Could it really be that the single leg, or pistol squat, is better than the back squat?
Shirley I can’t be serious. A simple body weight squat can’t possibly be better than loading hundreds of pounds on the back and squatting down until your butt touches your ankles……right?
I probably wouldn’t think such a thing if I didn’t have the squatting history I have now.
Long story short, I ate heavy barbell squats for breakfast lunch and dinner for years until a nagging hip problem forced me to lay off for a while.
To help keep my leg strength from taking a swan dive, I decided to use single leg squats as a “light” alternative. My hope was to use the exercise as damage control and limit my losses while my hip recovered.
You can imagine my surprise when my lower body strength and power went through the roof after a month of doing nothing but single leg squats.
It felt as if my feeble human legs had been replaced by some sort of cyborg limbs from a science fiction movie.
On top of that, my legs become more sculpted and my quads were finally showing some resemblance of muscle tone instead if just being a solid slab of muscle.
It’s been 2 years now and I have yet to go back to the barbell back squat. My entire lower body is still getting stronger and looked better and its showing no signs of stopping anytime soon.
Here’s why I believe this to be the case:
Single leg squats don’t hunch the upper body forwards
A few months ago I did a few barbell squats just for the nostalgia of it. My lower body felt like I was cheating and that the movement was easy with weights that used to be difficult.
My core and upper body however was thinking “what the &@%# is this!?”
I had grown used to not having weight on my back and so when I was standing back up I stuck out my chest and threw my shoulders back. This was one of the reasons why my hip started get better was because I was able to fully engage my posterior chain up into a full upright posture.
I know. Back squats engage the posterior chain, but with the slight hunch forward I couldn’t help but feel like I was missing out on some activation that was key to maximizing my gains. Without coming back up to full attention, I felt like I was always coming up just short.
Sure. Maybe my technique was never perfect, and that hunch may be just an inch or two, but try as I might I just couldn’t get my back to stand perfectly effect with the weight on my back.
The Lateral stability requirement
The biggest challenge I faced with single leg squats was keeping my body from moving all over the place as I moved up and down.
My knee and pelvis in particular were shifting all over the place which was making my entire upper body flail around like an epileptic monkey.
This was the first time I realized that I didn’t have nearly as much muscular control as I thought.
Sticking to single leg squats forced me to gain more latteral stability of my body, thus making my whole body more powerful and efficient.
Unilateral work load
While squating down with both legs is very functional, there is one functional aspect that is often ignored.
The fact of the matter is that we hardly ever use both of our legs in the same motion and under the same load at the same time.
This means I was largely missing the boat when it comes to strengthening my legs for the world outside of the squat rack.
We need each leg to be rock solid and strong as hell on it’s own because even walking or climbing a flight of stairs asks each leg to function independently.
Single leg squats fit the bill very well as does lunging and step ups.
More opportunity to workout
Since I no longer needed a barbell, weights and a squat rack to workout, I was free to do a set of squats anywhere at a moments notice.
I did squats off of the curb while waiting for the bus.
I snuck in a set before going down stairs to do the laundry.
I even did a couple of sets before Teakwon-Do classes.
All of these mini squat sessions trained my neromuscular system to stay in top squatting condition.
In the barbell days a squat workout was a big deal. It took much more time and preparation so I was only squating once or twice a week, at the most. On some occasions I would even skip the squats and then it would be another 2 weeks before I did any squats again.
So here I was going from 3-4 sets a week to 3-4 sets a day. By the end of the week, my legs did more squats than they usual did in a month.
No more intimidation factor
Okay, I admit it. Squatting with a couple hundred pounds on my back scared me a bit.
Some days I could hoist the bar on my back and feel confident. Other times I lifted the bar off of the stands and my mind went to the place thats ussually reserved for juggling chain saws and hitting on Italian fashion models.
The stress on my spine and the loading of my hips sent a clear signal through my whole body that I was playing with fire.
Of course the tension only increaced as I got closer to the floor. As my knees bent I felt the threat of going past the point of no return.
I could always go lighter, but somehow that felt like a cop-out. In order to feel completely safe I had to cut my weight nearly in half.
There was never any such intimidation with single leg squats. If I got into trouble I would simply sit back on the floor.
I also did them in a stairway. This gave me a banister to grab onto as wall as the step behind me that I could sit on.
With these elements I had all of the confidence in the world to push my muscles to their absolute limit without the slightest risk.
So yes, I would take the single leg squat over the barbell squat anyday.
Of course if you don’t want to give-up the back squat then by all means don’t. I’m not trying to say the back squat is a bad exercise.
Just that the single leg squat is just too good to pass up as a light exercise that can’t offer benefits of its own.