I have recently started incorporating more bodyweight exercises into my training. Many people tend to scoff at bodyweight training in favour of heavy compound lifts, but what is the point in being super ‘strong’ if you can’t even do 10 push ups with strict form? Even once you have mastered the basics, there are plenty of challenging bodyweight exercises you can always incorporate into your training. One such exercise is a pistol squat.
Purpose: The pistol squat, or single leg squat, is a great leg and core-based exercise that you can perform anywhere. It is perfect for increasing both strength and balance (and far better than using a bosu ball!).
I believe the best method to approach learning these squats is to ‘grease the groove’ – that is, practice them throughout the day whenever you can. Every time you get up from a chair, for example, try a bottoms-up pistol.
Make sure you foam roll and stretch your calves and hamstrings before attempting this exercise, as it can be seriously affected by poor mobility. Remember that it will take weeks or even months to learn how to perform these properly.
Set-up: Stand on one leg, with your other leg extended straight in front a few inches off the floor. Flex this foot hard and do not allow it to touch the ground at any point during the exercise. Extend your arms forward in front of you. By extending your arms and your non-active leg, you are working to counterbalance the weight of where your hips and torso will end up.
Execution: Slowly and carefully squat down to either a box or the ground. I recommend that beginners start by squatting to a standard height weight bench (if that is too challenging, stack some weight plates on top of the bench and squat to them). Aim to gradually decrease the height of the bench until you feel confident to try squatting to the floor. Feel free to hold on to something to assist with balance as you attempt the full squat version. My personal favourite ‘cheat’ is to hold on to a TRX (link) to provide counterbalance, but facing sideways into a doorway is another great option.
Ideally, you will squat down until your hamstring and calf touch. Allow your torso to lean forward – it is normal for your abdomen to make contact with your upper thigh. Unlike a traditional squat, don’t think of sitting back into it – or you will fall on your butt! Force your knee to track over your toes to maintain balance. In the same vein, if you are starting off by squatting to a box, do not think of sitting back on to the box – the movement should mirror a full range pistol, which means your supporting foot should be right up against the box to allow you squat straight down.
Remain tight throughout the movement. If you are squatting to a box, do not allow yourself to completely relax when you hit the box. Just lightly touch it and power back up to standing, all the while keeping tension in your leg like a regular pistol.
A not-so-simple bodyweight workout: