When it comes to single-leg exercises, the pistol squat often tops the list in terms of difficulty. Although this exercise has high strength and technique demands, many lifters find that they can’t seem to stay balanced when doing pistol squats.
So, what should you do if you can’t balance doing pistol squats? If you can’t balance doing pistol squats, ensure you’ve already mastered pole-assisted, elevated, and wushu pistol squat. Be sure to build strength in the ascending phase and slow down your descent. “Grab” the floor with your foot, “lock” your gaze on a focal point in front of you, and be patient.
With an advanced exercise like the pistol squat, having excellent technique and joint positioning allows you to maximize your efficiency. Ignoring these two critical points will result in you falling over during your pistol squats.
In the article below, I’ll take you through the 6 practical steps you need in order to balance properly when doing pistol squats.
It’s pistol time!
Here’s the 8 Best Pistol Squat Alternatives (With Pictures), bookmark this article in case you or a friend ever need a substitute for the pistol squat!
Why Can’t You Balance Doing Pistol Squats?
There are 3 reasons why you can’t balance doing pistol squats:
1. Your technique is not refined enough
2. You lack muscle quad and glute strength
3. You lose control of your balance
Let’s unpack these reasons in greater detail.
Unrefined Technique In The Pistol Squat
Having unrefined technique is often mistaken for being a muscle-based problem. That is, people think that sloppy technique is due to a lack of strength in the working muscle groups.
While your muscle strength certainly plays a part in your technique, it’s not the entire story.
Unrefined technique largely boils down to a lack of neurological adaptations. Basically, it’s the connection between your brain and your muscles that is lacking.
So, it’s not your actual muscle strength that is the limiting factor. Rather, you can’t show off your maximum strength because you haven’t mastered the skill of the movement yet.
Weak Muscles In The Pistol Squat
If your quads and glutes are weak, you will find it very difficult to stand up from the bottom of your pistol squats.
At the bottom position, your knee is in the greatest amount of knee flexion out of the entire movement. Because of this, your quads must work extremely hard to do their job of extending your knee joint.
Similarly, reversing out of the bottom of the pistol squat is where your hip joint must perform the greatest amount of hip extension. To do this successfully, your glutes must exert a lot of force. As a result, all of your gluteal muscles (maximus, medius and minimus) must have a high degree of strength.
Not to mention, you’ll also find it difficult to control your knee position during the descent and ascent.
Losing Control In The Pistol Squat
The third reason why you can’t balance while doing pistol squats is that your actual balance needs improvement.
Keeping your balance comes down to distributing your weight evenly to avoid falling over.
In the pistol squat, this is easier said than done. The root of the problem almost always comes down to a lack of consistent practice.
Remember, balancing is a skill. Although it’s easy to balance on two feet, it’s not quite so easy with just a single foot. Add in the complexity of having to squat down using only one leg, and you can see just how complex balancing can be.
Keeping all three of the above reasons in mind, let’s review the technical principles that you should maintain on every rep.
If you lose your balance in the pistol squat, it may cause pain in the knees. Check out my other article where I explain how to avoid pain in the knees while pistol squatting.
Technique Principles In The Pistol Squat
Keep Your Foot Flat On The Floor
In the pistol squat, the only connection you have to the floor is one foot. Compared to other exercises like the back squat or deadlift, this is half.
Because of this, it’s imperative that you maintain full contact of your foot against the floor. You should fight the urge to raise your heel as you descend in the squat at all costs. Otherwise, you’ll most certainly risk losing your balance and falling over.
Takeaway: Keep your foot glued to the floor during your pistol squats. I like to use the squat cue “claw the ground with your feet”.
Keep Your Knee In Line With Your Toes
Due to the single-leg nature of the pistol squat, maximum efficiency is key. Keeping your knee in line with your toes when you’re executing the movement is the easiest way to maximize efficiency.
If your knee collapses inwards as you perform the pistol squat, you lose precious movement efficiency. When this happens, force no longer travels directly into the floor from your muscles. Instead, force moves inefficiently through your thigh when your knee tracks inwards (towards your collapsed knee) before moving outwards and down towards your ankle joint.
This zig-zagging of force through your joints is terribly inefficient. Instead, keeping your joints aligned and “stacked” on top of each other is a much better choice.
Takeaway: Maintain vertical alignment of your knee joint above your ankle and toes.
