Kettlebell Pistol Squat — Muscles Worked, How To and Variations

Kettlebell Pistol Squat

The kettlebell pistol squat is not for the faint of heart. This advanced movement requires a level of balance, mobility, stability, and strength that beginners, most intermediate and even many advanced exercisers won’t be able to handle. 

But if you can do it, the rewards are incredible as it’s not only a functional exercise but a superior option for building size and strength with limited equipment. 

In This Exercise:

  • Target Muscle Group: Legs
  • Type: Strength, hypertrophy, functional fitness
  • Mechanics: Compound
  • Equipment: Kettlebells 
  • Difficulty: Intermediate, advanced 

Kettlebell Pistol Squat Muscles Worked

The pistol squat is really a total-body exercise. However, it is a lower body builder primarily. We’ve included brief descriptions of each body part involved below.

Kettlebell Pistol Squat Muscles Worked

Gluteus Maximus

This is the largest and most superficial muscle that makes up the majority of the size, shape, and appearance of the butt and hip muscles. It’s also one of the butt muscles that also include the gluteus medius and minimus. 

The gluteus maximus is a very important muscle for function and aesthetics. The butt primarily extends and externally rotates the thighs and it plays an important role in helping us to maintain an upright posture.

The kettlebell pistol squat is a great movement for the butt muscles.

Quadriceps

The quadriceps or quads for short is the large group of muscles that make up most of your upper leg mass. It has four heads; rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedialis.

These muscles help to flex the hips and extend the knees during movements such as squats. They’re also important for posture, walking, and the function of the spine and pelvis. 

There are few movements better than squat variations such as the kettlebell pistol squat when it comes to activating the quadriceps muscles. If you want well-developed leg muscles that look incredible you want to ensure you’re doing enough to train the quadriceps muscles.

Adductor Magnus

The adductor magnus is the largest of the muscles that make up the adductor group of muscles in the medial compartment of the thigh. While it assists during adduction of the thigh (limb moves toward the center of the body), the adductor magnus also helps with hip extension and medial rotation. It has anterior and posterior fibers that help it act on the front and back of the leg. 

Calf muscles 

The calves are the lower leg muscles consisting of the gastrocnemius and soleus. The gastrocnemius is the larger of the two and what most people think of when it comes to the calf muscles. 

It’s the very visible muscle right below the knee that has two heads; medial and lateral and it gives the lower leg a lot of its shape. It joins with the soleus to form the Achilles tendon near the lower portion of the leg.

Then you have the soleus; a large muscle located deep to the gastrocnemius.

The calf muscles plantarflex (point the toes down) the foot and ankle. They are also important for posture, and athletic movements. Although they do have an uneven ratio of fast and slow-twitch fibers.

The gastrocnemius is composed of mostly fast-twitch fibers that make it better suited for quick and explosive movements. The soleus contains more slow-twitch fibers and is, therefore, better suited for endurance-type activities. 

How To Do The Kettlebell Pistol Squat 

There are a few different examples of how this exercise can be performed. You may find that a certain method works better or feels more comfortable and effective for you. 

We’ve included step-by-step instructions to help you understand the movement so that you can get the best results from it. This is the single kettlebell variation. 

Always start by warming up with a few bodyweight only reps or use a light kettlebell.  

Step 1: Choose your kettlebell. 

Step 2: Pick up the kettlebell with both hands and hold it by the handle. 

Step 3: Take a stance with feet close together, tighten your core, and pull your shoulders down.

Slowly descend into the squat by trying to pull yourself down, while simultaneously raising your leg as you get lower to the ground. You can round your spine during this portion of the exercise as it will make it easier to balance. 

You should end with the non-working leg almost or parallel to the floor. 

Step 4: Go as low as you can but to where you’re able to push yourself back up using one leg. 

Step 5: Stand up out of the bottom position and repeat the exercise for the desired number of reps. 

Kettlebell pistol squat tips/what not to do

  • Start small and gradually increase your squat depth. 
  • Your heels should not leave the ground. This could be due to tightness in the calves or lack of ankle mobility. Practice stretches or place something under your heel to elevate it a little higher than the toes, and gradually work your heel closer to the floor. 
  • A common mistake is to sit too far back which is not how a proper squat is performed. This will affect your balance to perform the movement, stress your knees and is simply improper. You want the movement to occur straight up and down and it’s perfectly fine that the knees move forward over the feet, although not excessively. 
  • Do not try to remain too upright through the torso. This will also affect your balance especially if you’re not expert level. A little rounding of the spine is normal although as you progress, try to straighten up little by little. 
  • It can be very difficult to keep the non-working leg extended out in front especially for those newer to the movement. Hold the toe of the non-working leg and descend as far as you can without letting go. Although, you should eventually let go. 
  • You don’t want to bounce out of the bottom of the squat. This is a form of cheating that doesn’t challenge the working muscles the way the pistol squat should. This could also be stressful on the knees. 

Check out this video for some great tips.

How To Progress Into The Kettlebell Pistol Squat

Most people have to use progressions before they can do a proper, full-depth pistol squat.

We recommend watching the following video that demonstrates progressions. 

Kettlebell Pistol Squat Benefits

There are so many benefits to doing a single-leg squat variation. In fact, everyone should do them and it’s one of the best ways to overload the leg muscles with limited equipment. 

