Exercise Spotlight: Single-Leg Squat

By Alli McKee

Single-Leg Squats are one of my absolute favorite unilateral squat variations. However, a full Single-Leg Squat (also called a Pistol Squat) isn't an appropriate exercise for everyone, nor is it the right place to start for a beginner. Below I will show you two other Single-Leg Squat variations that are appropriate for beginner and intermediate lifters.

Primary muscle groups involved:
Quads, hamstrings, glutes and core.

Why I like it:
It offers training balance between limbs, and it requires both mobility and stability of the hip, knee, and ankle. The more mobility you develop, the more stability and strength you must have to control that larger range of motion.  Also, it’s a very challenging exercise to perform without adding much external load to the body.

Who this is good for:
All levels assuming you choose the correct exercise and keep the range of motion and the load appropriate to your level.  As you get stronger and more proficient at each exercise, you can increase the range of motion and/or add load.

Equipment needed:
Minimal equipment, actually!  A seat (chair, bench or box) will do. Other equipment could include load for a progression (dumbbell, kettlebell, medball, chains, weight vest, etc.).

How to perform Single-Leg Squats

(Three variations for progression)

1. Single Leg Squat To Box

Single leg squats can be started quite simply (but don't mistake simple for easy). In fact, anyone can start with a "sit to stand" effort.

(L) Midpoint position, front view (R) Start position, side view

(L) Midpoint position, front view     (R) Start position, side view

Find a bench, a box or any stable seat. Begin by situating yourself in a seated position. Elevate one leg and set your footing in order to stand up using one leg. You can extend your arms out straight for leverage, lean forward to position your body weight into your working leg/foot and stand up tall. Simply reverse the pattern to sit back down. Sit your hips back and control the lowering versus crashing down onto the seat.

The lower the seat, the harder the exercise so if you find a bench is too difficult at first, try a higher seat and progress from there.

2. “Heel Taps”

Stand on the edge of a bench or stable box. Sit your hips back and allow the non-working leg to lower towards the floor. Aim to tap your heel and stand back up tall. Again, your arms can be extended for leverage. Also notice that the non-working leg kips forward a bit on the ascent for added leverage.Heel taps

Note: You can always work up to the height of a bench if that feels too high at first. Start with a lower box so your distance traveled on the decent is less and work / range of motion is less.

3. Pistol Squat

A full range of motion variation. Standing on one leg, lower all the way down. Stay rooted on your grounded foot. Keep your core engaged and chest up. Keep your non-working leg extended straight out and arms extended.

Note: You’ll engage a lot more hamstring and glutes with the bigger range of motion in a pistol squat. If you want to see more details about achieving a full Pistol Squat, check out our article here.

Jen Comas demonstrating pistol squat rock-bottom position

Where this would fit into a program?

Generally, it will fit best in the middle to end of your training day. Place your bigger movements or heavier, lower body exercises first. As a single limb exercise, it’s not to be treated as a lift with maximal loads. Don't get me wrong, you can certainly challenge yourself with resistance on this lift, but no need for a competition of the strongest on single limb exercises.  This movement can be paired with upper bodywork, accessory work, or by itself (perform one side, the other and rest).

Bonus Progression:

You can add load to any of these variations using various tools (dumbbells, kettlebells, med balls, chains, weight vest, etc.).

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About the author:  Alli McKee

Alli is a certified strength and conditioning specialist. She's contributed to and modeled for a number of major publications including Oxygen magazine and the New Rules of Lifting: Supercharged. You can find out more about Alli on her personal blog at www.allimckee.com.

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