Single Leg Squat Practice: How to Master Any Exercise or Movement Quickly (using the Pistol Method)

The single leg squat (AKA pistol) is not a very popular exercise. This may be because it is very difficult to perform, technically and physically. It not only requires sufficient skill to execute, but also a body that is free from restrictions. If an athlete has any imbalances or excessive chains of tension, the single leg squat will be nearly impossible to perform. In a way, this movement will weed out the trainees whom are concerned with specific attributes of athleticism from those whom are concerned with their total athleticism.

If you can currently perform 20 bodyweight squats in succession with near perfect technique and want to learn the single leg squat exercise, watch this instructional video and practice each step until perfection. You can also apply my incremental approach to any physical skill you are hoping to learn next, even if you’re not interested in single leg squats.

First a little background.

In the past, I had always had difficulty performing any single-leg training with perfect technique. I was often pretty wobbly, and I attribute this to thousands of miles of long distance running in high school which led to several overuse injuries. Ever so occasionally, I would try doing single leg squats as part of my strength training program, but I would always squat down to a chair. I could never perform the esteemed pistol, which requires a full single leg squat when your hamstring is resting on your calf, and your opposite leg is extended in front of you (lifted off of the ground).

I don’t know what got into me that made me want to master the single leg squat. Maybe I was fed up with still never being able to do them. Maybe I wanted to again prove that I can do anything I put my mind and energy towards. Maybe I just wanted to build bigger, stronger legs. Regardless, I made up my mind and decided to stop at nothing. I would master the single leg squat no matter what it takes, even if I had to practice everyday. And that’s exactly what I did, at least in the beginning – since strength is a skill.

Watch and learn how I taught myself the single leg squat – and please apply this “Pistol Method” to whatever physical exercise you are looking to master next.

Single Leg Squat Practice – how to master any exercise fast

note: if you’re struggling just to get into position with some of these exercises, then this mobility program may help: Joint Mobility Program.

I began my training by only performing the eccentric portion of the pistol, lowering myself down to the ground on one leg. In the beginning, I couldn’t even bend my knee without losing all manner of technique and crashing into the floor, landing on my butt. I had very limited strength and poor flexibility in this movement. I would just do eccentric lowering over and over again, using both legs to squat back up to standing. My entire focus would be on performing perfectly, no matter how slowly I had to go. I wanted to groove the proper motor pattern so that my body would “memorize” the right way to do a pistol. I spent a few days doing only the eccentric portion of this exercise.

When I became more comfortable and able to lower myself smoothly, but still could not hold the bottom position (since I would crash at the bottom if I tried to pause there), I chained together the lowering portion of the single leg squat and a spinal rock – a decision that goes against convention, but was made by way of pure experimentation. I had been practicing the spinal rock for about a year, so this was a pretty easy transition. Instead of rocking back forward onto a single leg, I would plant both feet and squat back up again. Again, I was still focusing on perfect technique to groove the movement correctly.

After a few more days of practice went by, I began to incorporate some static holds of the bottom position. My hips had opened up enough at this point, where I could prop myself up into the bottom position and hold it for time. This is one of the best decisions I made to speed up the learning curve – it built up quite a bit of strength in this bottom position. After a few days of this, I could control an eccentric lowering of the single leg squat and hold at the bottom. I no longer crashed into the floor after descending! Granted, I couldn’t get back up without using both legs, but my progress was exciting as I watched my single leg squat strength accumulate.

I further sophisticated the bottom position static hold by alternating between both feet once already in the bottom position. I would switch from left leg planted to right leg planted without using my hands (I had to use them in the beginning to learn the transition), and hold for time. This helped to increase my “safe zone” for when the motion deviated from the normal path. I could lean my body to the left, right, rear and forwards and still maintain my planted foot without wobbling.

At this point, I would lower to bottom position, perform a spinal rock, and come back up onto one leg in the bottom position to hold for a short time. This was a natural sophistication since I had already done all three portions and was now just chaining them together. This is after about 10 days of daily practicing; the body definitely catches on quick!

After a necessary day of rest, I decided it was time to perform the full pistol test. Could I lower myself under control, hold the bottom position without touching the floor with either hand or with my raised leg, and squat back up again? The answer was yes! To my surprise, I actually performed a single leg squat after only 11 days of practicing. My descent technique rating was near perfect, rated at 9 out of 10. My ascent was rough, as I seemed to explosively hoist myself up to standing again, 6 out of 10. Regardless, this was huge progress for me! Just looking back to where I was two weeks before, and not even knowing how to get back up again, I had made amazing progress by sticking with it and keeping my focus on what I was capable of doing.

After my accomplishment, I began performing single leg squats during some of my training sessions in sets of 1-3 repetitions – as soon as my technique diminished, I ended the set. Also, periodically throughout the day, I would perform one single leg squat per leg to further “grease the groove.”

Not only did my single leg squat strength increase exponentially, I also noticed a very dramatic increase in my squat strength, power and endurance. Trinity squatting (sophisticated bodyweight squats) has become effortless as long as proper breathing protocol is incorporated. When ascending in the squat, it feels like I am floating, which is a superb accomplishment.

