A better single leg exercise than pistols

Posted on July 12, 2012

(Last Updated On: November 3, 2019)

A common proclamation for doing single leg exercises is, “We walk, run, etc. with one leg on the ground, we should perform exercises in this fashion to be “functional.””

Let’s look at the poor logic of this statement for one moment:

1)   Uhh, we don’t walk, run, etc. with bars / dumbbells in our hands either. I guess we should never use them in the gym, right?

2)   Here are some of the commonly suggested single leg exercises to be “functional”:

Walking lunges

Rearfoot elevated split squat


Reverse lunges from a deficit

Side to side lunges

Nearly the entire duration of all these exercises entails both feet, in some way shape or form, being in contact with the ground.

So much for being “functional.”

Anyways, there IS merit in performing exercises where only one leg/foot is in contact with the ground. This is especially true for those who have a significant imbalance between legs. For instance, someone coming out of knee surgery (hey, that’s me) could definitely benefit from such exercises.

The reason exercises where both feet on the ground can become inadequate is because the person will –often unconsciously- favor the stronger leg.

Take a rearfoot elevated split squat:

Some internet gods out there claim this is the greatest exercise ever. One of the reasons being it isolates one leg and is a true indicator of how strong each leg is.

Well, that’d be great, if it were true.

These same people completely ignore the fact the back leg can do an awful lot of work. Again, especially in those who are having trouble achieving symmetrical strength between legs.

Thus, we have our reason for trying to get one leg completely out of the way i.e. in a position where it cannot help the struggling leg. The reason being if it can help…it will.

This is a bit easier when trying to train the backside of the legs. (Hamstring and glutes.) Exercises like single leg bridges, hamstring curls, and RDLs get the job done quite well. (They remove the opposite leg from helping.) However, this can be a lot harder when trying to train the quad.

1)   No, leg extensions are not good for this. This is because leg extensions suck. ESPECIALLY for those with a knee pain / surgery history i.e. those who are going to be most interested in achieving balance.

2)   This is where some people will advocate things like Pistol Squats.

Pistol squat

This is a lot better, and the type of thinking we’re going for. The opposite leg is completely off the ground and out of the way; it just can’t really help. There is one problem I’ve run into consistently with this though: People often have a hell of a hard time controlling the hip when trying to strengthen a lagging leg.

Here’s how this becomes apparent. Watch the hips rotate as the person performs a pistol squat:

Notice how far the left hip is outside the left foot. Ideally, they’d be more straight like so:

Now of course you can simply cue the person, or yourself to not the let the hips twist. I’ve found this to be hard for people, as well as myself though. It’s just really hard to know exactly when your hips are twisting. This, coupled by the fact you are working a leg that is notoriously weak for you, makes it hard to concentrate on the hip.

Again, it’s not bad, but I think there is a better way. Try putting yourself up against a wall:

You can also do this where you incrementally lower yourself as much as you can (without pain!) and then hold yourself in that position. You’ll probably notice you’re able to go lower on one leg than the other.

(Make sure when you straighten the opposite knee (to bring the foot off the ground) you don’t lift the knee. Both knees should be at the same height, or basically touching one another.)

The wall helps the person immensely with noticing compensations and weaknesses. If their hips are rotating at all the person immediately knows because they will feel one side of their hips come out of contact with the wall.

You’ll likely notice a hell of a lot more quad work (probably burning) in this exercise than in the pistol too.

Furthermore, many will notice a difference in what they feel in their abs on one leg compared to the other. In other words, often times on the weak leg the person will feel like they are going to fall over, whereas on the strong leg the person will feel nice and stable. This illustrates an imbalance in the strength of the obliques between sides.

If the person is having a really hard time with not tilting over then I’ll let them put their hands on the wall to help the stomach out. (See the videos.) This way the stomach doesn’t limit their quads from getting some work too.

You won’t get this same sensation in the pistol because people are just too likely to lean/tilt/rotate in order to accomplish the knee bending.  They are essentially doing everything they can, using every compensation they can, to accommodate the weak leg. The wall prevents any compensation and throws all of the work on the muscles that truly need it.

Once this is mastered you have yourself a nice progression to a pistol without wall support.

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.