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A Step-by-Step Guide to Doing Your First Pistol Squat

A Step-by-Step Guide to Doing Your First Pistol Squat

Learn to do your first pistol squat with this walk, crawl, run training plan.

Pistol squats might be the most difficult-looking exercise.

In some ways, they almost look impossible.

They're tough but they're not as hard as they look.

The pistol squat is a single-leg squat with your non-working leg extended out in front of you and it can be tough to master. Not surprisingly, a single-leg squat is more taxing on your nervous system and core than a squat with both legs. The pistol squat requires more stability, balance and motor control while forcing you to also activate more muscles in both the concentric and eccentric portions of the movement. By incorporating the imbalance of using one foot at a time, you will get more out of the pistol squat than a regular squat.

With a crawl, walk, run approach anyone can do it. 

It's worth noting that you should be good at squatting with both legs prior to attempting the pistol squat. Your lower body should have been strengthened from bodyweight squats, barbell squats, goblet squats and dumbbell squats already. Your hamstrings and posterior chain should also have been strengthened from deadlifts, glute-ham raises and hip thrusts. Before I ever attempted my first pistol squat, I incorporated tons of rear leg elevated split squats to get used to squatting one leg at a time. Once you have strengthened your legs from these movements, you're ready for the pistol squat.

Step #1: Building the Foundation

The foundation is two parts.

The first is your balance. You have to get comfortable balancing on one foot. So before you starting chasing your pistol squat dreams, learn to balance on one leg for at least 10 seconds per foot.

The second part of the foundation is mobility. You have to open your hip flexors and increase your mobility in both your hips and ankles in order to properly execute a pistol squat. Include these mobility drills in your warm up:

  1. Deep squat hold

  2. Spider-Man lunge dynamic stretch

  3. Ankle alphabet or circles

Step #2: Training One Leg at a Time

Once your foundation is established, we're ready to start training the mechanics of a pistol squat.

The first part of this step is to strengthen each leg individually to correct any imbalances. Do single-leg squats with your nonworking foot elevated behind you. If you're traveling and doing this in a hotel room, you can elevate your leg on a chair or the bed. This will help you build strength in each leg while developing some comfort with a single leg doing the work.

The second step is performing assisted negatives.


You can use a TRX strap, a band or even a wall for support. Practice the negative portion, or lowering yourself into the squat. Do this a few times on each leg at least once a week. Each time you do this, attempt to lower yourself even further. As you feel more comfortable with this, progress to doing so from an elevated position. A low box perhaps a foot off the ground is ideal. This will give your nonworking foot (extended in front of you) more room to maneuver as you lower yourself.

Continue practicing the lowering portion but without support. Lower yourself as low as you can go and attempt to get lower every time you practice. Get good at doing pistols from an elevated position first as it takes less mobility to do them this way. It'll make it easier when it comes time to try them without elevation. 

Helpful Tip

While learning the pistol squat and getting comfortable with performing the movement, I held a five pound plate in each hand. The added weight helped because it acted as a counterbalance. 

Step #3: Master the Movement

It's time to try your first pistol squat from ground level. The primary difference here from doing pistols elevated is you will really have to work to keep that non-working foot off the ground. This is why working on your mobility is so important for this exercise.

Remember these fundamentals: 

  • Lower yourself slowly and use your hands to help maintain your balance.

  • Sit back and down with your weight on your heel.

  • Keep your chest up.

  • Squeeze your glutes when coming back up.

  • Practice.

There are tons of videos on YouTube about pistols squats but this video is the best tutorial we've seen yet.

Bottom Line

Remember that the pistol squat requires strength and balance. It takes time to learn and requires a lot of practice. Take the time to develop your foundation through mobility drills and single leg squat variations and be patient. Put in the time and you will be rewarded.

Cover Photo Credit (maybe the coolest photo ever): Carrie Sandoval and Crossfit.com

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