Check out my article Pistol Squat vs Shrimp Squat: Differences, Pros, Cons to make sure you’re doing the right exercise for your needs.
6 Tips To Balance Doing Pistol Squats
At this point, you should understand why refined technique, muscle strength, and balance are critical in the pistol squat.
Let’s now cover the practical tips that you can apply in your pistol squat training.
My 6 tips if you can’t balance doing pistol squats are:
• Follow Basic Progressions
• Slow Your Descent
• Cue “Grabbing” The Floor
• Build Your Ascending Strength
• Cue “Locking” Your Eyes In
• Get At Least 100 Reps In
1. Follow Basic Progressions
Instead of jumping right to the full pistol squat, follow these progressions. This will ensure that you have adequate balance and proper technique for the full pistol squat.
Here’s the progression list:
If you can do 10 perfect reps per leg, you can be confident that you’re ready for the next progression exercise.
You can find step-by-step instructions for these exercises in my article Pistol Squat Progression: From Basic to Advanced (Full Guide)
2. Slow Your Descent
Too often, novice lifters will dive-bomb their pistol squats and end up losing their balance. Usually, athletes do this in hopes of building enough momentum to overcome their lack of strength during the ascending phase.
If you unintentionally dive-bomb your pistol squats, I’d suggest adding in an eccentric tempo (like a 3-second descent) to deliberately slow you down. You can also try an isometric pistol squat, which I detail in another article.
Incorporating a tempo for the descending phase of your pistol squats will ultimately place more work on your muscles, as opposed to letting most of your concentric phase be completed due to momentum.
Additionally, you’ll be less likely to lose your balance with a slow tempo since there’s more time for you to make adjustments based on feedback from your body.
3. Build Your Ascending Strength
If you lack ascending strength, you’ll probably find your knee caving inwards during your pistol squats.
To remedy this, choose any pistol squat variation that incorporates a pause in the bottom. For example, you could use low-chair pistol squats, pole-assisted paused pistols, and unassisted paused pistol squats.
These variations eliminate momentum from your descent. Whether you’re sitting or pausing in the bottom position, you’re deadening the stretch-reflex (bounce) that naturally occurs during this exercise.
Because of this, your muscles will do more of the work instead of relying on momentum to help you stand up.
4. Cue “Grabbing” The Floor
The cue of “grabbing” the floor is to ensure that your foot remains arched throughout each repetition. This is especially important during the ascent.
It’s true, this cue isn’t absolutely necessary. However, many lifters find its application helps to return some balance to the pistol squat.
The act of “grabbing” the floor basically involves trying to squeeze the area between your toes and your heel closer together. Obviously, this you won’t actually be able to squeeze the ground together (unless you’re lifting on sand or dirt).
However, this will cause the sole of your foot to tense up and creates an arch in your foot — which tends to shift your bodyweight to the outer side of your foot. Added rigidity makes it easier to balance and improves the transfer of force better.
5. Cue “Locking” Your Gaze In
The cue of “locking” your gaze in when performing the pistol squats is massively underrated.
Novice lifters commonly do their pistol squats with their gaze directly in front of them. Whie this isn’t inherently wrong, there’s typically a lot going on in commercial gyms. People are lifting weights, moving around, and chatting —- all possible distractions.
When you deliberately lock your gaze onto a spot on the floor about 4-6 feet in front of you, the usual distractions disappear from your focused field of vision.
6. Get 100 Reps In
Although this 100-rep recommendation is arbitrary, the basic principle stands true. You need to get a minimum amount of practice in with your pistol squats.
For most, this means sticking with the pistol squat for at least a couple weeks.
Remember that each exercise has its own range of motion, joint angles, strength curve, and balance requirements. If you quit an exercise without giving yourself enough reps to practice it, you’re only letting yourself down.
Be patient, and you’ll stay balanced doing pistol squats before you know it.
If you can’t balance doing pistol squats, it’s due to three reasons: (1) unrefined technique, (2) weak muscles, or (3) poor balance.
You can improve your balance in the pistol squat by following the correct progressions before trying the full pistol squat. Additionally, you can slow your descent and build your ascending strength.
You can also cue “grabbing” the floor with your foot or cue yourself to “lock” your gaze in on a single focal point as you perform the exercise.
Finally, be patient. The pistol squat is a highly advanced exercise and good things come to those who wait.
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.