Pistol squats are an advanced unilateral strength exercise that are perfect for those who need to be challenged. Pistol squats mostly target your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves.

If you don't quite have enough strength for this advanced movement, or you have injury that stops you then read on because I share my favorite 9 pistol squat alternatives. 

In my option, everyone needs unilateral leg work in their weekly routine. Unilateral leg exercises means single leg, with an exercise being performed one side at a time. 

The reason these are vital is it corrects imbalances, challenges core muscles, helps boost sport performance and decreases risk of injury to name a few.

To not train unilaterally, you might be missing out on core stability, joint health and strength gains.[1]

1. Skater Squat 

Man Doing Skater Squat Exercise In The Gym

Skater squats, also sometimes called "knee tap squats," are a great single leg exercise suited toward all strength levels. Skater squats are easier making them a good pistol squat alternative.

Beginners are able to perform this workout with a limited range of motion and build from there, while more advanced strength levels can add weight to the exercise.

Skater squats target your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves. Additionally, they help to stretch your hip flexors and ankles too, which improves mobility. 


  • Develops single leg strength and power.
  • Enhances balance and stability. 
  • Perfect alternative to pistol squats for those who have knee pain.

How To Do A Skater Squat:

  1. Begin by standing up straight, then shift your weight onto one leg. 
  2. Breathe in and engage your core. Bend your free leg 90 degrees behind you. 
  3. Slowly lower yourself down, reaching your arms forward to counterbalance your weight. 
  4. Tap the ground with your knee and breathe out as you power up back into a one-leg standing position. 
  5. Repeat for the desired amount of reps, ensuring that you do the same amount for each leg.

Tips From A Trainer!

Keep your core engaged throughout this movement to help keep your spine neutral. 

2. Reverse Lunge 

Woman Doing Reverse Lunge Exercise

I will always make sure people who have existing knee problems, bad hip mobility or problems with balance are doing a reverse lunge in their workout routine. 

As a unilateral exercise you have more stability on your front leg, and less strain is placed on your joints. This exercise targets your glutes, hamstrings, and core muscles.  

If you're unable to perform lunges due to knee discomfort or balance issues, there are
alternatives to lunges that can still target and strengthen your lower body muscles.


  • Increases balance and coordination.
  • Helps combat muscular imbalances.
  • Good for beginners who struggle with balancing or lack hip mobility. 

How To Do A Reverse Lunge: 

  1. Start by standing with your feet hip-width apart. This is your starting position. 
  2. Take a step back, resting on the ball of your back foot with your heel off the ground. 
  3. Breathe in and engage your core. 
  4. Drop yourself down into the lunge, ensuring your pelvis remains tucked. Your knees should bend to a 90-degree angle, and your front knee should not extend past your toes. 
  5. As you exhale, push through the heel of your front foot to drive your back foot up to the starting position. 
  6. Repeat for the desired number of reps on a single leg, or alternate legs each time.

Tips From A Trainer!

Keep looking forward and to build more powerful unilateral strength forcefully push against the floor when returning to the starting position. 

Related Article - Benefits of Lunges

3. Split Squat 

Man Doing Split Squats

Split squats apply a very similar movement to a reverse lunge, except it does not involve stepping backward. 

This exercise targets all major leg muscles. If you’d like to increase the intensity of the workout, you can add weights. 

If you struggle with the coordination and balance required for reverse lunges, then I recommend trying split squats as an alternative exercise to pistol squats.


  • Trains lower body strength and endurance.[2]
  • Good application to increasing sport performance and assisting in everyday movements.
  • Helps create better symmetry and less muscular imbalances.

How To Do A Split Squat: 

  1. Begin by standing with your feet hip-width apart. 
  2. Take a step back, resting on the ball of your back foot with your heel off the ground. This is your starting position. 
  3. Breathe in and engage your core. 
  4. Drop your body down into the squat, ensuring your pelvis remains tucked. Your knees should bend to a 90-degree angle, and your front knee should not extend past your toes. 
  5. As you exhale, drive up to the starting position by pushing through the heel of your front foot. Ensure that both feet remain stationary in a “split” position and don’t bring your back foot forward. 
  6. Drop back down, repeating for the desired amount of reps on a single leg before switching to the other leg. Ensure that you do the same amount of reps for each leg.

Tips From A Trainer!

To find the most balance with the split squat you want to ensure even foot pressure throughout the exercise. If you are to far forwards and balancing on your toes, think of driving through your heel to create more equal foot pressure. 

4. Step Up 

Woman Doing Step Ups In The Gym

The step up is an excellent alternative exercise that works the same muscles as a split squat and involves a similar range of motion for your joints.  

Adjusting the height of your step modifies the workout, allowing you to target specific muscles more. A low step will work your quads more, while a high step targets the glutes and hamstrings more.  

