Proper Pistol Squat Progressions



Should you do the pistol squat?  Yes!  There is no debate.  If you are a fitness nut, or an athlete, the pistol squat is a must. 

Every exercise has its pros and cons, good and bad, etc.  When selecting any new exercise to add to your regimen, you must always outweigh the good with the bad.  In this case, the pistol far outweighs the bad. 

The problem with pistols is they are pretty freaking tough if you are a beginner.  Plus, getting great form takes plenty of time and practice.  Thats where we come in.

In this article, we are going to discuss the proper way that pistol squat progressions should be done. 


Close Stance Bodyweight Squat


For most people, mobility is the lacking factor when learning pistols.  Of all the pistol squat progressions, this is absolutely square one. 

To perform, stand with your feet straight and place them right next to each other as close as you can.  From here, simply squat down all the way until your butt touches your calves.  Your back should be kept straight, heels should be on the floor and your knees should be pushed out. 

If you have trouble with this exercise, then you definitely don’t have the mobility to perform pistols.  When the feet are close together, the ankles have much less room to move around. 

Ankle mobility should be addressed.

Perform 10-15 reps of this exercise, with perfect form, before moving on.    


Airborne Lunge


Once you have mastered the close stance squat, it is time to begin single leg work.  The first of the unilateral pistol squat progressions is the airborne lunge

The airborne lunge was described in great detail in Max Shank’s book Ultimate Athleticism.  This exercise targets mostly the hips (i.e. glutes), but it also targets many of the same muscle groups as the pistol.  The biggest difference is that less balance and mobility are required. 

To perform, simply stand on one leg and bend the other leg until your calf and butt are touching each other.  Now, from here, fold at your hips and reach back with your bent leg until your knee touches the ground and then stand up. 

This may be a little challenging at first, so I recommend to first start scaling the exercise. 

Put a stack of plates on the ground, as high as you may need, and reach back until your back knee touches the plates.  When you get better, just take more plates off the stack and before long you will be on the ground. 

Perform 10 solid reps each leg before moving on. 


Assisted Pistols

You will be thankful if you took the time to learn and master the airborne lunge, because it only makes learning the pistol easier.  Most people try to rush into it and that only ends with either frustration and/or injury.  Do the right thing and take your time, you’ll be grateful later. 

Assisted pistols come in two kinds, box pistols and banded pistols.  Start with box pistols first to develop the coordination and balance and then work on banded pistols to achieve depth and strength. 

To perform the box pistol, stand in front of a box or chair and extend one leg out in front of you.  Sit your butt back and lower yourself until your butt touches the box, then just stand back up.  This helps a lot of people achieve a pretty good depth with their pistols.  However, their form doesn’t seem to improve that much when attempting regular pistols, which is why pistols can cause knee pain in individuals.


The ideal pistol will have as straight of a spine as possible and will look very similar to an ass to grass barbell squat.  However, when box pistols are performed, the individual gets in the habit of leaning forward and rounding their spine and thus never working their hip muscles to the highest degree. 

Banded pistols will assist this.  To perform, simply attach a giant band around a pole or steady object and grab ahold of the band.  Perform a pistol squat as you did with the box, except this time hold onto the band.  You will notice that this exercise is much harder than the box pistol because there is less room to cheat.


Try to keep the spine as straight as possible and even try to drive the knee out to the side when performing.  We want to learn how to control our own bodyweight with this progression. 

Once you can perform 5 reps on each leg for BOTH progressions, you are ready to attempt the pistol. 


The Pistol Squat

All of the hard work from the pistol squat progressions has paid off and you are now ready to attempt a freestyle pistol.  Start out slow and take your time, if you have worked your way through all of the progressions then this should just take a little bit of time.


Use a weight plate in front of you at first if you need help activating the posterior chain.  Then before you know it you will be able to bang them out on your own.

You will be pleased when you get under a barbell again.      

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