I’ve wrote about my pistol squat progression before and you can read how I came back from injury to be able to do pistol squats again. This article is over 3000 words and will be a complete guide on how to start doing pistols squats for beginners.
The one leg squat or pistol is one of the most awesome exercises ever because it’s kind of like the handstand where, when you do it people go “Hey! That’s cool!” Then they try it and fall over. So lets show you how to start doing pistol squats with three simple requirements or escalating steps if you will – to getting your pistol squat accomplished in a month or less.
Pistol Squats For Beginners With No Injuries Or Structural Problems – Step One
Getting down to the ground.
For those with limited range of motion getting your butt to the ground is the first obstacle with the achieving the one leg pistol squat. Whenever I want to move forward on a bodyweight exercise skill the first place I look is to the gymnasts. They’ve probably already been there and done that. In this case, yes, they have the answer. It’s called deck squats.
Deck squats have you squatting as low as possible with both legs until you feel comfortable rolling out of the bottom position of the squat, onto your back and then with momentum, rolling back forward until you are back into the low squat position to stand up again.
Easy enough if you can get that low. If you can’t then just put something under your butt and squat normally. As you get 20 reps, lower the obstacle and start all over again. Work your way from wherever you are down over time. The stair case in your house works well for this. You can also find a low object and shim it with books and take the books away over time.
For those not strong enough to get back up or control the down there are a couple ways to go about it but lets stick with the same tool, the deck squat. If you have trouble controlling the down, reversing it and then coming back up the deck squat will be handy again. Squat down using only one leg and roll out at the bottom same as before and then come back up using two legs. This works because you don’t have to remain static in the hardest bottom position and you are always stronger while lowering, not raising out of a movement. So lower with one leg and squat up with two.
Again, do that until 20 is easy and the you are ready to single leg deck squat in both the up and down parts. Now you are getting close to a real pistol squat.
At this point a couple things could happen. Maybe you cannot stop rolling out at the bottom. If you can’t hold the bottom position statically then you need to stretch your calves, hamstrings and gluteus. You can face a door frame so that your extended leg goes along the wall and hold the edges of the door frame to keep you from rolling out. This will allow you to work down to the bottom position and hang out there for a second to stretch out the tight stuff and really identify your sticking areas. It will also allow you to increase strength in this range of the motion if you’ve been gliding too fast through it with the deck squats.
If you are getting knee pain make ensure your ankle, knee and toe position are all aligned and stacked over each other. Often the arch of the foot will collapse in, then the knee. Sometimes you will also see the knee going in or too far forward and the toe ducking out.
None of that is a good idea and your knees will let you know.
It’s worth the time to hang out in the bottom position and correct these instead of building your pistol squat on a shaky structure.
The Biggest Tip When Starting To Do Pistol Squats
The biggest tip I can share when starting to do pistol squats is to stick with the process. The above steps are how it is done. The only change is the time you spend stretching hamstrings, calves or whatever else is tight or “off” for you.
I made the mistake of jumping around and switching from approach to approach thinking there was always a better way to get there quicker. The truth is that pistol squats take time and you just have to do the work through each phase and then take the next step as your body tells you it’s ready.
Any questions so far?
Okay – the next section is my personal story on how I came back from first a knee injury, then a lower leg injury and started back at square one on the road to getting my first pistol squat AGAIN.
SECTION 2: Pistol Squat Progression: How To Do A One Leg Squat AFTER INJURY
After I got injured, I looked up all the masters for a good pistol squat progression and am happy to say, I found the answers I was looking for.
If you are broken, it can help you too.
Here are a few of my resources I pulled from. In some way, shape of form, they all contributed a piece of knowledge to my pistol squat progression that at some point glued onto another piece to bring me to the final objective of doing a one leg squat.
In the end I have the routine and approach that showed me how to do a pistol squat that worked for my body. My body’s kinks, injuries and limitations. If you’ve weight lifted using the squat, deadlift, bench, overhead press your whole life, then our bodies are probably similar.
Pistol Squat Progression Step 1: Learn To Squat
First, let me say that when I started my pistol squat progression, I couldn’t even walk right let alone squat. I had a limp and a left knee that felt like it was stiff and full of water. My right Achilles tendon was sore as well.
