Mastering the Pistol Squat
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The pistol squat is one of the most valuable exercises an athlete can have in his or her little black book of tricks when training for strength, power and building muscle.
That is if the athlete can actually perform Pistols. The truth is that most can’t and won’t without a lot of work and after trying a few times and failing, most give up and never try again.
The pistol squat requires balance and strength. It is a unique exercise, easy for some and incredibly difficult for others. Going straight into performing a Pistol without any prior one legged training will probably end up with you falling on your ass, that is where the exercise progressions come in. To ease you into the swing of things and get you squatting on one leg.
There are many athletes who are extremely powerful with weighted squats well over 500lbs, who attempt Pistol squats over and over again and fail every single time. Then there are those who have an unusual talent for making them look easy. Many gymnasts are able to pump out rep after rep of this exercise.
These one legged squats strengthen the hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes and hips but one of the most valuable benefits from providing them is injury prevention by significantly strengthening the knee structure over time. They can also even out strength imbalances, as you perform them on just one leg. Single leg squats when compared to barbell squats, greatly reduce the stress placed on the lower back and spine making it a more ‘back friendly’ exercise option for those with back problems.
No other bodyweight exercise builds lower body strength like Pistols do but they can take time to master, so on the following pages I’m going to show you the best exercises to use to build up to them. If you attempt them and fall down, don’t frown. Just get back up and start working on the progressions. These are a very advanced exercise and it takes time to become proficient with them. However, the benefits and strength gains they produce are more than worth the work.
- They improve strength and flexibility
- They can be performed anywhere, anytime, with no equipment
- They even out strength imbalances, bringing the weaker leg up to speed
- The improve mobility in the knee, ankle and hip joints
- They promote good barbell squat technique, as they force you to sit back and keep good posture and the whole body tight
- They don’t load the lower back like Barbell squats, making them great for those with back problems.
- Cool party trick, it is funny busting out reps of pistols with ease at a party while your friends try and fall on their asses
Standard Pistol Squat
Start standing on one leg, with foot on the floor flat and other leg outstretched straight in front of you, ideally at hip level. Some trainees may struggle slightly to do so if hamstring flexibility is poor. Do not allow your heel to lift off of the floor and come onto your toes, this is a knee injury waiting to happen. Aim to keep this leg straight throughout the entire exercise. You will squat down descending slowly, getting as low as possible, pause briefly then pressing back up while keeping upright posture.
You want to sit back to with your bum to be able to press up using the full strength of your leg on the way up, and keep good balance throughout. You should aim to sit back so that the hamstring rests on the calf at the bottom, on your supporting leg that is touching the ground.
Stretching your arms out in front of you is recommended as it helps stay balanced. With so much of your bodyweight shifting back onto one leg, you can equal it out and lean forward with your upper body and arms to keep the weight spread out.
To stay balanced you may lean slightly forward with the top of your torso, but aim to stay upright as possible so that you can still sit back on to your calf and press up powerfully.
Holding a weight plate in your hands or a very light dumbbell in each hand to serve as a counter balance can help tremendously when first beginning training with Pistols. I cannot recommend this enough. Keeping your arms straight the whole time, start the exercise with the dumbbells by your sides and raises them up to shoulder level as you descend, then the reverse on the way back up. This also serves to help you stay balanced.
Try to keep your abdominals tight, lean slightly forward with the top of your body, and slightly back with the bottom half of your body to keep good balance. Too much either way will cause you to fall over.
Definitely do not rush the descent, as rushing and dropping too fast could injure your knee, keep the movement slow and controlled on the way down. You can however, bounce a little at the bottom to take advantage of the stretch reflex and power your way back to standing position a little easier. This is kind of like stretching an elastic band and then pinging it.
Pistol squats can take time to develop, they require tremendous hip flexor strength, which many male athletes lack.
Lamppost/Doorframe Assisted Pistol Squats
To help ease you into One Legged Squats, you may peform the Pistol while holding onto a Doorframe or Lamppost in front of you. Try to use your arms to assist you as little as possible during this exercise, attempting to let the legs do most of the work. As you become stronger, you will use your arms less and less.
