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Master the Kettlebell Pistol Squat with 5 Progressions for Beginners

By Greg Brookes
Kettlebell Pistol Squat

The Kettlebell pistol squat or single-leg squat has to be the ultimate leg exercise.

You will need good balance, stabilisation, strength and joint mobility to complete the regular pistol squat but the results are very rewarding.

Kettlebell pistol squats build strong muscular legs that are equally balanced and better equipped for sports.

Practicing this single leg squat will also achieve quicker results in less time compared to other leg-based exercises that require heavy loads and multiple repetitions.

Let’s take a look at the kettlebell pistol squat and how best to use them:

Pistol Squat Benefits

A pistol squat is a great way to improve overall strength, and stability and solve muscle imbalances. This advanced exercise requires significant skill but can bring a multitude of benefits if performed correctly.

These include improved ankle mobility, increased hip mobility, improved core control, better posture and stronger glutes.

Furthermore, it increases your ability to perform explosive movements like jumping or sprinting while reducing the risk of injury. And lastly, it enhances coordination and proprioception which improves both sports performance and everyday activities such as walking up stairs.

Kettlebell Pistol Squat Muscles Used

The kettlebell pistol squat is one of the great full-body unilateral exercises that work most of the muscle groups in the body but in particular the legs, hips and core muscles.

Due to the full body demands of the piston squat, you will also find this exercise very cardiovascular so don’t be surprised if you feel your heart beating quickly after a few sets.

Here’s a slightly more in-depth look at the muscles used with the pistol squat:

  • Quadriceps
  • Gluteus Max, Medius, Minimus
  • Gastrocnemius
  • Rectus Abdominis and Obliques
  • Lower Back
  • Hamstrings
  • Deltoids and Shoulder Stabilisers

The pistol squat is a demanding exercise that can replace many of your two-legged squat exercises but it is challenging to get right.

Here’s a bit more detail on how to pistol squat correctly.

Kettlebell Pistol Squat Form

Kettlebell Pistol Squat Exercise

The unassisted pistol squat is performed on one leg with the non-working leg held out in front of you.

The objective is to squat down slowly all the way to the bottom using your full range of motion, pause and then drive back up to the starting position.

Here’s a breakdown of the correct kettlebell pistol squat form:

  • Extend one leg straight out in front and curl your toes back
  • Hold the kettlebell in both hands keeping your shoulders down
  • Keep your weight back on your heel and mid-foot
  • Sit the hips back like when performing a regular squat
  • Lower slowly until your reach rock bottom
  • Pause for 2 – 3 seconds
  • Drive from the heel back to the top position
  • Keep the body tight and under tension throughout

Watch a Video of the Kettlebell Pistol Squat below:

5 Kettlebell Pistol Squat Progressions for Beginners

Pistol squats are very difficult for the beginner and even experienced weight lifters can find them challenging.

You should feel comfortable performing the bodyweight squat or air squat and have the lower body strength and overall balance to perform the bodyweight lunge or Bulgarian split squat before attempting your first pistol squat.

Once you can complete the above necessary squats and lunges you can start to master the pistol squat by working your way through the following pistol squat progression below.

1 Bodyweight Pistol Squat to a Bench

Bodyweight Pistol Squat to a Bench

Performing the bodyweight pistol squat down onto a bench is the best place for beginners to start.

You can build up some basic single-leg strength with this progression and make it as easy or as challenging as you wish.

Choose any type of bench, box, sofa, or chair, the higher the object the easier the exercise will be.

Finding a bench that is around knee joint height is usually a good starting point.

Next, standing on your squatting leg sit slowly down on the bench. The slower you can descend the better.

Once seated on the bench you can either use both feet to stand back up or stand using your squatting leg again.

Top tip: when standing back up from the seated position try not to rock forwards and use your momentum to stand up. Instead, get tight and drive through your heel and midfoot to the standing position.

Practice: work up to 3 sets of 5 reps on each standing leg before moving on to the bodyweight TRX pistol squat variation below.

2 Bodyweight TRX Pistol Squat

Bodyweight TRX Pistol Squat

The bodyweight TRX pistol squat enables you to perform the full pistol squat, as it should be performed while using some support to guide you down and back up.

The goal of the TRX straps is to provide just enough assistance while you work through the most challenging parts of the movement.

It is important that you do not rely on the straps and only use them when you really have to, which is usually at the very bottom position of the exercise.

Move slowly all the way down to the deep squat position and pause before returning back up again.

Top tip: to prevent you from cheating I like to only use one TRX strap, or my personal favourite, a resistance band because the flex in the band prevents you from pulling too hard.

Practice: work up to 3 sets of 5 reps on each leg before moving on to the next progression of the bodyweight pistol squat on a box below.

3 Bodyweight Pistol Squat on a Box

Bodyweight Pistol Squat on a Box

The bodyweight pistol squat on a box will help you to develop your one-legged squat strength without having to worry about the other non-working leg.