I was at work cutting some conduit (aluminum pipe that holds electrical wires). I went to get up and a huge cracking noise came from my left leg. It pretty much took me down but I limped out of the room to save face and try to figure out what the hell had happened.
I still don’t know exactly what happened. After I pulled my right side hip flexor, I heavily over used my left side for a while. I also pulled the left side hamstring previously.
Long story short, almost nothing worked correctly and my left calf was doing most of my forward propulsion. I kept going despite the indicators and continued to do my fitness bootcamps instead of stepping back and only teaching.
End result, the leg locked up in a slightly bent position and I hobbled for weeks. It felt like there was congestion in there and it didn’t want to bend. Some days after a long warm up, I could almost squat but I would pay for it the next day.
Do More Of What Works And Less Of What Doesn’t
I spent a couple months messing around trying to get into a bottom squat without pain and then I finally started to see progress by doing two exercises I learned from GMB (Gold medal bodies). The side to side squat and squat circles.
I was doing these in the quarter squat position but over time I started to get lower and I added in the frog hop, straight leg bear crawl and side frog until on most days getting into a squat was OK.
I still didn’t stick with any particular calf stretching routine. This was a big mistake.
Over time with continued use and consciously squatting to do things like tying my shoes and staying down for a stretch when going into the bottom cupboard. I could get into the squat no problem unless I made myself tight by running or doing something hard the day before.
Looking back, the straight leg bear crawl was stretching my calves and the frog hops were solidifying a proper squat position with the new found mobility in the ankles.
The side to side squats and circular squats were building the strength back up in my left leg that wasn’t bending.
When I was doing normal bodyweight squats to try and fix the knee problem, I would let the right leg take most of the work without really noticing. By shifting left and right, the left leg was forced to put out equal power and to use proper alignment.
This did not dawn on me at the time that this was helping learn how to do a pistol squat. For some reason the steps were too far apart for me to realize I was progressing. As per usual, I saw the next shiny object and moved onto another approach. Even though I was moving better, I hadn’t mentally labelled what I just learned as “Getting Closer To Doing A Pistol Squat.”
I was “only” moving better.
Keys So Far To Getting The Pistol Squat:
- Use single legs for developing strength
- Use single legs for getting the proper groove
- Spend time every day stretching in the lowest squat position possible even if you need props
- Stretch your calves every day and as much as you can above and beyond that
It’s Not Really How To Do a Pistol Squat That You Want To Know
I mean all there is to it, is to balance on one leg, squat down and stand back up. Right?
I know… you want more. You want the pistol squat progression. What you really want, is to know is why you CAN’T do a pistol squat NOW. So you can fix the things that are keeping you from banging out a one leg squat.
This is where I burnt up the most amount of time while trying to learn the one leg squat exercise. I couldn’t figure out what was keeping me from doing it.
Was it my lack of ankle flexibility? Was I too weak in my legs to squat only on one leg? Maybe my hamstrings were too tight. Then again, maybe it was that my hip flexors were way out of whack from when I pulled one.
On second thought, my adductors are really tight and weak…
It went on and on and I jumped from one master trainers’s approach to another. Which is the worst thing you can do if you want to get good at anything.
Focus On A Mobility Movement Until You Master It
I thought about correct foot position and proper knee and thigh alignment and got lost trying to figure out even how to do the most natural and normal bodyweight squat. Kelly Starrett said one thing in his book Supple Leopard and my physio said another. So many conflicting theories I preventing the necessary focus on a single path.
Then one day I read a sentence by Kit Laughlin that said, “But first, the test. Can you squat down, in bare feet, with the knees together, and keep your heels on the ground?
Well, well, well…
This sentence did a couple things for me. It showed me that yes, my knees should be together. I had been told that my knees should rotate out yet all the pictures had knees together. I was a little torn as to the best approach.
The answer: Knees out for weight lifting loaded squatting. The bodyweight community does knees together to express movement ability. Not capacity to lift in the most structurally sound way.
I wanted to know how to do a pistol squat. I didn’t care about how much I could back squat… for now.
