The pistol squat is a very challenging movement. Challenging to one’s balance and also to one’s leg strength, particularly on the quads. Aside from its place among functional training competitions (ie: CrossFit) and that strange Russian dance, a pistol squat is also a great movement for anyone looking to beef up their quads in both size and strength.
Upon first attempt of the pistol squat, you can see how challenging it might be to descend into a bottom squat position on one leg, especially while keeping one foot extended in front of you. If dropping into this position is challenging for you, try stepping your heel on a 5 or 10lb plate (or anything that would elevate your heel by about 1 or 2 inches). This is why many people will wear Olympic lifting shoes when performing this movement. Elevating the heel subsequently shortens the calf muscle – and shortening the calf reduces the pull on the hip flexor. With the hip flexor less engaged as before, its easier to descend lower into a squat – whether its with one leg or two.
Elevating the heel should already fix a serious balance problem with your pistol squat. However, if balance is still an issue, then try holding a weight in front of you as a counter-weight. Keep in mind though, whatever weight you’re holding is also going to be added to the weight of your ascension. So don’t go too heavy on the counter-balance that you aren’t able to fire out of the bottom of the pistol position. Pick a substantial yet manageable weight like a 15 or 20lb kettlebell – or something you can hold out in front of you.
Should you still find it difficult to pull off a pistol squat, given the elevated heel and the counter-weight, then the next best variation would be to hold onto a band that’s anchored slightly above and in front of you. Pulling against the band will not only balance you as you descend into the pistol squat, but will also assist the eccentric part of the lift (the way back up).
One final technique to think about is the foot that’s extended in front of you. It takes a substantial amount of hamstring strength and flexibility in order to descend to the bottom of the movement without your lead foot touching the ground in front of you. If you have to, reach with your hand and grab hold of your front foot as you descend.
When performing pistol squats, don’t just favor one leg. Rather, make sure to complete the movement equally with both legs as to avoid any imbalances. If you’re just starting to learn the pistol squat, try beginning with some of the variations mentioned in this article. Also, make sure you can actually perform a real ass-to-grass (two leg) squat first. If you can’t do a normal squat, no point in trying to pistol squat. With some practice and persistence though, you should be able to complete reps of pistol squats in no time at all. You’ll also notice an increase in leg strength, rendering certain exercises like leg press (and especially single leg leg press) to become far easier.