6 Steps To Perfecting Your Pistol Squat



The single leg pistol squat is a difficult movement for many people to perform. It requires a good amount of ankle/hip mobility, a ton of body coordination and excellence balance. Often athletes work tirelessly on perfecting this movement and still struggle with it. No matter how hard they try, they just can’t seem to perform a full pistol correctly.

I want to share with you today a simple 6-step progression to perfecting this movement. The process is simple. It starts by breaking down the full pistol into small pieces. Piece-by-piece we can use this process to craft the full pistol.

Step 1

The first thing you need to learn how to do is hinge from the hips. The box touch down is a great way to learn this movement. Start by standing on a small box or weighted plate (usually 2-4 inches in height). Before you begin the squat, drive your hip backwards and bring your chest forward. This movement engages the powerhouse to your body (the posterior chain). Your bodyweight should feel completely balanced over the middle of your foot.

Once the hip hinge is complete, begin to squat until the heel of your free leg taps the ground. After you have made contact, return to the start position. Make sure your knee stays in direct alignment with your toes during the entire movement. It should not rotate or collapse inwards whatsoever.

Touchdown Step 1.PNG

During a small short distance touch down, your shin should remain fairly vertical. When performing a full pistol, the shin will eventually angle forward. Even though the distance for a touch down is small, you can still feel the glutes and quads engaging quite a bit.

Step 2-3

As the movement becomes easier to perform, increase the difficulty by making the height of the box progressively higher. As the box height grows the movement will become more difficult to complete with good technique.

Touchdown steps 2-3.PNG

Make sure the knee does not start to move forward until the bottom of the squat. The longer you can wait to keep the knee from moving toward your toes, the better.

Step 4

Eventually you will reach a touch down height of 12-14 inches. If you are able to achieve a touchdown of this depth, you are actually close to a full pistol! Doing a 12-14 inch touchdown will allow you to explore the deep depths of a single leg squat. For many of you, this stage will take the most time to master. This part takes practice. Lots of practice.

Step 4 Touch Down Progression

Step 5

Step 5 is practicing the pistol squat on a box. Your free leg is allowed to dip below the stance foot. When in the bottom of the squat, work on raising the free leg as high as possible.

Step 5 Touch Down Progression

Step 6

You finally made it. This is the last step of the pistol squat progression. You’re ready to try the pistol on the ground (with no box or plates).

In order to perform a full depth pistol, the knee must eventually drive forward. For many people, the knee will even pass the toes. This is why adequate ankle mobility is needed for this movement. While the knee does move forward, make sure to ALWAYS start your descent by moving the hips backwards.

Full PIstol

Some people will have an issue with their free leg cramping while trying to hold it elevated. If this is you, bend your knee on the beginning portion of the squat. Doing so takes the pressure off the quadriceps and limits cramping. As you descend into the squat, straighten your leg until you reach the bottom position with the desired full pistol.

Final Thoughts

Too often coaches and medical experts over complicate pistol squat progressions. Learning a movement does not need to be extremely difficult. All you have to do is break down the full movement into its most basic elements. Each step is an essential ingredient to mastering the full pistol.

Unfortunately, some people will never be able to achieve a full pistol due to bony abnormalities or joint mal-alignment. With that said you can still work on single leg squats by performing the touch downs on a high box (8-12 inches).

I hope this simple step-by-step guide helped you achieve your first pistol squat.

Until next time,

Dr. Aaron Horschig, PT, DPT, CSCS, USAW


Kevin Photo
Dr. Kevin Sonthana, PT, DPT, CSCS

The Squat Fix: Knee Stability Pt 2

KneeStabilityCover Photo

Welcome back to Squat University! This past week we discussed how the knee joint is prone to sloppiness. Many athletes find it difficult to control the knee in a steady position during squats.

The knee needs to stay in perfect alignment with the toes. Any wobble from this position decreases our ability to produce strength and power. Instability also causes harmful forces to be placed on the structures deep inside our knee. This instability not only decreases our potential for performance but also increases our susceptibility for injury.

