A Better Alternative to Pistol Squats
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
I’m really not a big fan of pistol squats. That’s because they emphasize contortionist mechanics for the lower body that can lead to injury and inflammation. And no, they don’t enhance mobility or quality of movement like many coaches and lifters erroneously believe. Instead they oftentimes degrade mobility due to inflammation and aggravation of joints/connective tissue produced by excessive range of motion and hanging out on the tendons and ligaments. Just like the squat or any other movement pattern we want an optimal and natural range of motion not excessive or maximal range of motion.
With that said, 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.
Additional Consequences Of Pistol Squats
In essence the single leg squat holds to the same principles and biomechanical concepts as a traditional squats. Aim for (approximately) 90-degree joint angles, parallel positions, and perpendicular joint segments.
Even if the individual is capable of performing deep collapsing-style single leg pistol squat squats without any apparent aberrations in body mechanics, it still has a long-term detrimental impact on performance. That's because it promotes excessive mobility or extreme range of motion which for most sports is not ideal as this negatively alters the natural length tension relationship the muscles are meant to function at.
The single leg squat is a highly functional task demonstrating foundational biomechanical elements that can be witnessed in a variety of sports. However, you'll rarely if ever see the deep pistol squat position as it serves no functional purpose for most athletes or general populations. In fact, moving on the playing field with the extreme positions reinforced by the traditional pistol squats (or any deep ATG squat for the matter) not only reduces force and torque-producing capabilities but it creates exponentially greater risk of injury due to the structurally and biomechanically disadvantageous position.
Just remember, movement transfers. How we move in the weight room seeps into our body mechanics on the playing field. If we ingrain faulty mechanics in the weight room or during training this negatively transfers to the playing field. With this in mind, it's critical to eliminate any and all movements that degrade optimal mechanics and instead only practice movements that enhance muscle function and performance.
Cost-Benefit Analysis of Pistol Squats
When it comes to performing strength training movements or exercises with an exaggerated ROM such as pistol squats or ATG squats we need to perform a cost-benefit-analysis or risk-reward breakdown. Ultimately the potential benefits must outweigh the potential risks. Similarly the benefits and therapeutic effects must outweigh any negative consequences. If the negative consequences outweigh the potential benefits then it's not ideal for most individuals. Ultimately it boils down to what is optimal for the human body. Sure the human body is capable of many amazing things. However not all of them are beneficial or optimal. Just because we can do something doesn't mean that we should. Obviously ATG squats and pistol squats carry some benefits but the potential risks for most folks outweigh the benefits as there are superior options with greater benefits and less risks.
Similarly, if we examine data on professional dancers (i.e. ballet, Russian dance, eastern European dance, gymnastics) who use very exaggerated positions and excessive ROM to produce aesthetically pleasing movements, we find that occurrence and incidence of joint pain in the hips, knees, ankles, and back are unusually high and severe compared to other populations. Unfortunately this has been shown to impact their mental state not to mention their overall physiological health. Ironically many of these individuals have incredible flexibility and mobility but unfortunately the movements they perform produce a host of consequences. Oddly enough it's typically not until 5-20 years later in their careers do they experience many of the extreme symptoms associated with their exaggerated movements oftentimes requiring them to have surgeries and or to live with extreme pain for the remainder of their lives.
If we were to perform a cost-benefit analysis most individuals would say that the benefits of dance (i.e. relative improvements in strength, muscularity, conditioning, physique appearance, and fitness) would not outweigh the joint inflammation and physical pain produced from these same exaggerated movements. This is particularly true since we can reap similar if not significantly better results in these aforementioned physical markers using more sound training methods (i.e. proper strength training). However, the dancer might argue that the extreme pain that they endure on a daily basis (a commonality amongst many dancers) was worth the fulfilling yet short-lived career in their art. Simply put the cost benefit analysis comes down to the individual and what they're hoping to reap from their training.
With that said, pistol squats and ATG squats fall under a very similar category as that of the extreme joint positions witnessed in the dance modalities previously mentioned. After a thorough risk-reward breakdown we would find that most individuals would wisely chose to to avoid such movements. However, certain populations regardless of the inherent consequences associated with the extreme movements would still choose to include them in their training. This is oftentimes because they chose the successful completion of these exercises as their end goal in and of itself rather than using a variety of movements such as properly executed squats as a means of reaching their end goals (optimal muscle function, proper body mechanics, improved fitness, and pain free lifestyle).
