8 Best Pistol Squat Alternatives (With Pictures)

The Pistol Squat is a single-leg exercise that is used to develop leg strength in your quadriceps and gluteal muscles. As a unilateral exercise (it works only one leg at a time) that demands serious leg strength and coordination, it can also act as a useful exercise to build flexibility in your ankles and hips.

That said, you might not be able to do a Pistol Squat for a variety of reasons: the exercise is too difficult due to the leg strength and/or the level of technique proficiency required, you’re injured and this exercise causes you pain, or you’re just looking to spice up your leg training with some more variety.

The 8 Best Pistol Squat Alternatives are:

The Pistol Squat alternatives listed in this article include variations that are performed using your own bodyweight or with the use of additional weight (dumbbells, weight vest, etc)  In this article, I’ll detail each of these alternatives and provide you with reasons why you should choose one option over another based on your preferences and goals. 

Interested in learning more about the difference between the Pistol Squat and the Cossack Squat?  Read my article on the Cossack Squat: What Is It? How To Do It? Benefits

What Makes a Good Pistol Squat Alternative

An effective substitute for the Pistol Squat needs to (1) work similar muscle groups to the Pistol Squat and (2) incorporate some kind of single-leg aspect.

Muscles Used In The Pistol Squat

The muscles used in the Pistol Squat are: 

• Quadriceps
• Gluteus (maximus and medius)
• Hamstrings
• Abdominals and Obliques (side abs)
• Calves

Due to the amount of knee and hip flexion in the Pistol Squat, the quadriceps and gluteus maximus are the major contributors in this exercise. Without these prime movers, you would have a hard time standing up after getting to the bottom of a Pistol Squat.

In fact, the Pistol Squat is likely to generate the highest improvements in strength for your Glute Medius [1] – making it an excellent choice to develop strong hip extensors.

The other muscle groups listed help to extend your hip during the Pistol Squat, and act as stabilizers to ensure your torso and hips avoid twisting throughout the movement.

Takeaway: An effective Pistol Squat alternative needs to primarily target the quadriceps and gluteal muscles.

Check out our article on the Muscles Used In The Squat.

Pistol Squat: Single-Leg Variation

As a unilateral exercise, the Pistol Squat works your right and left leg separately.

Unilateral exercise is useful as you can build muscle and strength simultaneously, while not allowing your stronger side to compensate. Unilateral exercises like the Pistol Squat can help you become more resistant to injury, improve your balance, and increase your overall technical proficiency.

Takeaway: Most effective Pistol Squat alternatives should be a single leg exercise in order to incorporate a comparable amount of balance, motor control, and stability.

Check out other unilateral exercises: Cossack Squat vs Lateral Lunge.

8 Pistol Squat Alternatives

The following list will detail the best Pistol Squat alternatives.  

1. TRX-Assisted Pistol Squat

The TRX-assisted Pistol Squat is a close variation to the body weight Pistol Squat that uses a TRX strap.

If you find it difficult to maintain your balance during a Pistol Squat, then the TRX-assisted Pistol Squat would be an excellent substitute since you can use your arms to help stabilize yourself throughout the exercise.

Further, the TRX-assisted Pistol Squat uses nearly the exact same movement pattern as the regular Pistol Squat, so you’ll end up working the same muscles that you’re trying to target.

However, you might not see a significant reduction in pain with this alternative if the unassisted Pistol Squat causes you pain. Also, some lifters might not have access to a TRX strap either.

How To Do It

  • Grab the TRX handles with your arms bent and close to your shoulders
  • Extend your dominant leg in front of you, so that it’s off the ground
  • Keep tension on the TRX handles, while bending at the knee with your non-dominant leg
  • As you descend, keep your dominant leg off the floor – your arms will straighten slightly
  • Push your foot into the floor, while pulling yourself up with the handles
  • Complete equal reps on both legs

If you don’t have access to a TRX strap, then check out my Top 5 TRX Alternatives.

Pro Tip

I would suggest using the TRX-assisted Pistol Squat as a stepping-stone to progressing athletes to the full Pistol Squat. After gaining leg strength and body awareness using the TRX straps, you can try the Pistol Squat unassisted – start with just your own bodyweight.

