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We all know the feeling. You walk into your local gym, look eagerly at the white board and audibly gasp when we see it there in big, bold letters. The one exercise that you just cannot do. No matter how much you work for it, you just can’t seem to get the hang of it. For me that exercise was always the infamous pistol squat.
To the layman, a pistol squat may look simple enough, but it requires a tremendous amount of balance, mobility/flexibility and single leg strength. It is one of those elusive movements that is generally reserved for serious athletes in competitions, of course these specimens generally complete them with ease in high quantities or with added weight.
As I mentioned, they were my Achilles heel or, more accurately, my Achilles knee, hip flexor and hamstring. Despite meaningful progress is all aspects of my health and strength, this elusive movement always seemed out of reach. I decided to really concentrate on new drills, extra single-leg strength work and added mobility, all so that I could laugh at that stupid whiteboard and easily bust out the prescribed reps.
This may seem futile to you as I am not an avid competitor or any kind of meaningful athlete, but I just wanted to better myself and it seemed like a fun challenge. But let’s start with some prerequisites for being able to do this movement properly.
Before even attempting a full pistol squat, you should demonstrate:
- Good flexibility in your ankles, knees hip and hip flexors. Check out this video for some ideas on how to test these specific areas.
- The ability to do a pistol off of a box. This allows you to go through a full range of motion without the added interference or demands on flexibility of a standard pistol squat. Drill these until you feel comfortable transitioning to the floor.
- Good range of motion with the knee driving out. Just like a standard squat, if your knees start to dive in, you need additional work with a band looped around the inside of your knee and pushing it out throughout the movement.
Please, please, please do not just rush into doing pistols without taking time to make sure you have the correct tools for the job.
Also, I think it’s important to understand why one would do a pistol squat. No seriously, think about it. Good reasons definitely do not include, because it’s cool or because my coach told me I have to do them. To me it always comes back to the risk/reward index, which can be drastically different from person to person.
THE RISK: Performing a pistol squat incorrectly, a very easy task, puts a lot of stress on the knee and hip leading to potential injuries. No routine is worth putting your health at risk, so once again take the tests above and see if you meet the prerequisites to even be performing pistol squats.
THE REWARD: Performing a correct (Or mostly correct) pistol squat calls on coordination, balance, flexibility and strength in one motion, activates both large and small muscle groups and builds incredible strength in the hip flexors - a problem areas for most Americans. All of sitting we do seriously limits our range of motion and strength in our hips leading to a lot of discomfort, pain and injuries. Not to mention, the pistol squat may be the most efficient bodyweight leg exercise demanding the most work in the least amount of time. Other positives are that they can be done pretty much anywhere, but we recommend flat, solid ground, and they can boost your regular squat by leaps and bounds.
Start, as mentioned above, by working off of a box. This will be a really good indicator of where you need work and will also aid in building strength for the next phase. If that seems too daunting, try using the single leg pistol method every time you get out of a chair. Sit at a desk for a living? Pistol your way out of the chair every single time you stand up and I promise you will start to feel more and more comfortable with the idea of sinking your glutes to your heels.
As you begin to start working your way from the box to the floor, there are some good ways to scale the movement initially to start to build a strength base for a workout that requires a lot of pistols. In other words, once you have the tools make sure they are sharpened. You wouldn’t want to have to cut down a tree with a dull axe, the same applies here. Your first concern is definitely (and should always be) flexibility/mobility and then start to work on strength.
My favorite way to do this is by looping a band (start with a heavier band and work your way to the lighter bands) horizontally on a rack at waist level, standing with your back facing the band and then sitting down onto the band. Go through the range of motion in a slow and controlled motion and know the band will give more and more support as you get depth. Do this drill until you feel good about moving to the floor. Add 3 sets of 5 with each leg to the end of any workout with adequate rest and use a lower resistance before you start adding reps.
Another good drill that will really only apply as you are a bit further along in the process, is standing on a large plate or plates for additional clearance for the non--weight bearing leg at the bottom of the movement. This is especially helpful if you feel at all your front leg seems to be preventing you from completing the motion or is striking the ground at all.
Adding weight to the equation can also be helpful, though it may seem counterintuitive. Hold a light (5 to 10 lbs.) plate out in front of you like a steering wheel which can safely counter-balance the movement.
If at the bottom of the movement you find yourself falling backwards or leaning too far back, use a wedge like a small plate or olympic lifting shoes to help you stay down on your heel throughout the pistol. Conversely, if you feel yourself up on your toes at the bottom with your heel off the ground, slide a plate under your toes to ensure your feet stay grounded.
From there, you should be able to start working your way into a full pistol squat, keeping the main cues in mind and never sacrificing form for anything (weight, reps, time, etc.) as that is how injuries happen.Happy pistol squatting everyone.