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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The Secret To Improving Your Squat Depth

Many of you lovelies are concerned about squatting past parallel. So we’re going to chat about that today.

But, let’s get one little disclosure out of the way first:

***Getting to rock bottom in a HEAVY barbell squat is really not as important as you may think. Unless you are stepping onto the powerlifting platform that is - in which case you’ll want to train to that desired depth as outlined by the rules of your league. Otherwise, dropping it to the point that is comfortably difficult is the best course of action when faced with more MAXIMAL EFFORT weights. And this kind of squat is really not what we’re talking about here anyway.

OK. Back to it...

To get this started, let me just say that I happen to think it’s generally SUPER important to be able to goblet squat at sub maximal loads to at least a depth that allows your hips to sit below your knees. But it’s this type of squat—the more upright, front loaded, tailbone-at-6pm kinda squat, where we seem to struggle the most.

I don’t really mean “we" as in you and I. I am not one of the strugglers. Just recognizing the truth here: I don’t have ANY issue with dropping it like it’s hot. I wait for the subway at Spring Street with my booty between my heels and my nose between the pages of a Henry James novel. 

 

Some Bodies Can Just Get There Easier

I don’t point this out to gloat. Although this ability has certainly allowed me an immeasurable advantage in shaping my very curvy backside. Hah.

I note this for two reasons. My joints are arranged definitively differently than yours. And, I spent many hours from the ages of 4 to 13 working on my flexibility in ballet shoes. What that means is, I’ve got an advantage in both leverage and training history. Those are two very important factors contributing to squatting ability.

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But You Can Drop It Low Too!

But, just because you may not have the same body or background as me, doesn’t mean you can’t get to be as comfortable as I am in a fuller range of motion with some intentional practice.

And oddly enough, all those releves and grand plies - those deep knee bends at the bar - taught me an important cue that you might find is the game changer for improving your squat training.

The one cue that makes all the difference - the one that will ultimately allow you to sit into a fuller range of motion - is exactly how you initiate lots of your basic ballet skills....

Instead of moving from the hips to start, you need to begin solely by pushing into the knees first.

 

But Won’t That Hurt My Knees?

Now, you may be thinking to yourself “But I have bad knees.” First off, don’t talk about your joints like that. How you speak about your body has a powerful effect on your brain. Don’t forget that! 

And yes, it’s certainly easy to imagine that aspiring for a sharper angle at the knee as we’re implying here, is going to make matters worse.

But, the thing is darling, doing a slow and controlled deep squat—putting your knee into greater flexion with intention and care; will actually help strengthen that knee you are worried about.

You know that knee of yours that doesn't feel so great after lunges or jump squats or sprints - when it’s forced into those tighter positions under much higher speed, load and pressure from that amrap clock. Slow it down. Give your brain and body a chance to learn and understand the motion.

As you practice BONUS, you'll also be giving your body a chance to strengthen other joints in a fuller range of motion like your hips and ankles - and those guys love to move.

 

How To Initiate Your Front Squat

So here’s your challenge. Start tall with your feet rooting down and the crown of your head reaching to the ceiling. Begin to pull the floor apart with your feet (if you've never heard that before, click here!) as normal. Now, keeping your hips locked up tight underneath your shoulders, continue to pull the floor apart as you bend the knees and pull them apart too. You can think of this like sliding your back down the wall a few inches.

Once you've got that slight bend, THEN you may move from your hips. But instead of sitting back, aim to get your butt right between your heels on the way down - i.e. push forward as you go down.

Watch this quick vid for a visual demonstration of what we're saying.

Did you get lower than you normally do? Do you think you could get even lower if you held on to something like a rack or a TRX? Make adjustments with assistance to achieve an even better result if you can't get all the way down there.

And more importantly - Do you feel how your quads, those muscles on the front side of your thighs, are working super hard? Thats gonna help you get that nice defined leg you’ve been chasing after. Just beware, you’re gonna be a lot more sore than you normally are.

 

Practice!

