A Better Alternative to Pistol Squats
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
I’m really not a big fan of pistol squats. In fact, if you’re looking for a highly superior alternative to pistol squats I recommend performing eccentric isometric single leg skater squats using 90-degree joint angles.
Here are two of my awesome football athletes performing them including NFL running back Marquell Beckwith (@28_beckwith) and collegiate running back Tee Mitchell (@teemitchell). Also, big shoutout to Marquell for recently getting picked up by the Tennessee Titans. It was a pleasure training Marquell during this year’s NFL combine prep. I’ve seen few athletes with better work ethic, attitude, and overall talent than this young man. Big Congrats!!!!
On a side note if you’re looking for more cool variations of single leg skater squats check out Meghan Callaway’s page as she provides some unique variations and loading protocols.
And just in case you’re wondering here’s why I don’t recommend pistol squats. Yes, they’re a cool way to demonstrate your strength, balance, and mobility (and often times hypermobility and sacrificed stability, which is never a good thing). However when it comes to functional movement they’re on the opposite end of the spectrum as they have little if any carryover to sports or everyday life unless you’re a professional body contortionist. In addition, pistol squats are not very effective for building functional strength or size in the lower body. That’s because you’re essentially collapsing during the bottom half of the movement and hanging out on your tendons, ligaments, and connective tissue rather than keeping your muscles tight and activated.
Besides minimizing muscle activation in the lower body, pistol squats can absolutely destroy the joints and connective tissue in many populations even those that can perform them with supposed “proper” pistol squat technique. In addition, they reinforce faulty squat mechanics and dysfunctional movement as you’re essentially teaching your body to collapse under tension rather than staying tight and properly absorbing force. In fact a pistol squat represents the exact opposite mechanics that need to be preached for proper squat form (read more about proper squat mechanics here). Programming pistol squats for your athletes is a surefire way to ruin their body mechanics, stability, force absorption, speed, jumping technique, agility, and motor control.
This eccentric isometric single leg squat on the other hand, not only reinforces proper functional movement and ideal body mechanics, but the amount of constant tension and intramuscular activation produced throughout the entire lower body is unreal. They also reinforce proper posture and core activation in contrast to pistol squats, which degrade optimal posture alignment with excessive spinal flexion.
On a side note, the eccentric isometric single leg squat is an incredibly effective way to teach lunges as the mechanics are almost identical except lunges involve actually touching the back leg to the floor for slight support rather than having it hover about the ground. In terms of joint angles, body position, torso lean, hip hinges, and general biomechanics the lunge and single leg squat are very similar.
What About Fighters, Dancers, Rock Climbers, and Gymnasts?
I've been asked recently whether or not I still employ or recommend pistol squats for athletes that oftentimes end up in precarious positions in their sport such as fighters, gymnasts, dancers, and rock climbers. Here's my response:
I always tell my athletes including MMA fighters, martial arts pros, rock climbers, dancers, or other unique sports and/or arts who also have to get into precarious situations, to save those odd positions for the actual sport and to perform only therapeutic and more natural, biomechanically sound movements during training. This actually helps keep the body (muscles, joints, and connective tissue) much stronger, healthier, and functional, as well as ready and able to handle any unusual position or maneuver you throw at it when needed. Performing too many of these odd positions such as pistol squats, ATG squats, or deep Cossack squats during training breaks the body down and makes it more vulnerable and prone to injury, not to mention it provides less of a strength and muscle hypertrophy stimulus.
It also builds inflammation in the joints and connective tissue over time, which happens to be the very thing that actually limits mobility, flexibility, and range of motion. As a result, it is more difficult to perform these odd maneuvers when they are actually needed as part of the sport, as the body is more likely to try and inhibit these movements in response to the inflammation and extensive breaching of the protective barriers produced by the excessive training volume. I've also noticed a common trend with my athletes where once we eliminate deep ATG squats and pistol squats from their training they're actually more easily able to assume these deep positions when needed (e.g. during testing) compared to when they were actually training with ATG and pistol squats, most likely for the same reasons as stated above. It's as if their mobility and range of motion are freed up by eliminating all conra therapeutic positions and performing only therapeutic movement during training.
Although the eccentric isometric single leg skater squat can be performed with a barbell (back squat style), dumbbells, kettlebells, bands, and even specialty bars, I’ve found the goblet squat variation to be most conducive for teaching proper single leg squat form and unilateral motor control in the lower body.
Focus on keeping the back leg bent to 90 degrees and pulling the body straight down while aiming for multiple 90 degree joint angles. In fact performing them with a controlled eccentric isometric protocol literally forces the lifter to assume proper mechanics as the body inevitably finds the ideal position for optimizing mobility, stability, and force production through enhanced proprioceptive feedback.