The humble single leg squat. Feared and revered. Done by so many people around the world as a test of strength and a strength exercise. I have been teaching my patients variations of this for years - it is such a good exercise...but it isn't for everyone.
The aims of this blog post are to:
1. Highlight the benefits of doing a single leg squat (but referred to as pistols from here on in)
2. Common pitfalls in doing this exercise
3. Safe progressions you can use so you can pistol with the best of them!
Pistols are an advanced exercise that pops up in Crossfit workouts from time to time as well as at parties for bragging rights! In my experience, it is often BADLY done and I have personally knee cartilage damage to athletes who have done them incorrectly. Having said that, when they are done correctly, they form the basis for great weight lifting, running and agility.
The Benefits of Single Leg Squats (Pistols)
- To do them correctly requires excellent strength, balance and control of your hip muscles. Most of the population have hip muscle imbalances from sitting too much or focusing on movements that they do a lot of. Sometimes, it is just a habit of doing something the same way all the time. Whatever it is, to get them right will give you an excellent base of support to do many activities well
- They will help you develop your hip control - esp the deep hip external rotators. This means that you will be able to share the loading throughout the hip and not grind away at just a small portion of your hip - this often results in labral tears and hip impingement
- Doing Pistols properly will mean that you have good strength and control through the full range of your ankle, knee and hip joints.
- They look cool and few people can do them properly - a great party trick!
The Common Mistakes Made During Single Leg Squats (Pistols)
- Knees "cave in" - this is either due to hip internal rotation (weak hip external rotators) or excessive foot pronation
- Dropping into the pistol too quickly or in an uncontrolled way
- Twisting your hips and body to get your balance - sort all this out at a height you can control your whole body in.
- Doing them at a level that you are not ready for - this is by far the most common mistake. Swallow your pride and do them at a level that you can do EVERY SINGLE REP correctly. Wobbling around is not good for the cartilage in your knees. It takes longer to progress but believe me, surgery for your knees sets you back in the long run!
Safe Progressions You Can Use To Get Your Pistols Better
Note, for all of the progressions below, you can start the next level of progression so long as you keep it to a height you can do properly. That way, you will develop more skills in less time...otherwise you will be waiting a long time to master a full depth squat before moving one foot forwards!
- Listen to your coach, physical therapist, or other health professional you trust...but make sure they read this first!
- I always start people with a normal squat to a chair or box and then see how low they can go. If you can't do a 2-legged squat correctly, what chance have you got at doing it right with only 1 leg!!?? GOAL - Gluts to your heels
- Next progression is to do the same thing but with more weight on one leg and have the other out in front with only your toes or heels on the floor. Start at a comfortable height, keep your knee tracking over your foot and be controlled on the way up and down. Slowly lower the height you can do - no "dropping" into the seat or onto the box! GOAL - Full depth squat with more weight on one leg than the other
- The next step is to lower with the other foot still just touching the ground for balance but then raise that foot and try to stand up from the height you stopped at. You may have to stop at a higher height to do this properly. GOAL - Full depth squat on one leg with light weight on the toes of the other foot for balance but can stand up on one leg without twisting.
- Lowering with control on one leg and raising up with control still on one leg. GOAL - No wobbling around, full depth Pistol down and then up. When you can do this, you have just completed a full Pistol!
- Start adding weights - outside the scope of this blog post but watch for an upcoming e-book about air squats and pistols 🙂
Aim to get at least 1 set of 15 reps at a certain height before lowering the box height or seat.
How many reps should you do? As many PERFECT reps as you can. They are the only ones that count. I like my patients to start at 1 rep and work up to a set of 15 perfect reps before adding more sets. Ideally, 3-8 sets of 8-15 reps would be nice - very time consuming though!
- DO NOT sacrifice your form. Keep it PERFECT. Perfect practice equals perfect performance!
- Keep working at a height that you can do perfect reps in. Then lower the seat (or increase the plates under your feet) by only a few cm at a time.
- See point 1! I do not want to see patients who have hurt themselves due to their oversized egos. Swallow your pride and get it right first time.
If you have any hints or tips about how you do your Pistols or if you have any questions about your form, please write a comment below. Thanks!