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The Pistolero - Pistol Squats (Includes Tutorial)

The pistol, or single-leg squat, is a unique exercise that combines strength, flexibility, and grace in a manner unlike many other movements. There are several pieces to the pistol puzzle, and proper execution requires mastery of each element.

The term Pistolero was used in the days of the American Old West to describe a formidable gun-fighting man..Pistolero implied someone able to take care of himself, bringing forth in others an emotional melange of awe, fear and respect. Pistolero connoted someone living outside the law, somewhat wild and unorthodox.

And so in the exercise world, where orthodox philosophy holds the squat as king of strength and muscle-building movements--and for good reason! The squat and (arguably) the deadlift are two of the greatest anabolic, mass-gaining exercises ever, blah, blah, blah...BUT... if the squat is king of all bodybuilding exercises, the pistol is emperor of athletic assistance movements.

Above - Its me Anton, health, fitness, longevity expert working the pistol squat - It's named the pistol as this is the shape the body makes when in the low phase of the exercise.

Following the functional MOVEMENT over isolated Muscles email/blog it's time to take a look at the Pistol Squat.

So, If you have been following the body-weight 'Squat Challenge' (as you must be able to perform bilateral body-weight squats as mentioned previously with correct form and technique BEFORE progressing) you should now have achieved good strength & mobility and will be ready for a new challenge...


Pistol squats are challenging on many levels, requiring core strength, leg strength and that flexibility/mobility..

The first time I ever tried to do a one-legged pistol squat, I failed miserably. Even though I thought I had strong legs from years of weight training, my initial attempt at this calisthenics staple resulted in me falling on my behind.

After several months AND months of dedicated practice, however, I was able to nail the pistol squat and eventually build up to performing it for reps.

What muscles does the pistol squat work exactly?

It’s best not to think in terms of which muscles are worked. This isn’t a bodybuilding exercise – it’s a movement exercise. If you do it right, you’ll be using most of the large muscle groups together rather than targeting a specific muscle for hypertrophy.

Although pistol squats are not for everyone. If you are skinny, with weak underpinnings then you should stick with the tried and true, the classic barbell squat and heavy kettlebell front squats for reasons mentioned above..

But for me personally, the pistol has vast appeal for the following reasons.

Personally I'm training more for health, mobility, vitality and longevity so I’m no longer interested in gaining weight or increasing body tissue, including muscular mass, especially in the lower body.

My legs are prone to growing disproportionately in relation to the upper body and don’t need the stimulation as heavy barbell squats tend to build out the adductor muscles, creating large and chafing thighs.

Above - Just attempting a few single leg squat variations including the 'pistol' keeping my agility now I'm in my forties

Therefore, clarity is key - What you want why, and what you are actually prepared to do

And while the squat will produce massive gains in muscular size and weight, not everyone wishes to increase these parameters, including myself.

The term I use a lot is 'different horse for different courses' meaning it's all dependent on your training goals. These kind of heavy bb weighted squats also create a tremendous amount of tension and tightness in the hips, causing inflexibility and immobility in the hips. This can’t be helped, since to lift big weights, you must create tension; tension is strength, but this tension doesn’t serve everyone well.

This is also why I continue to promote balance within our body and mind system that counter balance this with active recovery and mobility work.

Above - You will need a good level of mobility to perform the pistol squat so once you can complete at least 20 bi-lateral body-weight squats with correct form you can then progress and attempt the same squat but with feet closer together to work that lower leg mobility.

This can also be done at a door frame or somewhere that you can hold this position until it becomes easier or grab my free guide and improve your flexibility

This will really help you improve your overall performance in bilateral (2-footed) squats but is also vital in performing single leg squats where you are incorporating 'Unilateral training' which means you have to incorporate deep hip and core stabilizers to keep your balance and unsupported hip from collapsing downward.

Unilateral training, or training one limb/side of the body at a time, is also one of the most effective methods available for stepping up the intensity of your workouts, whilst improving bilateral strength, and helping to push past plateaus in both size and strength.

Studies on core muscle activity in various types of resistance exercises definitively concluded that for those seeking to strengthen their core, unilateral exercises were superior to bilateral exercises.

Developing these core muscles is important for developing balance and stability, protecting your spine, staying pain free, and cultivating integrated, functional strength.

Therefore, by incorporating unilateral exercises, you will be forcing the weaker side to do all of the work on its own, rather than constantly relying on the dominant side to assist in lifting and lowering the weight.

Additionally, when you begin to even out the level of strength between corresponding muscles on both sides of your body you will become stronger in all of the standard two-arm/leg exercises and with a better balanced

This is because there is no escape in the kinetic chain, your weaker side can not hide behind your dominant side which can set you up for injury because If a right-left imbalance exists, legs in particular can raise havoc in the entire structure, some research shows that the imbalance/weakness between right-left can range from 3% right up to 25%.

(This means less aches, pains, and niggles from those imbalances)

Plus its a functional movement (lower body as opposed to isolating one muscle group and as mentioned the movement over muscles email post) because apart from power lifting (squats) you will always be using one leg at a time, walking, athletics, throwing a kick and running to name but a few..

Making it more USABLE because agility is more usable than brute strength alone, for example these days I'd rather be able to perform 10 one arm push ups that worry about how many kg's I can bench press and usable strength and pain free movement is my clarity moving forwards for longevity - Clarity again!

I have seen many people, even with a huge barbell squat and enormous leg development, unable to perform a single pistol. Because of the athleticism and dependence on mobility and base, many people simply don’t have what it takes to do a free-standing pistol. I’d also like to point out that free-standing body weight pistols require a much higher level of mobility and skill than holding a weight during the pistol, which provides a counter-balance to the movement. Likely because most people are too inflexible in the ankles, feet and calves. These are some of the most neglected areas of the body. So you will want to incorporate a foot stretching routine, if you are looking to complete pistol squats however mobility for these area's are beneficial regardless as tight feet can also cause pain elsewhere such as in the knees. Try these 2 stretches below-

1, Bear Squat- Roll them feet all the way forwards, on to lace of shoes, and then push back through the heels. Start with 3-5 and build up to 10+ over time as this is still incorporates strength as you are holding your body weight off the ground. Feel those feet and heels stretch?

2, Lower Leg/Foot Stretch - Sit on the laces with upright torso (good posture) and if you are tight this will be enough of a stretch however if it doesn't feel too bad then you can gently ease your torso backwards, CAREFULLY and using hands for support ease back into the stretch and lift knees up from the ground.

Below are some progression that you can try for the Pistol Squats (Again if YOU choose to attempt this advanced exercise, you need to be able to complete a basic bi-lateral squat FIRST, without professional assistance you do so as your own risk and responsibility)

Above Bench/Chair Pistols - Make sure you have a strong sturdy chair or bench, try putting the chair against a wall for safety/confidence, and sit back or begin sitting and attempt to stand up by shifting your centre of mass and engaging that core. Remember the lower the chair is the more difficult this will be..

Above- Former local client Victoria demonstrating the wall progression where you can let the straight leg hang down off the wall whilst continuing to improve that mobility and build the strength required. Also a slight heel elevation assisting..

Above - Free standing pistol squat complete - Well done Victoria showing much improved core strength & flexibility!

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Research source - Steve Maxwell, Dragon Door

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