The pistol squat is a classic progression from the standard bodyweight squat, best known for its unilateral training of the legs and greatly increased difficulty in terms of stability and raw muscular strength.
However, due to the difficulty involved in performing this exercise or a number of other related issues, many exercisers will find themselves seeking out a potential alternative to the pistol squat.
Fortunately, quite a number of possible alternatives exist to the pistol squat - the majority of which can meet any requirements that an exerciser may have when performing such a substitution.
The most common reason why an individual may wish to substitute the pistol squat out of their training program is simply due to its difficulty - requiring significant lower body strength, flexibility, and proprioception in order to execute with any semblance of correct form.
Furthermore, when speaking of correct form, the difficulty with which many lifters find when attempting to balance during a pistol squat can also significantly affect proper form adherence, potentially leading to lower back pain or knee pain as the lifter deviates from the correct exercise mechanics.
There is also the matter of exerciser incompatibility - wherein a history of injury, poor mobility or other issues relating to the exerciser themselves may make the pistol squat an unsuitable movement in their particular circumstances.
The criteria for what makes an exercise a suitable alternative is actually rather small; the alternative simply needs to match the muscle group recruitment pattern of the pistol squat, as well as replicate a few of its defining characteristics.
For the most part, this equates to the alternative exercise training the quadriceps femoris, gluteus muscle group and hamstrings muscle group - alongside the hip flexors, cables and abdominals as an optional bonus.
Furthermore, for lifters with no issue relating to such a mechanic, the alternative exercise should also replicate the unilateral activation found in the pistol squat - meaning that whatever alternative is chosen should have the option of being performed with one leg at a time, much like the pistol squat itself.
Programming the substitution of the pistol squat with an alternative exercise will depend on what sort of training program the lifter is subscribed to.
Calisthenics training programs will generally allow for a direct substitute considering similar intensities, whereas weighted lifting programs will often require alteration to the order of exercises.
This, of course, will depend on exactly how similar the alternative exercise is to the pistol squat, with more intense exercises requiring lesser volume and exercises that train less muscle groups requiring additional isolation movements be performed.
As the pistol squat is a bodyweight exercise, the most suitable alternative exercises are also of a similar classification; requiring the least amount of training program alternation and often possessing a similar level of intensity to the pistol squat.
Though often performed with weights, the bodyweight split squat is one of the most suitable alternative exercises to the pistol squat due to its identical biomechanics and unilateral nature.
Most often compared to a lunge, the split squat trains the quadriceps, glutes and hamstrings to a similar level as the split squat - though with none of the balance requirement, as both legs remain firmly on the ground throughout the exercise.
Unfortunately, because of the fact that little balancing is needed during this exercise, it will also fail to recruit the core muscles to any significant extent.
Usually seen as an aerobic exercise instead of one used for muscular training, stair climbs are another possible alternative to the pistol squat that produce a similar muscular activation set to the latter exercise - though with the added benefit of significant caloric expenditure.
Stair climbs are the ideal substitute exercise to the pistol squat for individuals wishing to increase their heart rate and fat burn during their workout, as it is in these aspects that the stair climbs exercise excels.
Whether performed with a stair climber machine or a literal set of stairs, stair climbs recruit the quadriceps femoris, glutes and hamstrings to a level of intensity that rivals that of the pistol squat - all without the same balance or mobility requirements.
For exercisers without the prerequisite lower body strength to perform the pistol squat safely, the step up can easily act as a regression exercise so as to allow said lifters to build up their body.
The step up replicates both the muscular activation and biomechanics of the pistol squat, though in a less intense manner as well as in one that does not require any significant proprioceptive ability. In fact, the step up may recruit the glutes to an even more intense level than in the pistol squat depending on the elevation of the “step” involved.
Step ups are most suitable for individuals that find the pistol squat to either be too difficult to perform or unnatural for their own movement patterns, allowing the same muscular activation to be achieved with less discomfort.
Though bodyweight exercises are the most suitable alternatives to the pistol squat, certain weighted alternatives can allow for more effective muscular activation to be induced, or even allow a lifter to condition themselves in a manner that simple bodyweight resistance cannot.
