The Benefits of the Pistol Squat

Sculpting and strengthening the quads, glutes and hamstrings is a goal for many athletes and fitness fanatics. One of the more challenging exercises that target these muscles, while also increasing your flexibility, mobility and core strength are weighted pistol squats.

Pistol squats are a great way to strengthen your legs. (Image: skynesher/E+/GettyImages)

What Is a Pistol Squat?

The pistol squat is an advanced exercise that requires strength, athleticism, balance, flexibility, mobility and concentration. It works the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves and hip flexors. Because of the complexity, you'll need to work up to this move by increasing single-leg strength and core stability. Mastering the single-leg squat before moving to the pistol squat is highly recommended, especially since the pistol squat requires you to bend deeper as you hold one leg out in front of you.

Hollywood A-Lister's are known for their intense workouts that include everything from sprints with sleds to weighted pistol squats. One actress, in particular, is very vocal about her love for weighted pistol squats and even gave them a shout-out on social media.

Fans of the Jessica Biel butt got to see the fit star rep a few sets of weighted pistol squats on a high box, which helps to make this challenging move a bit easier. While Biel does an excellent job executing this complicated squat, this is not an exercise you should add into your routine without working up to the movement.

How to: Pistol Squats

To do a basic pistol squat, you want to start in a standing position, with your feet shoulder-width apart. Start by raising your right leg in front of you while pushing your hips back and bend into a squat on the left leg. For balance, extend your arms out in front of you.

If you are doing weighted pistol squats, you can keep your arms at your sides or raise them about halfway in front of you. The goal is to lower your hips as low as possible while still keeping your right leg (front leg) lifted. When you reach this point, pause, and push with the standing leg to return to the starting position.

Read more: 12 Essential Squat Variations to Try

Benefits of Weighted Pistol Squats

If you can pull off this exercise, there are some benefits to doing the pistol squat. The ability to isolate each leg for strength is the primary benefit of including this move in your workouts. That's because unilateral exercises such as the pistol squat work the large muscles of the quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteus maximus as well as the gluteus minimus in both the pushing and stabilizing leg. This can help correct any muscle imbalances you might have.

Plus, targeting one leg at a time ensures that both legs are getting a good workout. Another benefit of pistol squats is for balance training. The American Council on Exercise recommends single-leg or unilateral exercises for improving balance and utilizing core muscles.

Because they require a lot of balance, pistol squats also activate your core muscles and the adductors and abductors, or the muscles on the inside and outside of your legs. And according to the Mayo Clinic, having a strong core leads to better balance and stability, both of which you need to perform daily tasks as well as the pistol squat.

When you've mastered the form and full range of motion, you can add resistance to increase leg strength. However, weighted pistol squats should not be entered into lightly. You increase the chance of injury by adding weight to this already difficult exercise, so proceed with caution when taking on this challenge.

Read more: 8 Unilateral Exercises to Challenge Your Balance

Safety and Variations

One of the primary concerns about pistol squats is the stress the move places on the hip flexors and lower back. Therefore, both bodyweight pistol squats and weighted pistol squats should be reserved for advanced fitness levels. In other words, this is not a move to try if you're new to exercise, have hip or knee issues, or struggle with balance and mobility.

If you're not quite ready for the full pistol squat, but you can do some of the movement, try a partial pistol squat. With this variation, you only go down half-way, or as far as you can go while maintaining good form. The goal here is to work on increasing the strength in the bending leg.

Using a high box, rather than standing on the floor, can help simplify this move especially if your hips are not flexible enough to straighten out the lifted leg. At the gym, you can do a self-assisted single-leg squat with a Smith machine. By using the bar for support, you can focus solely on lowering your body rather than performing the squat and maintaining balance at the same time.

And if you're eager to master a pistol squat, but you still need to build up enough strength in your lower body to do single-leg training, a safe place to start is with the basic squat, lunges and deadlifts. Work on strengthening the large muscles in your lower body such as the quadriceps, glutes and hamstrings, while also targeting the smaller, stabilizing muscles in the hips.

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