Uneven Basketball Pistol Squat
This movement is exactly the same as the Traditional Pistol, except that the heel of your outstretched leg is resting on a basketball, soccer ball or medicine ball or maybe a chair or stack of phone books. This is a great stepping stone for athletes who are not yet strong enough to do full pistol squats and offers a way to ease into unilateral one leg training, that is if you perform them on a stable surface. If you choose the take the route of performing them with the outstretched foot on a ball, it can be a lot more challenging due to the instability and also due to the fact that you can reach a much deeper squat. Experiment with different surfaces and see which lends better to your current level of training.
If you have trouble with stability because the basketball keeps moving around then use a more stable object such as several phone books stacked on top of each other at roughly the same height as the ball was.
½ Range of Motion Pistol Squats
For the complete Pistol novice, Pistol Squats using only half of the range of motion can be an excellent way to ease into the other variations as the lower down one squats when performing pistols, the more challenging it becomes and the more difficult it can be to press back up from the bottom of the movement.
Squat down half way, try to at least break parallel so that your legs create a 90 degree right angle, then press back up by driving your feet into the floor, most of the power coming from the heel pressing into the floor.
Lamppost/Doorframe Assisted Pistol Squats
To help ease you into One Legged Squats, you may peform the Pistol while holding onto a Doorframe or Lamppost in front of you.
Basketball Assisted Pistol Squats
In this Pistol Squat assistance exercise we will use a basket ball or similar sized soccer ball to create a bounce at the bottom of the squat to make the movement easier for those who struggle to get back up once they hit full depth. The bottom position of all types of squat is always the most difficult, this is especially true for Pistols. The Basketball Assisted Pistol Squat will allow you to start getting full depth and pressing back up, so that you can make faster progress toward the more difficult Traditional Pistol Squat.
Rolling Pistol Squats
At the bottom of the squat, roll onto your back, tucking your chin in and use the momentum to roll back up and stand up out of the squat.
Box/Chair Sitting Pistol Squats
The box pistol is much like the reduced range of motion squat, in that the more shallow depth allows newer trainees to ease into Standard Pistols, using the box as a measure of progress. Simply perform a Pistol squat, lowering yourself until your bottom sits on to the box. Pause for a second letting the box take your weight, then press back up. The box height can be lowered as the athlete becomes stronger and more confident with the exercise. Slowly keep lowering the box until you are comfortable at full ass the ground depth. You may add weight to Box Pistols by holding them in your hands as a way to measure progress and increase difficulty without increasing depth.
Box/Bench Standing Pistol Squats
This variation allows you to reach full depth without having your non-supporting leg at hip level, but instead down by the side of the box/bench/wall completely straight. Raising the leg at hip level makes the Pistol much more difficult, so this variation allows you to get practice squatting full depth and maybe even doing so while holding dumbbells or extra weights for added resistance to build you up to the Standard Pistol.
Here you will descend into the squat and hold the bottom position for 3 to 5 seconds, then press back up to standing position. This eliminates the stretch reflex mentioned earlier and makes the upward movement much more difficult.
Here you will be descending extremely slowly, then pressing back up to standing fast and explosively.
Weighted Pistol Squats
As with almost any exercise used for strength training, progress can be made by adding resistance, most of the time this is done in the form of weights. You can choose to hold two dumbbells by your side or hold a single weight plate out in front as mentioned earlier. Another option involves wearing a backpack while doing Pistols, with weight plates in the back pack. One legged squats become a whole different ball game when you start adding weights to them.
Overhead Weighted Pistol Squats
The most challenging of all the variations, holding a weight overhead stretches out the core and forces you into a weakened position where it becomes extremely difficult to get up from the bottom of the Pistol Squat. Hold either one weight plate or two dummbells over head keeping arms locked out and elbows completely straight throughout. Not for the faint of heart, this very difficult to master. If you are feeling extremely brave, try performing the Overhead Weighted Pistol Squat with a Barbell overhead.
Now here is the ultimate party trick Pistol. Squat down into a One Legged Squat, bounce using the stretch reflex at the bottom and explode up straight away to jump onto a box, table, chair or wall. Whatever surface you are jumping onto. Start small at first, perhaps a 1 foot high surface to begin with. Only try these when Standard Pistol Squats become very easy.
So there you have it. Pump your Pistol. It has so many benefits, will make you strong and keep your knees healthy and injury free when done properly.
Yours in Fitness,