Deep Step Ups Vs. Pistol Squats – Which One Builds Bigger Legs?

The debate about deep step ups and pistol squats has been raging for a while.

Most calisthenics athletes say that the pistol-squat is the ultimate bodyweight squat progression.

But could they be wrong?

Can the deep step up keep match up with the mighty pistol squat?

I’ve put these two exercises against each other to see which one has:

  1. Builds More Muscle And Strength
  2. Requires More Mobility
  3. Requires More Balance
  4. Easier To Learn And Execute
  5. Has The Higher Risk For Injury

Let’s see which exercise comes out on top, and which is better to start your training with.

Which Builds More Muscle – Deep Step ups Vs Pistol Squats?

Using bodyweight calisthenics to build strong and muscular legs is not easy.

This is because your bodyweight limits the amount of stress that can be placed on your legs.

The problem is our legs can carry more than just our bodyweight.

Thus, to build the most size and strength with bodyweight calisthenics, you must resort to unilateral training – training one leg at a time.

Deep step ups and pistol squats are some of the best single leg bodyweight exercises in existence. They both place an immense amount of stress on the quads, glutes and hamstrings.

Both exercises take the muscles of the lower body through their maximum range of motion.

This is the best way to build size and strength effectively.

In fact, when properly executed, both pistol squats and deep step ups have identical ranges of motion.

Thus, in terms of muscle building capacity, both deep step ups and pistol squats have the same muscle building capacity.

But depending on how they’re performed, deep step ups  can target the quads, or the glutes and hamstrings. Pistol squats cannot!

You have the flexibility to use the same exercise for different results.

This makes the deep step up more versatile when it comes to building muscle and strength compared to the pistol squat.

Which Requires More Mobility – Deep Step Ups Or Pistol Squats?

Exercises that build the most muscle and strength must:

  1. Have a low mobility requirements
  2. Build your mobility over time

Exercises with low mobility requirements allow you to start building muscle and strength without waiting to improve your mobility!

But an exercise that requires less mobility and also has the potential to build your mobility; hits two birds with one stone!

Pistol squats have incredibly high mobility requirements. In fact, the biggest barrier to performing pistol squats is ankle mobility.

If you keep falling backward during pistol squat training, you don’t have the appropriate ankle mobility to perform the movement.

To perform the pistol squat, you must enough ankle mobility to for your knee to track forward. Doing so allows you to lean forward a bit, thus giving you the balance required to perform the movement.

If you don’t have this ankle mobility, performing pistol squats can be a challenge.

So what do you do if you don’t have the mobility to perform pistol squats?

Perform deep step ups of course!

Deep step ups don’t need the same amount of ankle mobility as pistol squats.

In fact, deep step ups will build both your strength and ankle mobility to perform pistol squats!

This is a double whammy and the biggest reason you should choose to train deep step ups over pistol squats.

Thus in terms of mobility requirements, deep step ups are better because they require less mobility to start, but also build your mobility at the same time.

Which Requires More Balance And Co-Ordination – Pistol Squats Vs Deep Step Ups?

Choosing exercises that are unstable isn’t the best choice when trying to build size and strength.

This is because the body will not be able to generate maximum force in an unstable environment.

Single limb exercises are inherently unstable. Deep step ups and pistol squats are no different!

But since we are limited to using only our bodyweight, removing one limb from the equation increases the the stress placed on the muscle.

Exercises that build more size and strength require less balance. That is why exercises that move the most weight (deadlifts and barbell back squats) are done on two legs! But I digress.

Have you ever wondered why the pistol squat is called the pistol squat?

The pistol squat gets its name from the hand position employed during the movement.

Reaching forward during the pistol squat provides the balance requires to perform the movement.

Have you ever watched anyone perform pistol squats with their hands behind their back?

Probably not, that’s because without using their hands as a counterbalance, they will fall down backwards.

Step ups on the other hand, also require significant amounts of balance, but not as much as pistol squats.

You don’t need to place your hands forward as a counterbalance when performing deep step ups.

Thus, even though deep step ups do require balance and co-ordination (you’re still doing the exercise on only one leg), they are more stable than pistol squats!

Which Exercise Is Easier To Learn And Execute With Proper Form?

Pistol squats are harder learn and execute compared to deep step ups.

This is because pistol squats require large amounts of balance and mobility.

Exercises that are inherently unstable are balancing acts and not strength and muscle builders!

If you don’t have sufficient hip and ankle mobility, training the pistol squat will be near impossible. Unless you can build up your mobility of course.

Deep step ups don’t require a excessive hip and ankle mobility, they are therefore are easier to train.

An exercise that is easier to train will allow you to progress faster toward your muscle and strength building goals.

Deep step ups also require less coaching in terms of form and technique when compared to pistol squats.

Thus in terms of ease of learning and ability to execute, deep step ups win hands down (pun intended)!

Which Exercise Has The Higher Risk For Injury – Pistol Squats Or Deep Step Ups?

If you have knee problems, pistol squats can hurt your knee.

This is because pistol squats require excessive amounts of forward knee travel.

Having a more vertical shin angle (knee above the ankle) alleviates a lot of stress around the knee joint.

But you cannot have a more vertical shin angle when performing pistol squats.

Keeping a vertical shin angle during pistol squats will place your bodyweight behind your foot, thus making you lose your balance.

This is not the case with deep step ups.

Deep step ups start at the bottom, in an already balanced position. This allows you to keep a vertical shin angle on the way up, thus reducing your risk for injury!


Deep step ups build the same amount of muscle and strength as pistol squats

But deep step ups are better than pistol squats because they:

  1. Require less mobility to perform
  2. Are more stable than pistol squats
  3. Are easier to learn and execute
  4. Carry a lower risk for injury

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