I learned about pistol squats over ten years ago. I read about them in the blog of a dude following the training principles of Pavel Tsatsouline. To this day, I remember a quote from that blogger: “I do 5×5 pistol squats and have no complaints about how my legs look.”
Was he right, though? Are pistol squats enough for legs?
Pistol squats can make your quads significantly stronger and thicker than what you would have without training, but if your goal is to build the biggest thighs that you can have naturally, or not, other movements will do a much better and faster job. However, if you are asking this question from the perspective of someone who just wants to develop some leg power, pistol squats can do the trick.
Why aren’t pistol squats optimal for building mass?
Not everything hard is effective. Pistol squats prove that. The movement is very challenging for the vast majority of the population, but the difficulties are not as conductive to hypertrophy as one might think. Most of the challenge comes from the balancing demands and the extended range of motion.
Lower body exercises with high balance requirements are not ideal growth stimulants. Basic movements (e.g., barbell squats, Zecher squats, leg presses…etc.) that do not require you to look like a circus performer work better as they allow you to work the large muscles without limitations imposed by your stabilizing abilities.
For example, the leg press (an exercise that functional gurus hate) is a much better mass builder than the pistol because it allows you to overload the muscle without having to hop around.
The stabilizers involved in “unstable” exercises like the pistol give up long before the primary movers which are the intended targets when growth is the goal. For that very reason, many bodybuilders do “non-functional” movements (e.g., leg press, hacks squats, Smith machine squats…etc.) that put the major muscle groups in a “sterile” environment. While this method is bad from an athletic standpoint, it serves the goal of hypertrophy better.
In addition, the bodyweight pistol squat does not showcase nearly as much strength as one might think. From the outside, it appears that the squatter is lifting their entire bodyweight with one leg but that’s not entirely true.
First, you are not lifting the shin and the foot of the working leg. Second, there’s some assistance from the non-working side as both hips extend to complete the movement. Third, the lighter you are, the easier the exercise is. Fourth, there’s some momentum and bouncing at the bottom.
In other words, a skinny brah jumping on one leg at home is not stimulating as much leg growth as someone progressing on the basic lifts while following a systematized approach.
Can extra weight turn pistol squats into a hypertrophy machine?
By holding a dumbbell, a kettlebell or wearing a weight vest one can increase the demand and consequently the growth stimulus elicit by pistol squats. [Don’t expect some insane growth, though…especially if you are a natural bodybuilder.]
The process is inconvenient in comparison to a simple barbell squat or a leg press. Nevertheless, a man who can do pistol squats with a decent weight is in possession of impressive leg strength over a great range of motion.
What muscles do pistol squats hit the hardest?
The quads and the glutes are the primary movers during pistol squats. They are the power units that get you out of the bottom and allow you to complete a repetition. The hip flexors of the leg extended in front of you are also under great stress which is why most people bend the leg pointing forward. Keeping it straight is just too much work.
Contrary to some statements, pistol squats do little for your hamstring development. To remain balanced and reach the “deep end” of the movement, people sacrifice lumbar extension [lose the lower back arch]. This move shortens the hamstrings from the hip end and prevents them from engaging efficiently.
Bonus: The abs and the ensemble of muscles stabilizing the knee and the foot have to work overtime too.
What exercises can I combine pistol squats with for more harmonious development? I have no training equipment.
A combination of sprints and pistol squats is a smart way to work your legs when nothing else is available or when you want to take a break from the gym. The pistol squat will hit your quads and glutes whereas sprinting will absolutely murder your hamstrings. Eventually, you can progress to hill sprinting to increase the difficulty level.
Another decent hamstring exercise that can be done with minimal equipment are leg curls with furniture sliders.
What is the biggest benefit of single-leg squats?
Pistol squats are a good conditioning tool if you are involved in breakdancing, gymnastics or other activities including acrobatic elements done on one leg. For that reason, many gymnastic coaches incorporate single leg squats in their preparation routines.
Is it true that “pistol squats build legs that don’t chafe?”
One of pistol squats’ selling points is that unlike barbell squats and leg presses they save you from the curse of having big legs hitting each other when you walk. The muscle scholars call this thigh chafing.
Here’s the painful reality – most naturals who aren’t fat will never have uncomfortably big legs. People who report chafing problems are fat permabulkers who owe the majority of their newly acquired thigh size to the unreal number of calories that they are importing into their bodies in the hope to break the natty limits.
Are pistol squats hard on your knees?
They could be. The hamstrings are relaxed at the bottom of the movement and cannot counter the pull of the quads. This leaves the knees somewhat naked. Another downside is that pistol squats cause “tremors” [shaking] here and there because the movement is done on one leg. Depending on one’s situation, this may increase the strain on the knees negatively.
Having said that, if one progresses methodically and conservatively, pistol squats are a fairly safe movement. Some even claim that pistol squats strengthen the knees.
What are the best bodyweight alternatives to pistol squats?
Bulgarian split squats are a good option which most people can do right away because the movement does not require advanced balancing skills – a property making the exercise more convenient than pistol squats.
Are there any bodybuilders who rely on pistol squats?
Most bodybuilders don’t have a direct incentive to develop the athletic skills needed to do a pistol squat. Even if there are builders performing pistol squats, they are certainly not doing them for the hypertrophy benefits.
Are pistol squats a good way to maintain muscle mass and strength on vacation?
Muscle mass. Maintaining size, especially when it’s acquired naturally, is fairly easy. Unless you are on a really long trip (multiple weeks or even months) you probably won’t lose any noticeable muscle mass as long as you consume enough calories. Sure, you won’t look super firm since there won’t be residual tension in the muscles, but true evaporation of lean tissue is harder to reach than people think.
Strength. If your plan is to maintain your barbell squat by doing pistols while traveling around the world, you will have to reconsider your strategy as this hack won’t work. Strength maintenance requires specificity. Nevertheless, something always beats nothing.
Can I reach my natural potential through pistol squats?
In theory, you can get really close, but in practice, most people would be better off adding some basic form of squatting to their regime, at least for a while.