While the pistol squat and shrimp squat are more commonly seen in Crossfit boxes and amongst calisthenics practitioners, it’s not abnormal to see them performed occasionally in a commercial gym.
So, what are the differences between the pistol squat vs shrimp squat? Pistol squats are a bodyweight exercise that have the lifter squat down on one leg only, with the non-working leg extended in front. Shrimp squats are also done on one leg and have the non-working leg curled up and held behind the lifter, requiring that they touch their back knee to the floor.
In the article below, I’ll explain how and why you should include these exercises in your program. Further, I’ll also cover how to perform both of these movements correctly, considering their unique differences, and how to avoid common mistakes.
Let’s get started!
What’s The Difference Between a Pistol Squat and Shrimp Squat?
At first glance, the pistol squat and shrimp squat appear to be quite comparable, especially since both they’re performed with the lifter’s own bodyweight while balancing on one leg.
That said, I don’t think these two exercises should act as substitutes for each other. Despite the fact that they do target similar muscle groups, they require different levels of skill, they each have a distinct range of motion, and (typically) have a specific intention for why they’re included in a training program.
There are 4 main differences between the pistol squat and shrimp squat.
1. Range of Motion
The pistol squat usually requires the lifter to squat down until their hamstring touches their calf. This action requires lots of bending at the knee and hip, with the lifter having to focus intently in order to maintain their balance.
On the other hand, the shrimp squat stops quite short when compared to the pistol squat. In the shrimp squat, the lifter only descends until their back knee makes contact with the floor — that is the distinctive stopping point that tends to qualify a repetition as “complete”.
The shrimp squat (especially the more challenging variations covered later) is not an easy exercise by any means. It forces a lifter to maintain their balance over their mid-foot, as they perform a half-squat on one leg.
That said, the pistol squat is reliably considered to be the more difficult variation. It demands a high amount of ankle, knee and hip mobility for the lifter to squat all the way down. Further, the strength and coordination required for the lifter to balance on the descent and stand back up without falling over is significant.
For these reasons, the pistol squat is labelled as a more advanced exercise than the shrimp squat.
3. Muscles Worked
The pistol squat and the shrimp squat both target the quads as the main mover due to the significant amount of knee flexion (bending) that occurs as the lifter squats down. However, the glutes also kick in to assist the lifter in standing up due to the hip flexion seen in both exercises.
The remaining muscle groups (abductors, adductors, abdominals and low back muscles) contribute to a smaller extent in order to maintain control and balance as the lifter descends and ascends.
Although the pistol squat and shrimp squat target similar muscle groups, the pistol squat will recruit and work them to a greater extent. This is because the range of motion is larger in the pistol squat and a greater range of motion (all other things being equal) will activate more muscle mass to produce the movement.
4. Exercise Intention
Considering the range of motion and difficulty observed in the shrimp squat, it’s often used as a basic method to work the quads in lifters who are new to calisthenics and/or lack conventional strength training equipment (barbells, dumbbells, machines, etc).
In contrast, the high proficiency and unilateral strength required to perform a pistol squat makes it a less commonly prescribed exercise. When it is included in a training program, it’s usually incorporated to reflect its inclusion in a competition (the CrossFit Games) or regular strength training (calisthenics, CrossFit).
The pistol squat is a single-leg bodyweight exercise that is performed with the non-working leg extended in front of the lifter.
How To Do a Pistol Squat
Here’s how to perform a pistol squat:
1. Begin the exercise by standing tall
2. With a straight knee, lift your non-dominant leg forward so it’s off the floor
3. When ready, extend your arms directly in front of you
4. Start bending at the ankle, knee and hip with your dominant leg
5. Progressively lean forward as you continue to descend
6. Continue raising your non-dominant leg upwards as you descend, so it does not touch the floor
7. Once your hamstring makes contact with your calf, push the floor away to stand back up
8. Repeat for the same number of reps on your other leg
Can’t do a pistol squat but still want the benefits of it? Here are 8 Pistol Squat Alternatives to try.