Single leg exercises are great for building up your glute strength so that your knees don’t cave while back squatting.

2. Skater Squat

The Skater Squat is a unilateral exercise that mimics the Reverse Lunge – without allowing your back foot to make contact with the floor.

Often, the Skater Squat is done with a reduced range of motion and a more vertical shin angle. For some people, this reduction in knee flexion can be helpful if significant knee bending leads to knee pain.

How To Do It

  • Start by standing tall
  • Keep your non-dominant foot planted and lift your opposite foot off the floor
  • Bend at the knee to lower yourself to the floor
  • As you descend, allow your free foot to trail behind you and raise your arms forward
  • Push the floor away to stand up
  • After doing the required amount of reps, switch your feet and do the same number of reps with your dominant foot planted.

Pro Tip

When performing the Skater Squat, keeping your balance without putting your free foot on the ground can be quite the challenge.

I would recommend holding a light pair of dumbbells or a small weight plate with your arms extended in front of you to help you keep your balance throughout this exercise.

Check out my comparison between the Pistol Squat vs Shrimp Squat.

3. Split Squat

The Split Squat is a type of lunge that works your quads, glutes and hamstrings – while your feet remain stationary in between reps.

While the Split Squat is most commonly done with your own bodyweight, it can also be loaded with dumbbells or a barbell for added difficulty.

If you often find yourself losing your balance during the Pistol Squat, then the Split Squat would be a great alternative because both of your feet stay in contact with the floor at all times.

This is a great variation to do if you find that pistol squats hurt the knees.

How To Do It

  • Stand tall and take a large step forward with your non-dominant leg
  • Your forward foot should be flat, and the heel of your rear foot should be elevated
  • When ready, lower yourself by aiming to touch your back knee to the floor
  • Once you push yourself back to the top, keep your feet planted and continue with your second rep.
  • After doing the required amount of reps, switch your feet and do the same number of reps with your dominant leg forward.

Pro Tip

When doing the Split Squat, I would recommend starting each set with your non-dominant leg. Typically, your non-dominant leg will be the weaker of your two legs – making it the limiting factor when seeking to perform more reps or add weight.

Once you’ve done the required amount of reps on your non-dominant leg, switch the position of your legs and simply match the same reps on your dominant leg. By prioritizing your weaker leg first and not doing more work on your stronger side, you’ll limit the likelihood of a further strength imbalance of occurring.

4. Step Up

The Step Up is a far variation from the Pistol Squat, but it works the same muscles in similar joint positions – albeit in a different way.

If you’re intimidated to even try a Pistol Squat in the first place, the Step Up would be a great exercise to try first – for a few reasons. 

First, the Step Up places one leg in a very similar position to a Pistol Squat. As a result, you can rest assured that you’re working similar muscle groups.Even better, the Step up is a very natural movement. Chances are quite high that you climb at least a flight of stairs daily, making it an easy exercise to get the hang of.

However, the Step Up does require a firm and correctly sized box to execute effectively. If you don’t have access to a surface of the correct height, then this might not be the exercise for you.

How To Do It

  • Start by standing about 6 inches away from a box or bench that is knee-to-hip high
  • Put your non-dominant foot on the object, ensuring your heel is not hanging off the edge
  • In one fluid motion, push yourself off the floor
  • Stand tall at the top, then lower yourself with control back to the floor
  • After doing the required amount of reps, switch your feet and do the same number of reps with your dominant leg forward.

Pro Tip

When doing the Step Up, I would suggest that you decide whether you prefer keeping the foot of your working leg on the box for the entire set or returning it to the ground in between repetitions.

Raising and lowering your foot in between reps is not the main action that works your legs during the Step Up – it’s the act of pushing your bodyweight off the floor to a standing position. For this reason, you’re welcome to keep the foot of your working leg on the raised surface during your set if you find it more natural.

5. Single-Legged Box Squat

The Single-Legged Box Squat is a Pistol Squat alternative that works your legs with an almost identical movement pattern to the Pistol Squat.

In the Pistol Squat, you would squat down and back up using only one leg – with no pause or rest at the bottom of the movement.

With the Single-Legged Box Squat, the muscles of one leg are still highly prioritized but you get the benefit of a small deload in the bottom position of each rep.

