9 Undeniable Benefits of Pistol Squats
A pistol squat is the most effective leg exercise in calisthenics and they hold unique advantages over other conventional leg exercises such as the standard barbell squat.
So what are the benefits of pistol squats?
The benefits of pistol squats is that they develop coordination, balance, body control and mobility whilst increasing individual leg strength. This helps address muscle imbalance between your dominant and weaker leg and improves athletic performance.
Pistol squats can also serve as an alternative stimulus to the barbell squat as there is more of an emphasis on stabiliser strength for a stronger foundation.
Read on to understand the 9 benefits in more detail and how pistol squats can make you a better athlete…
Easier on your Back
With traditional weighted squats you are loading up the weight onto your traps which will subsequently put pressure on your back.
If you are squatting with optimal form, you have no prior injuries and you are lifting an appropriate amount of weight for your ability then this shouldn’t be a problem and you can barbell squat safely.
However if you do have a back injury, or perhaps you are squatting with inadequate form because of mobility issues then pistol squats are the far safer option.
As your bodyweight is providing the assistance there is no additional pressure from an external weight on your back therefore you are far less likely to exacerbate an old injury by loading up on weight which could hurt your spine.
In addition the pistol squats prioritise the importance of stability strength in the core due to the obvious challenge that comes with exercising whilst balancing on one leg. The core strength that you can gain from pistol squats will help protect and stabilise your back to make you more injury resistant in the future.
Increase Coordination and Balance
Pistol squats demand far higher levels of balance, coordination and body awareness then any other leg exercise.
Barbell squats are a great exercise for developing strength and power, however they do not emphasise other athletic qualities in the same way that pistol squats do.
When you are balancing on one leg whilst executing a squat, there is far higher demand on different muscle groups to work cohesively together to contribute to the movement. Different muscle groups contribute to not only the pushing strength in the legs that is required for pistol squats but also to maintain posture and stability throughout.
Your arms and non squatting leg are extended out in front of you and used as a counter balance to control the movement so you don’t roll backwards. The core and stabilising muscles are tested to keep you in the optimal position and balanced.
So you are developing a wide range of athletic qualities with the pistol squat whilst you are developing strength and power. This helps you move more fluidly with better movement patterns and ensures that different muscle groups can work effectively together for overall functional full body strength that can be better applied to sports performance.
This is in direct contrast to machine based leg exercises which remove the element of instability from the exercise and work muscles independently, which therefore deprives you of the opportunity to develop stability strength that is useful for sports performance and everyday movement.
You Can do Them Anywhere
As with a lot of calisthenics exercises you have the freedom to do pistol squats anywhere without any equipment.
This means you can train legs when you are on the go without access to a gym or a home squat rack. Its even easy to get a few reps in throughout the day regularly to help with the balance, coordination and technique elements of the exercises.
The only equipment you may need if you are working towards a full pistol squat is a chair or bench so you can practice the exercise without having to go full depth, or something to support you whilst you are developing the balance required, such as a resistance band attached to a pull up bar that you can hold onto, or two chairs positioned either side of you so you can assist with you hands.
This will help your nervous system to become accustomed to the movement.
If you want to know the best exercises to build up to the pistol squat performed in the correct sequence then check out this tutorial as its the best on YouTube.
Squat racks take a lot of space if your training at home and gym memberships can be expensive, not to mention the time consumed from commuting to the gym and waiting for exercise equipment to become available if the gym is busy.
Pistol squats can be done anywhere anytime.
Addresses Strength and Muscle Imbalances Between Each Leg
Often we accrue muscle imbalances over the course of life and playing sports that we are not even aware of. In addition to this we all are either left or right leg dominant, which is reinforced by using balance or moving one leg more then the other over the course of your life or whilst you are playing sports.
For example, its likely you are significantly better at kicking a football with your dominant leg as you have naturally built up strength and dexterity compared to the supporting leg.
Pistol squats are a great way to address this imbalance of strength,power, dexterity and coordination.
If you can work towards rebalancing the strength capacity and balance between your two legs, then this will be of enormous benefit athletically and even in your day to day movement.
Once you have achieved a full pistol squat on both sides there will be an obvious preference for one leg over the other (in terms of the number of reps you can do on each leg). Addressing the imbalance is as simple as working on your weaker leg until you have the same work capacity on both legs.
This will improve your functional strength and dexterity with everything from jumping to kicking to driving forwards with more power, not to mention benefit your barbell squat ability.
Promotes Flexibility and Mobility
One of the key differences between the bar squat and the pistol squat is that pistol squats encourage flexibility and mobility whilst you are gaining strength.
This is in contrast to a lot of strength building exercises which often leave muscles tight which, without the correct stretching, can lead to poor movement patterns.
In order to get ‘ass to grass’ which means going through the full range of motion of the pistol squat, you will stretch out your hamstrings, quadriceps, calf and hip flexors.