Today I want to introduce to you my 3-step process for improving knee stability.

  • Correct Technique
  • Touch-Down Progression
  • Strengthen the Hips

Before we start, these tools come with a caveat. Improving knee stability must only be attempted after the ankle and hip joints have been cleared of mobility restrictions. Any stiffness in the ankles and/or hips will cause a breakdown in the stability of the knee. If you have not yet screened your ankles and hips for stiffness, check out our previous two lectures: Ankle Mobility Pt 1 and Hip Mobility Pt 1.

Correct Technique

Our first move in addressing unstable knees is working on correct technique. Some athletes have never been shown how to squat correctly. At times, correcting squat technique is all they need to stabilize the knees.

One of the most common cues that I like to use is “drive the knees out”. This prompt teaches the athlete to engage their hips properly and keep the knees from collapsing inwards as they squat. However, it must be followed with “keep your feet firmly planted”.


Pushing the knees out too far without maintaining the tri-pod foot can be an issue as well. Their weight will shift to the outside of their foot allowing the base of the big toe to become unglued to the floor. As long as the foot remains firmly planted on the ground in the tri-pod position the “knees out” cue is a great starting point.

Good Foot Position
Good foot positioning
Bad Foot Position
Bad foot positioning

The second cue I will use to help stabilize the knee is “drive the hips back”. One of the absolutes of squatting is proper engagement of our posterior chain (primarily our glute max) prior to starting the descent. This occurs by driving the hips backwards in a motion called the hip-hinge. You need more hip-hinge with the low-bar squat when comparing to the overhead squat or the front squat.

2014-07-30 22.22.47

Whether you’re performing a low-bar back squat or overhead squat, you must engage the posterior chain prior to starting the squat. Loading our hips (the powerhouse of our body) will take pressure off the knees. Not engaging the posterior chain will increase the likelihood of the knees wobbling around.

Touch Down Progression

If the athlete is unable to correct knee instability with cueing, it’s time to take a different approach. This means moving onto one leg and perfecting the pistol squat. You would be surprised by how many powerful athletes who are capable of squatting a tremendous amount of weight are unable to perform a simple single leg squat.

In the strength game we often forget about training on single leg because we spend so much time working on improving our numbers on the main core lifts: the squat, deadlift, clean and snatch. In doing so it is easy to unknowingly develop weakness in some areas of our body. Challenging yourself with single leg squats can illuminate any deficits you have. Not only that, performing single leg activities will work on balance. Every athlete needs to work on balance.

By starting small and progressing appropriately, we can see a dramatic change in the ability to control the knee. In order to do this we will use a small box or a weight plate. Starting with a lower surface, we can then work our way up to a full pistol squat.

Start by using a 4-inch box. If you’re at the gym, you can stack 2 weighted plates on top of each other. Assume a single leg stance on top of the box or plates. From this position, drive your hips backwards and bring your chest forward. This movement allows you to engage your posterior chain. If you do this correctly you should feel slight tension in your glute and hamstring muscles. Bringing your chest forward while driving the hips back will bring you into a balanced position with your bodyweight over the middle of your foot.

By keeping the knee in line with your foot, squat down until your opposite heel gently taps the floor before returning back to the starting position. If you are doing this exercise correctly you will feel your butt muscles working hard after a few reps. You should not feel any pain or stiffness in your knees.

When you’re performing this exercise, try to keep your shin as vertical as possible. Allowing the knees to slide forward too soon will increase the pressure on the joint and the susceptibility of cave in. Eventually the knee will have to move forward as the depth of the single leg squat increases. However, there should be little forward movement of the knee during this initial small box.

As the 4-inch box becomes easier and easier, increase the difficulty by moving to a higher box or adding more weights. A higher box will demand more control from the knee. Eventually the end goal will be to perform a full pistol squat with good technique.

