CrossFit Pistol Squat Progression Guide

W

hen I was amidst writing the CrossFit Gymnastics Program, I was conflicted on whether or not to include CrossFit Pistol Squats as one of the progressions. One one hand, a disproportionate amount of clients in their first 1-2 years at a CrossFit box can’t do them which justifies why I should include the progressions in the program. But on the other hand, they aren’t that common in the most CrossFit programming.

Pistols didn’t make its way into the CrossFit Gymnastics program in 2013 but they were eventually added in 2018 after enough people asked for them to be included.  This article will cover a simple accessory pistol squat progression program that can be done in conjunction with most CrossFit training templates.

In the article, I provide a simple pistol squat progression to help you get your first single-leg bodyweight squat!

What are Pistol Squats?

Pistol Squats, or also know as one-legged squats, are a leg strengthening movement and exercise. They are considered a more advanced and challenging bodyweight movement due to the necessity of above-average leg strength and unilateral (one-legged) coordination to execute the exercise movement correctly and safely. For this reason, beginners often have trouble performing the movement

You can see that the Pistol Squat is performed by following these coaching tips:

  1. Stand with both feet on the ground.
  2. Straighten the other leg forward.
  3. Push the hips back.
  4. Bench the squat leg.
  5. Keep pushing the hips back and squatting down keep knee back and tension in the hamstrings.
  6. Get below parallel.
  7. Come back up the same way.

Pistol Squat Beginner Progression Videos

Progressing with the pistol squat is done by incrementally using harder and harder progressions. Here are a few different pistol squat progressions that can help you to your first pistol. These videos can give you a little taste of the creative solutions you can use to incrementally load one leg to increase its strength and balance to develop pistols.

Pistol Squat with Toe Assist

Pistol Squat with Counter Weight

Negative Pistol onto Surface

Bulgarian Split Squat

Pistol Squat with Anchored Foot

Assisted Pistol Squats

Negative Pistol with two-leg squat

Other CrossFit Gymnastics Progressions

The CrossFit Pistol Squat progression isn’t the only progression template that I make available. Here are some other movements progressions you can check out if you want to work on multiple movements at once.

Intro to the CrossFit Pistol Squat Progression Guide

How does someone move from not being able to perform a single pistol squat to being capable of performing them in a CrossFit WOD? The simple answer is following through on a pistol squat progression program!

The pistol one-legged squat progression I have here gently guides CrossFitters through a simple step-by-step program to conquer pistols. In the first level, we focus on building basic leg strength using the barbell back squat. The second level we learn how to lower our self with a negative pistol and then use assistance to get yourself back up. Then in the third level, we use the strength and coordination from level 1/2 to get your first pistol squat. In level 4/5 we gain proficiency over the movement by practicing and building volume.

Taking this pragmatic approach to developing pistols allows us to systematically make progress toward working pistol squats into your WOD’s

The Level Up Method for CrossFit Pistol Squats

There are an art and science to bodyweight gymnastics progressions. I use a methodology called The Level Up Method. This periodization methodology is the underlying exercise science protocol that powers all of my strength progressions on this site.

For the pistol squat progression, there are five levels. Each level has its own goal. Once that goal is achieved then you can move to the next level. Each level has been designed and programmed to fit the needs of athletes within that level. Once someone graduates to a new level the programming are adjusted to help reach the goal of the next level.

crossfit pistol squat progression

Level 1: CrossFit Pistol Squat Progression

In my experience working with clients, I’ve always had the most success progressing people with pistols once they’ve developed a basic level of leg strength through barbell squats. Despite this being apart of a Gymnastics strength program, we’ll be utilizing some weight training to develop bodyweight pistol squats to attain much-needed leg strength to perform pistols

  • Current ability: Can you perform 5 reps of barbell back squat at your bodyweight with a good range of motion? If not, then you can start here at level 1 pistol squat progression. If you can perform 5 reps of bodyweight squat, then you can move to level 2.
  • Goal: 5 reps of back squats at your bodyweight.
  • Notes: The primary purpose of this phase is to build you up to a bodyweight back squat. Being able to squat your bodyweight is a good (but not perfect) indicator that you have the base level of strength and coordination for a pistol.
  • How: Perform 2 or 3 workouts a week until you can perform 5 reps of bodyweight back squat.

 

Level 1 Pistol Squat Weekly Progression Workouts

WHENDAY 1DAY 2DAY 3
StrengthHypertrophy Skill Development
BEFORE WOD3 X 5 Back Squat. Add 2.5 to 5 lb. each time you perform this workout. Once you can get to the point where your first set is at your bodyweight, you can move to level 2. 3 x 12-15 Back Squat at ~80% the weight from Day 1. This is going to make your legs sore! Assisted Pistol Squat Negatives. Accumulate 5 to 10 Reps per leg. Feel free to rest as long as you want between reps.

Level 2: CrossFit Pistol Squat Progression

By Level 2, you should be able to do 5-reps of bodyweight back squats with good form. This establishes a base of strength and stability to begin working on un-assisted pistols.

