pistol squat progressions

Pistol Squat

The one-legged squat, or pistol squat, is one of the most famous movements in which one's own body weight is used.

We've all seen pictures of our fellow crossfitters on vacation posing on one leg halfway around the world. It's an ideal pose to show that you are a crossfitter, as it this exercise is not easy.

It requires a combination of mobility and considerable strength.

If you still haven't got it, in this post we guide you step by step so that you can get the exerciseproposing routines for improvement.

What is a Pistol Squat?

The pistol squat or one-legged squat is a movement in which the athlete must descend to the squat position using only one leg as support. The other leg is kept elevated parallel to the ground.

What muscles do they work?

It is a complete lower body exercise, which is why it involves the lower limbs. quadriceps and gluteus muscles mainly. Also involved are hamstrings and calf muscles.

Fundamentals of the single leg squat

This exercise is a combination of lower body strength and mobility:

  • Deep squat strength
  • Ankle and hip mobility

Let's study how to improve each of these areas on an individual basis in order to be able to unlock this move.

Programming to make pistols

Ankle dorsiflexion

This refers to the ability to close the angle of the ankle when we bring the tibia towards the toes, without lifting the heel off the ground.

Ankle dorsiflexion plays a critical role in any movement involving a squat, because as the hips descend and the knees advance, the angle between the foot and the tibia must close to keep the foot firmly on the ground.

When we talk about a squat on one foot, the importance of this dorsiflexion increases as we are supporting all our weight on one foot.

Unfortunately, the use of ordinary sneakers has been reducing the capabilities of our feet. You can learn more about this topic here.

That's why it doesn't matter how strong your legs are, since without a wide range of motion of the ankle, it will be impossible for you to do the pistols.

Ankle dorsiflexion test

Don't know if your problem is in your ankle? Take the test right now.

  1. Stand barefoot near a wall. 
  2. Get down on your knees.
  3. Step forward one foot facing the wall at a distance of one fist from the wall.
  4. Try to touch the wall with your knee without taking your heel off the ground.
ankle mobility test

Not able to pass the test?

This is a proposal of exercises to improve the range of motion of the ankle.

4 days a week (routine A + routine B + routine A + routine B)

Routine A: per leg

1' myofascial massage on the calf 

ankle mobility

Here you can get this VELITES mobility pack at a discount: ANABELPUMP

1' myofascial massage on the sole of the foot

pistol squat progressions

3 rounds x 5 reps with each leg of calf stretch/lift

ankle mobility

3 rounds x 5 repetitions of mobility with the foot on the floor, bringing the weight out and forward.

crossfit ankle mobility

Routine B: for each leg

10 repetitions of 5" of dorsiflexion with a band 

ankle mobility with elastic band

30" calf/hamstring smash

exercises to improve pistol squat

5 rotations of the ankle in each direction

ankle rotations

3 rounds x 5 reps of deep squat and ankle movement.

squat ankle mobility

This is one of those jobs that leaves you with the feeling that you are not making progress, but consistency pays off in the form of millimeters at each session. 

Repeat the test after 4 weeks and you will see how much you have improved.

Hip flexion

It is defined as the ability to bring the thighs closer to the torso.

Another key element in any movement involving a deep squat, as at that point the hip angle is very closed.

It is normal in one-legged squat work to focus on the leg that is resting on the floor, since it is the leg that is doing most of the work.

But to keep the leg held in the air, it requires a lot of strength from the hip flexors.

Can you get to the lowest position of the squat, but can't keep your leg elevated without touching the ground?

Then you should focus on the hip flexors.

The routine proposed for improvement:

The exercises are isometric and can be challenging at first. That's why you can start by doing 1 round and gradually progress to 3 rounds over the weeks.

4 days a week (routine A + routine B + routine A + routine B)

Routine A: for each leg, slow reps of 5-10 seconds

3 sets of 5 repetitions hip flexion lying down with a band

hip flexion squat

3 sets of 5 repetitions wall sit on one leg

wall sit on one leg

3 sets of 5 repetitions quadriceps extension 

pistol squat progressions

3 sets of 5 repetitions pistol squat hold

pistol squat hold

Routine B: for each leg, slow repetitions of 5-10 seconds.

3 sets of 5 repetitions in each direction of hip rotation on 4 legs

hip rotation

3 sets of 5 repetitions cook hip lift

hip mobility exercises

3 sets of 5 repetitions iron curtsy

pistol squat progressions

3 sets of 5 repetitions pistol squat lying down with resistance

pistol squat tips

Strength in the low squat position

If our mobility is good, we now need strength to regain position.

If after working on mobility you still can't do pistol squats, it's time to train strength:

4 days a week (routine A + routine B + routine A + routine B)

Routine A: per leg.

2 sets of 5 repetitions 1.5 squats

squat and half squat

2 sets of 5 repetitions lunges


10 repetitions pistol on bench 

pistol squat on bench

2 sets of 5 repetitions deadlift to one leg

one-leg deadlift

2 series of 5 repetitions pistol in box

pistol squat in box

Routine B: for each leg.

2 sets of 5 repetitions squat with feet together

squat legs together

2 sets of 5 repetitions 1.5 bulgarian split squats

split squat

10 repetitions pistol with counterweight 

pistol squat counterweight

2 sets of 5 repetitions deep step up

deep step up

These sessions are not designed to be a training, but a practice. They are short but effective if done consistently.

You can focus only on one area or if you have more availability for training, you can combine them.

Progressions and adaptations

If you are already able to do some pistol squat reps, but the volume required in the WOD is too high, here are several options to continue working and progressing in this movement:

  • Pistol to the bank
  • Pistol with cage/rings support
  • Pistol in the drawer
  • Pistol with counterweight

* It is not recommended to routinely do pistol with rings or in the cage because it is easy to lose focus on the lower body and overuse upper body strength to perform the exercise.

One-legged squat tricks

As we discussed at the beginning of the post, the mobility component is essential to achieve the pistol squat.

While you work to improve that ankle dorsiflexion, you can use a helper: the weightlifting shoes.

Having a small heel, will help you make up for the range of motion you lack.

It doesn't mean that you no longer have to work on your mobility, because otherwise you will always be dependent on these shoes. 

Imagine that the pistols show up one day in the WOD in combination with running. What would you have to do? Run in your weightlifting shoes? Or put them on when you come back from the street?

Use the weightlifting shoes as an aid, but works to avoid dependence on them.

The ultimate goal, if we are to move as well as possible, is that we could do them completely flat, barefoot or with minimalist shoes.

When not to make pistols

In CrossFit there are absolutely no mandatory exercises (unless you compete). 

If you're a regular earthling who goes to the box to get in shape, you should understand that beyond the fact that doing pistol is synonymous with you being a more experienced athlete, not having to scale the WOD just for the sake of it, is not a basic exercise for optimal health.

If you have knee problems, you are pregnant or have any other ailment such as lumbar, your coach will know how to modify the exercise according to your needs so you can continue training safely.