Great strength and muscle builder 

Where two-legged squat variations require decent weight to build muscle and strength, doing them with one leg shifts all the resistance to one side, making it a much more challenging exercise. 

If loaded with enough weight, it can be just as hard as heavy barbell squats and will result in massive size and strength gains. Of course, you have to continually progress by adding reps and/or resistance too. 

While it may eventually get difficult to add more weight and do pistol squats, there are other single-leg squats where you can use heavier poundages and continue to take advantage of the muscle and strength-building benefits. 

Super functional

The kettlebell pistol squat isn’t for exercise rookies, although athletes may be able to jump right into them. 

It requires good balance, total body stability, core strength, good flexibility, and also decent joint mobility in the hips and ankles. 

If you’re an athlete or simply want to be more well-rounded in your fitness, we really can’t think of better options. You’re actually training every element that makes up a functional body. Not to mention, this is a good exercise for preventing injuries as it strengthens areas that may not get attention with a lot of common training routines.

Little setup and convenient 

All you need is a kettlebell and some experience with this movement – no bars and plates or any other special equipment. It can be done literally anywhere and even using a dumbbell or any weight that you can find. 

Kettlebell Pistol Squat Drawbacks

There are a few potential drawbacks of this exercise. However, there are no negatives that we can think of. 

Requires a decent level of fitness

If you’re a beginner with no athletic experience, doing the kettlebell pistol squat would be very challenging. There are progressions, but still, you need good balance, coordination, and lower body strength.

You also need good hip and ankle mobility and flexibility. 

Not always appealing

Having to balance yourself while holding weight and descending into a squat is not a movement most people will look forward to doing. This is the case with single leg movements in general because they require more focus to do. 

Kettlebell Pistol Squat Variations

The kettlebell pistol squat is an excellent exercise that we would recommend for anyone that can do it. But we also really like these variations that you can do to mix up your training and also improve your development in other areas that certain variations are better at emphasizing. 

Single-arm kettlebell pistol squat 

This variation, while not necessarily more difficult than the two kettlebell version will definitely test your stability and balance. It may engage your core to a greater degree which makes it very functional. 

Double kettlebell pistol squat

When you feel ready and are very advanced, you can use two kettlebells. By now, you should know proper form execution. 

Clean the kettlebells to the front rack position, and perform the pistol squat that way. 

Bodyweight only 

We recommend that all beginners start with bodyweight only for the pistol squat. The pistol squat is a very difficult exercise to do especially using a large range of motion that involves squatting deeper than parallel. 

Perfect the movement using no weight before you start adding resistance. 

TRX or suspension trainer pistol squat

For some people, the unassisted version of this exercise will probably never make it into their workout routine. That’s okay because it doesn’t have to. 

You can always use assistance in the form of anything you can hold onto. But why we recommend using a suspension trainer is you still have to engage your core, balance, and it allows for freer range of movement. 

Doorway or rack assisted pistol squat

This is an example of a variation that almost anyone can do as long as you have decent mobility in the joints (if you squat below parallel). 

Stand in the center of a doorway, squat rack, countertop, or anything similar, grip each side, and perform the pistol squat this way. You just have to remember to not use too much of your upper body as you still want to focus on squatting through the lower body and not using your arms to pull yourself up. 

You don’t want to lean back into the movement but rather, squat straight down and up as you would a normal squat. 

While you won’t be able to use a kettlebell for this version, you could load up a backpack or throw on a weight vest and really load up on the resistance.

This isn’t going to work your core as much and it’s not as functional but sometimes unassisted variations aren’t an option. 

Levitation squat

So this is a single-leg squat but instead of extending one leg forward, you’d bend one knee and squat down using one leg. If done correctly, the knee of the non-working leg should almost make contact with the floor. 

Smith machine pistol squat

This is our pick for building the most overall strength and muscle mass. It simulates the front squat which is one of the best leg exercises and you can load it heavy. 

Barbell pistol squat

If you’re up for the challenge, try this exercise using a freeweight barbell. Unlike holding a kettlebell, you have to balance a long bar which really tests your stability. 

How To Include the Kettlebell Pistol Squat Into Your Training Regime 

The kettlebell pistol squat, when performed at full squat depth, is certainly effective enough to replace any lower body exercise. Although we certainly don’t suggest it to be your only or even primary leg movement for total muscle and strength gains.

How you incorporate this exercise will depend on your goals and training experience. Unlike other functional movements, this one is typically performed for a specific purpose. 

Whether your goal is to build strength, put some size on those legs or be a better athlete, there’s an ideal way to program for a specific outcome. We’ve included a few suggestions below. 

Strength 

  • 3-4 sets x 4-7 reps

Hypertrophy

  • 3-4 sets x 8-15 reps

Functional fitness, muscle endurance, and mental fortitude

  • 2-3 sets x 15-30+ reps

Wrapping Up

We highly recommend the kettlebell pistol squat and its variations for what they offer. Single-leg squat exercises are some of our favorite movements to do because you don’t need to add much weight to make them comparable to two-legged squats that require a greater load to really get the benefits. 

Of course, two-legged squats allow you to use more weight which has its advantages, however, unilateral exercises are just as important for development. 

This is not an easy exercise to do especially when the legs reach below parallel and there will always be room for improvement but we encourage you to work on it and reap the rewards. 

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