The pistol squat is known to be one of the hardest bodyweight exercises to master. In fact, many lifters struggle with the physical requirements of it — which is where the isometric pistol squat comes in.
So, what is the isometric pistol squat? The isometric pistol squat is a regression exercise where the lifter squats down, and shifts their weight to one foot. Difficulty is added by raising the opposite foot off the floor, and extending the leg forward. It builds the strength, coordination, and balance required for the full pistol squat.
In the article below, I’ll detail the purpose, benefits and execution of the isometric pistol squat.
I’d recommend that you pay close attention to the exercise instructions. In there, you’ll see that there are three layers of difficulty that can be adapted to lifter’s of different skill levels.
Want to get your first pistol squat, but not sure where to start? Check out my article Pistol Squat Progression: From Basic to Advanced (Full Guide)
Key Differences: Isometric Pistol Squat vs Regular Pistol Squat
The key difference in the isometric pistol squat is the contraction type and extended holds in the bottom position.
Compared to the full pistol squat, the lifter squats down and stands up (at the end of the set) using both feet instead of only one. Because of this, the majority of the exercise is done by an isometric (static) contraction of the working leg.
Further, the lifter might spend up to 1-2 minutes in the bottom position. The exact length of time depends on the hold durations that the lifter counts as a “rep”.
With these differences in mind, the isometric pistol squat is a single-leg variation that requires:
• Higher ankle and hip mobility
• Higher amounts of quad, glute, and calf strength
• Developed coordination and body awareness
Who Is The Isometric Pistol Squat For?
The isometric pistol squat is most useful to you if: (1) you lack strength in the bottom position, or (2) you struggle with coordination or balance at the lowest point of the movement.
If you can’t do a full pistol squat, the isometric pistol squat will help you build the necessary leg strength to maintain an effective bottom position.
It will also give you specific practice for learning how to balance and coordinate in the hardest portion of the lift (usually, the bottom).
Isometric Pistol Squat: Muscles Worked
The muscles used in the isometric pistol squat are the:
• Quadriceps (thigh muscles)
• Gluteals (butt muscles)
• Calves (lower leg muscles)
The isometric pistol squat targets the same muscles as the regular pistol squat. However, the workload on them differs slightly in terms of contraction type.
Check out how the pistol squat compares to the shrimp squat in my article Pistol Squat vs Shrimp Squat: Differences, Pros, Cons
One of the main movers in the isometric pistol squat is the quadriceps muscle group.
Remember that the quads extend the knee joint. Since there’s knee extension occurring in this exercise, the quads are certainly active.
That said, they play more of a stabilizing role since they maintain an isometric contraction in the bottom position.
The other primary mover in the isometric pistol squat is the gluteal muscle group.
Composed of the gluteus maximus, medius and minimus, this unit of muscles helps to extend the hip joint.
Like the knee joint, the hip goes through significant flexion during the isometric pistol squat. To oppose this action, the gluteals extend the hip and the lifter can stand up completely.
In a similar vein, there’s more of a static-contraction focus during this exercise.
Lower Leg Muscles
Just like in the regular pistol squat, the calves (the soleus and gastrocnemius) are active during the isometric pistol squat.
However, this lower leg muscle group — like the others mentioned previously — maintains an isometric contraction during this movement.
Their action involves plantar flexion (the act of pointing your toes) and bending your knee. Because of this second action, they’re quite active in the isometric pistol squat.
If pistol squats have been hurting your knees, then make sure to check out my article on Are Pistol Squats Bad For Your Knees where I explain what to do and how to avoid it in the first place.
4 Benefits Of The Isometric Pistol Squat
The benefits of the isometric pistol squat are:
• It can build strength in the lower body
• It can develop coordination and balance
• It can be used during a deload
• It can be used to train around an injury
It Can Build Strength In The Lower Body
Strength is force production with heavy weights at slow speeds. And to achieve a full pistol squat, significant lower body leg strength is required.
However, strength is also a skill. One that is specific to the range of motion being trained.
The isometric pistol squat allows you to develop your pistol squat leg strength. Even better, it does so using an exercise that closely mimics the full pistol squat. This means that your strength improvements in the isometric version are much more likely to transfer
On the contrary, a single-leg leg press allows you to build your single leg strength. That said, it’s almost certainly too different from the pistol squat to have any measurable transfer.
It Can Develop Coordination And Balance
The isometric pistol squat excels in its ability to improve your coordination and balance. The act of maintaining two things while squatting down and standing up on one leg is seriously underrated.
Similar to strength, the neural adaptations of coordination and balance are specific to the exercise being done. For this reason, the isometric pistol squat is one of the best choices to improve your performance in the full pistol squat.
This is especially true if you find that your leg strength is solid, but your neural qualities are lagging behind.
It Can Be Used During A Deload
Recall that deloads are phases of lighter training. Reductions in volume (total reps) or intensity (percentage of your 1RM) help to reduce the amount of training-related fatigue you’re carrying.
Basically, deloads are usually programmed as a way to avoid injuries before they actually happen.
As it relates to lower body training, the isometric pistol squat can be an excellent choice during a deload. Instead of doing more demanding single-leg exercises, an isometric hold will naturally reduce the workload of this exercise.
With the decrease in workload, you’ll have an easier time offloading fatigue. This will allow you to achieve a “reset” of sorts for 1-2 weeks, and return to harder training shortly after — while being free of injury.
It Can Be Used To Train Around An Injury
A central part of rehabbing an injury is avoiding serious atrophy (muscle loss) and detraining. Usually, finding a pain-free range of motion to continue using is the most optimal strategy.
