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Pistol squats – core movement for lower body strength and mobility

It’s is a one of those moves that you impress people with and as a bonus it is an outstanding movement for building lower body strength, mobility and overall balance. To start from the beginning, a pistol is a one-legged squat, one legged raised in front of you, parallel to the floor, while slowly sitting down with your other leg until hip is lower than the knee and then pressing up again. Voila! Easy right?

Do not be fooled! It is a challenging exercise as it requires lower body flexibility and general balance to start with and then some serious leg strength to push out of the bottom position in a controlled movement.

Nevertheless, it is worth the effort to learn how to do pistols as it is a complex movement, as in engaging multiple muscles, and you can vary it to focus on explosivity, pure strength, or endurance. The only lower body movement you need and you can do it anywhere! Not having access to a squat rack or leg press is no longer an excuse for not working out.

So let’s get started!

Tips for the novice!

If you’re struggling with one pistol I suggest this progression of  exercises to get started.

Seated half-pistols from a chair.

  • Sit on the edge of the chair with a straight back, extend one leg and position the other leg on the floor,  as close as possible  to the imaginary vertical line extending from head through butt  to the floor.
  • Extend your arms in front of you to aid balance.
  • Ball of foot and heel to the floor (do not balance on your toes, you should actually be able to wiggle your toes at any stage of the movement) slowly press yourself  up to standing and in controlled movement sit back down again.
  • Repeat for the other leg.

When you master 10 seated half-pistols on each leg I suggest you start the second exercise which is squatted leg extensions.

  • Stand straight with feet together and squat down as low as you can, if you do not have the flexibility to get your center of gravity forward enough to keep your balance I suggest you hold a weight (5kg kettlebell for example) in front of you on stretched arms to counterbalance.
  • While in this position, slowly extend one leg to straight, parallel to floor,  and back again. Maintain balance and control throughout the movement.
  • Repeat for the other leg.

Third step in the progression is to do reverse half-pistols.

  • Start as with the squatted leg extensions.
  • When your leg is extended, parallel to the floor, press your other leg into the ground to stand up.
  • Repeat for the other leg.

Work on your mobility

This progression will take you some time and I suggest that you mix it up with daily mobility exercises for ankles, hamstrings, gluts, quadriceps and lower back (lumbar spine) to develop balance and control of movement. Sitting (actively – chest up, heels down) in the bottom position of the regular body-weight squat a couple of minutes every day is a great way of mobilizing for the pistol squat. Checkout mobility super hero KStar for instructions on the “squat test” and more at Mobility WoD.

Now on to aided pistols.

The aided pistols are complete pistols but with an aid to keep balance and momentum. However, you should only use the aid to keep going through those critical points of your movement and not as a replacement for balance, mobility and strength (I have added a clarification on this further done). They can be done in two ways, start with placing a chair next to you and hold on to the back of the chair through the range of motion, using your hand to push you through the tough parts of the motion and to keep balance. One you complete 10 of these on each leg move to the 2nd type of aided pistols. Attache the middle of  a 3-5 m rope in front of you in shoulder height, grab both ends of the rope and start your pistol. Use the ropes to pull yourself up to keep momentum and balance.

For more tips on the pistol see this article from Power Athletes Magazine.

One you’ve completed 10 rope aided pistols on each leg it’s time for the real stuff!

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Pistol squat fun!

Advanced pistoleers only

When 10 pistols per leg is a piece of cake it’s time to play around, check the video on the right here for some ideas on how to challenge yourself.

A good start is to add some weight for a weighted pistol. Grab a kettlebell, hold it close to your chest or on extended arms, vertically or horizontally, and get going!

Try the jumping pistols to build explosiveness. Step one is to explode out of the bottom position to jump as high as you can, land on the same leg again (still the other leg extended), down into the bottom of the pistol to rebound and repeat.

When 10 of these on each legs is too easy it’s time to clean the kitchen table….

Start up on the kitchen table (or on any stable table / chair / bench of a height somewhere between your knees and hips). Start on the table, go down into a pistol squat and explode up to jump on the floor, all the way down through the motion of a normal pistol, rebound explosively to jump back onto the table again. As soon as your foot land on the table explode up again to jump off the table to repeat.

Be inspired by Steve Cotter in this video: Steve Cotter’s jumping pistols!

Clarification on this pistol progression

I have been asked why one should start with seated half-pistols, then squatted leg extensions and reverse half-pistols before continuing to aided pistols and not vice versa. The argument goes “I get a really good workout with the aided pistols, especially the rope aided pistols, like 2 sets of 10 on each leg, and if I just practice squatted leg extensions it’s not a workout but a balance exercise” . Let me add that “the rope” is often a TRX set-up.

Ok, I get your point. Do you want to impress your friends or not? Do you want to learn the only lower body exercise you need or not?

If you start with the aided pistols it is very likely that you do not have the balance, nor the mobility, to do a proper pistol squat. Fine, no problem. The problem is that the aided pistol is developing neither. Let’s compare it to the back squat versus the leg press machine. The back squat is a core exercise but often replaced with a leg press machine as the leg press machine often is considered safer and less stressful on the knees. The truth is that back squat is a superior exercise to the leg press machine, however, it takes more skills to perform correctly. Performed correctly it is safe and sound for the knees. A proper back squat requires good mobility and balance, and the interplay of core strength, glutes and hamstring strength and quadriceps strength. The leg press machine removes the need for mobility, balance, and most of the stress on supporting muscles, and will not develop a better back squat.

The aided pistols, performed before learning the seated half-pistol and the squatted leg extensions, very easily becomes like the leg press machine – avoiding the need for balance and leaning back so much that the arms carry a lot of the load via the chair or rope and not discovering the lack of mobility in the ankle, hip and lumbar spine.

Good exercise but not great exercise and definitely not they way towards real pistol squats.

If you focus on learning the squatted leg extension and reverse half-pistols first, you will develop the balance and mobility to be able to perform the aided pistols as they are intended to – as real pistols with an aid to help you through the tough spots.

Hope this makes sense to you!

If flexibility is your key obstacle…
My main challenge to a clean pistol squat is that I am can’t get forward enough to maintain balance. To counter this I started out with a 5-8 kg weight held in front of me on straight arms.  This allowed me to do a full pistol. However, to mix things up a bit I sometimes use a slight decline to elevate my heel 2-3 cm. This gives me the necessary leeway to maintain balance through the pistol. I use two pieces of scrap wood, one to stand on and the second one, under the first one, as a wedge under the heel. Make sure that your foot make contact to the surface all the time. It’s not ok to just slip a weight plate under your heel.

Let me know how you’re progressing!

Make a comment below on your current level of pistol proficiency and keep my updated on how you progress!
Enjoy!

Trivia: Pistol is originally a Czech word for pipe or whistle (píšt’ala) and took it’s current meaning from the use of píšt’ala as a slang term for a light harquebus used during the Hussite wars ca. 1420-1434.

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