Life lesson: being pulled in two directions is a shitty way to get somewhere fast.
Second, I couldn’t get into a deep squat if my heels stayed on the ground and my knees where together. I would just get stuck in a quarter squat.
I could get into the bottom position if I let my arches collapse… Then Kit said, “Maintain your arches.” BIG piece of the puzzle.
So was it my calves or something else holding me back? How do I remove the calves from the equation?
Are Your Calves Keeping From Doing A One Leg Squat?
That’s when I remembered something from an old bodybuilding magazine about squatting with heels elevated on a board. I also remember that I used to squat in my combat boots when I was in the army and that I also knew how to do a pistol squat back then. Combat Boots have a nice hard heel in them…
I grabbed a 2 foot long piece of 2×6 out of the garage, ran downstairs and put it on the floor. Sneakers off, I put my heels on the board, feet and knees together and attempted to squat.
Full, rock bottom squat with a straight back. HOLY SMOKES. Of course there was some snapping and popping from my knees because they haven’t been that compressed in a while due to what I now knew was tight calves.
FIRST EXERCISE TO ADD: Heels elevated squat with knees and feet together. Do 5 sets of 10 repetitions or whatever fatigue tells you is enough before dropping a little elevation in the heels and starting over.
I now knew that my calves WERE the problem or at least part of it. “I have to fix this,” I thought. Stretching my calves so far did not work.
It must be either the stretches or how I do them. Maybe both. So I thought, “What has worked for me in the past?”
I remembered buying “Kit Laughlin Master The Full Back Bend” where he did a contract/relax method. I also saw him demonstrate a single leg downward dog variation of the calf stretch. It occurred to me that when I do yoga on a regular basis my stride feels better and so does going down stairs.
I tried a set of single leg downward dog calf stretches with a contract relax method between sets of heels elevated squats. If you maintain the arch when you do the stretch and externally rotate your femur, you’ll be doing it right.
The sequence for the stretch is to go up on your toes high, straighten your leg dragging it backwards, THEN let the heel descend for the stretch.
Each round got smoother and smoother. Addictively smoother. To the point that I thought, “I want to do these every day!”
Here is the single leg downward dog pose calf stretch.
When doing the heels elevated squats I noticed that the outside of my left calf was getting wound up tight and the right heel wanted to move in.
Both my legs were doing their own thing. Again I consulted Kits forum and
discovered his first step when learning how to do a pistol squat was to do speed skater squats. I saw this previously but blew it off as too easy without trying it.
After trying them again and failing miserably, I knew I needed to take several steps backward. Getting my upper body parallel with the ground with hands over head and then squatting for 5 x 30 seconds per leg had to be mastered first. Here’s how to do the easiest version of the speed skater squat:
So there is the first piece of the pistol squat progression puzzle. Do:
10 reps of each exercise – Side to side and circle squats with bear crawls (10 steps forward and back) and frog hops until you are fairly comfortable in the squat position.
Then progress to dedicated pistol squat work:
Speed Skater Squats supersetted with… (These are key for me)
Single leg downward dog calf stretches.
For the frequency, do them as frequently as you can without making yourself too sore. If you are hitting muscular failure on the squats then make sure you cut back the reps some. It is better to do a little every day, then kill yourself once a week.
You want to get the blood and movement in there daily until you can, “Squat down, in bare feet, with the knees together, and keep your heels on the ground.” To this end, I would do a couple sets of the heels elevated squats every day. Progressively using a thinner hardcover book as I was able to do 5 sets of 10 repetitions. This was not failure, just a movement and blood flow thing.
Now if your muscles are able to handle this far into the pistol squat progression, here’s what’s next. If you can walk without pain after doing the above, then there is more to add. I detail that for you if there’s interest indicated by article shares or comments below.
Let me know if you want to see it.
Here’s a hint: Step Two In The Pistol Squat Progression (Think Cossacks and Couch Stretch.)
Hope that helps,
Need To Get In Shape Fast?
Download your step-by-step guide to getting in the best shape of your life using the same guide created by Raymond Burton and used at Golds Gym on his Personal Training Clients