If the descent or ascent of the standard pistol squat causes you pain, the isometric pistol squat might be a suitable alternative. It allows you to maintain your leg strength and coordination needed for the pistol squat.
Need an alternative to the pistol squat? My article 8 Best Pistol Squat Alternatives (With Pictures) has you covered!
How To Do The Isometric Pistol Squat
Let’s leave the technical stuff behind and dive into the practical steps!
As I explained earlier, you should already be comfortable doing regressions of this exercise. For example, you should be experienced with the elevated pistol squat and wushu pistol squat.
When doing the isometric pistol squat for the first time, I’d suggest starting with the easiest variation first. If you can do 5 reps per side without any trouble, you’re ready for the next progression.
Remember that there’s a lot of strength, coordination and balance involved in this exercise. Take your time with it to ensure you master it before moving on.
Step 1: Take a narrow squat stance
Generally, I’d recommend about 6 inches of space between your heels and angling your toes outwards by about 15 degrees. That said, the exact amounts are up to your preferences.
Step 2: Squat down as low as you can
The next step is to squat down as low as you can.
Your exact depth will depend on your ankle and hip mobility. Even if you can’t squat rock-bottom yet, try your best to get as deep in the pistol squat as you can.
Step 3 (a): Shift your weight and hold
Without lifting your opposite foot off the floor, shift your weight towards your non-dominant foot.
Both feet should remain on the floor at all times, but the majority of your weight should be to one side. Hold this position for 5-10 seconds, then return to having your weight centered between both feet.
This entire sequence counts as one rep. Repeat the same process for as many reps as you’d like, then repeat on your dominant foot. Hold for the same duration on this side.
The next progression of the isometric pistol squat begins here.
If you need a short break, stand up and walk around for 30-60 seconds. When you’re ready to continue, proceed through step 1 and 2.
Step 3 (b): Shift your weight and lift
Shift your weight towards your non-dominant foot. When you feel like you’re as stable as you can be, raise your dominant foot off the floor.
1-2 inches of clearance between the floor and the sole of your foot will do. Continue holding this position for 5-10 seconds, then return your foot to the floor.
The act of lifting your foot and holding counts as one rep. Repeat this for as many reps as you’d like, then centre your bodyweight and repeat the same process on your dominant foot. Hold for the same duration on this side.
The final progression of the isometric pistol squat begins here.
If you need a short break, stand up and walk around for 30-60 seconds. When you’re ready to continue, proceed through step 1 and 2.
Step 3 (c): Shift your weight and extend
Shift your weight to your non-dominant foot. When you feel like you’re as stable as possible, lift your dominant foot up off the floor.
While holding your balance, slowly extend your dominant leg forward. Keep your dominant leg and foot off the floor throughout.
Once your leg is straight out in front of you (a slight knee bend is fine), hold this position for 5-10 seconds. Under control, bring your leg back in towards you and put your foot back on the floor to restore your balance.
Lifting your foot, extending your leg and holding still, counts as a full rep. Repeat this sequence for as many reps as you’d like. After, centre your bodyweight and repeat the same process on your dominant foot. Hold for the same duration on this side.
Step 4: Stand up
Once you’ve completed the required number of reps on both sides, stand back up.
Is your lack of balance getting the best of you? Check out my article Can’t Balance Doing Pistol Squats? (Try These 6 Tips) to fix it.
Frequently Asked Questions
Listed below are the most frequently asked questions that I get about the isometric pistol squat:
What is the isometric pistol squat good for?
The isometric pistol squat is good for strengthening your ankle, hip and leg muscles. Additionally, it gives you highly specific practice in learning how to balance for the full pistol squat.
What muscles does the isometric pistol squat target?
The isometric pistol squat works your leg muscles. Specifically, it targets your quads, glutes, and calves.
What are the differences between the isometric pistol squat and the standard pistol squat?
They both hit the same muscle groups, but in different ways. The isometric pistol squat works them by using a static contraction. This allows the lifter to master the exercise’s balance demands with less strength requirement.
My knees are sore when I do isometric pistol squats, what gives?
First, don’t panic — chances are that the extra time in deep knee flexion is a new thing for you. Your knees are simply adapting to the work that you’re asking them to do. Keep the static holds between 5-10 seconds and keep the total reps reasonable. Your knees will get stronger and adapt over a couple weeks.
Can I make isometric pistol squats easier if I struggle with ankle and/or hip mobility?
Absolutely. You can widen the space between your ankles to decrease the ankle mobility demands. You can also hold onto TRX straps while you perform the isometric pistol squat, which will help your balance. You can put your heels on weight plates, too — this will reduce the amount of ankle mobility you need to do the exercise.
If you found this article interesting, you might also enjoy my article on Cossack Squat: What Is It? How To Do It? Benefits
The isometric pistol squat is a bodyweight pistol squat variation. It targets the leg muscles of the quads, glutes and calves.
The majority of the workload during the isometric pistol squat is holding a static contraction. However, there is also a strong eccentric and concentric contraction at the start and end of the isometric holds. High amounts of ankle and hip mobility are required to execute it properly.
Overall, the isometric pistol squat is a less advanced version of the full pistol squat. Due to its specificity, it’s an excellent choice for those who want to master the pistol squat.
About The Author
Kent Nilson is an online strength coach, residing in Calgary (AB). When he’s not training, coaching, or volunteering on the platform at powerlifting meets, you’ll likely find Kent drinking coffee or enjoying his next Eggs Benedict. Connect with him on Facebook or Instagram.