Needless to say, I was ecstatic about my fast progress, and every single leg squat training session became almost playful. I think a pretty obvious lesson here is that if you want to get good at something, do it every day. I’m sure you’ve heard this before. Whether this is practicing single leg squats, pullups, kayaking, archery, or your poker game – do something every day to work towards your goal. Remember to keep moderation in mind, you can’t train pistols to failure everyday – you’ll be injured in no time. I kept my intensity below 5 out of 10 almost every training day. The intensity will come when technique is perfected with minimal to no discomfort or pain.

Another thing of value is that I didn’t focus on what I couldn’t do, but on what I could do immediately to reach my goals. It wasn’t necessarily the “textbook” method since I chained the spinal rock early on, but it was individualized to my needs and current conditioning and it brought me much closer to my goal. Practice incremental progression with adequate recovery and compensatory work and you will be well on your way to achieving your goals.

Note: after 3 weeks of training pistols almost every day – I took a full week off from single-leg movements to give my legs a break. Too much of a good thing can hurt you!

If you’re planning on incorporating single-leg training into your program, I highly recommend placing an emphasis on hip mobility during this time. The reason being that most people struggle with pistols simply because they have limited ROM in their hips. Not to mention that all those squats will only make your hips even tighter if you don’t compensate for them.

Here’s a great free program to get started: Beginner-Level Joint Mobility Program.

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Health-First Fitness Coach

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13 Responses

  1. John,

    Great video on the single leg squats. I definitely feel my left leg is weaker than my right. I would love to master the pistol. I know it will take some time.

    I think this relates to the reason why I feel uncomfortable during any runs over 4 miles where I start to get weak in the hip area and then my form is not right. Feel like I have no strength to go on. I also ran alot of mile in hs and college plus 19 marathons. In terms of overuse, it finally caught up to me.

    Thank you,

    Barry

  2. Hi Barry,

    Thanks for the kind words. Most people do have a weaker side – just make sure to balance out your left/right training and it will catch up in strength.

    Be strong, and be well.

    John

  3. Hi John
    I love your site so inspirational and great natural exercises. I am trying the single leg squat with very slow progression. But progression none the less. My left knee was operated on about 18 months ago with an arthoscopy and I have slight arthritus in it so I’m quite wary of putting too much strain on it. But I’m taking it slowly.
    Thanks so much for your detailed breakdown of exercises and your excellent teaching style.
    Laura

  4. Laura, I’m glad you like the site. I’ll keep the info coming if you’ll keep reading it :-)

    Best of luck with your pistol progress!

  5. Hi John,

    I loved this post on pistols. Doing a pistol is something I have always wanted to do but never figured out how to train for it. I am about where you were when you started but I am 43 and giving your method a shot and giving myself more time (12 days seems like a pipe dream). I will be tracking my progress on my blog.

    I was so pumped up after reading your post that I already did my first go at it doing the eccentric part with the rollup on both feet during my lunch hour. I haven’t watched your video yet as it is blocked at work but will check it out when I get home.

    Thanks for a great article!

  6. Give yourself all the time you need, Ken. There’s no point in rushing into it.

  7. will roberson

    Dear John
    You said that if a person is of normal weight and in decent shape then he could probably master the pistol in sixteen weeks or less. Well, I’m 5’10” and weigh 235 lbs. What can I probably expect for duration? I mastered 200 regular squats before I started practicing 2 months ago.

    • Hi Will,

      It’s hard to give an exact timeline because there are a lot of variables at stake, but we could narrow it down if you’re at a certain level conditioning-wise. For instance, if you can do the eccentric portion (even with a little assistance, like holding onto a railing, etc.), then I’d say your anywhere from 2-4 months away, even at your weight.

  8. Will Roberson

    Dear John
    I started practicing assisted pistols on april 5 of this year using the grease the groove method 5 x 5 everyday except sunday. After a month of that I realized I was overtraining, so I stated doing pistol assist 5 x 5 twice and all in one session as this is a set/rep scheme a lot of weightlifters swear by. I still haven’t mastered the exercise. I beleive that I’ve been stumped by three problems: poor technique,fluctuating bodyweight and a gut that hurts my range of motion.
    To solve the problemof technique I’m going to follow your instructions to the letter. You said you practiced everyday but didin’t say in the written version how many times a day you practiced plus this library computer doesn’t have audio. Can you tell me how many times a day you practiced this exercise? Also any advise on weight loss?

  9. Will Roberson

    Dear John
    Besides perfecting pistols I would also like to develop a lot of endurance and and improve my running speed. Is it realistic to try to master all three at the same time or should they be mastered serperately?

  10. Great video, just warming up my hips now.

  11. Hi John. So how many pistol squats can you do now in a row on each leg? I have been into this whole crossfit thing and pistol squats are a benchmark. I am trying to master them and this advise is definitely something I am going to use!

    • Hi Ty,

      How many can I do now – like RIGHT NOW??? No idea :)

      I’ve never tested my pistol squats, specifically, but the most I can remember doing in one set was 20 per leg (alternating).

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