It is important to keep in mind, however, that weighted exercises can differ quite a bit from calisthenic exercises like the pistol squat - often presenting a different risk of injury, angle of resistance and form of muscular activation.
As such, the following alternatives will require some changes be made in the structure of the training program, or the volume and resistance of the exercise itself.
Though bulgarian split squats can also be performed with bodyweight resistance alone, they more often make use of a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells so as to maximize recruitment of the quadriceps and glutes muscle groups.
Furthermore, it makes a particularly suitable alternative to the pistol squat on account of its unilateral activation of the lower body alongside a similar biomechanical profile - making use of hip and knee flexion while the torso remains entirely upright, just as in the case of the pistol squat.
When substituting the pistol squat with the bulgarian split squat, the exerciser should seek to reduce the total volume of each set while increasing the total resistance with dumbbells or similar fitness equipment. Generally, sets of 6 to 12 repetitions each make a suitable amount of volume.
Most suitable for exercisers wishing to up the intensity of the pistol squat while removing the need to balance themselves, weighted lunges are an alternative that are often overlooked due to their more common bodyweight counterpart.
It is in hip and quadricep muscular development that weighted lunges excel as a pistol squat alternative, often stretching these muscles further than what the eccentric portion of the pistol squat can achieve and thereby resulting in far greater muscular hypertrophy.
Furthermore, weighted lunges will often increase the stability of the entire lower body in a manner that pistol squats cannot, owing to its greater calf and hip muscular recruitment as they anchor the body from two points on the floor.
Perhaps one of the most advanced exercises in this article, the leg press exercise performed with a single leg at a time can replicate the muscular activation pattern of the pistol squat - though with a few key differences that make it suitable as a substitute.
First, there is the matter of the leg press being a machine-based exercise - thereby recruiting less synergist muscles and therefore allowing for a greater level of specificity to be achieved.
This directly connects to the second factor to consider when using the unilateral leg press as an alternative; the angle of resistance, of which will result in comparatively far greater quadriceps femoris recruitment and a reduction in gluteal muscle recruitment.
Though it will depend on what sort of knee injury you have sustained and the severity of said injury - generally, alternative exercises that do not place much shear force or pressure on the knee joint are more suitable exercises.
These can be the leg press performed at low levels of resistance, or even step ups for less severe injuries of the knee.
Most importantly though, the exerciser should always seek out the advice of a physical therapist or other certified medical professional prior to attempting to place resistance on your knee again.
For exercisers who have just begun learning about resistance exercises, the pistol squat may seem far too complex and difficult to pull off in a comfortable fashion.
Fortunately, step ups and lunges are far more natural-feeling exercises, and as such are more suitable for novice exercisers.
It is indeed possible to substitute the pistol squat with more than a single alternative exercise - though doing so will require a reduction in total volume, as excessive training of the lower body’s musculature can lead to poor recovery and fatigue.
Ideally, you can instead substitute the pistol squat with a single compound exercise alternative, as well as several lower intensity isolation exercises targeting the individual muscles of the legs.
Though we’ve gone over some of the more common and effective substitutes for the pistol squat, there are still quite a number of other exercises that can replicate its many benefits without the same sort of drawbacks associated therein.
If still unsure of which alternative to choose, it is our advice that you test out as many exercises as you can so as to decide on which one best fits your particular circumstances.
1. Howe, Louis & Goodwin, Jon & Blagrove, Richard. (2014). The integration of unilateral strength training for the lower extremity within an athletic performance programme. Strength and Conditioning.
2. Stastny, Petr PhD; Tufano, James J. MS; Golas, Artur PhD; Petr, Miroslav PhD. Strengthening the Gluteus Medius Using Various Bodyweight and Resistance Exercises. Strength and Conditioning Journal: June 2016 - Volume 38 - Issue 3 - p 91-101 doi: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000221
3. Núñez FJ, Santalla A, Carrasquila I, Asian JA, Reina JI, et al. (2018) The effects of unilateral and bilateral eccentric overload training on hypertrophy, muscle power and COD performance, and its determinants, in team sport players. PLOS ONE 13(3): e0193841. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0193841