Technique Tips For a Pistol Squat
Here are some pistol squat tips to help you with your technique:
- If it’s too difficult, regress it. If the standard pistol squat is too difficult, use a vertical pole to spot yourself. With the pole positioned directly in front of you, use your hands to “climb” yourself down and back up. Having the pole closer to your will allow your arms to contribute more, making the exercise much easier.
- Want more of a challenge? If the normal pistol squat with your arms in front of you is too easy, position your hands behind your head. Doing this will remove the counterbalance effect of having your arms straight in front of you. In turn, this will make this exercise much more difficult.
- Still find the variation above too easy? If placing your hands behind your head is still not enough of a challenge, wear a weight vest while keeping your hands behind your head as you perform the pistol squat. Since the weight is added to your frame (instead of holding a pair of dumbbells or a weight plate in front of you), the difficulty of the exercise will be retained with the addition of external load.
Single leg exercises like the pistol squat are great for building up your glute strength so that your knees don’t cave while back squatting.
Common Mistakes When Doing a Pistol Squat
The most common faults in the pistol squat are:
- Heels coming up off the floor. Usually, this error comes down to a lack of ankle flexibility — stretching your calves and continuing to practice the exercise will typically help the most. If you don’t care about improving your ankle/calf flexibility, then you can simply wear a pair of squat shoes while you perform the pistol squat. The raised heel will instantly reduce the ankle mobility demands required.
- Bouncing too much. For most lifters, the first portion of the ascent out of the bottom of the pistol squat will be the most difficult component. Obviously, a huge bounce of the bottom will reduce the strength required to stand back up since you’ll have more momentum in your favour. That said, a massive bounce will work against you in the long run as it’s more difficult to objectively compare sets and reps, and you’re actually placing less work on the muscles you’re trying to target. Check out my article on the pause squat for the benefits of not bouncing.
- Hunching too far forward. Although some degree of forward hunching is expected (maybe even unavoidable) in the pistol squat, an upright torso will work your quads more. Keeping an active focus on lifting your chest and pinning your shoulder blades together will help you accomplish a more efficient (and better-looking) pistol squat.
Muscles Used: Pistol Squat
The muscles used in the pistol squat are the:
- Spinal Erectors
The main mover in the pistol squat are the quads. This is due to the significant amount of extension (straightening) required to reverse the flexion occurring at the knee joint. That said, the glute muscles also assist in extending the hip in order for the lifter to stand tall at the top.
The remaining muscle groups (abductors, adductors, calves, abdominals and spinal erectors) are all active during the movement so that the lifter remains balanced in their ankle, knee, and hip joints throughout the pistol squat.
Check out my complete guide to the muscles used in the squat.
Benefits of The Pistol Squat
Some of the benefits of the pistol squat are:
- Improving your ankle mobility. The sheer amount of ankle flexion required in the pistol squat will assist in increasing the range of motion in your ankles as you perform the exercise. The pistol squat itself acts as loaded-stretching, since your ankle joint is under load as you squat down.
- Developing your kinesthetic awareness. The coordination necessary to stay balanced during a single-leg exercise like the pistol squat cannot be overstated. Practicing this exercise frequently is especially useful if you’ll encounter it in a competition scenario (for example: in the CrossFit Games).
- Increasing your unilateral (one-side) leg strength. Prior to and after an operation on the leg, lifters will need to demonstrate a certain degree of leg strength. In this case, a unilateral exercise like the pistol squat can help you target the weaker leg you need to strengthen. Obviously, be sure to select a regressed variation of the exercise (a seated version should do nicely) in order to not overwhelm the tissues you’re trying to rehab. Check out my other favorite unilateral exercise: The Cossack Squat.
Cons of The Pistol Squat
Some of the cons of the pistol squat are:
- You may feel discomfort in your joints. Due to the high amount of mobility needed in your ankles, knee, and hips, your joints might take a few sessions to adapt to the unique stimulus of the pistol squat — be patient.
Bonus tip: Pistol squats won’t inherently wreck your knees, provided you select an appropriate variation and manage your fatigue. However, you might hear popping noises coming from your knees occasionally — read more about this phenomenon (called crepitus) here.
