Pistol squats for MMA fighters may seem like a circus trick. Many will say to just stick to the basic lifts such as the back squat to get strong.
An unloaded pistol squat is equivalent to a back squat performed with an additional load equal to bodyweight. Pistol squats also reduce leg strength imbalances which can improve kicking performance and reduce the risk of injury.
That’s not to say back squats shouldn’t be done and are redundant. No other squatting variation can provide the heavy systematic loading that the back squat can provide. But the pistol squat is a great supplemental exercise and can even become a main exercise if the back squat is not possible.
What Are The Benefits Of Pistol Squats?
Reducing Leg Strength Imbalances
Strength imbalances between legs is normal in MMA. You may have certain sides you like to throw your power kicks from or certain stances you like to shoot for power doubles. However, if leg strength imbalances become too great, problems may occur.
Having leg strength imbalances may negatively affect jumping and kicking performance . Further, it has been found that athletes with larger imbalances between legs are more likely to get injured than those with smaller imbalances .
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Those with a higher risk of injury have imbalances of 17% in males and 13% in females whereas those with less risk of injury have imbalances of 10% in males and 8% in females during double and single leg jumping .
If imbalances are greater than 10-15% between legs, then targeting the weaker leg through an intervention of pistol squats may be a good use of training time.
When looking to reduce leg imbalances, you should start with the weaker leg and perform twice as much volume for that leg than the stronger leg . You don’t need much, even two sets of pistol squats is enough .
Develop Ankle Mobility
Pistol squats will highlight any mobility restrictions you may have. Full range pistol squats require large ankle and hip ranges of motion.
The importance of ankle mobility in MMA can’t be overstated, where being able to dorsiflex (bring the foot up towards the leg) the foot is a requirement for shooting powerful double legs.
Performing ankle mobility exercises in between your pistol squat sets will allow you to push the ankle through the proper range when performing the pistol while the strength developed from the pistol will solidify your new found ankle mobility.
Here is an ankle mobility exercise example you can use between sets:
Are Pistol Squats Better Than Back Squats For MMA?
Both pistol squats and back squats are beneficial for the MMA athlete. The back squat allows heavy loading for maximum strength adaptations where pistol squats don’t allow the same absolute loading.
However, not all MMA athletes want to back squat or have the equipment to perform heavy back squats. The pistol squat with smaller loads can induce similar forces and loading compared to back squats.
Alex Natera has done some great work in this area highlighting how pistol squats and other single-leg squats with minimal loading can replicate heavy back squat loading. Space research from 1955 has observed that when performing a bilateral movement such as the squat, 68% of the total body weight is above the hips .
When performing a squat on one leg, the weight above the hips increases to 84% as the one leg is now supporting all of the upper body weight and the free leg weight.
Graham-Smith, Natera, & Jarvis took this research applied it to the athletic population comparing two-legged and one-legged squats. They found that performing a pistol squat with no load is equal to back squatting with an additional load equal to your body weight.
Further, if you’re able to add 50% of body weight as additional load during a pistol squat, it is equivalent to a 2x bodyweight additionally loaded back squat.
Performing a pistol squat with an additional load equal to your bodyweight is equivalent to a 3x bodyweight back squat!
For example, let’s take a 100 kg MMA fighter for ease of calculation. Performing back squats with any load <99 kg would be less loading than an unloaded pistol squat.
By performing a pistol squat with an additional 25 kg of load would be equivalent to a 150 kg back squat. 50 kg of load during the pistol squat is equal to a 200kg back squat. If this MMA fighter is an absolute animal and can pistol squat with 100 kg, that’d be equivalent to a 300 kg back squat.
Performing pistol squats are a great way of loading the legs without the stress of heavy absolute loads on the back.
Pistol Squat Progression
Pistol squats aren’t usually an exercise someone can perform on their first try. So here is a progression you can use to work your way to a full pistol.
Band Assisted Pistol Squat
This is the first exercise in the progression. You may see other beginner exercises such as performing single-leg squats to a box. The problem with that variation is you end up sitting back.
If you sit back during a pistol squat, you will fall backward. The band-assisted variation allows you to maintain the right technique for a pistol squat while unloading the movement.
Hand Support Pistol Squat
The next progression forces more load through the leg by removing the unloading with the band but still allows stability and some unloading through the assisting hand.
Eccentric Only Pistol Squat
This is where the exercise gets really tough! You want to control your bodyweight all the way down. Then you can stand up with both legs.
Once you feel comfortable with the eccentric pistol squat, you can try to stand back up! Personally, I find standing on a box more comfortable as the free leg doesn’t have to come up as high.
Loaded Pistol Squat
I’ve added the loaded pistol as the last progression as more load equals greater force requirements. However, when holding a load in the hands, it acts as a counterbalance. In my opinion, it is EASIER to perform a pistol squat with a light load in the hands compared to performing a pistol squat with no load.
If you have a 5 kg plate or a couple of light dumbbells available, I would start using them as a counterbalance from the eccentric pistol progression onwards.
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