female trainer with a ponytail demonstrates a single-leg step down as the first part of a pistol squat progression

Pistol Squat Progression: How to Work Up to a Single-Leg Squat | Well+Good


Scroll through FitTok long enough, and youโ€™re bound to see someone showing off a pistol squat. This advanced move involves holding one leg straight out to the front while squatting all the way down on the other leg until you hover just above the floor.

โ€œIt’s a display of strength and mobility,โ€ says Lauren Pak, CPT, who runs a fitness training business with her husband, Jason. โ€œItโ€™s something that’s achievable, but also really challenging.โ€

To complete a pistol squat progression successfully, you need serious strength in your quads, hamstrings, and glutes, plus a good deal of ankle and hip mobility. But as long as you donโ€™t have issues with knee flexion or find the movement painful, Pak says pistol squats should be in reach for most people.

Even if the ground seems impossibly far away or you currently fall back on your butt with every attempt, building up the necessary skills just takes the right preparation. Pak broke down the pistol squat progression for us, including exactly where to begin, plus the drills and form cues that can help you pull off a pistol squat like a pro.

3-part pistol squat progression plan

1. Start with single-leg step downs

The first order of business is building up the strength of the standing leg, which will be doing the majority of the work. Pak says single-leg step downs are a great way to do this while mimicking the actual movement of a pistol squat.

  1. Stand on the edge of a couple of weight plates or a small box with your right foot, while your left foot hangs off the side.
  2. Squat with your right leg deep enough so that your left heel can lightly tap the ground below.
  3. Stand back up using just the strength of your right leg.

Variation: If youโ€™re struggling with your balance, Pak recommends holding on to something like TRX straps for a little extra stability. Over time, try to use the straps less and less until youโ€™re balancing on your own.

Progression: Once you feel comfortable doing these step downs a few times in a row (on both legs), start to increase the height of the platform youโ€™re on so that you have to move through a bigger range of motion to get that heel all the way to the ground below.

2. Move into step downs with a forward leg swing

Once youโ€™ve built up the strength to go deeper and deeper into that squat, itโ€™s time to increase the mobility challenge and the strength of the hip flexors by swinging the opposite leg forward while you squat.

โ€œThat creates a little bit more of what the pistol squat requires, which is that you have to keep that other leg straight and up off the ground,โ€ says Pak. The added elevation gives you more room for that leg to swing forward without hitting the ground.

female trainer with a ponytail demonstrates a step down with a forward swing as the second part of a pistol squat progression

  1. Stand on the edge of an elevated platform, like a box or stacked weight plates, with your right foot. Let your left foot hang off the side.
  2. Squat down with your right leg, but this time, instead of reaching your left heel toward the ground, swing it forward like you would in a pistol squat.
  3. Stand back up and bring your left leg back underneath you.

Variation: To help counterbalance your weight so that you can go deeper into the squat more easily, hold a weight like a heavy dumbbell or weight plate out in front of your chest.

Progression: Once youโ€™re able to make it all the way down to the bottom of the squat on each leg, start to lower the elevation (via fewer weight plates or a shorter box) to incrementally increase the challenge. Eventually, youโ€™ll get to a place where you donโ€™t need any extra elevation, and youโ€™ll officially be doing full pistol squats.

3. Mobility drills can help your pistol squat

If youโ€™ve completed the pistol squat progression and built the strength to do deep single-leg squats, but find you donโ€™t quite have the range of motion to get as low as you need for a pistol squat, Pak has a couple of suggestions.

For ankle mobility: Kneeling ankle glide

โ€œWhen you see somebody do a pistol squat successfully, their knee has to go pretty far forward in order to be able to get all the way down,โ€ Pak says. Otherwise, your torso will fall backward. A kneeling ankle glide can build the mobility to help your body get into the proper position.

female trainer with a ponytail demonstrates kneeling ankle glides as a way to increase mobility for pistol squats

  1. Kneel on the floor with your left foot forward.
  2. Lean forward and push your left knee over the left toes as far as you can while keeping your left heel on the ground.
  3. Return to the start.
  4. Repeat several times, trying to go further each time, then switch sides.

Variation: Pak says you can add a weight plate on top of the knee to eke out a little extra range of motion.

For hip mobility: Prying squats

If your hips are too tight to reach your butt all the way down to your heel, Pak suggests this drill:

female trainer with a ponytail demonstrates prying squats as a way to increase mobility for pistol squats

  1. Standing upright on both feet, hold onto something like a squat rack or pole.
  2. Lower down into the bottom of a squat position.
  3. Push your knees out to the sides to pry your hips open and wiggle your hips lower. โ€œYouโ€™re just trying to get yourself down as low as you can while trying to keep your chest open [with a] nice long spine. And that’s really going to start to open the hips up a little,โ€ Pak says.

4 form cues to successfully pull off a pistol squat

Pak says she sees a few common mistakes that keep people from completing a pistol squat. Keep these technique tips in mind so that youโ€™re not unintentionally making things harder for yourself.

1. Keep your weight balanced over the middle of your working foot

When people try to quickly get down into a pistol squat and back up again, Pak says itโ€™s common to let the forward leg veer out to the side while leaning the upper body in the opposite direction. But this wonโ€™t build the full strength to do a slow, controlled pistol squat.

โ€œTry to make sure that leg is staying in close and straight out in front of you,โ€ she says.

2. Let your lower back round

Most of the time when weโ€™re working out, weโ€™re told to keep a neutral spine. But in a pistol squat, you actually want that lower back to tuck under a bit. โ€œIf people try to stay too straight, it prevents them from being able to do the pistol squat,โ€ Pak explains.

3. Lead with the knee

You might have been warned by a trainer at some point that itโ€™s dangerous to let your knee go past your toes. Physical therapists now say thatโ€™s a myth, and this is one instance where you really need that knee to go in front of the toes.

Pak suggests thinking of the knee actively moving forward as you sink down into the squat.

4. Allow your chest to come forward

This is one more example of a common squat cue that needs to be ignored when youโ€™re doing a pistol squat. Instead of keeping your chest upright, youโ€™ll benefit from bringing it further forward in this move to correctly balance your weight.


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