The single-leg squat is a squat movement that’s performed on only one leg. It adds a balance and stability challenge to the traditional squat. These are sometimes called pistol squats.

This type of squat is an intermediate to advanced exercise. You should only move on to single-leg squats after you’ve mastered the squat movement on both legs. But if you are new to the move, it can also be modified using a chair.

You don’t need any equipment to perform a single-leg squat. You can hold a dumbbell in each hand or a medicine ball with both hands if you’re looking for more of a challenge.

  1. Start by standing on your right foot. Lift your left leg out and hold it out straight and slightly in front of your torso. You could also just bend your knee and keep your left leg elevated to start. Your arms can be by your side or out in front of you for balance.
  2. Keep your core engaged and your torso up throughout the movement. Start to push your hips back as you lower into a squat position. Aim to get low enough that your hips are parallel to the ground.
  3. Squeeze your glutes as you push into the right foot to stand back up. Try to keep your left leg up between reps.
  4. Perform 5 to 10 reps on this side before switching to the left.
  5. Perform 3 sets.

Variation for beginners: single-leg squat with chair

If you’re a beginner or if balancing is hard for you, you can do this move with the help of a chair.

  1. Begin seated in a chair with your torso up and your core engaged.
  2. Seated, extend one leg straight out in front of you, put your weight in the heel of your other leg which will stay on the ground
  3. Use your arms to propel you to stand up, balancing on your grounded leg, weight in the heel
  4. Keeping the same leg lifted, slowly lower yourself back down to sit back in the chair
  5. Perform 5 to 10 reps. Switch legs.
  6. Perform up to 3 sets

Advanced variation: pistol squat

This is a more advanced variation that requires some equipment. For this move, you’ll need a kettlebell or two dumbbells. You could also add a Bosu ball for an extra challenge.

To perform this move, follow the steps above for a single-leg squat, but add in the kettlebell or dumbbells.

If using a kettlebell, hold it in both hands in front of your chest as you perform the move.

If useing dumbbells, hold one dumbbell in each hand by your sides. Raising your arms out in front of you as you squat down can be a way to add in an upper body move.

Once you’ve mastered this variation, you can hold the weight above your head for an extra challenge. You can also perform the squats on a Bosu ball to test your balance.

The single-leg squat works the following muscles:

  • glutes
  • calves
  • shins
  • thighs
  • abdominals

Other benefits are listed below.

Less impact on your spine

The single-leg squat offers slightly different benefits than the traditional squat move.

One small 2018 study found that single-leg squats were more effective for people with low back pain and who were in recovery from a sports injury. Researchers found that the single-leg squat allowed participants to achieve the same load of muscle activity in the hamstring, calf, hip, and abdominal muscles, but with less impact on the spine.

If you have a back injury, talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise program. They may recommend variations or other movements depending on your injury.

Challenges your balance

The single-leg squat is effective for challenging your balance, which can also help you to work your core muscles.

Adding a Bosu ball can help you focus more on your building your balancing abilities.

The single-leg squat is an intermediate to advanced move. Single-leg squats are a difficult move to get right.

You can work your way up to this move by first mastering the double leg squat. That can help you to learn the correct form. Doing the single-leg squat with poor form can lead to an injury of the hip, knee, or leg.

If you aren’t sure how to perform this move, have a certified personal trainer watch you for the first few times. They can spot if you are doing them correctly and make adjustments if needed.

Avoid doing single-leg squats if you’re injured or feel a lot of pain when you perform the move.

Single-leg squats can be performed two to three times a week as part of a strength training routine. Always allow your body at least a day to allow your muscles to rebuild and recover.

Consider combining single-leg squats with the following exercises to create a strength routine:

  • step ups
  • walking lunges
  • Romanian deadlift
  • side planks

Perform 5 to 10 reps of each exercise on each leg or side. Repeat 3 times.

If you’re already performing squats on a regular basis, you may want to add the single-leg squat to your routine. It can introduce an added challenge for your muscles and help you work on balance.

If you’re new to exercise, you may want to start with traditional squats first. If single-leg squats cause you any pain or feel too challenging, stick to to double-leg squats until you are ready to move on to this more challenging move. Always check with your doctor before starting a new fitness routine.