In Level 2 we will continue using scaled pistol squats. The primary goal of level 2 is to be able to perform controlled negatives (going down) pistols without holding on to anything with your hands. At the same time we work on single leg stability, I suggest you also continue building you’re

  • Current ability: 5 reps of back squats at your bodyweight.
  • Goal: A 5-second negative pistol with a full range of motion.
  • How: Perform 2 or 3 workouts a week until you can perform a 5-second negative pistol with each leg with good form.

 

Level 2 Pistol Squat Weekly Progression Workouts

WHENDAY 1DAY 2DAY 3
StrengthPistol VolumePistol Intensity
BEFORE WOD3 X 5 Back Squat. Add 2.5 to 5 lb. each time you perform this workout. If you after three weeks you are unable to add weight you can then reduce by 10% and switch to a 5 x 5 rep scheme. If you are already on a linear strength program that has squats then use that instead.Accumulate 15-25 reps per leg of negative pistols onto box. Use as low of a box as you can. At first, you may need to use a box that is above squat parallel which means you won't be able to do full ROM. As you progress week-to-week transition to lower boxes until you can get below parallel. Accumulate 10-20 reps per leg of negative pistols with a concentric two leg squat
AFTER WODAssisted Pistol Squat Negatives. 10 reps per leg. Make sure to count 3-5 seconds on the way down to make it controlled. Use as little assistance as possible. 3 x 8 of Bulgarian split squats. Accumulate 10-20 reps per leg of negative pistols with a concentric two leg squat

Level 3: CrossFit Pistol Squat Progression

In level 3 our goal is to get your first pistol squat. By this point, you should be able to perform 5 reps of barbell bodyweight back squats and can perform a 5-second negative pistol with each leg. With those pre-requisites, you shouldn’t be too far off from getting your first CrossFit Pistol Squat.

  • Current ability: A 5-second negative pistol with a full range of motion.
  • Goal: 1 full range of motion and controlled pistol squat for each leg.
  • How: 2-3 workouts a week

Level 3 Pistol Squat Weekly Progression Workouts

WHENDAY 1DAY 2DAY 3
StrengthPistol VolumePistol practice
BEFORE WOD3 X 5 Back Squat. Add 2.5 to 5 lb. each time you perform this workout. If you after three weeks you are unable to add weight you can then reduce by 10% and switch to a 5 x 5 rep scheme. If you are already on a linear strength program that has squats then use that instead.Accumulate 15-25 reps per leg of negative pistols without a box using a two legged concentric squat on your way up.

Here you'll make attempts at getting your first pistols. To do this, simply start performing a negative pistol like you practiced in level 1/2 and go as low as you can where you you can come back up again. At first, you won't be able to go full ROM but the goal is to incrementally go as low as possible. Spend 10-15 minutes alternating legs and practicing.
AFTER WODAccumulate 15-25 reps per leg of negative pistols without a box using a two legged concentric squat on your way up.

3 x 8 to 12 of Bulgarian split squats. Feel free to hold dumbbells if bodyweight is too easy.

Level 4: CrossFit Pistol Squat Progression

Once you’re at level 4 for the CrossFit pistol squat progression you should be able to perform at least one pistol per leg with a full range of motion. In level 4 we begin working up your ability to perform multiple pistols in a row. Because we all know, there aren’t any WOD’s with just one pistol!

Additionally, I am removing the linear strength squat barbell strength as part of the pistol progression. Feel free to continue using that squat program mentioned in level 3 or use another program that is more suited to your training needs. I do suggest that you follow a strength program that has you squatting heavy at least once a week! The one I posted is well suited for beginners and novices but after 6 to 9 months you will need something more suited for an intermediate lifter to continue making gains on your back squat.

  • Current ability: 1 full range of motion and controlled pistol squat for each leg.
  • Goal: 5 pistols each leg while alternating legs.
  • How: 2-3 workouts a week

 

Level 4 Pistol Squat Weekly Progression Workouts

WHENDAY 1DAY 2DAY 3
StrengthVolumePractice
BEFORE WOD5 x 3 pistols with alternating legs. If you are unable to complete a rep by not being able to come up then you can use assistance by holding onto something pull you up. If you do use assistance try to use as little as possible. Accumulate 5 to 10 pistols each leg before your WOD.
Attempt the level goal by performing 5 reps a leg while alternating legs.
AFTER WODAccumulate 5 pistols each leg after your WOD.

Level 5: CrossFit Pistol Squat Progression

Level 5 is more of a Maintenance level. The goal is just to do a few of these workouts a month to slowly build up your pistol capacity.

  • Current ability: 1 full range of motion and controlled pistol squat for each leg.
  • Goal: 10 pistols a row for each leg.
  • How: 2-3 workouts a month

 

Level 5 Pistol Squat Weekly Progression Workouts

WHENDAY 1DAY 2DAY 3
MaintenanceMaintenanceMaintenance
AFTER WODTabata pistols alternating legs. This will be very hard and by round 8 you may not be able to complete any reps! The goal for this workout is simply to perform more reps week-over-week. Every Minute On the Minute for 10 minutes. For the first minute, perform 5 pistols on one leg. On the second minute perform 5 pistols on the other leg. Do this until each legs has accumulated 25 pistols over the course of 5 round. If 5 is too many, feel free to do less and then work your way up to 5. Complete 50 pistols for time. Perform in any rep scheme you want. Just make sure that each leg gets 25 reps.