When it comes to leg calisthenics, few moves are as famous as the intimidatingly named pistol squat. Strength, balance, and even endurance—this move lets you train it all!

Being an advanced move however, the pistol squat is not something most just dive into. Without a certain level of physical readiness, you will find your pistol squat workouts leaving a lot to be desired.


The move thrives on proper form of execution, and clumsiness, improper posture, and sheer lack of strength tend to kill it dead.

But don’t worry. Today we will go over all the main and side-stops toward mastering the pistol squat, so you can incorporate it into your own arsenal of bodyweight exercises.

What is the Pistol Squat Good For?

A compound move through and through, the pistol squat hits your legs, core, and even lower back. Besides the obvious benefit of building your strength, it is also amazing for:

  • Leg and overall body endurance. With the pistol squat, you regularly power through motions you otherwise wouldn’t think of, let alone perform. Your muscles, tendons, and whole locomotive system thus gradually adapt to these extreme motions, and in so doing grow significantly more resilient.

  • Improving Balance. Given how easy it is to fall on your backside mid-rep, a considerable balance skill is needed in order to consistently churn out pistol squats. The sheer act of learning to get into the position will do wonders for your stability, and the further down along the line you get, this will only keep getting better!

  • Improving your range of motion. As stated above, this move is, for the lack of a better word—weird. You will be learning to not only assume an unnatural-looking position, but alternate it between both legs, with gravity not giving you a single break! Mastering the move will bring you that much closer to mastering your own body!

How to Perform a Pistol Squat

Start by extending one of your legs (from now on referred to as the nonworking leg) forward while balancing on the other. With the nonworking leg extended, lower your hip gradually, to a position lower than the knee of your standing leg.

Hold this position for a second or so, with the nonworking leg not touching the ground. Then slowly, with the nonworking leg still fully extended, stand up. Only when you have completely straightened your body are you to lower it back on the ground.

Performed the move properly without falling? Congrats! You are fully prepared to reap the ample gains of training with the pistol squat? Not there yet? No worries! Just keep on reading!

Working Your Way Up

We will separate mastery of the pistol squat into five levels. Determine your degree of competence by trying the moves out, then work your way up from there.

Level One: Bodyweight Squat

We start with a simple bodyweight squat. Too easy? Try the next one!

Level Two: Chair Pistol Squat

Put a stool or chair behind your back, then lower yourself into a pistol squat-like position until you end up seated. Then raise yourself back up, keeping the nonworking leg extended all the way. If you have several chairs with different elevation, feel free to start with the taller ones, then keep going down.

Level Three: Assisted Pistol Squat

Stand near something steady (a wall corner, a heavy table), grab it, and slowly lower your way down into a full pistol squat. Feel free to use the surface for additional stability while you rise back up.

Level Four: Elevated Pistol Squat

An in-between step for those capable of pulling off the move, but with difficulty with the balance part. Stand on a box-shaped item (it should obviously be sturdy enough to support your weight) and perform the full pistol squat. The added elevation will give you more swing room for your leg, and enable you to practice the full motion.

Level Five: Full Pistol Squat

You can do a full, proper pistol squat. Good job! Now put it to use.

Suggested Workout Routine

The tiered moves listed above are a great start, but you’ll need more if you want to advance at decent speed. Here is a framework of an exercise routine to round you out and quicken everything up! Just don’t forget to warm up and stretch beforehand! The move can be especially hard on your hamstrings, so prepare them in advance!

What you want is three workout sessions per week. We recommend Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, but do what works for you.

So how do we start? Simple! Take the highest level progression you can pull off, and make it the centerpiece of your training session. Aim for 5 sets of 5 reps. If you find that too easy, try and squeeze in a set of a more difficult (or next level) variant. Once you are done, do any two of the following:

  • Bodyweight Squat: three sets of 12 reps
  • Lunges: three sets of 10 reps (both sides)
  • Squat Hold: three sets of 30 to 60 seconds each
  • Cossack Squat: three sets of 10 to 16 reps (both sides)
  • Leg Raise: three sets of 10 reps

For example:

Assisted Pistol Squat: 5 sets of 5 reps
Squat Hold: 3 sets of 30 second holds
Leg raise: 3 sets of 10 reps

How do you choose? Pick the one that gives you the most trouble. Your inability to do a proper pistol squat is certainly caused by a weak link somewhere. Don’t fear it. Face it head on, and the impossible will eventually become possible.

Final Thoughts

Pistol squats aren’t as hard as they seem, specially if you have a lean physique. If you don’t have one yet, it is perhaps best to focus on nutrition and loosing fat first.

There are a bunch of other good resources, including 12minuteathlete’s guide and Al Kavadlo’s guide.

Good luck, soldier. Now get squatting!

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