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How to Master the Single-Leg Bodyweight Squat

Written by Tyler Bramlett

This article is all about one thing and one thing only: nailing your first unassisted one leg squat, otherwise known as the Pistol.

Pistols are perhaps the most difficult lower body exercise in the entire world of bodyweight training. And it’s the move I’m most often asked about.

As with most things, the secret to the Pistol is consistent practice and a good system to follow.

And in this article, I’m going to share with you a 100% foolproof system that will show you what I think is the easiest way to learn the Pistol.

This article and video are divided into 4 sections. This will make it easy to understand and apply the techniques I’m about to show you.

The first section talks about how to regain the mobility and flexibility you’ll need to accomplish the one leg squat. Most people fail because they skip this step.

The second section covers the fastest way to Pistol progress that I have ever found. (Hint: I stole/borrowed this method from world-renowned squatter Paul Anderson.)

The third section covers how to approach your first Pistol. And the fourth section covers some more advanced exercises you can do once you’ve mastered the basic movement.

Okay, let’s get started!

SECTION 1 — Do You Have The Mobility And Stability You Need?
STEP 1: MOBILITY

First things first… Do you have the mobility necessary to even do a Pistol?

Try this simple movement test.

Stand tall and bring your feet together. Can you squat all the way down in this position so your hamstrings touch your calves, while keeping your feet flat on the ground?

Adam-Steer-Pistol-Pic-1

If yes, then move on to step 2. If you lifted your heels, fell backwards or couldn’t go low enough, then use one of the following exercises to determine what is holding you back.

IS IT YOUR ANKLES?

Come to a kneeling position as in the picture below. Move forward through your ankle, trying to bring your knee as far forward as possible while keeping your foot flat.

Adam-Steer-Pistol-Pic-2

In this position your knee should be able to move past your toes while your heel stays in contact with the ground. If it does, great! Move on to the next exercise. But if it doesn’t, then you need to stretch your ankles.

If ankles are your tight area, spend some time each day in this same kneeling position, moving forward and backward to loosen up your ankle joint.

IF IT’S NOT YOUR ANKLES, IT MUST BE YOUR HAMSTRINGS

If you were able to bring your knee well past your toes while keeping your heel in contact with the ground, then your mobility issue is likely your hamstrings.

To test your hamstrings, lie on your back and bring one leg towards the sky as in the picture above. If you aren’t able to bring your leg about 20 degrees past 90, like I do in the picture, then your hamstrings are definitely the issue.

Stretch them daily in this same position until they’re flexible enough to go well past 90 degrees.

Adam-Steer-Pistol-Pic-3

Once you’ve regained some flexibility in your ankles and hamstrings, retest the “feet together squat”. If you can now complete the movement as described at the beginning of Step 1, then you’re ready to move on to step 2.

STEP 2: STABILITY

Now that we know you have adequate mobility, we want to test your stability.

Start by descending into the bottom position of the “feet together squat”, just as you did in the mobility assessment.

Can you lift one leg and hold it out in front of you in this bottom position?

Adam-Steer-Pistol-Pic-4

If yes, you’re ready to begin training. Move on to section #2. If no, then you need to build a little strength and stability.

To do this, perform 20 or more slow and controlled “feet together squats” each day you train your lower body, and also practice lifting one leg in the bottom position. Place your hands on the ground for balance if necessary.

Move on to section #2 when you’re able to hold that bottom position without using your hands.

SECTION #2 – The Fastest Way To Build Up To The Pistol
I’ve been teaching people to nail the Pistol for nearly a decade.

I first used the following method to recover from a devastating knee injury, and I’ve since used it very successfully used it to teach dozens of other people how to perform their first Pistol. One client I trained went on to do 123 reps in one set on just one of his legs!

Here’s how it works…

Instead of using a TRX band or partner to assist (as most people do), I prefer to use the progressive movement method.

What the heck is the progressive movement method?

The late Paul Anderson discovered and documented this powerful technique in the mid-1900’s when all he had to squat with was a 900lb tractor axle. Instead of deciding that he would never be able to crawl under the massive set of wheels and stand up, he took a different route.

Paul dug a hole under the wheels, to a depth where he only had to stand

up an inch or so with the enormous weight on his back. And each day that he trained his squat, he would throw just 1 handful of dirt into the hole.

Paul became stronger and stronger as the hole filled up, until eventually he was able to squat the massive wheels at ground level. The Russians called Paul “the wonder of nature” because many of the intuitive techniques he pioneered eventually became standard tricks that the Eastern block strength coaches used with their athletes.

Okay, so how does this apply to you getting your first Pistol in the shortest time possible?

Simple. Instead of going for a full range of motion, you’re going to use steps, a chair, wood blocks or another sturdy object as a marker for range of motion.

Adam-Steer-Pistol-Pic-5

Start at around 24”, and work up to 3 sets of 10 reps on each leg, touching your butt to the object on every rep.

When you reach that target, remove 2-4” from your prop and repeat.

You will be amazed at how fast this

gets you closer to your first Pistol.

When you can perform 1 set of 10 Pistols right and left using a 12” high prop, it’s time to move on to section #3.

SECTION #3 – How To Approach Your First Pistol
If you followed the steps I outlined above, you should be 100% ready to go for your first full Pistol.

Adam-Steer-Pistol-Pic-6

Here are a few tips that will help.

First, make sure that when you descend into the bottom position, you do so with control. In fact, you’ll get even better results if you imagine that you’re pulling yourself into the bottom position, rather than passively yielding to gravity.

