Sometimes when I look around the weight room at my neighborhood gym, I think, “Wow, these people are contorting their bodies into works of art.” One such masterful move I’ve witnessed is the single-leg squat, also known as the pistol squat. Done correctly, it can make a fitness buff look like a human arrow. But it also happens to be one of those exercises that looks deceivingly effortless. You can hack it, though, with three doable (yet challenging) modifications, says Maillard Howell, owner of Crossfit Prospect Heights in Brooklyn.
The first thing the trainer tells me about these supercharged squats is that they’re excellent prehab and rehab. Working each side of the body independently is a surefire way to become holistically stronger. Before you get in the ring with the pistol squat, however, Howell says you’ll need to know the components required to balance on one leg in an “ass to the grass” position.
“The first thing is strength. The other variables are flexibility and balance,” he says. Skill levels vary across these three modalities, so you’ll need to tweak the single-leg squat depending on your strengths and weaknesses. Below, Howell explains exactly how to inch your booty closer to that gym turf.
How to modify a single-leg squat—whether you’re lacking strength, flexibility, or mobility.
For each of the following modifications, complete 5 reps on each side. Start by alternating right, left, right, left. Then, work your way toward doing five in a row on each side. Once you feel comfortable, slowly add weight, reps, or a combination of the two.
If you’re lacking in strength, shorten your range of motion. Lowering down into a pistol squat is one thing, but getting back up is where your muscles will really have to work. To make it easier, Howell suggests shorting the range of motion by using a box or bench. For beginners, sit as you would normally and then stand up using just one leg at a time. If that’s too easy, sit (or lower yourself until your glutes just touch the box) while balancing on one leg and then stand up slowly. As you advance, use progressively shorter boxes to get your butt closer to your heel.
If you’re lacking in balance, use a band to give you a hand. For this modification, you’ll need to find an long resistance band to loop around a piece of tall gym equipment (such as a pull-up rig). Hold onto the end of the band as you lower down toward the ground, then tug on it however much you need to straighten back to standing. “People hold onto the leg of the squat rack as well,” Howell says. So just look around the gym for something sturdy that can give you an assist.
If you’re lacking in flexibility, place a metal plate under one foot. So your body is tight all over? No worries, you can still get the benefit of a pistol squat. Place one or more plates beneath your foot to give you boost. As you’ll quickly find out, this modification makes propelling that foot forward a touch easier (but don’t worry, you’ll still be sweating). While the plates are a handy hack, Howell warns against using them as a permanent solution for avoiding stability and flexibility workouts. Make sure you’re tasking the rest of your sweat regimen to making sure you’re just as bendy and flexible as you are strong.
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