Exercise Spotlight: Pistol Squats

By Karen Smith

pistol-karen-pro-450x343As appealing as advanced exercises can be, it's not wise to jump straight into them without taking the time to learn proper and safe progressions. Many important factors need to be addressed before jumping into pistol training. To have a strong and safe pistol, one needs not only strength but also flexibility, mobility, and balance.

Think about this for a second, if you do not have the mobility to do a rock bottom two leg squat, why on Earth would you think, “Hey, let’s train a one leg squat!” Before I will add pistols to any of my student's programs, I start by testing their mobility in a barefoot narrow stance squat first without a counter balance and then with a light counter balance if necessary.

Pistol Progressions Test

Narrow Stance Squat (Barefoot)

  • Place your feet and knees together
  • While keeping them together, pull yourself into a squat and see if you can reach butt to calves
  • Drive through the heels and stand back up

Did you reach this position with stability or did you roll backwards?

If you could not reach this position, we have mobility, flexibility and balance work to do. Mobile feet and ankles are a must. As stated in the SFB manual, stretch your feet regularly to make sure you have good dorsi flexion. Flexible hips, calves and hamstrings are also required.

And to quote Pavel Tsatsouline:

Always stretch feet, calves, hamstrings and hip flexors prior to doing any pistol work.

Step 1 –OWN each position of the pistol.

Example: if the bottom is your sticking point, then work on your balance with the two following progressions.

Narrow Squat/Alternating Leg Balance Drill

  •  You first descend into a narrow stance squat (as stated in step 1 with feet and knees together)
  • At rock bottom, slowly straighten out one leg and balance.
  • Alternate between legs

This drill will teach you to become stable on one leg in the rock bottom position. It will also show you if you are lacking in hip flexor and hamstring mobility. Many people will lose balance at the bottom and roll backwards. Then they are unable to get back off the ground, which leads us to our next progression and some of my favorite drills.

SLDL – Single Leg Deadlift

Slow bodyweight single leg deadlift will help with two common issues. The first is balance, which is very important at this stage. The second is building strength, which we will revisit later toward the end of our progressions.

Bodyweight SLDL will allow you to work on your balance and force you to slow down. Most people rush this process and miss the sticking point. Bodyweight training also allows you to improve your technique and learn proper posture prior to loading with weight.

  • Stand on one foot
  • Extend the other leg out straight behind you
  • Hinge with a flat back while squatting on the working leg
  • Breathe and drive through the heel and return to standing position
  • Repeat on each leg for reps

Step 2 - Seated Pistol Stance Drill & Seated Cossack Squat Drill

Sit relaxed on the floor with one leg extended in front of you. Can you lift off the ground from this relaxed position into your rock bottom position of your pistol?

Work this drill into your pistol training to increase your starting strength from a completely relaxed state.

  • Sit relaxed on the ground with one leg extended and your arms in front of you.
  • In one motion, tense your body and lift yourself off the ground to a stable pistol.
  • If needed, make fist and squeeze at your sticking point.
  • Relax and repeat for reps on each side.

Seated Cossack Drill

Cossacks are a great stretch but can also be used to build strength.

  • Sit on the floor relaxed with one leg out to the side and the other one bent close
  • In one motion, tense your glutes and lift yourself off the ground to a stable Cossack stance.
  • The heel of the bent leg must stay planted on the ground.
  • Relax and repeat for reps on each side
  • Slowly work to higher distances off the ground

Now that you have worked the decent and owning the bottom position, there are a few other drills to consider adding.

Step 3 - Box Pistols

Depending on your sticking point will determine how you should use the box.

If your sticking point is due to mobility/flexibility and you are not ready for a full rock bottom pistol then you will only pistol to the height of the box that suits your mobility.

  • Set box to your mobility height
  • Stand in front of the box on one foot
  • Slowly lower controlled on one leg until your glute touches the box (but do not relax and rest on the box)
  • Press thru the heel and stand back up
  • Slowly progress to lower box heights as you become more mobile

If your sticking point is due to lack of strength to get back up then pistol to a box height that you can get back up from.

  • Set box to your strength height
  • Sit on the box completely relaxed with one leg extended out in front of you
  • In one motion, tense your body and drive thru the heel to stand up
  • Sit back down completely relaxed and repeat for reps per side
  • Slowly progress to lower box heights as you become stronger
  • We will now revisit the SLDL – Single Leg Dead Lift

This time we will be seeing the SLDL utilized for greater strength gains by loading with a kettlebell, dumbbell or even a barbell. It is important to try to keep the hips and shoulders square. Many people allow the hips to rotate out and this keeps you from getting the most out of this drill.

Step 4 – SLDL

  • Get a solid stance on one foot
  • Hinge at the hip while extending the opposite leg behind you
  • Keep a nice neutral spine and think of lengthening your body from the top of your head through the heel of the straight leg
  • Inhale as you begin to hinge at the hip
  • Hinge deep and bend the knee of the working leg for greater activation of the glute, hamstring and quad
  • Grip the Bell and keep the shoulder packed while lifting the bell slightly off the ground
  • Use a tension breath while pressing hard through the floor and stand back up
  • Repeat for reps on each side

** It is very important to keep a flat back to keep from rounding the thoracic spine under load
** I have also found that people who let the back leg bend have a greater tendency to round their spin and lose tension.

Step 5 - Assisted Pistols

There are many tools that you can use to assist yourself. TRX, doorway or a training partner are just a few examples. Only use as much help as needed at your sticking point.

Step 6 - Bodyweight pistols

  • Stand on one foot with the opposite leg extended in front of you
  • Inhale and hinge at the hip to a rock bottom pistol
  • Tense, drive thru your heel and stand back up
  • Repeat on each side for reps

Once you have a solid BW pistol on each leg, you can begin to load your pistols to get stronger, which I highly recommend. Own the bodyweight pistol first, so that you know you are not compensating for lack of mobility or causing any asymmetries. If you did not own the bodyweight pistol prior to adding a weight, you have now made standing harder. While loaded is the eventual goal, I recommend bodyweight first.

Enjoy and now go get mobile and strong!

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About the author:  Karen Smith

Karen Smith is a highly-respected trainer and coach specializing in kettlebell and bodyweight strength training. She is a StrongFirst SFG Master Instructor and Chief Bodyweight Instructor. Karen travels the world instructing and certifying individuals through StrongFirst, and works with clients online and in person.

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