I give all beginners step ups as they are very easy to execute and are a great way to slowly build up your strength for pistol squats.

If you find yourself unable to perform step-ups for any reason, there are step up alternative exercises that can effectively target and strengthen your lower body muscles.


  • Great conditioning exercise for the lower body.
  • Helps develop explosive leg drive and power.
  • Creates minimal impact in the knee joint.

How To Do A Step Up: 

  1. Facing your step, stand shoulder-width apart. 
  2. Place your dominant leg onto the step, ensuring that your entire foot is on the platform. Your hip, knee, and ankle should also all be in alignment. This is your starting position. 
  3. Using your front leg, push down and step up onto the platform with both feet. Ensure that you maintain a straight posture throughout the movement. 
  4. Work the same leg for the desired amount of reps before switching to the other side.

Tips From A Trainer!

To build the most strength you can, push through your foot on the working leg. Doing this rather than pushing off the supporting leg will increase strength a lot more.  

5. Single-Leg Box Squat 

Man Doing Single-Leg Box Squat

The single-leg box squat is as close to a pistol squat as you’ll get but is significantly easier to perform. It also lets you progressively build up your strength. 

With this exercise, you’ll be isolating your hamstrings one leg at a time. This is one of the most efficient ways to strengthen your knees and prevent knee pain.

Once you’ve mastered the single-leg box squat, you can progress onto doing Bulgarian split squats or pistol squats.


  • Ideal exercise for beginners who lack single leg strength.
  • Good pistol squat alternative that works the same muscles. 
  • Helps strengthen the hips.

How To Do A Single-Leg Box Squat: 

  1. Select a plyometric box or bench that allows your knees to bend 90 degrees when sitting on it. 
  2. Stand shoulder-width apart in front of the box/bench, facing away from it. Shift your weight to your non-dominant leg. 
  3. Lift your dominant leg off the ground to a 45-degree angle, keeping the knee straight. 
  4. Extend your arms forward for stability. Inhale and engage your core. This is your starting position. 
  5. Slowly lower yourself down toward the box by bending the weight-bearing knee. 
  6. Aim to touch the box with your buttocks. If you’re not able to bend that low, go as low as you’re able to. 
  7. Push through your heel to rise back up and return back to the starting position. 
  8. Repeat for the desired amount of reps before switching legs.

Tips From A Trainer!

As you build strength in this movement, you can start to lower the height of the box if you want to challenge yourself or work towards a pistol squat.  

Suggested Equipment - Best Plyo Boxes For Home Gyms

6. Single-Leg Lateral Squat 

Single-Leg Lateral Squat

The single-leg lateral squat exercise is very similar to a pistol squat, except that your non-weight-bearing leg extends out laterally (to the side) rather than in front of you.

This is an excellent exercise for improving the flexibility and strength of your hips and knees, as well as improving your balance and coordination.

This is a good pistol squat alternative exercise for beginners.


  • Improves flexibility in the hips.
  • Creates better balance and coordination.
  • Strengthens the muscles around the knee for better knee health.

How To Do A Single-Leg Lateral Squat: 

  1. Using a step or stacked weight plates, stand with one leg on the platform. 
  2. Drop your hips toward the leg that is hanging off the side of the platform and tuck your pelvis. This is your starting position. 
  3. Extend your arms out in front of you or hold a kettlebell for stability. 
  4. As you bend your weight-bearing knee to drop into the single-leg squat, extend your other leg out laterally (sideways) from your body. 
  5. Drive up, pushing through your heel to return to starting position. 
  6. Repeat for the desired amount of reps before switching legs.

Tips From A Trainer!

Make sure you maintain square hips during this movement so it isn't made easier and you reduce the effectiveness of the exercise on hip stability.  

7. Bulgarian Split Squat 

Woman Doing Bulgarian Split Squats

The Bulgarian split squat is an exercise staple that should be a part of every leg workout routine. I am a big fan of giving my clients Bulgarian split squats once they have build strength in a reverse lunge and step up. 

This pistol squat alternative exercise is more challenging than the regular split squat, requiring a decent amount of stability and baseline strength from your muscles and joints.

Therefore, if you can't perform this exercise, you can try out Bulgarian split squat alternatives.


  • Helps build a better squat.
  • Seriously strengthens the legs and glutes.
  • Engages the core to help remain stable throughout the movement.

How To Do A Bulgarian Split Squat: 

  1. Stand around 2-3 feet in front of a knee-high platform, facing away. 
  2. Extend one leg out behind you, placing the top of your toes onto the platform. 
  3. Ensure that your torso is upright and your shoulders and hips are square. Maintain this posture for the entire duration of the exercise. 
  4. Inhale and slowly lower yourself down, driving your knee toward the ground. 
  5. As you exhale, stand back up by pushing the floor away from you. 
  6. Repeat this motion on one leg for the desired number of reps before switching legs.

