11 Best Pistol Squat Alternatives For Stronger Legs (Tips and Videos)

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There are some unique squat exercises in the fitness world.

Some of them help and others don't provide added benefits. The pistol squat's benefits include mobility and added leg strength.

However, pistol squats are hard! 

Luckily, there are pistol squat alternatives you can do to get similar results.

The 11 best pistol squat alternatives are:

These 11 pistol squat alternatives use the same muscles and involve a similar motor pattern. Let's go over pistol squats and all these alternatives separately. 

What Is The Pistol Squat? 

If you’ve been trying, and failing, to master the pistol squat, you’re not alone. A pistol squat is a single leg exercise. It looks easy, but it requires a balance of strength, flexibility, and motor control to perform correctly.

Although pistol squats are a great exercise for the body, there are several alternatives that work just as well.

If your goal is to work on strength, flexibility, and balance, try some of the exercises below.

Muscles Used In Pistol Squats

The pistol squat is a bodyweight compound exercise. It activates several muscles at the same time.

Due to the amount of hip and knee flexion needed for the pistol squat, the quadriceps and gluteus maximus are the primary movers in the exercise. Without strong quads and glutes, you will struggle to do a full pistol squat.

Stabilizing muscles are required to keep your torso upright and prevent you from twisting throughout the movement.

The primary muscles used in pistol squats are:

  • Quadriceps (rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius) 
  • Gluteal muscles (gluteus maximum, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus)
  • Hamstrings (biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus)
  • Calves (gastrocnemius and soleus)

The secondary muscles worked during pistol squats are:

  • The abdominal muscles (transversus abdominis, rectus abdominis, and the obliques)
  • Erector spinae
  • Hamstrings (biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus)
  • Ankle stabilizers

What Makes A Good Pistol Squat Alternative?

If you have no idea where to start with pistol squats, but still want to gain the benefits of the exercise, there are a bunch of alternatives you can try.

A good pistol squat alternative is one that targets the same muscle groups or uses the same joints movements. The primary contributors of any squat are the quads and glutes. When you do a pistol squat, the glute medius is activated, making this exercise great to develop strong hip extensor muscles.

So, exercises are good alternatives to the pistol squat if they activate the gluteal muscles, in particular the glute medius, as well as the quads. They should also involve knee flexion and extension, and some form of stabilization.

11 Best Pistol Squat Alternatives

The following are a list of pistol squat alternatives to use if you can't do the squat. In addition, if you find yourself with difficulty for the pistol squat, you can go over the progressions.

1. Pistol Box Squats

Okay, I realize that this does not sound like an alternative to the pistol squat, but it’s more of a moderated version of the exercise.

It could also be named a single leg box squat because it involves using one leg to lower yourself carefully onto a box. The lower the box, the harder the exercise. Aim to slowly lower the box until you no longer need it and can pistol squat without needing the extra support.

Equipment Needed: bench, aerobic step or box, dumbbell or kettlebell (optional)

Step By Step Instructions

  • Pick up the dumbbell of kettlebell if you’re using extra weight.
  • Stand next to a bench, step or box, facing away from it.
  • Lift one leg up off the group in front of you.
  • Lower your body under control until you reach the box.
  • Lightly tap the box with your glutes before returning to a standing position. Push through the heel of the foot that is on the ground and squeeze your glutes to drive yourself back up.
  • Repeat for the desired number of reps and sets.

Coach's Tips

  • Make sure to keep your spine neutral throughout the movement
  • Keep your head up and your torso upright to help you maintain balance and stability
  • To progress in this exercise, use a lower box or step. To regress the exercise, use a higher box or step, or hold onto something to stabilize yourself

2. TRX Assisted Pistol Squats

The TRX is two long handles that hang from a high bar (Click to see my favorite one from Amazon). They are great for bodyweight exercises. The TRX-assisted pistol squat allows you to practice the movement with some additional support.

If you struggle with balance and stability, practice the TRX-assisted pistol squat. This exercise targets the same muscles as with a standard pistol squat, but give you something to hold on to, which helps you stay balanced and stabilized.

Equipment Needed: bench, aerobic step or box, dumbbell or kettlebell (optional)

Step By Step Instructions

  • Stand facing the TRX and grab the handles, one in each hand.
  • Bend your arms so that the handles are by your chest.
  • Lift up one leg off the ground in front of you.
  • Slowly lower yourself into a single leg squat using the leg that is on the ground, keeping the other leg off the floor.
  • Drive through your heel to push yourself back up to the starting position.
  • Repeat for the desired number of reps and repeat on the other leg.
  • Repeat for the desired number of sets.

