Are pistol squats bad for the knees? Uni lateral movements discussed - BroScience

Are pistol squats bad for the knees? Uni lateral movements discussed

Are you asking yourself: Are pistol squats bad for the knees? Well wonder no more, we will explain in detail.

Keep in mind this might shock some of you.

If you have at least some training experience, you should know that there is a vast variety of movements we can do.

It’s not just bench press and deadlifts.

There also are the so-called “unilateral movements”, which are essentially exercises, done with just one side of the body.

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And so, a good example here would be a one arm kettlebell overhead press, but also the topic at hand for this article – Pistol squats.

Are unilateral exercises better?

one arm lateral raise

Unilateral exercises definitely do have a place in your training regimen.

We all know that there is rarely perfect symmetry when it comes to the human body.

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Everybody has for example, a stronger right arm or a more defined left leg.

That even goes for the brain! Most people have one of the sides of their brain working better than the other one.

Given the things we do and go through, we often get physical disbalances.

And while this is bearable and not even slightly noticable in the everyday life, it certainly is a thing to consider when training.

That is mainly because such physical imbalances may hinder the performance of an individual.


If a sprinter only does conventional squats with both legs, he may not find out that one of his legs is weaker.

Because of that weakness, more of the tension will go to the stronger leg, compensatorily.

How would that affect the sprint you may ask?

Well, sprints follow a unilateral movement pattern – Each leg strikes the ground separately and exerts a certain force that propells the individual forward.

From that we can conclude that ultimately, what will determine the end result during a sprint is the synchronisation and strength/explosiveness balance between both legs.

Why are unilateral exercises good?

If you have imbalances, unilateral exercises are one of your go-to choices.

One of their biggest advantages is that they help develop coordination.

Doing a pistol squat for example is not easy, you need to balance well.

When the body is trying to balance, it is simply engaging more muscles to do so.

Logically, a fixed movement like the leg press or hack squat won’t give you that need to balance and hence, those balancing muscles will be less engaged.

Exercises recommendation

  1. Upper body
  • One arm push-up
  • One arm overhead press with a dumbbell or a kettlebell
  • One arm dumbbell lateral raise
  • One arm dumbbell front raise
  • One arm dumbbell kickback
  • One arm preacher curl
  • One arm cable row
  • One arm vertical lat pulldown
  • One arm dumbbell row

2. Lower body

  • One leg lunge
  • One leg leg press
  • One leg box jumps (front/side)
  • One leg rope jumps

And last but not least..

  • Pistol squats

Important note! – All unilateral movements are just auxiliary exercises that are not supposed to be taken to the upper levels of intensity. Make sure to also get the correct execution of each exercise first!

Now to the topic at hand – Pistol squats!

What are pistol squats?

one leg squat

If you’re a beginner who’s wondering if guns are involved in this exercise, we’ll briefly explain what it is.

The whole point of the pistol squat is simply, squatting down on one leg with the opposite leg being straight forward and then squatting back up to the original position.

If you have done it, you would know it’s hard!

Sometimes, even advanced trainees who barbell squat hundreds of pounds, have difficulties with this movement.

Are pistol squats bad for the knees?

So far, we cleared out that unilateral movements are your go-to choice if you’re trying to bring weak points up.

But are pistol squats really that effective, or are we just increasing the rate of wear and tear of our joints to just look cool?

Practically, if we want to balance well on this exercise, we are literally forced to just bend the lower back and engage the spinal erectors into the movement.

That of course happens if you are also lacking mobility.

Try it for yourself – Do a pistol squat and try not to cross the line of your toes with the knees.

If you’re able to do that and also keep your back straight, congratulations!

If however your mobility is not on point and you regularly do pistol squats, you will just teach your nervous system to keep the bones in a wrong position during squatting movements.

On top of that, with a wrong technique you also expose the muscles and mainly tendons to a risk of damage.

What should I do then?

Well, I didn’t want it to sound like I’m completely bashing pistol squats. I’m not.

The point here is plain and simple – Work on your mobility until you are able to do the pistol squat correctly.

And even then, don’t do it at a level of intensity that’s too high and don’t do it too often.

Focus on compound movements and as mentioned, use uni-lateral movements only as auxiliary movements.

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