I love pistol squats and they have helped me develop great ankle mobility, bulletproof knees and strong legs.
Lately, I’ve been doing more and more hover lunges, and I’ve come to the conclusion that they are superior to pistol squats.
Hover Lunges vs. Pistols
Before we dive into the progressions and how-tos, let’s look at why you should do more hover lunges and less pistols.
Hover lunges — or skater squats or airborne lunges — are very similar to pistol squats. The main difference is: You keep one leg flexed behind you instead of extending it in front of you.
Rule #1 is to not touch the ground with the hovering rear foot. You touch the floor softly with your rear knee and press back up with your standing leg.
Everything else is similar to pistols. You still reach out with both arms and use them for counterbalance. There is also a bit of a forward lean to keep the balance. It’s still a single-leg squat.
But, when you take a closer look at both movements, there are 2 differences that provide unique benefits:
- The range of motion (ROM) is significantly shorter than that of a pistol, because … well … your rear knee is in the way.
- You are able to keep a much straighter back.
Why is this great?
Point #1: You can simply do more volume with hover lunges.
A shorter ROM makes this single-leg variation a bit easier than pistols, and legs just respond really well to higher volume (more reps). It’s a bit easier on the knee joints, too. At the same time, you still get the same — if not more — flexion at the ankle. Ankle mobility is one of the biggest obstacles to having a great squat (no matter what variation), so this is a winner.
Point #2: During a pistol squat, rounding the lower back is unavoidable. It’s also not a bad thing. The human body is designed to be in this position … unless you want to add load.
That’s where hover lunges come in handy. If you’ve been doing lots of pistol squats, doing even more is just not a very entertaining thought. Hover lunges can be loaded with kettlebells, barbells, sandbags, weight plates, weight vests and I’m sure there is more.
Side note: Be prepared to be humbled when you try this with just an empty barbell or a 16kg kettlebell.
When you try both pistol squats and hover lunges, you’ll notice that the glutes fire much harder during hover lunges. Simply put: Doing hover lunges gives you a nice ass.
There is also the option to increase the ROM (elevate the working foot) or do shrimp squats (grab the rear leg with one hand or with both hands if you’re hardcore).
And not only are hover lunges more versatile than pistol squats, they’re also better suited for athletic training.
Think about the last time you saw somebody doing something that resembles a pistol squat in real life … yep, I’m drawing a blank, too. And know think about any sport where on leg is in flexion and the other leg is in extension … that’s pretty much every sport where you run and sprint.
And when you take a closer look at hover lunges, you’ll notice that they look very similar to running.
Hopefully, you’re now sold on hover lunges. Now you just need to use the progressions I outlined below to work your way up to full hover lunges.
Here you see me doing 4 different steps of the progression. In each step, we decrease the amount of weight that is supported by the rear foot.
Top left: Simple lunges with a slightly shorter stance. In a regular lunge, you want to keep everything in nice 90 degree angles. Since hover lunges also use more ankle dorsiflexion, it makes sense to get used to this early on. So step forward so that your rear knee touches the ground just behind your front foot.
Top right: Split stance squats. Stand with feet close together (so that a third foot still fits in between your two feet) and place one foot just a tad behind the toes of the other foot. Squat down. The front foot stays flat on the ground, the other one will come up naturally.
Bottom left: Split squat with the top of the rear foot flat on the ground. In the starting position, stand tall and simply put the top of your rear foot toes on the ground somewhere behind you. Now squat. The knee will come down somewhere next to your working foot.
Bottom right: Full hover lunges. The rear foot never touches the ground. The rear knee softly touches the ground at the bottom position.
A word about the knee going over the toes: It is safe. The knee should track your toes, meaning they point in the same direction. Your knees are designed to be in this position. Some trainers tell you to avoid this. The only reason for this is because it is a cue for regular lunges and squats to help you keep a straight back. But, if you have good posture during squats, knees over toes is perfectly natural and desirable.
Hover lunges are an intermediate exercise. If you’ve been training full pistol squats already, you might find these progressions easy.
I urge you to go through all of the steps of the progressions. Try to shoot for 20 reps per leg for each of the progressions (lunges, split stance squats and with rear flat foot) before attempting full hover lunges.
This way, you will work your active ankle mobility and knee stability. This prevents injury, improves movement quality and the high volume will definitely help you put a little bit of muscle on your sticks (or tone your legs 😉 ).
If you find the jump from the rear flat foot squat to hover lunges too drastic, you can work with negatives (only lowering down to the ground with one leg, then using the rear foot to help come up again).
If you try this the first couple of times, put something soft on the ground where your rear knee will be at the bottom position. The decent might be faster than you like 😉
As another step in between, you can try to slowly go from half ROM to full ROM, demonstrated in the video below.
You can use boxes, yoga blocks or a pile of towels like I did. The cool thing about using something soft and squichy: There’s no way you can use your rear leg to help you come up. It keeps you honest.
Another way to make hover lunges slightly easier is to use a small weight for counterbalance.
In the video I’m using two bottles of detergent, 4 liters each, so about 3-4kg in each hand (6-8lbs). Notice that I’m able to keep a much more upright upper body with just this small amount of weight.
Once you get the hang of hover lunges, you can simply progress them by increasing the ROM. Simply find a platform — nothing too big, a couple of inches is plenty. Elevate your working foot and try to touch the rear knee to the ground. I recommend you do this before adding load.
Lastly, you can add external load to make this a killer full body exercise. I like kettlebells for this, either in goblet or rack hold. But you can also use a barbell and hold it in the crooks of your elbows (Zercher hold) or use any other weight that you can manage to hold in front of you.
I hope hover lunges will bring you lots of fun. They’re now one of my favorite movements in my training arsenal and I’m sure you’re gonna love ’em, too.
Photo Credit: Running people