Pistol squats can be an effective calisthenics exercise but they are not for everyone. Discover similar alternatives that could be better for you.
Among the other benefits they offer, pistol squats can strengthen your leg muscles, they are an exercise you can do at home, they are low-impact, they improve balance, etc.
Whether you don’t enjoy pistol squats, you want a more knee-friendly alternative, or you want an alternative for any other reason, these alternatives to pistol squats can offer you some or all of the same benefits.
1. Skater squats
For this first pistol squat alternative, you preferably have a soft pad, towel, or yoga mat to make the exercise more comfortable for your knee. Take the following steps to do a skater squat:
- Stand up straight with your feet at more or less shoulder width. If you have a soft pad put it right behind your heels.
- Shift your weight to one side so that you stand on one leg. Fold the leg in the air at the knee until it is at about a 90-degree angle.
- Slowly lower your hips by bending the knee of your support leg. How far depends on different factors like knee health but at your lowest point you preferably want to tap the soft surface with the knee that is in the air. You will likely have to bend forward and reach forward with your arms for balance but try to keep your back in a straight line throughout the movement.
- Push yourself up again into starting position by stretching your support leg.
Skater squats look and are very similar to pistol squats. However, by holding the leg in the air backward the exercise becomes slightly easier on your knees and in terms of balance.
At the same time, you still get a great leg muscle and balance workout without using any equipment. Don’t forget to do the same number of repetitions on each leg to avoid muscle imbalances.
2. Hip thrusts
Hip thrusts are similar to glute bridges but instead of doing them on the ground, you will need a bench or any other stable object of the right height. Take the following steps to do a hip thrust:
- Sit right in front of the bench or other object you will use with your back slightly over the edge. Make sure the object is stable. Place your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width in a position where your knees will be at a 90-degree angle in the next step.
- Move up your hips until your body is in a straight line from your knees to your shoulders.
- Slowly lower your body again.
One of the most common ways to add extra resistance to hip thrusts is with the help of a barbell.
Hip thrusts mainly engage your glute, also known as your butt, and hamstring muscles. This makes the hip thrust a good pistol squat alternative if you are mostly interested in strengthening your glutes.
3. Leg extensions
For this next pistol squat alternative, you need suitable resistance bands and an anchor object. Once you have these, take the following steps to do a resistance band leg extension:
- Anchor the resistance band somewhere close to the ground. If you are using a chair you can anchor it at the back chair legs.
- Sit on the object you chose with your back to the anchor. Anchor the other end of the resistance band behind your feet. Make sure your folded leg already feels a pull from the resistance band.
- Slowly stretch your legs with the resistance band until they are fully stretched.
- Move your feet back to the position in step 2 in a controlled motion.
You can also do leg extensions on the specific gym machine made for this exercise or with ankle weights.
Leg extensions are an exercise to isolate your quadriceps muscles. So if you don’t like the compound aspect of pistol squats, leg extensions could be a great alternative to work out one specific muscle group.
Besides that, leg extensions are also a more knee-friendly way to train your quadriceps compared to pistol squats.
4. Bulgarian split squats
For Bulgarian split squats you want a step, bench, or any other stable object at about knee height. Once you have that, take the following steps to do a Bulgarian split squat:
- Stand in front of the stable object with your back toward it. Keep about half a leg distance between you and the object.
- Move one leg back and put the foot of this side on the object. The top of your foot should lean on the surface of the object.
- Slowly lower your hips by bending the knee of your stretched leg until your hip is at about the height of your knee of the previously stretched leg. Use your arms for balance if needed.
- Push yourself up again into the position of step 2.
- Repeat the same number of repetitions on the leg of the other side to keep your muscle distribution balanced.
Similar to pistol squats, a lot of your body weight rests on one leg when doing Bulgarian split squats.
This is especially useful if you do not have a lot of leg exercise equipment available at home to make your workouts challenging enough for muscle growth.
At the same time, Bulgarian split squats allow you to lower your body at a more knee-friendly angle compared to pistol squats.
For the next exercise you likely need external weights, preferably a barbell. You can also use other free weights and even heavy duty resistance bands.
Take the following steps to do a deadlift with a barbell:
- Stand up straight with your feet at more or less shoulder width.
- Slightly fold your knees and tilt your upper body forward to grab the barbell on the ground.
- Stretch your knees and tilt back your upper body at the same time until your upper body and legs are stretched in one straight line. When doing a deadlift it is very important to keep your back in a straight line during the exercise.
- Slowly move back into the position of step 2.
Good technique is important in any exercise to avoid injuries but especially so for deadlifts. Before trying to deadlift the heaviest weights it is smart to improve your technique first by starting with light or no weights at all.
Deadlifts are similar to pistol squats in that they are an effective way to train your leg muscles. On top of that, this exercise also engages your back muscles.
6. Single-leg presses
The leg press is a weighted resistance exercise that is often done on the leg press machine. Take the following steps to do one single-leg seated leg press:
- Adjust the machine for your requirements. Put the desired weight on the dedicated holders of the leg press machine. If you are not sure how much would be right for you, start small and build up from there.
- Take place in the leg press machine. Place one foot flat on the pushing surface in a position where you can safely do the exercise without slipping from the platform and exert enough pressure.
- Slowly push up the weight until your leg is slightly less than stretched.
- Lower the weight gain into the position of step 2 in a controlled motion.
There are a few differences between the seated leg press and weighted pistol squats but one is that pistol squats engage more different muscles during the exercise.
This makes the single leg press not the perfect alternative to pistol squats but still a good option if you want to strengthen your legs with a machine.
You can also select about double the weight and do a leg press with both of your legs at the same time. By doing this you do lose some of the benefits because pistol squats are a unilateral exercise.
Walking lunges are a great alternative to pistol squats that require less balance and muscle strength. Take the following steps to do two walking lunges:
- Stand up straight with your feet at more or less shoulder width.
- Take a big step forward so that you get into a position where both of your knees are at a 90-degree angle. Your front foot should be flat on the ground and your back foot should only touch the ground with the ball of the foot (front).
- Move your back foot forward and get into the same position as step 2 but with your other foot in the front.
One potential downside of lunges compared to pistol squats is that it may be too easy for individuals more experienced with leg resistance training. One way to solve this issue is by doing weighted lunges.
On the other hand, lunges have the advantage of not having the same steep learning curve as pistol squats. Your knees will likely prefer lunges too.