Pistol squats are one of those exercises that can be intimidating at first. But with today’s modifications you can ease your way into them.
Pistol squats are a single-leg squat. If you are still having trouble with regular squats, then continue to make those a priority. I suggest air squats as a prerequisite and weighted squats are preferred. But feel free to attempt today’s pistol modifications as a supplementary exercise. Be cautious of an unassisted pistol squat if you are still struggling with basic squat mechanics.
Pistol squats are good for teaching the body a few things. First, it teaches how to properly load the hip. If the heel comes off the ground, then the knee is overloaded. Keeping the heel down means the hip takes all of the force and the knee is in a safe position.
The ability to keep the heel down may be a different issue altogether. The ankle needs a fair amount of dorsiflexion to allow the body to get into this position. If your heel is stubborn and keeps rising despite your best efforts, you may have tight calf muscles. Spend some time on the foam roller to assist in relaxing the muscles.
Tracking the knee over the toe keeps the knee in a stable position. The knee likes to crash inward as it hunts for stability. Avoid an unfavorable movement by actively pushing the knee outward.
Pistols are good conditioning for weighted squats. Working the legs unilaterally allows the athlete to discover weak links in his or her kinetic chain. It is common for pistols to be easier on one leg than another. Depending on the propensity for incorrect movement in the weak leg, the athlete can work on specific areas to improve the mechanics.
For example, if the heel tends to rise on one foot but not the other, then the athlete probably has some tight calf muscles and is overloading the knee as a result.
If the knee migrates inward, the athlete may have a tight inner thigh or need to work to be more active to press it outward. Now the athlete has a game plan for how to improve the movements.
Today’s modifications use a jump stretch band. Most gyms have one and they are even starting to be carried by most major retailers. If the store has a decent sports section, odds are you will find some bands.
Bands come in different resistances. Today’s modifications will generally call for a moderate resistance band. If you already have one to assist your pullups, then try that one.
The holding band modification can be done almost anywhere. It requires only a sturdy anchor point such as a squat rack, light pole or park structure. You can do them between running sprints at the park or in your neighborhood. Bring a workout buddy and watch each other’s form.
The seated variation may require a spotter to make sure you don’t topple backward. It also works best when used with a squat rack at the gym. I am sure you can find other places to do them, but squat racks are easily adjustable for athletes of all heights.
If you feel unsure about performing the full range of motion, then start with a partial range of motion. Try your first reps by going a quarter of the full depth distance. Take your time to progress to the full range of motion.
Pistol squats may not be recommended for some athletes. For example, if you are fresh off knee surgery or if you have some other kinds of knee, hip or ankle conditions.
I know athletes who after knee surgery cannot do exercises like pistols.
For whatever reason, they don’t feel stable or they just don’t want to risk another major injury. Consult a physician if you are unsure.
Trainer exercise instructions: Pistol Squats
Pistol squat holding band
Setup: Anchor a jump stretch band to a sturdy support about forehead height. Loop the band around both wrists and grasp the band with both hands. Stand back from the anchor point with the arms extended and feet together. Contract the core and glutes and elevate one leg about 6 inches off the ground.
Action: Hinging at the hip, allow the hip to controllably descend into a squat until the hips rest on the ground. Rock the torso back and use the elasticity of the band to assist your ascent to the starting position. Switch legs and repeat.
Perform two to four sets for five to 16 repetitions. Form flaws include letting the knees turn inward. Maintain a safe environment by tracking the knee in line with the toe. Another form flaw is pulling the band on the way up. Pulling changes the movement to more of a row than an assisted squat. Keep the arms straight and allow the band to carry some of the body’s weight. Do not let the heels rise. This means the knee is in an unsafe position.
Pistol Squat Seated Band
Setup: Set the j-cups of a squat rack about hip height. Stretch the band across the two of them. Position the hips in a seated position on outstretched band. Contract the core and elevate on foot about six inches.
Action: Hinging at the hip, allow the hip to controllably descend into a squat until the hip crease is below the knee. Contract the glute and push through the center of the foot to elevate the body to the starting position.
Perform two to four sets for five to 16 repetitions. A form flaw includes letting the knees turn inward. Maintain a safe environment by tracking the knee in line with the toe. Do not let the heels rise. This means the knee is in an unsafe position. Use a spotter.
(Chris Huth is a Las Vegas trainer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Consult your physician before beginning any exercise program.)