Often people find they can’t keep their other leg held up off the floor when performing the pistol squat due to weak hip flexors.

Other issues with the pistol squat can be the hip flexors cramping or the hamstrings may be too tight to hold the leg out straight without touching the floor.

Practicing this pistol squat variation enables you to focus on lifting the front leg up without having to worry about the floor.

Beginners can start this single-leg exercise by squatting and hanging the non-working leg over the side of a box or bench. As your unilateral strength improves you can work at elevating the free leg up to more of a horizontal position.

Top tip: be careful what you use to stand on, as it can tip over sideways very easily. A narrow weight bench that you can stand in the middle of is a safe option.

Practice: work up to 3 sets of 5 reps on each leg before progressing on to the bodyweight pistol squat with heel lift variation next.

4 Bodyweight Pistol Squat with Heel Lift

Bodyweight Pistol Squat with Heel Lift

One of the most common mistakes with the bodyweight pistol squat is that people tend to fall backwards at the bottom of the movement.

There are a few reasons why you may fall backwards:

  1. Weak core and abs prevent you from holding yourself forward
  2. Weak glutes and hamstrings prevent you from holding these areas up
  3. Poor hip flexion due to a lack of hip rotation or excessive muscle mass
  4. Limited ankle dorsiflexion i.e. stiff ankles

One way to overcome all these issues is to elevate your heel very slightly to shift your whole balance forwards.

There are a number of ways to elevate the heel: wear training shoes with a chunky heel, stand on a downward slope, or place a mat or weight plate under your heel.

Shifting your weight forwards by raising your heel should only be a short-term fix and with time you should work towards reducing and eliminating it.

Top tip: you can also change your centre of balance by standing on a BOSU ball or stability pad and leaning slightly forwards. Also a great option for improving your hip, core and leg stability.

Practice: work up to 3 sets of 5 reps on each leg before finally progressing on to the kettlebell pistol squat.

5 Kettlebell Pistol Squat

Kettlebell Pistol Squat Exercise

Finally, you should be in the position to work on the kettlebell pistol squat.

Holding a kettlebell in both hands not only adds additional resistance to this unilateral movement but it will also help counterbalance any issues you may have with falling backwards.

I always recommend that clients perform a good solid 3 sets of 5 reps as a bodyweight exercise before attempting the kettlebell variation.

You can hold the kettlebell in the goblet squat position or for those more advanced rack a kettlebell in each hand.

Top tip: keep your shoulders down and away from your ears to avoid fatiguing them during the exercise.

Practice: work up to 3 sets of 5 reps on each leg before increasing the kettlebell load.

Kettlebell Pistol Squat Superset Workout

Now you know how to perform the kettlebell pistol squat let’s look at an effective way to use it by super-setting it with another exercise.

Here you will be using just 2 exercises the kettlebell pistol squat and the push-up but you could easily replace the push up with a pull-up instead.

Kettlebell Pistol Squat Workout

  1. Kettlebell Pistol Squat x 1 – 5 rep ladder
  2. Push Ups x as many as possible
  3. Repeat for 5 sets adding 1 rep to each pistol squat

How to perform the workout

Start by performing 1 pistol squat on each leg, then do as many push ups as possible using excellent form.

Next return to the pistol squats and perform 2 on each leg, then back to the push ups again.

Continue adding 1 pistol squat each round until you reach 5 reps on each leg.

As I mentioned earlier you can easily replace the push ups with pull ups, chin-ups, or overhead presses.

Conclusion to the Kettlebell Pistol Squat

The kettlebell pistol squat is an excellent full-body exercise for developing strong legs, buttocks and core muscles.

It is not easy for the beginner to perform the pistol squat correctly so I have listed 5 progressions that you can use to master the exercise. Generally, you will perform 3 sets of 5 reps on each leg before moving on to the next variation.

Once you have mastered the pistol squat exercise you can then super-set the exercise with an upper body exercise like the push up, pull up or overhead press.

I have given you an example of a kettlebell pistol squat workout for you to use above.

Take care and enjoy this excellent single leg squat exercise.

To see more posts about knee bend workouts, go here.

Have you tried the kettlebell pistol squat? let me know more below:

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    1. Jerry Avatar

      Thanks so much Greg! Great advice on the pistol squat progressions! These will definitely help me! You see I have had a heart valve replacement along with a few more problems. (don’t want to bore you with the rest) I try to exercise ( kettle bells, body wt. and autonomous workouts) every other day. The big problem for me is some of my meds. can cause poor balance, plus I’m not getting any younger,but I refuse to give up and become a total invalid. I live in a retirement community and see this sort of thing every day, and some of these people are much younger. At least I can feel like I gave it a go! You are very inspiring for me! Deeply appreciate all you do, helping others! Wish there were more like you! The world would be a much better place!

      1. Greg Brookes Avatar

        Thanks for the kind words jerry, keep squatting!