Do you have trouble with the pistol squat?! Here's a simple 6 step progression to master the pistol! Step 1: touch down off a small box or weight. Make sure to always lead the descent with the hips moving back. Step 2-3: increase the height once technique can be performed perfectly without any balance issues. Step 4: pistol squat with forward foot below box height. This decreases the difficulty of the movement by taking away the requirements of keeping the forward leg in a raised position. Step 5: perform the box pistol. While in the bottom position, raise and lower your forward leg above the box height a few times. Step 6: perform a full pistol from the floor. Stay at each step until you can perform that movement with good quality. It's important to make sure your ankle mobility is also sufficient. Full pistols require adequate ankle mobility. Stiffness at this joint will limit how far you can move through this progression. _________________________________ Squat University is the ultimate guide to realizing the strength to which the body is capable of. The information within these pages are provided to empower you to become a master of your physical body. Through these teachings you will find what is required in order to rid yourself of pain, decrease risk for injury, and improve your strength and athletic performance. _________________________________ #Squat #SquatUniversity #Powerlifting #weightlifting #crossfit #training #wod #workout #gym #biomechanics #exercisescience #fit #fitfam #fitness #fitspo #oly #olympicweightlifting

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Strengthen the Hips

The lateral hip muscles (primarily the gluteus medius) play an important role in stabilizing our knee. When we squat, land from a jump or run, these muscles ensure the knees stays in line with the foot and don’t cave in. Strengthening these muscles can improve the ability to stabilize the knee.

My favorite exercise to strengthen the hips is called the lateral band walk. This exercise is performed exactly how it sounds. To start, place an elastic band around your ankles. I’m a fan of the exercise bands from Perform Better. If you can’t find one, a longer stretch band can be used (tension will just be applied by through the hold).

The starting position is the same 3-step process we go through every time we squat. Place the feet in a comfortable position with the toes relatively straightforward. Next, ensure the feet are in a stable tri-pod position. Drive the knees out to the side to bring them into alignment with the feet. Lastly, engage the posterior chain by driving the hips slightly backwards and bringing the chest forward to remain in balance.


From this position, start walking sideways with small steps. Make sure constant tension is applied the entire time from the band. After walking 15-20 ft, stop and come back the other way. Eventually you should start to feel fatigue in your lateral hip muscles.

Another exercise to address hip weakness is the banded kick out to the side. Check out the lecture “Hip Mobility Pt 3” for the full description of this exercise.

The inability to properly activate the glutes (our butt muscles) during the squat is a common finding in athletes. For this reason I recommend athletes perform a quick exercise to prime these muscles during the warm-up. The movement I want to show you today is called Unilateral Abduction or ‘banded lateral kicks.’ To start place an elastic or rubber band around your ankles. Next assume an athletic single leg stance. Once in this position, push the hips backwards and allow the chest to move forward. This small movement allows us to engage our posterior chain and remain balanced. The cue I like to use for every squat (even small ones like this) to solidify this idea is: “squat with the hips – not with the knees.” Once we are in position, kick the non-stance leg out to the side and back in a slow and controlled manner. The distance the leg moves out to the side is not our main concern. Focus on keeping the stance leg in a stable and unwavering position during the entire exercise. This exercise not only primes the glutes for the squatting we will perform after, but will help address core and knee stability problems. Recommended sets/reps: 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps. _________________________________ Squat University is the ultimate guide to realizing the strength to which the body is capable of. The information within these pages are provided to empower you to become a master of your physical body. Through these teachings you will find what is required in order to rid yourself of pain, decrease risk for injury, and improve your strength and athletic performance. To read more check out SquatUniversity.com (link in profile). ________________________________ #Squat #SquatUniversity #Weightlifting #powerlifting #crossfit #wod #workout #fit #fitfam #fitspo #fitness #functionalmovement #Training #instafit #instagood #motivation #olympicweightlifting #oly #gym #trainsmart

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Improvements in knee stability are not always easily attained. Instability is something that has been learned and programmed into the body for some time. The longer you have moved poorly, the longer it will take to learn how to move correctly.

