Both front squats and pistol squats have been part of gym-goers lower body workouts for quite some time.
They provide different challenges than traditional squats and can be great additions to your training program.
In this article, we compare front squats and pistol squats.
We look at which muscles each one works as well as discuss the accessibility, difficulty, and variability of each one too.
What’s The Difference Between Front Squats And Pistol Squats?
These exercises look very different from each other.
Front squats closely resemble traditional back squats with the exception of the weight being held on the front of your body as opposed to the backside.
Pistol squats look very different from back squats and front squats as they’re performed one leg at a time.
Balance plays a big role in pistol squats so your core strength will be very important throughout the exercise.
During pistol squats, either no weight, or a light weight is held usually in the form of a kettlebell, dumbbell, or weight plate.
Front squats use a weighted barbell as the usual form of resistance and a much heavier weight can be lifted during the movement.
Which Exercise Is Best For Quads?
Both pistol squats and front squats are great at working your quads.
However, front squats will cause greater activation and keep your quads under stress more than pistol squats.
As the weight is front-loaded during front squats, the muscles on the front of your body (including your quads) will have to work harder.
Which Exercise Is Best For Hamstrings?
Both of these squat variations bring your hamstrings into play.
It’s worth keeping in mind though, that front squats primarily target your quads with other working muscles being secondary muscles.
Pistol squats do a slightly better job at working multiple lower body muscles including your hamstrings.
Which Exercise Is Best For Glutes?
As front squats focus most on your quads, pistol squats will likely be a bit better for your glutes.
That being said, your glutes will still be involved in front squats, just not quite as much as they are during pistol squats.
Front squats generally require a barbell and a squat rack to perform correctly.
While you could do the exercise without a squat rack, the amount of weight you can lift will be dramatically reduced.
Barbells and squat racks tend to be fairly common in most gyms so front squats will normally have a good level of accessibility.
Pistol squats require minimal equipment to perform correctly.
You could do them with just your bodyweight or you can add a weight in the form of a kettlebell, dumbbell, weight plate, or similar.
Pistol squats are a highly accessible exercise as they require minimal equipment.
Any equipment used during the exercise is also very basic gym equipment.
Pistol squats have a greater level of accessibility than front squats.
While front squats are a very accessible exercise, they usually require more equipment than pistol squats.
As you can do pistol squats with just your bodyweight, they can actually be performed with no equipment at all!
Front squats don’t look particularly challenging but there are a few things involved that increase the difficulty level somewhat.
Firstly, the position the weight is held on the body (at the top of your chest), is not always particularly comfortable.
It’s also not the strongest place on your body you could hold the weight.
The front-loaded weight position can negatively impact your body’s balance and stability.
If your technique is incorrect, the weight can pull your body forwards which can quite easily result in injury.
The elbow and wrist position can also be quite uncomfortable for some people.
Pistol squats are considered by some people to be one of the most challenging squat variations out there.
They not only require good amounts of lower body strength to perform them correctly, but they also need high levels of balance, mobility, and core strength too.
Pistol squats are performed one leg at a time and the position isn’t always easy to maintain throughout.
While both exercises are challenging squat variations, pistol squats have a higher level of difficulty than front squats.
The high need for balance, mobility, flexibility, core strength, and lower body strength makes them one of the most challenging lower body exercises you can do.
There isn’t a huge amount of room for variability when it comes to front squats.
The exercise is commonly performed with a barbell but dumbbells can be used instead if you prefer.
It’s worth keeping in mind though that the dumbbells will have to be lifted from the ground up to your shoulders, where they’re held during the movement.
This can limit the amount of weight you can lift.
Extending your arms out in front of you can change front squats into zombie squats.
Front squats and zombie squats are very similar with the main difference being in the arm positions.
Zombie squats can be more comfortable although your technique will need to be correct to avoid the weight rolling forwards on your outstretched arms.
If this happens, your body can be placed under excessive stress which can quickly result in injury.
The movement of pistol squats can’t really be adapted too much.
The main way you can vary the exercise is by using different equipment.
You can use your body weight, a kettlebell, a dumbbell, or other similar equipment to act as the resistance throughout pistol squats.
If you want a bit more support in balancing while still working the target muscles very effectively, TRX pistol squats could be a good option for you.
Neither exercise is particularly high-scoring when it comes to variability.
It comes down to changing the equipment you use during each exercise more than altering the movement itself.
That being said, front squats can be easily changed to zombie squats which could give them a slight advantage when it comes to variability.
As with all squat variations (and pretty much any exercise you will ever do), making sure you’re lifting a weight that’s appropriate to your current fitness and strength levels will be crucial.
If you try and lift too much, your body will be placed under excessive stress and will likely recruit other muscles into the movement that aren’t meant to be used.
This can cause injury as well as severely reducing the effectiveness of the exercise.
Your technique needs to be correct in both of these exercises too.
Both make your body move in a way that you might not find completely natural or comfortable.
If you make even small errors in your technique, your injury risk increases by quite a lot.
Front Squats vs Pistol Squats: Which Is Best?
If you want a slightly easier exercise with a bit more variability that primarily targets your quads, front squats could be the one for you.
If you want a hugely challenging exercise that brings in more leg muscles, pistol squats could be best for you.
I’ve been in the fitness and strength training industry for nearly a decade. In that time, I’ve gained 30 pounds of muscle, written hundreds of articles, and reviewed dozens of fitness supplements. As for my educational background, I’m a currently studying for my Active IQ Level 3 Diploma in Personal Training.