The shrimp squat is a single-leg bodyweight exercise that is performed with the non-working leg curled up behind the lifter’s body.
How To Do a Shrimp Squat
Here’s how to set up a shrimp squat:
1. Begin the exercise by standing tall
2. Curl one leg behind you and grab your ankle with the hand on the same side
3. Extend your free arm straight out in front of you
4. When ready, start bending at the ankle, knee and hip to lower yourself
5. Progressively lean more forward as you continue to descend
6. Touch your rear knee to the floor, behind your lead foot
7. Push the floor away to stand back up
8. Repeat for the same number of reps on your other leg
Technique Tips For a Shrimp Squat
Here are some shrimp squat tips to help you with your technique:
- Protect your knees. If you’ve never done the shrimp squat before, place a towel or mat on the floor in the area where your knee should make contact. It’s likely for you to lose your balance and possibly jarr your knee against the floor when you first start out — a cushion on the floor will help soften the impact and keep your knees safe. You can also wear knee sleeves for this purpose.
- If it’s too difficult, regress it. If the standard shrimp squat is too difficult, extend both arms directly in front of you while keeping your non-working leg curled up behind you. Doing this will provide a greater counterbalance and make the exercise easier.
- Want more of a challenge? If the regular shrimp squat is too easy, hold your non-working leg behind your body with both hands. This will remove the counterbalance effect of having a single arm in front of you, making this version much more difficult.
- Want to increase the range of motion? Place the foot of your working leg on a stable elevated surface (a step or small box works well), and aim to touch your rear knee to the floor all the same. The elevated surface will increase the distance you have to travel and work your muscles even harder.
Common Mistakes When Doing a Shrimp Squat
The most common faults in the shrimp squat are:
- Not going low enough. If building your quads is important for you, you’ll want to go right to the floor with each of your reps. For the shrimp squat, make sure that you make contact with your knee to the ground. Read my tips for squatting deeper.
- Bouncing too much. For most lifters, the first portion of the ascent out of the bottom of the shrimp squat will be the most difficult portion of the lift. Avoiding a massive bounce will work against you since it’s more difficult to compare sets and reps, and you’re ultimately placing less work on your quads.
Muscles Used: Shrimp Squat
The muscles used in the shrimp squat are the:
- Spinal Erectors
In the shrimp squat, the quads are the primary driver because of the degree of knee extension required for the lifter to stand up. While knee extension is the main action occurring during the shrimp squat, the gluteals are also helping out with hip extension to oppose the forward leaning that is present in this exercise.
The other muscle groups (abductors, adductors, calves, abdominals and spinal erectors) act in minor supporting roles to help the lifter remain stable in their ankle, knee, and hip joints as they perform the movement.
Benefits of The Shrimp Squat
Some of the benefits of the shrimp squat are:
- Building an impressive set of quads. The pistol squat requires a serious amount of quad strength in order for you to stand up out of the bottom of the squat. In the absence of free-weights and machines, it can be a great exercise to help build the size and strength of your thighs.
- Reduce muscle imbalances. As a single-leg exercise, you can more easily prioritize your weaker side in the event you’re recovering from a leg injury, or find a serious strength/size imbalance when comparing your legs.
Cons of The Shrimp Squat
Some of the cons of the shrimp squat are:
- It’s difficult to load. As a single-leg exercise, you’ll have a harder time balancing in the pistol squat compared to a back squat. Because of this, adding load will be much more challenging since you’ll always be focusing on not falling over, first and foremost.
Your choice to perform pistol squats or shrimp squats will largely depend on the goal you’re trying to accomplish.
Lifters who are new to single-leg bodyweight exercises should probably stick to shrimp squats, as they have a reduced range of motion and require less leg strength.
Lifters who are routinely performing unilateral calisthenics and who want more of a challenge should opt for pistol squats instead, since they have a large range of motion and demand significant quad and glute strength to stand up.
All things considered, neither the pistol squat or shrimp squat inherently has the upper hand here. As with all exercises, it depends on what your underlying intention is for including each movement in supporting your goal.