Tips From A Trainer!

Comfort is key with this exercise. Ensure the surface you are using to prop the back foot is padded and the right height for you. Make sure the knee hovers just off the floor and drive using the front leg up to the starting position.  

8. Forward Lunge 

Woman Doing Forward Lunge Exercise

The forward lunge is a very simple single leg exercise that's perfect for beginners. While it doesn't require any equipment, you can add weight to increase the intensity of the workout too.

Forward lunges target all the major leg muscles. Additionally, the stability required for the correct form makes them an excellent strengthening exercise for your core and back muscles too.  


  • Addresses imbalances in the body.
  • Increases flexibility in the hip flexors. 
  • Enhances performance in other activities and sports. 

How To Do A Forward Lunge:

  1. Standing up straight with your feet hip-width apart, place your hands on your hips. This is your starting position. 
  2. Take a step forward and, as your front foot touches the ground, drop down into the lunge position. 
  3. Touch the floor with your back knee. Both knees should now be at a 90-degree angle. Ensure that your torso remains upright and your hips and shoulders are squared. 
  4. Drive your body back up and bring your front leg back to starting position. 
  5. Continue the movement for the desired number of reps before switching sides.

Tips From A Trainer!

To do this exercise with better balance start with your feet hip width apart and maintain the gap as you step forwards. 

9. Knee Drives 

Man Doing Knee Drives

Knee drives are an easy but effective pistol squat alternative exercise.  This exercise is perfect for those who do a lot of running or need explosive power for sports. 

This exercise effectively targeting your glutes, quads, hamstrings, hip flexors, and core muscles and challenges your balance. 

This exercise is a good alternative to pistol squats.


  • Help to improve overall balance and coordination.  
  • Great low impact exercise and suitable for those with knee issues.
  • Builds muscular endurance.

How To Do Knee Drives: 

  1. Start with your weight on your left foot and hands out in front to help with balance.
  2. Bend your left knee and extend your right leg behind, trying to keep your weight on the front leg. 
  3. Drive your right knee forwards towards your chest and meet it with your hands. 
  4. Re-extend your right knee behind you, this completes one rep.
  5. Work one side for 30 seconds and switch to the other side.

Tips From A Trainer!

Keep your core braced to maintain a flat back and keep your torso stable as the knee drives forwards.  

Benefits Of Alternative Exercises Over Pistol Squats

There are a variety of reasons why people should consider alternative exercises rather than pistol squats. While pistol squats offer a great leg workout, they do have their drawbacks.

These include being very difficult to execute and requiring a significant level of baseline strength. Additionally, incorrect form while doing pistol squats can cause lower back pain due to the overuse of the hip flexors.[3 

Conversely, our alternative exercises allow you to target similar muscles without the above-mentioned problems. Added to this, pistol squats require you to lower yourself right down to the ground.

If you have an existing hip or leg injury, this would mean you’re not able to do the workout at all. At least half of the alternative exercises on our list don’t require such an extended range of motion, and they can be further customized to suit your needs or limitations. 

Common Pistol Squat Questions

Why is it called a pistol squat? 

The pistol squat, a variation of a single-leg squat, gets its name from the form or shape created when doing the exercise. When you perform the workout, you’ll extend your hand forward and grasp your foot, forming the shape of a pistol with your body. 

Why is the pistol squat so hard? 

The pistol squat is the most challenging squat to master, requiring both mobility and strength in order to execute the exercise. Unlike standard single-leg squats, pistol squats involve a wider range of motion, making them more challenging. In a pistol squat, the goal is to drop down as low as possible, ideally resting your hamstring on your calf.  

Are pistol squats good for knees? 

Pistol squats are not necessarily harmful or bad for your knees. When performed correctly, pistol squats can be beneficial to your knees. With the correct form, you’ll be able to target your glutes, quads, and calves while also strengthening your knee ligaments and tendons.  

Which of these substitute exercises is best for beginners? 

More than half of the alternative exercises we’ve included are suited toward beginners. These include: reverse lunges, split squats, step-ups, single-leg box squats, single-leg lateral squats, forward lunges, and knee drives.  

Read More - 6 Best Reverse Hyperextension Alternative Workouts


That wraps up my comprehensive guide to pistol squat alternatives. Now that you know the benefits of these substitute exercises and what muscles are targeted, you'll be able to reach your goals and build your strength without having to do a pistol squat.

The nine substitutes provided will help your strength training, and you'll achieve your goals in no time! 


1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21127894/


Jo Taylor

Jo Taylor

Hi, I’m Jo. I love sunrise swims, cold water immersion and cats. I have been dedicated to strength training for the past 14 years. I became a qualified Personal Trainer in 2020, and am passionate about helping my clients get stronger. Visit Jo Taylors Website