Until next time,

Dr. Aaron Horschig, PT, DPT, CSCS, USAW


Dr. Kevin Sonthana, PT, DPT, CSCS



The Squat Fix: Knee Stability Pt 1

Knee Valgus

Welcome back to Squat University. The past few weeks, we have discussed how having good mobility at the hip and ankle allows us to reach full depth squats. Today I want to talk to you about the knee and its role in the squat.

The knee is basically a hinge that is stuck between the ankle and hip joints. In order to reach full depth, we require the knee to fully hinge open and close. This motion is described as flexion and extension. It can be measured by drawing a line on the outside of the thigh and the lower leg. The smaller or more closed the angle is, the more flexion the knee has.

Knee Flexion Angle .png

Most athletes do not have an issue in achieving full knee flexion. The main problem we see is the inability to control the knee during dynamic movements like the squat. When I say unstable, what I mean is that often athletes have a difficult time keeping their knee in a steady and unwavering position. Athletes who develop pain in their knees or sustain traumatic injuries (such as the torn ACL) tend to have unstable knees. When we view the squat from the front we see the knee tends to wobble around like crazy and at times rotate inward, collapsing towards the mid-line of the body.


The ideal position of our knees is to be in direct alignment with the feet. An effective cue is “drive the knees wide”. With this cue, an athlete can establish the knee-over-toes alignment during the squat. The knee is considered to be unstable anytime its position deviates from this ideal alignment. The inward cave in of the knee (labeled a valgus collapse) is the most common fault we see. If the foot is placed in the stable tri-pod position during the entire lift, there is no way for the knee to collapse in or out.

The knee joint would therefore benefit from increased stability to limit this inward collapse. Improving the control of our knees allows us to avoid injury meanwhile, increase the efficiency of our movement. By increasing efficiency of our movements, we can produce more power and increase strength. Who wouldn’t want more power, more strength and avoid injuries?!

Let’s talk about screening the knee. Before we enter this discussion, there is one point I would like to make. If an athlete presents with stiff ankles and/or hips, this issue will likely result in an unstable knee. For this reason, always address the hip and ankle prior to screening the knee. If you skip the hip and ankle, any knee stability we try to establish will be short lived.

After clearing the ankle and hips, we can now focus on the stability of the knee. We need to view our squat in both double and single leg stance. The double leg squat can sometimes mask any stability issues. Therefore, I would like to look at pistol squats on one leg. Often times, an athlete may be proficient in a double leg squat but then demonstrate valgus collapse with the pistol squat.

To start our assessment, stand with your feet at a comfortable width with your toes in a relatively straightforward position. Perform a deep squat. Next assume a single leg stance and perform a deep pistol squat. What do you notice? Does your knee wobble around and fall inward or can you keep it in line with your feet?

It can be helpful to also test the loaded squat. The weighted barbell allows us to test the competency of our movement. The more weight on the bar, the higher the demand on the body. Very often I see athletes who can perform the perfect bodyweight squat but when they perform a weighted back squat, their form turns to crap. It is never okay or justifiable to lose good technique to achieve a new 1 rep-max personal record.

The weight on the bar means nothing if our technique goes to crap! If the knees collapse during a maximum squat attempt, the risk of injury greatly increases. Period.

In the past year there has been a number of world records set in the sport of Weightlifting. Tremendous weight moved in the blink of an eye. All of them were performed with good technique. These weightlifters spend day after day perfecting their movement with the barbell. No matter if you’re performing a world record snatch or a simple bodyweight squat, good technique is a necessity. If you want to stay healthy and reach your true strength potential, focusing on stabilizing the knees is vital.

I hope this lecture is helpful in highlighting how a stable knee is relevant to the perfect squat. Thank you for reading.

Until next time,


Dr. Aaron Horschig PT, DPT, CSCS, USAW



Dr. Kevin Sonthana PT, DPT, CSCS