Second, right before you stand up from the bottom position, make tight fists and compress your breath. This instant strength boost will help get you through the sticking point, and it’ll make your first attempt at the Pistol a success.

From there, add 1-3 reps in total volume each week until you’re able to do 10 perfect bodyweight Pistols on both sides. When you can do that, move on to section #4.

SECTION #4 – Where Do You Go From Here?
It’s difficult to imagine why anyone would want to make the Pistol even harder than it already is. But alas, I am a masochist 🙂

There are 2 ways that I teach people who have mastered the Pistol to make the exercise even more challenging.

The first is to add an explosive component to it. Instead of stopping at the top, explode out of the bottom position and try to jump as high as you can. As soon as your foot touches down, descend into the bottom position of your next Pistol and repeat.

NOTE: Your form must be absolutely perfect before you attempt explosive Pistol exercises!

You can even take it a step further (LOL, get the pun?) and do Pistol box jumps using a short step. Look at the picture below for that treat of an exercise.

Adam-Steer-Pistol-Pic-7

Finally, you can try adding weight to your one leg squat. The sky’s the limit on this one. A good target to shoot for is adding 50 lbs of extra weight for women and 100 lbs of extra weight for men.

Adam-Steer-Pistol-Pic-8

So there you have it.

I have given you the 100% foolproof way to get your first Pistol. Now it’s time for you to fulfill your end of the bargain.

Train these exercises 3 days per week and you will get there. But close this window and don’t put forth the effort and you will never get there.

The choice is yours… Go Out And TRAIN!!

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About the author

Tyler Bramlett

14 Comments

  • Excellent and informative explanation based on good scientific principle. I’ve been trying to find a methodology towards achieving pistol mastery for a while now and alhamdolillah I think this video has done it for me. Thanks for that

  • I too have been struggling to get to a pistol squat, and thank you for the progression.

    Question: I can do the feet-together squat, and can do 20 reps no problem, but cannot get my leg up out in front at the bottom. Feels like my quads & hip flexor will explode. Any ideas what to work on? Flexibility issue somewhere? (Hamstrings are a little tight, but I can get 20 past 90…)

    Thanks for any help.

  • Awesome! This is just what I needed! I’m about to start assisted pistols in my current bodyweight program, so this info is really spot on and right on time!

  • Thank you so much for this simple video! I’ve been doing weighted 1 legged getups and wasn’t clear on the exact progression from there. I can’t wait to try lower surfaces (back to bodyweight)! This is such a simple thing to add on to a workout and end on a positive note!

  • Thanks for all of the awesome comments!! If you have any questions post em here and ill stop by later to answer them.

    Dave, if your hip flexors are screaming when you lift your leg it’s likely that your psoas isn’t doing its job. The psoas is supposed to help flex the hip past 90 degrees and the fact that your getting a mean pump in your hip flexor says to me that the psoas isn’t working 🙁 I would work on an alternating leg raise sheer you lie on your back with your feet towards the sky and alternate lowering one leg to the ground and back up. Try to bring your legs as fat up as possible while keeping your back flat on the ground. Also you could try standing on a box while doing a pistol so that your lifted leg doesn’t have to go as high.

    Good luck!! And let me know if you have any other questions.

  • Hi there,
    I have a question about coming out of the pistol squat, what does proper form look like? I can get down into the squat easily enough and out of it but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t cheating or something. Also, sometimes I like to grab the toes of my hovering leg when I go down and up keeping the leg straight out in front of me when I do both – is this cheating or another way to make the pose a little more challenging? Thanks for your feedback!

    • That sounds like some crazy Shaolin-temple stuff right there, Kate. Although if I had the flexibility to do it, it would probably help with my issue!

    • Hey Kate,

      Make sure you maintain a neutral spin as you go up and down, if you lean to the side when you stand up it is usually a sign of poor glue and hip development. Also make sure you honor the other 2 key points of alignment associated with all other lower body exercises, keep your foot flat and make sure your knee goes the same direction as your toe. Ohh, and holding your foot is OK with me but if you want to make the exercise more advanced, add weight or explosive power.

      Tyler

  • Tyler, thanks again. I think you nailed it with weak (or for some reason unengaged) psoas — doing leg lifts the way you described is pretty hard work for me. I’ve done a lot of leg lifts of various kinds in the past, but always with a focus on the abs working, rather than the psoas. I’ll work on those for a while and see if they help; in the meantime I’m starting on the pistols to a low bench with a couple of pads on it. If I hit a point where my foot hitting the ground is an issue, I’ll try them from a box or something.

    Looking forward to hitting my first full pistol. This is something I’ve always wanted to be able to do. Cheers.

  • Last week my trainer put pistols on my card, after i had achieved the target fitness score of 88. I avoided, or rather ignored it, but curiosity got the better of me. Thanks to your article, i will be hitting them now !!

  • Hey Tyler

    Thanks so much for the article. I’ve always been curious about doing pistol squats and have used a TRX/fitball to get about halfway down, but could never get right to the ground without my heel lifting off the ground. I’ve also wondered why when doing low squats I would overbalance backwards. What an eye-opener! Turns out that one of my ankles is just not flexible enough! I sprained it really badly a few years back and have just not had that mobility in it since. I now understand what the issue is and will work on my flexibility in that ankle until I can get past that wee milestone. Thank you again – I think it will solve a few foot/leg/back issues that I have just correcting that one problem.

  • Hi, Tyler.

    Can you comment on the safety of pistol squats for the knees? I have been told from a very early age that deep squats are bad for the knees, so doing a deep squat on a single leg seems like a bad idea, especially now that I’m 41 and have already had a torn ACL!

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    Eric

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