Coach's Tips

  • Focus closely on your form. Keep your eyes looking forward, your chest lifted, and your spine neutral throughout
  • Make sure to practice on both legs equally. You might find your balance is worse on one side, but this will even out as you continue to practice the movement

3. Bulgarian Split Squats

I spoke about these in the barbell hip thrust alternatives article. They are an amazing exercise to target the quads and glutes, as well as forcing you to engage your core.

These split squats are a unilateral movement where you rest your back leg on an elevated surface and perform lunges.

Equipment Needed: bench, aerobic step or box, dumbbell or kettlebell (optional)

Step By Step Instructions

  • Pick up the dumbbell or kettlebell if you’re using extra weight.
  • Place your front foot firmly on the ground and rest your back foot on a bench, box, or step.
  • Lunge down using your front leg, lowering your body towards the ground.
  • Pause for a split second at the bottom of the movement before returning to the starting position.
  • Repeat the movement for the desired number of reps.
  • Repeat on the other leg before repeating the whole movement for the desired number of sets.

Coach's Tips

  • Keep your spine neutral and your chest lifted. Don’t look down onto the ground, but instead keep your eyes focused on what’s in front of you
  • Play around with your stance and find what is most comfortable for you. Some people prefer a wider stance, others prefer a narrower distance between their legs. Find the position where your muscles feel the most activated
  • Use the pause at the bottom of each lunge to really focus on the mind-muscle connection

4. Static Lunges

The static lunge is also known as the split squat. It is a variation of the Bulgarian split squat or the front lunge where the feet remain stationary on the ground throughout the exercise.

The feet stay firmly on the ground until you switch legs. These are a great way to start practicing lunging form and working on stability. They can also help with your hip, knee, and ankle mobility.

Equipment Needed: dumbbell or kettlebell (optional)

Step By Step Instructions

  • Pick up the dumbbell or kettlebell if you’re using extra weight.
  • Stand with your feet hip width apart.
  • Take a large step forwards with one leg and place your foot flat on the ground. The heel of your back foot should be elevated.
  • Bend at both knees to lower yourself towards the ground until your knees are bent at 90 degrees, keeping your feet in position.
  • Pause for a split second at the bottom of the movement before driving through the heel of your front foot to push yourself back up to the starting position.
  • Repeat for the desired number of reps before switching legs and performing the same number of reps. Do as many sets as you need.

Coach's Tips

  • Start with your non-dominant leg first as this leg will be the limiting factor when you want to add more reps or sets
  • Play around with your stance and find what is most comfortable for you. Some people prefer a wider stance, others prefer a narrower distance between their legs. A wider stance will lead to more glute activation. A narrower stance will target the quads more.

5. Front Lunges

The front lunge (aka the forward lunge) is a great alternative to the pistol squat. It is a compound exercise that uses the same muscle groups and emphasizes unilateral strength.

You can hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in one hand, or hold one in each hand to add extra weight. As with the static lunge, front lunges will improve your stability and joint mobility.

Equipment Needed: dumbbell or kettlebell (optional)

Step By Step Instructions

  • Pick up the dumbbell or kettlebell if you’re using extra weight.
  • Stand with your feet hip width apart.
  • Take a large step forwards with one leg and place your foot flat on the ground whilst lowering yourself towards the ground until your knees are bent at 90 degrees. The heel of your back foot should be elevated when you reach the bottom of the lunge.
  • Drive through the heel of your front foot to push yourself back to the starting position.
  • Repeat for the desired number of reps before switching legs and performing the same number of reps. Do as many sets as you need.

Coach's Tips

  • Keep your eyes looking forwards and your chest lifted throughout
  • Start with your non-dominant leg first as this leg will be the limiting factor when you want to add more reps or sets

6. Reverse Lunges

The reverse lunge is a variation of the static or front lunges. It is a single leg movement that requires stability and mobility. Reverse lunges are great to identify muscle imbalances just like pistol squats.

You can add a dumbbell or kettlebell in one hand, or hold one in each hand to make the exercise harder.

Equipment Needed: dumbbell or kettlebell (optional)

Step By Step Instructions

  • Pick up the dumbbell or kettlebell if you’re using extra weight.
  • Stand with your feet hip width apart.
  • Lunge backwards with one leg and lower yourself towards the ground until your knees are bent at 90 degrees. The front foot should be firmly on the ground, and the heel of the back leg should be elevated.
  • Drive through the heel of your front foot, using your glutes to push yourself back to the starting position.
  • Repeat for the desired number of reps before switching legs and performing the same number of reps. Do as many sets as you need.

Coach's Tips

  • Keep your eyes looking forwards, your chest lifted, and your spine neutral throughout.
  • Squeeze your glutes to push yourself up from the bottom of the lunge.
  • Decide if you want to set your foot back down on the ground between each set, or keep it slightly elevated off the floor. The latter requires more balance and stability.

