Pistol squats have a bad reputation for being bad for your knees, and for good reason. They’re often done by beginners who lack the strength required or they’re done for tons of reps while under serious fatigue.
Are pistol squats bad for your knees? No, pistol squats are not inherently bad for your knees. In fact, pistol squats can be great for your knees when appropriately loaded and when fatigue is managed. With proper programming, pistol squats can strengthen your quads, glutes, and calves, while building stronger knee ligaments and tendons.
Are Pistol Squats Good or Bad For Your Knees?
Like any strengthening exercise, pistol squats have the ability to be good or bad for your knees. It all depends on how they’re included in your program.
Also, it’s important to understand that pain is complex.
As outlined in my article on how to avoid a lifting injury, there are many factors that can influence the pain that you might feel. The biggest keys to avoiding pain include (1) proper loading, and (2) correctly managing fatigue. But, more on those in a little bit.
For now, let’s dive into how to keep your knees pain-free with pistol squats!
How To Avoid Knee Pain While Doing Pistol Squats
Avoiding knee pain while doing pistol squats comes down to three principles:
- Focus on proper progression
- Focus on efficient technique
- Focus on fatigue management
1. Focus On Proper Progression
When trying to avoid knee pain while doing pistol squats, this first step is where most lifters go wrong.
Many athletes will skip the progression exercises and attempt the hardest version right off the bat — the full pistol squat itself.
Starting with a scaled-down version of the pistol squat will allow you to build the strength and coordination required to master this exercise.
And remember, the pistol squat is one of the most advanced lower body exercises there is. Unless you have serious leg strength and/or a distinguished athletic history, you shouldn’t be able to do this exercise immediately. If anyone could do this exercise on their first try, it wouldn’t be classified as an advanced exercise!
Following these pistol squat progressions will help you build the strength and coordination required for the full pistol squat, while avoiding knee pain.
2. Focus On Efficient Technique
The next step is to ensure that you have efficient technique.
Efficient technique typically boils down to having a high degree of skill with the exercise. With deliberate practice, comes the ability to coordinate your body in the way that allows you to produce the most force during the pistol squat.
For the pistol squat, efficient technique places your knee joint directly over your ankle joint. Your hip joint should also be vertically aligned with your knee and ankle joints. This “stacking” of the moving joints allows your working muscle groups (quads, glutes, and calves) to maximize force production.
As a result, your legs are able to display their fullest strength potential for the pistol squat.
A lot of people have their knees caving in the pistol squat because they can’t balance properly. If that’s you, check out my article on Can’t Balance In The Pistol Squat? (Try These 6 Tips).
3. Focus On Fatigue Management
The final step to avoiding knee pain while doing pistol squats is to manage your fatigue.
Carrying too much training fatigue is a major reason why lifters experience pain. Simply put, their tissues just aren’t used to the weight being lifted or the total number of reps that the lifter is trying to do.
In the gym, you can manage your fatigue easily by not training to failure. Instead of pushing each set to your limit, aiming to complete your sets with between 1 and 4 reps in reserve is ideal.
Another common way to manage fatigue is to reduce your workload on a day where your performance is lagging. Instead of trying to add weight to your pistol squats or adding an extra set, you opt for completing them with bodyweight only or match the same total reps as last week.
This does a better job of matching the training workload you put on your body to its performance potential for that day.
What To Do If Your Knees Hurt While Doing Pistol Squats?
If your knees hurt while doing pistol squats, it’s best to stop and incorporate one of the three modification below:
- Modify exercise by regressing it
- Modify range of motion by reducing it
- Modify load by decreasing it
Modify Exercise By Regressing It
The easiest way to modify an exercise is to regress it. Regressing means to go backwards and for lifting weights, this means to perform an easier version of the original exercise.
Recall our earlier discussion on pain and how loading a new movement can be more work on tissues than they’re used to.
By regressing the pistol squat, you temporarily reduce the demand on your knees. This reduction will decrease their required workload, which then lowers the training fatigue you experience.
