Sidekick squats, landmine squats, prisoner squats. All bow down before the king, the very monarch of the squat nation: pistol squats.

Drop it! The 411 on pistol squats

Quick! Here comes the 411 on pistol squat technique, progression, and their key benefits:

  • Pistol squats are single-legged squats. You perform them with one leg and both arms extended out in front of you.
  • They’re among the hardest squats to pull off and require that you nail some other exercises first to build strength and balance.
  • Once you can pull them off, they’re great for working on your core and lower body.
  • It’s important to get your technique just right to avoid overstressing your knees.
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It looks like quite the challenge — because it is. So if you’re wondering how to do them or pondering the prep involved, we’ve got you covered. Get ready to work that booty.

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Rob and Julia Campbell/Stocksy United
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Image by Dima Bazak

To get your pistol squat technique perfect, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, then:

  1. Raise your arms up till they’re out in front of you at shoulder height, pull your shoulders back, and engage your core.
  2. Lift one leg up and hold it in front of you in a raised position.
  3. Allowing yourself to give a little at the hips, bend your supporting knee. and lower into a squat. Try to keep your back and torso as straight as possible.
  4. When you’ve brought your butt as close to your supporting heel as you can, tense those glutes and use that supporting heel to lift yourself back up.
  5. Return to your starting position.
  6. Repeat on the same leg or switch.

If you just gave this a go right now, you probably realized that pistol squats are way harder than they sound.

Don’t worry. By laying the groundwork with some other exercises, you’ll be on your way to top-tier pistol squatting in no time.

Pistol squats are often thought of as the hardest squats to learn. You’re not going to start busting them out overnight unless your fitness levels are already tippy top. Start out with some other exercises which build the muscles you’ll need.

Remember, if you’re working through any injuries to your knees or ankles, you might want to talk with a physical therapist before you unholster those full-fledged pistol squats. It’s possible these starter exercises might help your recovery — but get a professional second opinion first.

How to start out doing pistol squats

First, let’s get your basics sorted with a few other squats. Make sure you’re able to comfortably rattle off 15 to 20 basic two-legged squats before you attempt anything fancy. From there, let’s work on balance.

Try single-leg balances. When you begin a squat, hold each leg up for 10 seconds apiece. Then drop into a two-legged squat and extend each leg out while you’re at the bottom of the move, again holding for 10 seconds on each leg. Raise up on both legs back to the starting position.

Once you can comfortably perform 15 to 20 of these single-leg balances, you can move toward the complete pistol squat technique.

Leveling up to pistol squats

You can’t be a level 20 mage right off the mark. Skills take time and effort — especially pistol squats. Here’s how to:

1. Assisted pistol squats

With the basics of strength and balance established, it’s time to try an assisted pistol squat (an… assistol squat?). If you’ve got access to TRX straps, you can hold onto them at mid-length and get comfortable with the full set of pistol squat motions while still supporting your weight with your arms.

Don’t worry if you can’t use the straps. A couch, heavy chair, or doorframe can be used to engage your arms while your legs and ankles get used to what you’ll need them to do solo.

2. Box or chair pistol squats

Work your way up to 3 sets of 5 assisted pistol squat reps, then move on to box or chair pistol squats.

Using a box, a stool, or a low chair for support, attempt a pistol squat using just your legs, down as low as the support you’re using will let you. Once you get used to that, begin reducing the height of the support. Aim for 15 to 20 confident reps before ditching the support.

3. Weight-assisted pistol squats

Finally, try weight-assisted pistol squats. These are exactly like pistol squats except you’re extending a 5- to 10-lb weight in front of you using both your hands. Sounds crazy to add weights to a preparatory exercise, but it’ll help with your balance as you go up and down in and out of the squat.

If you can work your way up to 15 to 20 comfortable weight-assisted pistol squats, go right ahead and attempt the real thing.

Pistol squats help you develop stronger, flexible ankle joints. They improve your balance and stability, as well as improving your natural awareness of your body.

Know how some people can close their eyes and touch their noses, while some people can’t? That’s called proprioception, and pistol squats improve that kind of coordination throughout the legs and core.

Also — and let’s not gloss over this one — they look hella cool. If you head down to the gym and start busting out 10 or 20 of these bad boys on each leg, you’re going to attract a lot of approving glances. People like seeing other people push the limits of what they can achieve.

Do pistol squats build muscle?

Yup! Pistol squats help build up the muscles in both your lower body and your core. They’re particularly good for working on your:

The muscles you’re working with during a pistol squat belong to something called the posterior chain. That’s a chain of muscles that run from the back of your head all the way down to the back of your heels. Toning up that good old posterior chain comes with all sorts of benefits to your mobility.

Pistol squats are known as unilateral exercises because you’re doing everything on one leg at a time. For this reason, the benefits of squats get focused on that one leg. That’s what makes this such a demanding but effective technique.

If you’ve got one leg that’s stronger than the other, which is pretty common, unilateral exercises develop the weaker leg separately, balancing things out.

What other benefits do pistol squats provide?

Pistol squats are particularly good for runners. That’s because running is also a unilateral exercise that benefits from improved balance, stability, and lower body strength. But anyone who makes regular, active use of their legs will benefit.

Hikers, climbers, sports players, assemble! If you need a bit of explosive power in your legs, you can get that from working your way up to pistol squats. But beware. As with any high level exercise, you need to make sure your technique is right. Sloppy squatting risks discomfort and injury.

They’re a strenuous-ass exercise. So pistol squats can be risky when you’re not ready. You’re putting all your body weight on one knee, not spreading it across two as you would during a regular common or garden-variety squat.

At best, mistakes simply make the move less effective. At worst, stressing your knee too much risks injury. Make sure you avoid these pistol squat no-nos:

  • moving onto pistol squats before you’ve fully developed your balance and muscle control
  • leaning too far forward, which places stress on the lower back
  • dropping into the bottom of the squat too hard or in an uncontrolled way
  • lifting your back heel off the floor, focusing even more weight into an even smaller area
  • rolling your back to raise up from the squat instead of using your glutes and heel
  • stopping lowering down too early (it’s best to wait until your hip and knee are aligned)

Are pistol squats bad for your knees?

Done properly, pistol squats aren’t bad for your knees. But bad pistol squats can be very rough on your knees indeed. Holding a crouch on one bent leg for any length of time puts a lot of strain on your leg muscles, and the bits in your ankles and knees which help with balance.

Pay attention to signs that hint you might not quite be ready for pistol squats yet. In particular, check if your supporting knee dips toward your other leg as you lower down. That adds more strain than necessary and suggests your muscle control and balance need more work.

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Pistol squats make other exercises look like… well, diddly squat.

They’re the mark of someone who devotes a lot of time and care to looking after their bodies. But they’re good for more than bragging rights — this powerful exercise can develop the muscles you need for some of the most demanding activities.

Just be sure you nail your squatting technique and stay safe.