Right now, Jessica Biel has bragging rights on multiple fronts. Her lead performance in The Sinner earned the actor her first-ever Emmy nomination. She and husband Justin Timberlake topped “Best Dressed” lists at Monday's award ceremony with their wedding-inspired attire. And perhaps most impressive of all, Biel mastered an extremely tough, expert-level exercise: the pistol squat.
The 36-year-old actor shared an Instagram video over the weekend of her demoing this one-legged squat, made even more difficult with the addition of front dumbbell raises. Her trainer, Ben Bruno, whose other famous clients include Kate Upton and Chelsea Handler, shared the video as well, with a caption explaining the epicness of this feat.
“These single-leg squats from @jessicabiel are seriously, seriously impressive,” Bruno wrote.
You can check out the video via @benbrunotraining here:
Pistol squats are extraordinarily challenging for several reasons.
“It’s one of the hardest variations of the squat,”Mark DiSalvo, NYC-based certified strength and conditioning specialist, tells SELF. “It's a cross-section of mobility and strength in a squat. You have to have both.”
On the strength front, much of the difficulty comes from the fact that, as mentioned, you're only squatting with one leg. When compared to a standard two-legged squat, this one-legged variation requires one leg to be strong enough to support all of the body weight that is normally supported by two legs, Stephanie Mansour, Chicago-based certified personal trainer, tells SELF. That makes the move exponentially harder.
To perform this one-legged move safely and correctly, you need a baseline level of strength in your glutes, hamstrings, quads, and hips as well as “everything below the knee,” says DiSalvo, including your calves, feet, and the stabilizing tendons and ligaments around your ankle joint, adds Mansour. In other words, essentially every muscle—big and small—in your lower half needs to work.
On the mobility front, you need a high level of dorsiflexion in your ankle, says DiSalvo, which is the ability to flex the foot up toward the shin. You also need a high degree of hip flexion, he adds. And lastly, you have to have strong coordination and balance.
Biel makes the move even harder (!) by adding an upper-body component.
In some cases, adding weight to a squat can, counterintuitively, make the movement easier, says DiSalvo. That’s because it counterbalances your bodyweight and can help you sink lower into the squat. But this only works if the weight is on the heavier side (typically, 10 pounds or more), and it’d most likely be one weight (like a kettlebell, for example) held in a fixed position as you perform the squats.
Because Biel is holding a set of lighter weights and raising them out in front, “she probably doesn’t need the weights for counterbalance,” says DiSalvo, and instead, is likely using them as added resistance, he explains.
This added resistance works her upper back, deltoids (especially the anterior deltoids, which are the top portion of the shoulders), and the stabilizing muscles along her spine, explains Mansour. This makes the already-tough move even more demanding, strength-wise. “It’s a front body and back body total burner,” Mansour says.
Doing pistol squats on a high box, like Biel demos, is a modification that can help if you don’t quite have the hip flexion required for the on-the-ground version.
By pistol squatting atop a tall box, Biel doesn’t have to straighten her lifted leg to a 90 degree angle in relation to her torso, an extreme level of mobility that would be necessary if she were performing the move on the ground. “That’s another thing that makes the pistol squat so hard,” says DiSalvo. “You have to have really great hip flexion on the leg that’s off the ground.”
The box allows her to perform the movement within her current range of motion, while still demanding the same high-level strength that would be required if she were on the ground, says DiSalvo.
Because pistol squats are so challenging, here are two more beginner and intermediate exercises from DiSalvo (move number one) and Mansour (move number two) that deliver similar benefits.
The first move focuses on the single-leg element of the pistol squat, and specifically works the skill of staying controlled as you lower yourself down. "Lowering yourself with control is the key to the pistol squat for most people," says DiSalvo. "This move is cross-training for that." The second move focuses on the depth required for the pistol squat—plus it includes upper-body work.
1. Classic Step-Ups
- Grab a box or step that comes up to about knee height (or lower), and position it directly in front of you.
- Step your right foot on top of the box and firmly plant it.
- Push through your right heel and straighten your right leg, standing up on top of the box. Keep your left leg hanging next to the right.
- Bend your right knee to slowly lower yourself down as your left leg extends straight behind you. Go slow enough that it takes you 4 to 5 seconds until your left leg reaches the ground.
- Pause at the bottom of the movement and then push off your right foot (avoid pushing off your left leg) to raise yourself back up to the top of the movement.
- This is 1 rep. Do 6 to 8 reps.
- Switch legs and do 6 to 8 reps with the left leg leading.
Make sure to go slow and maintain control throughout this movement, says DiSalvo. "It's not about how high the box is," he says. "It’s really just about nailing the control."
Once 8 reps becomes easy, you can up the ante by holding light dumbbells, or by increasing the height of the box or step, says DiSalvo.
Then, when you’re proficient with this movement, try standing on the side of a box or step and performing the same slo-mo lowering from this positioning, says DiSalvo. This will more closely mimic the pistol squat, as it allows you to also add on and practice moving your ungrounded leg up and forward.
2. Deep Squats With Front Dumbbell Raises
- Grab a pair of light dumbbells, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold one weight in each hand.
- Keeping your spine straight, squeezing your core, and bending your elbows slightly, hold the dumbbells in front of your thighs (palms facing in toward you) and then slowly raise the weights straight out in front of your body until they reach shoulder level as you simultaneously push your butt back and bend your knees to lower into a deep squat.
- Once you’ve reached your full range of motion in the squat, push through your heels to return to standing as you simultaneously and slowly lower the weights back down in front of your thighs.
- This is 1 rep. Do 10 reps.
As you squat, make sure your toes are pointing straight and your knees aren't caving in or out, says Mansour. When performing the lateral raise, keep your arms out directly in front of you, not on a diagonal. “You don’t want to lift your arms out to the sides,” says Mansour. “You want them to come straight out from the shoulder joint.” Lastly, if your lower back hurts as you perform the squats, you may have a tight lower back, says Mansour. Protect it from extra stress by reducing the depth of your squat.