If there’s one exercise you should include in your routine, it’s squats. Squats have the benefit of working multiple muscle groups at the same time. This makes squats a highly time-efficient exercise. You’re also working multiple large muscle groups, including your quads, hamstrings, glutes, when you squat. Last but not least, squats help you develop more muscle definition and strength in the quads and, to a lesser degree, the glutes and hamstrings. All in all, squats are a more quad-focused exercise, although you can do squat variations that shift the focus to the hamstrings and glutes. The venerable squat is also a functional exercise, one that enhances your ability to do the tasks you do every day. No wonder people call squats the king of exercises! They’ve earned that reputation.
Think about how many times you squat in your daily life? It’s a movement you want to perfect and be able to do with good form and without injury. Once you’ve mastered a basic front and back squat, you can expand your horizons to embrace squat variations. But there’s probably one squat variation that you’re doing not doing because it’s tough. It’s a single-leg squat. Here’s how to do one:
- Start with no weight. Only add dumbbells after becoming proficient with the basic movement.
- Stand on one leg, start with your right leg, with your arms by your side and your palms facing each other.
- Slowly bend your right knee while keeping your hips back, as you lower your body into a squat. Extend your arms in front as you descend to maintain balance.
- Keep lowering your body until the thigh of your right leg is parallel to the floor.
- Switch legs and repeat.
It sounds straightforward, but it’s not easy to do in practice. Most people have a problem doing a full range-of-motion single leg squat in the beginning. It takes practice. It’s easy to get sloppy with form as well. You might find that as you descend, your knee falls inward. If that’s the case, work on strengthening your glute and core muscles before attempting single-leg squats. A strong core and glutes will help stabilize your knee when you squat. The more stable your knees are, the easier and safer the exercise is. You also need good ankle mobility to do this exercise correctly. If your ankles lack mobility, it will be hard to stabilize your torso when you do a single-leg squat.
An even harder version of a single-leg squat is a pistol squat. With a pistol squat, you have to worry about what your other leg is doing too. Good ankle mobility is especially important for this version of a single-leg squat. Stiff ankles will make the exercise much harder. Before trying pistol squats, work on your ankle mobility – and make sure you’ve mastered a standard, single-leg squat first.
The best way to tackle a pistol squat, in the beginning, is with support.
- Place your hands on a bar at a height of a few inches below your chest. You’ll use the bar for support.
- Extend one leg out in front of you. In this position with your hands on the bar, squat until your thigh is parallel to the floor. Your leg should stay extended the entire time.
- Rise back up as you bring your leg back in.
At first, aim for squatting only until your thigh is parallel to the floor. But as you get stronger, try to go lower into the squat. Eventually, you’ll reach the point that you can squat until your buttocks almost touch the floor. If you don’t have access to a bar for support, hold on to a pole for support, and let your hand slide down the pole as you squat. Once you’ve mastered a supported pistol squat, tackle a pistol squat without support. It’s a tough exercise that gets easier over time.
One-leg squats, especially pistol squats, isn’t an exercise for beginners. You must develop a certain level of strength in your lower body and core as well as have enough ankle, knee, and hip mobility to do the movement safely. So, add one-leg squats later in your training after you’ve mastered the front and back squat and developed greater core strength and lower body mobility.
Why Do Single-Leg and Pistol Squats?
Single-leg squats teach you to stabilize your body when standing on one leg. When you do a squat on one leg, you support your entire body weight on a single foot. As mentioned, it takes a certain amount of leg strength, balance as well as hip and ankle mobility to pull it off. Being able to stabilize on one leg is important. If you do any kind of athletics, including running, you already spend a lot of time on one leg. Doing one-legged squats teaches you to stay upright and stable when bearing weight on only one foot. Mastering the ability to stabilize on one leg will help you lower your risk of injury when you do any type of activity from hiking on a trail to running or doing plyometrics. Unfortunately, we don’t emphasize one-legged exercises enough or balance training.
Another benefit of doing single-leg squats is they help you identify imbalances between the two sides of your body. When you do a squat on one leg, you’ll quickly see if one leg is weaker than the other. When you do standard squats, the stronger leg can compensate for the weaker one and you may not realize you have an imbalance. Once you know you have a weaker side, you can fine-tune your training to correct the imbalance. It can also help identify abnormal movement patterns when squatting.
Finally, squatting with one leg forces your core muscles to work harder to stabilize your body relative to a standard squat. So, one-leg squats work your core muscles harder. Doing them regularly will help strengthen your entire core and improve your posture.
The Bottom Line
Now, you know why you should add one-leg squats to your routine and work toward, over time, performing an unsupported pistol squat. It’s a new challenge but one that carries many rewards, including better balance and sports performance. Give them a try!
- com. “How to Master the Single-Leg Squat”
- com. “Squat”
- Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2016 Apr; 11(2): 201–211.