It should also be noted that performing extreme positions and drills such as pistol squats will improve performance in one key area, namely the ability to perform this drills (i.e. pistol squats). However too frequent performance of these drills will likely lead to inflammation and joint issues which will then cause performance decrements to those same movements. Ironically many people have reported improved ability to perform these extreme positions such as pistol squats the less frequently they incorporate them into their training simply because they've eliminated the excessive inflammation and joint stress associated with the frequent performance of the exaggerated movements.
What Other Coaches Are Saying
Here's a direct quote from one of the world's most renowned and respected trainers, Mike Boyle comparing the pistol squat and single leg squat.
"Because of the position of the non-squatting leg, pistol squats can often cause low back pain due to overuse of the hip flexors. Holding the free leg extended and parallel to the floor can cause significant low back stress and subsequent low back pain, particularly in athletes or clients with longer legs. In addition, there is no added benefit provided to the working leg from holding the non-working leg parallel to the floor.
In addition, the one leg squat is done to a femur parallel position. No attempt is made to go below parallel. Below parallel squatting often results in lumbar rounding. Although this may not be particularly dangerous with no load, it can be a potential problem as load increases. In addition, below parallel squatting may cause the posterior aspects of the medial meniscus to be compressed in the joint line.
Remember, during flexion of the knee the meniscus moves forward in the joint. In below parallel squatting the posterior aspect of the meniscus (the posterior horn) can be “pinched” in the back of the joint."
Other coaches, trainers, and fitness enthusiasts appear to support this ideology as evident by a recent post on my Instagram page. In the comments section, dozens of individuals shared similar experiences from consistent performance of pistol squats, ackknowleding how it not only impaired their overall body mechanics and performance but produced pain and inflammation in their joints. I also had numerous messages and emails from coaches and athletes expressing the same occurrences. See their responses here.
Another Factor To Consider
Another critical factor to consider when comparing pistol squats to traditional squats is the changes in hip mechanics involved in the hips. As pointed out by strength coach and performance expert Bo Stansell, "I think it’s important to mention that, for balance purposes, the foot has to be placed directly under the center of gravity closer to the midline. When performing a wider-based squat on two legs you can “shorten” the femur length with a wider stance so that the torso can remain in a stable position because the hips have room to descend between the legs. When performing pistol squats, that’s not possible. So to keep the COG over the mid foot, the torso has to contort into weird positions, especially for folks with long femurs."
Simply put, the unique shift in the lumbopelvic him complex involved during a single leg squat makes it even less conducive for moving into an exaggerated position with excessive range of motion. While an argument can be made that having the ability to hold a deep unloaded/bodyweight ATG squat in a relaxed sitting fashion (very different than a high-force producing squat movement) is something that most humans should be capable of doing, the same cannot be said of a pistol squat. The combination of the shift in torso and lumbopelvic hip complex combined with the usually shortened position of the hip flexor of the elevated leg, simply involves mechanics that while obviously feasible for some individuals is not optimal for the human body.
Another Option: Single Leg Ball Squat
The single leg ball squat is another phenomenal substitute for the pistol squat or any other single leg squatting movement. It involves significant balance, stability, mobility, as well as a strong overload component.
You’ll also notice I have my awesome client Leslie performing these using the kettlebell upside down pinching method (pinching the bell portion of the kettlebells). Because most lifters won’t be handle heavy loads (in fact bodyweight will be ample for most), holding dumbbells or kettlebells using a pinching grip method helps create concurrent activation potentiation and irradiation (full body tension) thereby increasing neural drive and muscle activation to the working extremities. It also helps eliminate energy leaks due to the increased full body tension thereby enhancing balance, stability, and overall body mechanics. These are deceptively intense on the entire lower body including the quads, glutes, and hamstrings.
They’re also incredibly effective for improving foot and ankle stability as the entire foot and ankle complex is forced to work overtime to stabilize this movement. Surprisingly this doesn’t detract from lower body activation but instead enhances it as the improved foot and ankle activation increase neural drive up the kinetic chain thereby increasing recruitment of the larger lower body muscle groups. Don’t be surprised if you have a tremendous burn when performing these as the level of metabolic stress, muscle damage, and mechanical tension are through the roof.
To learn more about implementing unique lower body movements into your routine check out my Complete Templates program.