One of the biggest inhibitors of successful pistol squatting with deep range of motion is a lack of dorsi flexion.
This is where the calf muscle and usually the achilles tendon are too tight from a lack of effective stretching and you can not flex or bend at the ankle sufficiently (where your knee can move forwards over your foot) so that your bodyweight is aligned correctly over your foot to maintain the balance required for squatting.
If you are struggling with this then I highly recommend that you invest in a stretch board such as this one on amazon. This is the most effective way to loosen tight calf muscles to gain the range of motion that is required for the pistol squat.
The stretch board really was a game changer for me as I had built up the strength for the pistol squat but I didn’t have enough flexibility at the ankle to keep position and stay balanced throughout the movement and I kept falling backwards at the bottom of the squat.
The stretch board (in the link above) is adjustable so you can increase the angle of incline as your calf becomes less tense which therefore gives you a greater range of movement. Gaining flexibility at the ankle joint is also a great way to reduce knee pain. I used to have a dull ache in my knees every time I squatted down and I assumed it was an overuse injury.
However once I gained greater range of motion and the tightness was alleviated from my calf and my Achilles tendon and I was able to get into a deep squat for many reps without any knee ache at all. The difference was remarkable.
Hamstring, glutes and hip flexor tightness are all limiting factors when it comes to perfecting you squat form.
If you suffer from chronic muscle tightness, then watch this YouTube video as the series of stretches will help you lay down the foundation of mobility required for injury free squatting whether its with a bar or bodyweight.
Increase your Barbell Squat
I wholehearted recommend to learn how to pistol squat effectively before going heavy with a conventional bar squat. This applies if you are squatting to improve your:
Improving sports performance
The reason is to build a base of stabiliser strength, flexibility and mobility before you start loading up weight.
Trying to squat with additional weight before you have developed the ability to pistol squat is like learning to run before you can walk. Pistol squats are excellent for laying down a foundation and developing athletic characteristics that can be transferred to squatting with heavy weight.
Think of the benefit of having superior balance, core strength and dexterity for each leg when it comes to squatting with a heavy bar on your back.
Because you have to balance on one leg for pistol squats there is far more concentration and emphasis required on perfecting the form of the squat.
When it comes to avoiding injury from heavy bar squatting, having strong stabiliser muscles, good form and sufficient flexibility are crucial.
So if you are looking to increase your bar squat, take some time to specialise in pistol squats and it will pay dividends for your results.
Better for Athleticism
Pistol squats hold an advantage over traditional barbell squats due to where the weight is distributed during the exercise.
With a barbell squat the weight is concentrated on your back, with the bar positioned on your traps (trapezius muscle). This means that the weight is aligned so that the drive from your legs to raise back up form the squat comes more through your heel then the ball of your foot.
Drilling this movement pattern where the weight, and therefore the majority of the power is driven through the heel of your foot does not replicate how you move in real life or how you would apply force in sport.
Think about the scenarios in sport when having power in your legs is an advantage.
When you sprint forwards,
Driving forwards in a scrum in Rugby
Performing a tackle in Football
Executing a take down in Wrestling
Throwing a punch and footwork for Boxing
Kicking a ball in soccer
When it comes to sport it is important that you develop power in your legs because you drive that force through the ball of your foot.
The way a pistol squat is aligned, the drive from your legs has to come from the ball of your foot which mimics real life and sports performance.
In order to maintain balance for the exercise, your non squatting leg acts as a counter balance, extended out in front of you. This shifts the distribution of your bodyweight, which is acting as the resistance from the ball to the heal of the foot.
So with respect of how you generate and drive force with your legs, training pistol squats are far more sports specific then barbell squats.
Also quite often in sports you have to spend a lot of time on one leg, whether its kicking a ball or throwing a kick in kick boxing. The high level of balance developed through pistol squats will stand you in good stead to maintain stability throughout these dynamic, explosive movements.
They are Easy to Scale
A great advantage of pistol squats is that it is very easy to increase the intensity of the exercise. Whilst they are a calisthenics movement, I do recommend adding weight if you feel comfortable with your bodyweight pistol squat.
Because your bodyweight is already providing most of the resistance you will only need a relatively light dumbbell, weight plate, kettlebell or weighted vest to increase the difficulty.
I would recommend against a backpack as the weight will be concentrated behind you and inevitably pull you backwards and off balance.
You can hold the weight out in front of you to act as a counter balance which helps you stay upright. This is a very effective way to combine the benefits of a calisthenics exercise with the scalable benefits of weightlifting to maintain a progressive overload and increase your strength and muscle mass.
Weighted pistol squats can also serve as a great alternative stimulus to bar squats, (particularly if you are lacking in stabiliser strength) which evokes a different adaptive response from the body and can help you overcome strength plateaus so you can go back to the bar stronger and push bigger numbers.
If you have experienced the benefits of pistol squats and can offer anymore benefits or if you are going to try them to improve your barbell squat, then let me know in the comments down below!