Undoubtedly, the barbell squat is better than bodyweight pistols when it comes to strength and muscle mass. It is a scalable exercise that could make your lower body very strong in a relatively short time frame. Moreover, it is a safe movement when done with proper mechanics.
The bodyweight pistol will make you stronger too, 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 development of muscle mass. For mass and raw strength, the barbell squat is just the better choice.
Unilateral Strength and Agility
The pistol squat allows you to develop both sides equally. Each leg works separately, and therefore, imbalances cannot occur. Conversely, the barbell squat can develop asymmetrical strength and mass levels since the stronger side can help the weaker one.
In addition, the pistol squat will also improve your coordination, balance, agility and active flexibility. Truth be told, the same holds true for the barbell squat but in a slightly different way. 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 untrained in the movement. Can you imagine Kirk Karwoski doing bodyweight pistol squats when he was over 275lbs?
Which One Is Easier On The Knees?
A mechanically correct barbell squat is safer for the knees.
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 perform 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. This increases the stress on the joints because without your hamstrings in the picture, the load shifts 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. At the bottom of the movement, his hips tuck in, and his lower back rounds. This is exactly the problem I am talking about.
In addition, during pistol squats, there are often balance shifts that sometimes put extra stress on the knee ligaments.
Of course, the barbell squat can kill your knees too. If you use the wrong weight and do the exercise improperly, you will hurt your knees in no time.
A mechanically incorrect barbell squat is 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 Bodyweight Exercises Build Big Legs?
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, but the weighted exercises are more convenient and come with an infinite progression.
It’s also important to note that as a natural bodybuilder, you won’t ever have stupidly big legs, at least not in a lean condition. Unfortunately, even heavy barbell squats 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 the progress will be faster if you incorporate 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 air forever.