Want to get legs of steel—without using any weights at all? Then it’s time you make it your goal to master pistols.
One of the very best bodyweight leg exercises out there, pistols require incredible leg strength, flexibility, and balance. And if you’ve never tried them before, I’ll warn you: pistols are tough.
In fact, I’ve been working on pistols for a little while now, but I’m nowhere near where I want to be with them. Watch me as I struggle through just three:
But here’s the thing: if you think you can never do a pistol, think again. Because if you follow the progression of exercises below, you’ll build the necessary strength to master the ultimate leg exercise before you know it.
Start wherever is most appropriate for your current strength and flexibility level—i.e. there’s no need to start at the beginning if you can easily do a one legged bench squat already (although working on this will still help you build up strength). Then make sure to include these exercises in your workout routine two to four times a week for the fastest possible results.
So whether you’re starting from zero and have never done a pistol in your life, or whether you can do a few right now and want to be able to do more, here’s how to get started mastering pistols:
One legged bench squat
How to do it: Stand in front of a bench or a similar elevated surface. Straighten your opposite leg out in front of you, push your hips back and sit down, keeping your opposite leg as straight as possible. It’s ok if you fall down the first few times: keep working at it and you’ll gain control. Then squeeze your abs, butt, and pull your shoulders back as you try to lift yourself back up.
If you need assistance from this position, tap the toes of your opposite foot to the ground and lightly use them to balance you as you stand up. And as you get stronger, try doing this on lower surfaces to continue to challenge yourself.
Assisted pistol squat
Once you’re feeling comfortable doing one legged bench squats, you can start giving assisted pistols a shot. These will help you get the movement of a pistol down, while not requiring the strength needed to do the full thing.
How to do it: Find a chair, a pole, or stand in front of a doorway and grab the door frame, and lower yourself down to the bottom position of the pistol. Relying as little as possible on your arm strength, push your hips back and raise yourself up.
You can also use bands for a similar effect (helpful if you don’t have anything sturdy to hold onto):
One of the hardest parts about a pistol is that along with needing really strong legs to be able to lower yourself down on one leg, you also need to keep the other leg straight, which requires an amazing amount of strength, balance and flexibility.
Elevated pistols can help you work up to building the strength and flexibility you need for a full pistol, since your leg doesn’t have to remain as straight.
How to do it: Find a sturdy elevated surface such as a bench or a box, and stand on top of it. With your arms extended in front of you, stand on one leg, keeping your opposite leg as straight as possible in front of you. Push your hips back, lean forward slightly, and raise yourself back up to the starting position. If your opposite leg lowers below the bench, that’s OK—keep practicing!
If you need to, you can start out by holding something close to you—a pole, or even putting your hand on a wall to assist you. Then work up to doing these without holding onto anything.
Ready to try the full thing? Awesome! You’re a badass, even for just trying it.
How to do it: Start by holding your arms out in front of you, then stand on one leg with your free leg held straight out in front. Push your hips back and sit down as far as you can so that your butt is almost touching the ground. Push your hips back, lean forward slightly, and raise yourself back up to the starting position.
Congratulations, you’ve just done a pistol!
Full, unassisted pistols are not easy. If you can do them, or get anywhere close to doing them, you should be proud of how strong you’ve become!
Other ways to build up to pistols
Slow negatives: If you have the flexibility to do a full pistol but aren’t quite strong enough to push yourself back up yet, try doing negatives. Start from the top and slowly lower yourself down, focusing on control. Sit down, get up, and do it all over again.
Use counter weights: Pistols are one of the only exercises where holding out a weight in front of you can make the exercise easier. Try holding anywhere between 5 and 10 pounds in front of you to work up to full pistols.
Partner pistols: Grab onto a partners hands so that both of your arms are straight out in front of you. You should both lower down, then use each other’s weight to help each other to push past the sticking point on your way up.
More strengthening exercises: Bulgarian split squats , step ups and walking lunges will all help build up the strength necessary to do pistols.
Work hard, train often, and don’t forget to have fun!
13 thoughts on “Pistols: The Ultimate Guide to Mastering the Ultimate Leg Exercise”
This is so timely as I literally did pistol squats for the first time yesterday as part of one of your workouts. Mine were pretty pathetic so thanks for giving the progression advice! 🙂
So cool Amy! Let me know how they go 🙂
Whoa! I tried this and they are HARD. But the fitness support group I started does something that we call the Badass Revolution and when you said that even trying this is badass, well, you got me. Thanks for the suggestions on progressions! Thanks.
I LOVE that mindset Lea! Glad you tried them 🙂
Pistols rock! I have been doing them for about a year. As you progress with them, you will reach a point where the number of pistols per leg will climb. If you get bored with high reps per leg, you can hold a weighted barbell like you would for a front squat. If you are new to pistols, you may be thinking “there’s no way I can do that!”. That’s what I thought too but my son and I have progressed surprisingly quickly. Yesterday we did pistols while holding 50lbs.
Awesome post Krista. I haven’t done pistols in a while, but seeing this has me motivated to try them out again. I think ill have to join my wife and complete a few yoga workouts to get my hamstrings ready lol. Keep on being awesome!
Thanks, for “slow negatives”. On my first try I lowered myself and… ok, how to get back?XD
Haha, I know, right? Pistols are TOUGH! But if you practice negatives you’ll get there.
do you recommend these for people with bad knees (soccer injuries)? i obviously would start with the assisted version