pistol squat

How To Really Master the Pistol Squat

Oh it's me, so you must know there's almost always a "but." And here it is: I do not think you NEED to be able to complete a perfect pistol squat in the same way I believe that EVERYONE should be able to deadlift, goblet squat, run, and sprint. It's not necessary for joint health and certainly not an indicator of overall fitness. I even wrote an article on the premise that pistols are more of a party trick than a training tool. The sentiment still remains.

However, I've had some fun messing around with them myself recently; and coincidentally, a very dear friend asked for help with her first rep as a decent bodyweight challenge in light of facility/equipment challenges. So, I felt inclined to oblige your requests for a "how to" as well.

You see, the truth is, a pretty-looking pistol isn't that difficult to achieve, if you've got the patience and the path. And as a product of your diligence, you'll also gain previously unfathomable mobility in your hips and ankles, as well as covetable core strength and chiseled abs. 

As said, I've got the path. It's simply the practical way you would try to master any other physical skill. We'll break it down the lift into smaller, more manageable pieces to master the movement as a whole.

But the patience part, now that's all up to you. You'll need to spend considerable time on each of these exercises as part of a bigger training cycle. And you may even need to complete the cycle twice before you are able to drop it all the way down on one leg. This willingness to respect the process ensures your safety and success.

And one more thing before we get lost in the explanation of each exercise in the cycle: A rounded spine and collapsed upper body(as I've seen some IG movement specialists ignore) is inexcusable in a pistol. It's a poor pattern to reinforce, and also indicates suboptimal lower body mechanics that you may not be able to see distinctly. In short, you can end up doing more harm than good to your joints and tissues, resulting in aches, pains, and injury.

You'll know to progress to the next exercise when you can maintain the integrity of your posture though the movement, and you can also find some ease in the execution of the exercise. So while I recommend a certain amount of sessions with each skill, you may need slightly more or less time than the prescribed interval.

Progression #1 The Narrow Stance Squat

Also called the "flat foot squat," this skill pre-requisite is imperative to your practice. Because it's ludicrous to try to attempt on one foot, what you cannot do on two feet. But in fact, this is the most frequently skipped skill on the path to a perfect pistol.

As demonstrated in the video, you''ll begin with your feet pointing straight forward and hips width distance apart. The key is to bend from the knees first before breaking at the hips for maximal mobility. If however, you cannot get to the bottom with that tall spine we talked about earlier, you can use a weight far away from your body as a counter balance or place a small wedge of some sort like a 5lb plate beneath your feet. Take the assistance away when you can comfortably complete the exercise with ease. You can also add resistance to make the exercise harder by holding a weight close to your body.

You'll want to work on these at least two time per weeks. 3 sets of 10-12 reps with a 3-second lower would be excellent. Train whichever variation you begin with for 3-4 weeks.

Progression #2 The Isometric Pistol

The goal of the first exercise was to gain the mobility and strength to own the bottom of the pistol squat on two legs. The goal of this progression is to own the bottom position on one leg. 

You'll begin by descending into your narrow stance squat. But instead of coming right back up, you'll hold at the bottom and begin to shift your weight. To add more challenge, you can actually lift the foot off the floor as I demonstrate in the video. And to even further challenge, you'll begin straightening that leg out as you kick it forward. In this practice, you'll find that the opposite foot is just as important as the one you're standing on. You'll need great control to keep that hip in flexion and prevent the foot from touching the ground. Add some suspension for assistance with that posture again.

You'll want to work on these at least two time per weeks. Completing 3 sets of 8 shifts, lifts, or kicks would be excellent. Remember to breathe! Train whichever variation you begin with for 3-4 weeks.

Progression #3 The Eccentric Pistol Squat

You practiced on two feet. You learned to own the bottom. Now, it's time to work on the descent with a little more focus. Your intention with the eccentric is to fight gravity and control the lowering down part. 

Beginning at the top of of the pistol, attempt lower down on one foot on a count of 4 seconds. Do not, come back up out of it. Simply roll out of the bottom. Return to the starting position however you like for the next rep. Add in suspension for postural assistance.

You'll want to work on these at least two time per weeks. Four sets of 4 reps with a 4 second eccentric would be excellent. Train the exercise for at least 3-4 weeks.

Progression #4 Toe Grab Pistol Squat

It's important to remember here, that the pistol demands a high degree of difficulty. And once you achieve your first pistol, it still requires a max effort at one rep alone. So, I want you to do away with structure here. You're holding on your foot in efforts to assist the flexion on that side and aid in stability.

You'll train this toe grab pistol at least three times per week now. And you might do 2 sets of 3 reps. You might do 3 sets of 2 reps. Or you might even do 6 sets of single reps. The benefit of this sort of structure, is you're free to follow your intuition and train what feels right. You might train the singles on days where you feel more tired or sore. And you can train the doubles and triples when you feel fresh and strong. 

Pistols and other single-leg exercises can be super tough. But just like your two-legged sills, the right progression will get you to your goal, and really impressive feat of strength at that. #sophisticatedstrength.

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