Additionally, the foot of your non-working leg maintains contact with the ground during the set – albeit it provides little assistance in helping you stand up – it just helps to keep your balance.

How To Do It

  • Find a raised surface that is slightly higher than your knee
  • Sit down and place your non-dominant foot flat on the floor
  • With your dominant foot, raise your toes upwards and place your heel on the ground
  • Using your arms, push yourself to a standing position
  • Sit down and back while keeping almost all of your weight in your non-dominant foot
  • After gently sitting down, lean forward quickly to gain momentum to stand back up
  • Continue pushing your foot into the floor to return to the starting position
  • After doing the required amount of reps, switch your feet and do the same number of reps with your dominant leg forward.

Pro Tip

For more advanced lifters; reduce the momentum you use to stand back up, hold a dumbbell or plate near your chest in the Goblet Squat position, or sit down more slowly to make this exercise harder.

6. Forward Lunge

The Forward Lunge is a solid substitute for the Pistol Squat as it works all the same muscles, while emphasizing one leg at a time.

Although the Forward Lunge is most commonly done with your own bodyweight, it can also be loaded with a weight vest, dumbbells or a barbell for added difficulty.

How To Do It

  • Start by standing tall
  • Take a large step forward
  • Immediately begin lowering your back knee toward the floor to descend into a lunge
  • After getting your back knee to the floo, push off your front leg to stand back up
  • Complete all required reps on your left leg and then switch sides, or alternate from left to right throughout your entire set.

Pro Tip

When performing this exercise, keep your gaze locked in one area a few feet ahead of you. Looking straight down at the floor near your toes might cause you to lean too far forward, while looking too far ahead will allow for distractions to cross your field of view.

If you focus your gaze on one spot, it will help you avoid losing your balance from side to side.

7. Bulgarian Split Squat

The Bulgarian Split Squat is a highly effective alternative to the Pistol Squat as it places a high unilateral demand on your leg muscles.

As the tough older sibling of the regular Split Squat, the Bulgarian Split Squat has your back leg elevated on a raised surface – increasing the muscular demand of every single rep.

How To Do It

  • Find a raise surface like a box or bench that is approximately knee height
  • Face away from the object and take 2-3 steps forward
  • Place the top of your toes on the edge of the object, exposing the sole of your foot
  • Keeping your balance, lower yourself toward the floor
  • After reaching a reasonable depth, push the floor away to stand up
  • After doing the required amount of reps, switch your feet and do the same number of reps with your dominant leg forward.

Pro Tip

When performing the Bulgarian Split Squat, you want to find a sweet spot for the distance between you and the box or bench behind you. Too close, and you might actually make contact with the object – throwing off your technique. Too far, and you’ll have such a significant stretch in your inner thigh muscles that it will be difficult to achieve an adequate depth.

Once you find the right distance from the box or bench from your front foot, I would put a little piece of tape on the floor or draw a small line of chalk in front of your toes – you’ll never get the wrong distance again.

8. Single-Legged Leg Press

Provided you use it as a single-leg variation, the Leg Press can be an effective alternative to the Pistol Squat. 

For this exercise, any Leg Press machine will work. That said, this exercise is a machine variation. For this reason, the Single-Legged Leg Press won’t demand the same level balance, coordination and stability as the Pistol Squat.

All things considered, some lifters enjoy machine-based exercises more than their body weight or free-weight counterparts. If you belong to this group, feel free to use the Single-Legged Leg Press as a substitute for the Pistol Squat.

How To Do It

  • Assume the seated position in the leg press machine
  • Place your non-dominant foot on the footpad with the other leg on the floor, resting
  • Using one leg, perform the leg press through a complete range of motion
  • Maintain constant tension on your single leg using a controlled tempo
  • After doing the required amount of reps, switch your feet and do the same number of reps with your dominant leg.

Pro Tip

If you’re looking to have the greatest potential to carryover to your Pistol Squat performance, I would be hesitant to put this exercise before other exercises that closely resemble the Pistol Squat Single Leg Squats, Split Squats, etc).

While it can have its place in your training program for 4-6 weeks, opting for a free weight alternative would likely lead to greater Pistol Squat performance.

Other Pistol Squat Resources

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About The Author

Kent Nilson

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.