Pistol squats are one of the strength training moves that take a bit longer to master, but there are so many benefits once you know how to do them correctly. Like learning how to deadlift properly or getting your head around one of the many (many!) plank variations out there, persistence pays off, so we called upon personal trainer, sports therapist and Peloton instructor Joslyn Thompson Rule to set the record straight on getting them done properly.
What muscles do pistol squats work?
'Much more than squatting on one leg, when it comes to lower-body exercises, the pistol squat – where the hamstring of the bent leg rests on the calf and the opposite leg is extended parallel to the floor – is the ultimate test of strength, stability and mobility,' says Thompson Rule.
'For some of you, flexibility might be the greatest hurdle of the exercise; for others, glute strength (or lack of it) will let you down. To say the pistol squat is a movement that challenges everything, whilst highlighting imbalances and weaknesses is an understatement.'
Benefits of pistol squats
Improves ankle joint mobility
Prevents lower body injuries caused by muscular imbalances
Can improve any strength imbalances between the legs
Increases full-body balance
Builds strength along the back of the body (posterior chain)
Recruits and works the core muscles, too
'What I love about pistol squats is that mastering them takes time, consistency and full respect of your body’s development process,' says Thompson Rule. 'And, whilst there aren't any shortcuts there are exercises that can help get you to your pistol squat goal a little faster.'
Read on for her tips on how to do a pistol squat, as well as three exercises to help you with your form.
How to do a pistol squat
a) Stand holding your arms straight out in front of your body at shoulder level, parallel to the floor, then raise your right leg off the floor in front and hold it there.
b) Push your hips back and lower your body as far as you can. Pause, then push your body back to the starting position.
c) Aim for three sets of ten repetitions on each leg, with a 20-second rest in between sets.
3 warm-up exercises to help you nail a pistol squat
1. Pistol squat on a bench
This is an accessible exercise that helps give a sense of what is required for an ideal pistol squat.
You can choose the height of the bench to suit your current level. If a regular gym bench is too low, add some large weight plates to it to increase the height so you can stand back up again; if it’s too high, stack some weight plates from the floor.
a) Set up your bench/plates and stand in front of it on your right leg.
b) Keeping your left leg off the ground the whole time, lower yourself down onto the bench and stand back up again. Be mindful not to let your knee track too far in when you do this on a bench – using a mirror for feedback, may be useful.
c) Repeat for two sets of ten repetitions on each side, twice a week. You may notice that one side is weaker than the other, so always start on the weaker side as you will have more energy in the tank for it. This is called ‘the weak side rule.’
2. Step up on a bench
Much like the pistol squat on a bench, you can really tailor this movement to your current working level. Focus on the lowering back down (the eccentric phase of this movement)o really challenge the strength and control required to complete the pistol squat.
You can also utilise varying heights to challenge the movement; the higher the bench, the more it mimics the hip and ankle flexion required for the pistol squat.
a) Stand in front of a bench. Step up on the right leg, extending the hips at the top while keeping the left leg out behind you.
b) Take your hands out in front of you for balance as you lower back down over 3-5 seconds. It is fine to let your torso fall forward when using a higher bench; this is what will happen in the pistol squat.
c) Repeat for three sets of 4-8 repetitions on each side, twice a week. Apply the weak side rule, here.
3. TRX assisted pistol squat
This exercise is fantastic for building to the full range of motion needed for the pistol squat with support.
a) Stand roughly a metre away from a suspended TRX, gripping both handles.
b) Using the TRX as support, lower yourself down into a pistol squat, then return to the start position. The TRX should just be a support here so try and do as much of the work as you can yourself.
c) Repeat for three sets of ten repetitions on each side, 2-3 times per week. As with the previous two exercises, apply the weak side rule.
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