7. Step Ups

The step up is not necessarily a close variation of the pistol squat, but it works the same muscles and joints. This exercise is a functional movement that can be translated into daily life such as when you’re going up a flight of stairs.

Equipment Needed: bench, aerobic step or box, dumbbells or kettlebells (optional)

Step By Step Instructions

  • Pick up the dumbbells or kettlebells if you’re using extra weight.
  • Stand facing a bench, step, or box and lift one leg onto it. Make sure your heel is not hanging off the edge.
  • Use your elevated leg to push your body upwards until you’re stood tall on top of the bench.
  • Lower yourself under control back to the starting position.
  • Repeat for the desired number of reps, and do the same on the other leg. Do as many sets as you need.

Coach's Tips

  • To make it harder, use a higher box. To make it easier, use a lower box or hold on to something to help stabilize yourself.
  • Decide if you want to lift your front leg of the bench between each rep, or keep it resting on the bench throughout the whole set.
  • Focus on using the glutes and quads of the elevated leg to push yourself up with each rep instead of using momentum.

8. Single Leg Press

The leg press is a machine-based exercise that uses the legs to push a platform away from your body.

The single leg press is an amazing alternative to the pistol squat as it is unilateral movement that uses the same joint movement patterns.

It requires a high level of hip and knee flexibility to reach full range of motion.

Equipment Needed: leg press machine

Step By Step Instructions

  • Sit on the leg press machine and adjust the load by adding plates or moving the pin in the stack of weights.
  • Place one foot flat against the platform, with the knee bent at 90 degrees.
  • Push the platform away from your body until your leg is fully extended.
  • Return to the starting position.
  • Repeat for the desired number of reps, and do the same on the other leg. Do as many sets as you need.

Coach's Tips

  • Keep your spine flat against the seat of the machine. Do not curve or arch your lower back
  • Start with your non-dominant leg first as this leg will be the limiting factor when you want to add more weight, reps or sets

9. Skater Squats

The skater squat is a unilateral exercise that is similar to the reverse lunge. The only difference is that the back foot does not make contact with the ground in skater squats.

This movement is usually done with a smaller range of motion and a more vertical shin angle, so it’s great if you have limited knee mobility or experience knee pain.

Equipment Needed: dumbbell or kettlebell (optional)

Step By Step Instructions

  • Stand with your feet shoulder width apart.
  • Keep one foot flat on the ground and lift your opposite foot off the floor.
  • Bend at the knee to lower yourself towards the ground, allowing your elevated foot to move behind you. Lift your arms as you descend.
  • Drive through the heel of the foot that is on the ground to push yourself back to the starting position.
  • Repeat for the desired number of reps, and do the same on the other leg. Do as many sets as you need.

Coach's Tips

  • Keep your eyes looking forward and your chest lifted throughout.
  • If you struggle with balance, moderate this exercise by placing your back foot on the ground between each rep.

10. Lateral Lunges

The lateral lunge is a far variation of the pistol squat, but it is a great exercise to practice balance and mobility.

It works the same large lower body muscles as the pistol squat, as well as targeting the hip abductors and adductors. To make the exercise harder, hold a dumbbell or kettlebell.

Equipment Needed: dumbbell or kettlebell (optional)

Step By Step Instructions

  • Stand with your feet shoulder width apart
  • Take a large step to the side and plant your foot firmly on the ground
  • Drive through your heel to push yourself back to the starting position
  • Repeat for the desired number of reps, and do the same on the other leg. Do as many sets as you prefer.

Coach's Tips

  • Keep your chest lifted and your spine neutral throughout.
  • Use a bench, step, or box to increase the range of motion.
  • If your torso leans forwards, try practicing your hip mobility beforehand.

11. Goblet Squats

Although this exercise is not unilateral, it is great to practice your squatting technique and can improve your mobility and stability. The core muscles are activated in the goblet squat, which will be beneficial when you progress on to the pistol squat.

Equipment Needed: dumbbell or kettlebell

Step By Step Instructions

  • Pick up the dumbbell or kettlebell and hold the weight against your sternum.
  • Stand with your feet shoulder width apart.
  • Hinge at the hips and bend you knees to lower yourself towards the ground until your elbows touch your knees.
  • Drive through your heels to push yourself back to the starting position.
  • Repeat for the desired number of reps and sets.

Coach's Tips

  • Keep your eyes looking forwards so that your spine and neck remain neutral.
  • Try to keep your chest lifted throughout the exercise. If your torso leans forwards, work on your hip mobility beforehand.
  • Make sure your knees do not collapse inwards.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why Can’t I Do A Pistol Squat?