For example: instead of doing the full pistol squat, you perform the elevated pistol squat. While this might not change the range of motion, it definitely eases the work of the non-active leg. In turn, this version is easier than the full pistol squat.
In my article Pistol Squat Progression: From Basic to Advanced (Full Guide), you’ll find which regression exercise is best for you.
Modify Range Of Motion By Reducing It
Another common way to modify the pistol squat is to reduce the range of motion.
The main goal here is to try to maintain as many components of the original exercise as possible, and only reduce the range of motion.
For example: instead of the full pistol squat, you perform the pistol squat to low a box. In this instance, the only change was to shorten the ROM with the addition of a box.
Modify Load By Decreasing It
Finally, the last way to modify the pistol squat is to decrease the load.
For the pistol squat, this usually results in using your arms to allow them to help you out more during the exercise.
By adding in assistance from your arms, your legs end up doing less overall work. Because of this reduction in workload, your knees will almost certainly feel better.
Despite what’s written above, remember that the full pistol squat isn’t inherently a bad exercise. However, there are better choices if it’s too demanding and generates too much fatigue based on your current strength abilities.
You can still get decent leg activation by using an Isometric Pistol Squat, which doesn’t require load. Check out my article, which explains this variation.
What 3 Experts Say About Pistol Squat Knee Pain
Here’s what 3 experts had to say about pistol squat knee pain.
1. Carlee Anderson, Physiotherapist
“The issue with pistol squats is that they are perhaps one of the most advanced measures/exercises for lower extremity strength so the risk of injury, especially to the knee, is exponentially higher as compared to other lower extremity strengthening exercises.”-Carlee Anderson – Physiotherapist
PT, MScPT, BKin, BDN, Momentum Health, www.momentumhealth.ca
2. Dave Holmes, Physiotherapist
“As an exercise, there are no inherent flaws, but it assumes a high level of motor control and strength are present. If not, injury is likely.”-Dave Holmes, PT, Towerphysio.ca
3. Laura Sawler, Physiotherapist
As a Physiotherapist, I only prescribe these for my clients who can perform them with proper technique and have no underlying acute or chronic injury that could be negatively impacted or exacerbated.”-Laura Sawler, PT, https://ayhcalgary.com/
4 Pistol Squat Variations That Are Safer On Your Knees
By applying the exercise modifications listed previously, here are 4 pistol squat variations that are safer on your knees.
- Elevated Pistol Squat
- Low Box Pistol Squat
- TRX-Assisted Pistol Squat
- Pole-Assisted Pistol Squat
1. Elevated Pistol Squat
Modification: Regresses exercise
How-To: The elevated pistol squat decreases the leg and hip strength required to keep the non-working leg off the ground. It does this by raising the working leg higher up off the floor. Since the lifter is up higher, they have less obligation to keep their non-working leg straight forward.
2. Low Box Pistol Squat
Modification: Reduces range of motion
How-To: The low box pistol squat reduces the range of motion The low box pistol squat is a pistol squat variation reduces the range of motion
3. TRX-Assisted Pistol Squat
Modification: Decreases load
How-To: Using a set of TRX straps, the lifter can use their arms to help lower themselves down to the bottom of the squat. The ascent is also made easier, as the lifter can pull themselves up using the handles.
4. Pole-Assisted Pistol Squat
Modification: Decreases load
How-To: Using a pole or stationary upright, the lifter can use their arms to help control their descent. Since the arms are almost locked out, this variation assists more with a lack of balance instead of a lack of strength.
If you need a completely different variation that isn’t a pistol squat regression, definitely check out my article 8 Best Pistol Squat Alternatives.
As we’ve repeated throughout this article, pistol squats aren’t inherently bad for your knees.
With proper loading and fatigue management, they can be an excellent exercise for advanced lifters. Specifically, those looking to reach new heights with their leg strength.
For those that struggle with the full pistol squat, a better choice would be to: (1) regress to an easier variation, (2) shorten the range of motion, or (3) decrease the load being lifted by the legs.
If you enjoyed this article, you might Pistol Squat vs Shrimp Squat: Differences, Pros, Cons to see how the pistol squat compares to another popular single-leg exercise.
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.