Lower body: Bodyweight Pistols Vs. Barbell Squats

Bodyweight pistols and barbell squats are one of the main exercises you can do for your lower body. In this post we will compare the two since a lot of people are wondering what’s better for their goals and whether it’s possible to replace squats with pistols.

THE SQUAT IS STILL THE KING

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Without question the barbell squat is the better exercise of choice when it comes to strength and muscle mass. It allows for very intelligent programming as well as constant incremental increase of the added weight. The barbell squat can make your lower body plenty strong and is also quite save when done with proper mechanics.


The bodyweight pistol will also make you stronger, but at one point it becomes impossible to add weight. Doing pistols with a barbell seems highly dangerous and you will be testing your balance and agility rather than working towards raw strength and muscle mass increase. Of course, doing the bodyweight pistol with or without added weight will improve your lower body, but sooner or later it will become an endurance exercise. For mass and raw strength the barbell squat is just the better choice.

DEVELOPING UNILATERAL STRENGTH AND AGILITY

The pistol squat allows you to develop both side equally. The right and the left leg are tested separately and therefore imbalances cannot occur. At the same time the barbell squat can develop asymmetrical strength and mass levels since the strongest side will be pushing more of the weight.

The bodyweight pistol squat also helps you develop coordination, agility and active flexibility. Truth be told, the same holds true for the barbell squat, but the focus on those qualities is smaller. However, there is no doubt that the majority of the top squatters cannot do even a single pistol. They are either too big/fat or too untrained in the movement. Can you imagine Kirk Karwoski doing bodyweight pistol squat when he was over 275 lbs?

Related article: Quadriceps Training For Natural Bodybuilders

WHICH ONE IS EASIER ON THE KNEES?

A mechanically correct barbell squat with the right weight (not too heavy for your current strength levels) is safer when it comes to your knees. The squatting movement is much more natural and there isn’t so much balance shifting.

Also, it’s very important to note that most people don’t have the flexibility to do a REAL pistol squat. If you observe carefully how most do their pistols, you will see that everybody lets the lower back round at the bottom. Since the pistol is never done with a really heavy weight, this is not really that stressful to the spinal ligaments.

However, when your lower back rounds the hamstring tension is lost. During a correct and safe squat the hamstring tension is kept through maintenance of proper spinal alignment. Due to the large range of motion during a pistol squat keeping proper alignment becomes almost impossible for most people and as result the hamstrings are shortened. This increases the stress on the joints because without your hamstrings into the picture the load shifts heavily to the front of your knees. That’s why people feel so much stress on their knees when doing pistol squats.

In the video above you see Al Kavaldo doing pistols. Notice how at the bottom of the movement his butt tucks in and his lower back rounds. This is exactly the problem we’re talking about. While many people won’t notice a thing, there is no doubt that losing hamstring tension during squats is not healthy for your knees.

On top of everything, anybody who’s ever done a pistol knows that during the execution of the movement there’s a lot of balancing which can cause your knee to buckle in and what not.

All of this does not mean that squats with a barbell on your back cannot kill your knees too. If you use the wrong weight and do the exercise improperly, you will blew your knees in no time. A mechanically incorrect barbell squat is much more dangerous than a mechanically incorrect pistol squat. However, barbell squats with proper form (keeping your back arched while maintaining proper knee alignment at all times) are more knee friendly than a tension free pistol squat.

Note: If you are looking for a unilateral leg movement that’s knee friendly, you can try Bulgarian split squats.

CAN YOU BUILD BIG LEGS WITH BODYWEIGHT EXERCISES?

Well, you can build stronger and bigger legs with bodyweight movements, but you can’t have tree trunks without heavy weights. Exercises like pistols will take care of your quadriceps and glutes while sprints will really build your hamstrings. However, it’s obvious that big legs actually make bodyweight exercises more difficult to perform and you shouldn’t expect to get ‘real swollen’.

Another important factor which makes it hard to build your legs with bodyweight squats is the difficulty to increase the load safely. Barbell squats and weighted exercises on the other hand allow you to essentially add more iron to the barbell until the end of time.

It’s also important to note that as a natural bodybuilder you won’t ever have stupidly big legs, at least not in lean condition. You have to be realistic. Unfortunately, even heavy barbell squats done while Rippetoe is holding your hand won’t change that fact.

A lot of people want to train their legs at home without going to the gym and that’s fine, but it would be much easier, if you incorporate some kind of weighted exercises such as: kettlebell front squats, T-handle swings, Romanian deadlifts, hip belt squats….etc. The legs are very strong and it would be unfair and cruel to train them with just air forever. Added resistance during lower body training will also increase your lower body bone density and make you stronger and sturdier overall.

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