 It’s quite common to be unable to do pistol squats. Most of my clients have struggled to do this exercise because of poor mobility. To get into a deep pistol squat, you need to have a decent level of hip, knee, and ankle mobility. Practice mobility work and take your joints through their full range of motion. This will translate into your pistol squats and allow you to get lower.

Another reason you might struggle is because you have poor balance. Work on strengthening your core muscles and activating your stabilizer muscles to improve your balance.

Are Pistol Squats Better Than Barbell Squats?

The short answer is it depends. Both pistol squats and barbell squats have their own benefits, but which one you use depends on your goals. 

If your goal is to gain power or strength, or if you want to stimulate hypertrophy in your lower body, you need to be lifting heavy. This can be achieved more easily by using a barbell because you can overload the exercise. Pistol squats are limited to the amount of weight you can hold, so they should not be your go-to for strength gains or hypertrophy.

However, pistol squats are great for improving your balance and coordination. They can help you identify any muscle imbalances. If you want to work on slow and controlled movements, the pistol squat should be your first choice.

Are Pistol Squats Bad For Your Knees?

Pistol squats require a high degree of knee flexion. You need to have a good level of mobility in your lower body joints to perform them correctly. If you lack sufficient knee mobility, then pistol squats could be bad for your knees. Studies show that cultures who frequently squat for prolonged periods of time, such as in the Asian culture, are more likely to suffer with osteoarthritis [1].

When your knees cave inwards during squatting, it is known as knee valgus. This can occur when you have reduced hip muscle strength and mobility. Training with correct squatting form and working on increasing your strength will prevent knee valgus from occurring, possibly reducing knee pain [2].

However, practising your mobility and stability will improve your pistol squat technique. Strengthening your muscles and joints will benefit you in the long-run and will protect against joint-related diseases and improve physical functioning [3]. 

If you suffer with arthritis or other joint issues, please be cautious when attempting a pistol squat. I suggest getting a coach to guide you through the process, or asking somebody in your gym to help!

What If I Have Pain When Doing A Pistol Squat?

Patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS) is one of the most common causes of knee pain when the knee is flexed, such as in squatting [4].

Following a proper mobility exercise program will help relieve tension in the muscles surrounding the knee. Check your knee positioning in relation to your ankle, as this could be a cause of the pain. Be sure to check with a physiotherapist before attempting pistol squats if you are concerned.

How Can I Add Weight To A Pistol Squat?

Yes, you can add weight to a pistol squat. Simply holding a dumbbell, kettlebell, or plate in your hands will add extra load to the exercise. Of course, you are limited to the amount of weight you can physically hold with your arms.

Final Thoughts

Pistol squats are a useful exercise to improve your lower body straight and stability. If you’ve never tried them before, give them a go! They can translate nicely into everyday activities by improving joint mobility and squatting form.

If you find you are unable to perform pistol squats, try any of these alternatives to practice your technique before attempting a bodyweight or weighted pistol squat. 

I suggest working on your hip, knee, and ankle mobility if you struggle to gain depth in these exercises. There are a bunch of mobility videos available to watch online. Following a strict routine will greatly improve the range of motion around your joints, making it easier to perform a pistol squat.

Add in one or more of these exercises into your routine and you will be pistol squatting in no time!

References

[1] Sathiyamoorthy T., Ali SA., and Kloseck M. Cultural Factors Influencing Osteoarthritis Care in Asian Communities: A Review of the Evidence. J Community Health. 2018 Aug; 43(4):816-826. doi: 10.1007/s10900-018-0470-8.

[2] Wilczynski B., Zorena K., and Slezak D. Dynamic Knee Valgus in Single-Leg Movement Tasks. Potentially Modifiable Factors and Exercise Training Options. A Literature Review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Nov 6;17(21):8208.

[3] Liu CJ., and Latham NK. Progressive resistance strength training for improving physical function in older adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2009 Jul 8;2009(3):CD002759.

[4] Gaitonde DY., Ericksen A., Robbins RC. Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome. Am Fam Physician. 2019 Jan 15;99(2):88-94.

DISCLAIMER: This article is for intended for educational purposes only and not as an individualized exercise prescription, therefore no one can be held liable in the occurrence of injuries, damages or monetary losses as a result of the information.

About The Author

Athina Crilley

Athina Crilley is a Biochemistry graduate and a qualified health, nutrition, and recovery coach. She believes that health and fitness is a lifestyle and should be enjoyable. Athina currently works with online clients to achieve their goals and creates helpful and informative content online through her podcast and social media platforms. She has also written and published a book all about her struggles and recovery from an eating disorder called ‘Diaries of An Anorexic’.

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