol
This Pistol variation takes your single leg strength and dynamic stabilization skills to the next level of movement complexity. It is a fun exercise to practice and it greatly improves your muscle’s firing rate.
11) Weighted Assisted Pistol
This progression begins to introduce an external load to the Pistol Squat, while providing with a safety and stability blanket of a stable support. This exercise is useful at all stages of Pistol development, given that you have a reasonable baseline of single leg strength. Sometimes it takes a while for people to do Freestanding Pistols for a variety of reasons: lack ankle of hamstring flexibility, just a hair not enough balance and proprioceptive skills, etc. However, most of the time, they can still enjoy the strength development benefits of Single Leg Squats by utilizing Assisted Pistols and Weighted Assisted Pistols. Everything is relative, and everybody is at different levels, but we can still get the most out of our exercise time and enjoy it too J.
12) Weighted Freestanding Pistol (Two Hands)
This progression introduces some external load to the freestanding Pistol Squat. Holding the weight in two hands in front is the easiest way to do it. In this position you also have the ability to manipulate your center of gravity, by shifting the weight forward as you go down and bringing it closer to your body as you stand up, similarly to the Pistol with a counterbalance variation, which makes it easier.
13) Weighted Freestanding Pistol (Single Rack)
This variation is a harder version then the previous one, because the weight is now close to the body and it is where it is, with no ability to change that, so you have to deal with it, by getting your core and legs stronger.
You could vary the weight position by holding it either with the same side hand as the squatting leg or the opposing hand. Both feel slightly different and both are pretty good leg and core strength builders.
14) Weighted Freestanding Pistol (Double Rack)
This variation makes the Pistol Squat even harder by having now two weights in front of your chest. Anybody who worked the Front Squat knows how great of an exercise they are – well, now you are on one leg, so it did not get any easier, that’s for sure.
Again, the given list is not final by any degree, after going through it I can see at least a half a dozen more variations that can make the Pistol Squat either easier or much harder, depending on your individual needs and current abilities. But it gives you a pretty good idea how you can tackle your Single Leg Squats.
Any idea is just “dead water”, like the ancients used to say, until you put it to use and it becomes alive through your actions. I encourage you to test these ideas, find the ones that work for you and come up with your own progressions and variations.