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How to Do a Single Leg Squat Exercise

Updated on December 27, 2012
Dropping slowly into a full single leg squat (pistol.)
Dropping slowly into a full single leg squat (pistol.) | Source

The Best Leg Exercise Ever?

The single leg squat is an effective movement for building strength, improving balance and building muscle. It targets the glutes, the quadriceps, the hamstrings and even uses the abdominals and other core muscles for stabilization. There are several variations of this exercise including the Pistol (arguably the most difficult,) Bulgarian Split Squat, Airplane Squat and assorted assisted Pistols.

The movement requires balance and serious strength, which makes it difficult to perform at first. Fortunately, you can build up to this exercise and greatly improve single leg strength by performing assisted single leg squats and other single leg exercises. The best part? You don't need a gym to blast your leg muscles; try these movements anytime, anywhere. Don't forget to warm up!

Falling on your butt is part of the learning process with the single leg squat.
Falling on your butt is part of the learning process with the single leg squat. | Source
Using a wall or other support and/or resting front leg for assistance in the pistol squat.
Using a wall or other support and/or resting front leg for assistance in the pistol squat. | Source
Resting front leg while using door handle for support in the single leg squat
Resting front leg while using door handle for support in the single leg squat | Source

How to Do a Single Leg Squat/Pistol

To execute the pistol, stare straight ahead with your arms extended in front of you. Extend one leg in front of you and slowly squat down on the other. Lean forward and forcefully contract the abdominals and both legs (the extended leg should be tight as well; keep it off the floor) as you lower your body. Keep the glutes tight as you lower yourself to parallel or below. Stay tight as you rise up. That's one repetition.

If this is your first attempt, don't be surprised if you fall on your butt a few times before you get it right. To master the pistol without landing on your rear end, place a stool, chair or sturdy box behind you. Alternatively, you can perform the exercise with your back to the stairs.

To make the exercise easier to master, use supports that are a little higher than parallel. This allows you to start off with partial repetitions and gradually work into a full range of motion Pistol.

Start off with 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps if you can. If you cannot do 3 repetitions, perform as many as you can in perfect form, or switch to a modified version.

When the exercise becomes easy enough to knock out 12-20 repetitions, there are many ways to add weight to keep challenging your body.

Pistol Modifications

Although a full pistol is an advanced exercise, with the right modifications, anyone can begin doing it. Try the partial repetitions method described above, or:


Build up strength through the correct range of motion by practicing negatives. With a support behind you, or holding onto a support, slowly lower yourself all the way down for 3-5 seconds. Stand up with both legs and repeat. Be sure to tighten the legs and core as with a full repetition.

3 sets of 3-5 should be plenty. Negative (eccentric) repetitions tend to make you very sore the next day!

-Loose Front Leg

Let your front leg rest on the floor as you go down. This still requires a lot of strength and balance, but it lightens your load a bit. Take care not to put excessive pressure on the extended front leg in this compromised position. If you find yourself doing this, hold on to a railing or other support at the same time. Or try a different single leg squat exercise for now.

Airplane/Free Leg Behind Squat-Screen shot of Bodyweight Exercise Revolution's Adam Steer.
Airplane/Free Leg Behind Squat-Screen shot of Bodyweight Exercise Revolution's Adam Steer. | Source
The Bulgarian Split Squat. Can be done with or without weight.
The Bulgarian Split Squat. Can be done with or without weight. | Source

Single Leg Squat Variations

"Airplane"/Free Leg Behind

Stand straight and focus on a single spot in front of you. Extend your arms out to your sides for balance. Begin lowering yourself on one leg into a squat while letting the other leg hang loose. This leg bends as you go down, but all of your weight is on the working leg. Squat as low as you can and push back up. As with a Pistol squat, tighten your core all the way down to your glutes on the negative and positive parts of the movement.

Squat Shift

Build up your single leg strength by doing squat shifts. Stand with legs slightly wider than shoulder width apart and squat down as in a typical bodyweight squat. Shift all (or most) of your weight to one leg and push up. Repeat on the other side. Continue alternating legs until you can't complete another repetition.

Bulgarian Split Squat

The Bulgarian Split Squat is performed by placing one foot on a bench (or other sturdy support) and squatting down to parallel on the other. Maintain an erect, tight torso as you lower and raise your body. This exercise not only builds single leg strength and muscle, but it is a good stretch for the rear leg hip flexors as well.

How to Add Weight to the Single Leg Squat Exercise

Believe it or not, there may come a time when doing pistols or single leg squats with bodyweight alone is too easy. When this happens, try one of these methods to increase resistance:

-Wear a weighted vest. Weighted vests can add from 20-150+ extra pounds. They are an excellent method to increase resistance without upsetting your balance.

-Hold a Kettlebell or Dumbbell. Kettlebells and dumbbells (but especially kettlebells) seem perfectly designed to hold onto while you are squatting down on one leg. Though they add resistance, they can actually increase your center of balance. Hold the weight with both hands close to your chest. Really grip it!

-Medicine Ball: If you don't have either of the above implements, substitute a medicine ball or bowling ball. Hold it tightly with both hands.

-Sandbags: Sandbags will throw you off balance, even if you squeeze it to your chest like your life depended on it. However, if you are looking for a serious challenge, this is it. Cradle the bag horizontally in your arms as your squat down.

Practice Single Leg Squats

What is the fastest way to become proficient at the Pistol single leg squat? Practice it everyday. While you are learning, don't worry about getting a full workout in with this movement. Focus on getting one good repetition.This does not mean work your legs to failure everyday, but simply practice the movement.

Have a few minutes before or during work? Try a few repetitions of the Pistol, supported or unsupported; partial reps or negatives, it doesn't matter. Focus, practice, repeat. Good luck!


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