CrossFit may conjure up images of athletes hoisting barbells with massive weights overhead, but one of the workout’s super-effective exercises actually requires no gear whatsoever. Pistol squats—when you squat on one leg with your other leg extended off the floor in front of you—is a common move in many WODs (CrossFit speak for workouts of the day).
It’s popular for good reason: The move strengthens your entire lower half, from your glutes, hips, and quads all the way down to your calves. And to keep from falling over to one side or the other as you lower your body toward the floor, you have to engage your core—which means the move helps strengthen and tone your abs as well.
But that’s not all. “The unilateral movement of a pistol squat allows you to strengthen your legs one at a time,” says Colleen Fotsch, Reebok FitPro and strength and conditioning coach. “That’s important because when you work the legs together, you can subconsciously compensate for weaknesses in one leg.” Lunges and split squats have some of the same effect, since they target each leg separately, but they’re not as big of a challenge. “A pistol squat is a little more high skilled than these,” says Fotsch. “It requires more balance, and you can’t compensate for imbalances like you can with the other moves.”
The exercise is also worth incorporating into your workout routine because it can teach you what you need to work on. Why? Because you don’t just have to be strong to squat on one leg; you also need to be flexible and have mobile joints, especially your hips and ankles, notes Fotsch. If you struggle with the movement, you can determine where you’re weak or need to get more flexible. For instance, get stuck at the bottom of the move? You need to work on strength. Can’t keep your leg lifted off the floor as you squat and rise back up? The hip of your lifted leg is probably weak. Lean forward on your toes when you squat? Your ankles are likely tight.
Ready to master this challenging move? Read on for Fotsch’s favorite steps to work through until you progress to a full-fledged pistol squat.
1. TAKE HOLD
Stand facing a pole or something stable you can hold onto while you move through the exercise. Stand on one foot with your opposite leg extended in front of you, lifted off the floor. Reach your arms in front of you and hold onto the pole for support as you lower (it removes the balance challenge, making the move easier). Hinge at the hips and bend the knee of your supporting leg. Squat, keeping your bent knee pointed over the toes of the supporting foot and keeping your front leg lifted. Push back up, until your supporting leg is straight, to return to the starting position.
2. HAVE A SEAT
Start sitting on a wooden box or bench, with one foot on the floor and the other extended in front of you and lifted off the floor. Put your weight onto the foot on the floor and push up to stand, keeping your lifted leg off the floor. Once that becomes comfortable, try the same movement but starting from standing. Push your hips back behind you as you lower, then tap the box lightly before returning to standing.
3. PRACTICE THE PISTOL
Stand on one foot with your opposite leg extended in front of you, lifted off the floor, with your arms extended in front of you. Hinge at the hips as you bend the knee of your supporting leg. Squat, keeping your bent knee pointed over the toes of the supporting foot and keeping front leg lifted. Push back up, until your supporting leg is straight, to return to the starting position.
Banner image courtesy of YouTube