Start with 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps. Try and descend nice and slow - like a 3 second count, before returning to standing. Add in a 2-3 second pause(without losing tension) once you've practiced a couple weeks. Add weight as needed.

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Are Your Ankles Adequate?

And What To Do If They Are NOt!

Lunges are necessary—The split stance should never be ignored. And I don't care what anybody says on that particular subject. Front squats are a great introduction to the world of barbell lifts—the one true 8-minute ab workout among the gimmicks. Sprints are theoretically the best choice for cardio—and can turn you into a fat-burning machine.

All three of these exercises have two things in common. The first is that they are all simple but excellent staples, that merit a place in any good training program. From fat-loss to core strength, they all hit the marks with multiple shots.

The second, is that they require a certain amount of mobility to be completed successfully. Lunges, front squats, and sprints all require you to have ankles that move pretty damn well.

And bad ankles affect more of the population than you might think. It’s kind of a hidden problem because tight, locked up ankles typically don’t result in pain at the site. It’s a rare occasion that any client ever comes to me actually complaining of ankle pain.

Limited ankle mobility affects other joints, and shows itself as seemingly unrelated issues. So it can be really difficult to realize unless you actually measure it.

Clients DO often complain of knee pain during lunging.They experience back pain after goblet or front squats. And I’ve seen a slew of runners with frequent ankle sprains. These are merely possible clues. But, any one of these issues could prompt an ankle investigation. 

The simplest way to know? You don’t need a kinesiology degree to dig a little deeper. You just need a dowel(could be the swiffer mop in the closet) and a ruler(your phone works fine. An iPhone6 is about 5 and a half inches long for reference).

How To Know If Your Ankles Need Work

Now, should you find that your ankle mobility is less than stellar—as you learned from the video, a distance from the wall of less than four inches, you need to work on your ankles before you jump into any of the aforementioned exercises. 

In the meantime, you can swing and snatch yourself silly. Do all of the deadlifts. And any upper body stuff is of course fair game. Simultaneously, you’ll be working towards earning your sprints and front squats back. 

Here is a quick routine to run through, with a bonus exercise at the end after you’ve been working for about two weeks(every day 2x a day or 4weeks 1x a day).

**Should you find that one ankle is tighter than the other, you'll complete 50-100% more work on the challenging side.

***THIS IS SUPER IMPORTANT! If you experience closing joint PAIN-- and that means that as you push the knee further in that ankle mobility assessment and the front side of your ankle hurts--DO NOT try this routine. DO NOT even bother reading the rest of this blog. Proceed to your nearest body work professional. This is not going to work for you and might make the situation worse. 

If everything feels good, let's get going!

(1) Foam Roll Calves

As we covered in the last blog, we don't necessarily know why it works, but foam-rolling the calves can get you a little more range of motion in a snap.

(2) Stretch Calves

Push into the wall as you drive the heel back into the floor. Make sure that foot is straight and hold for thirty seconds.

(3) Mobilize Ankle

This is my go to mobilization if I know my client is going to be working out alone. All you need is a sturdy band and an anchor to tie it to.

Post stretching and foam rolling, you should have gained more flexibility. Now move through it! 8-10 strides is perfect.

(4) Core-Activated Hurdle Hold

This one can seem kind of silly. You might even get into the hold and think, What's happening here? Where's the work?

The feedback from the cables(or a band works here too!) teaches you to push into the ground with the standing leg and elongate your body, creating space in the joints. In yoga, we call this rooting to rise.

All of our joints work better when there is adequate space to move properly. Including those pesky ankles that can get otherwise squashed in single-leg balances. LENGTHEN.

If you pay attention to this subtle activation, you'll learn to apply the concept to the next two exercises...

And maybe EVERYTHING you ever do. And then maybe EVERYTHING you do gets better as you set yourself up for increased core stability with this one simple cue. BOOM. Automatic sophistication. You can stop reading now. Ok, just kidding.

(5) Assisted Split Hold

OK, Ok I know we said lunges will cause you problems if you have tight ankles. 

But! If we dial it back down and regress our split stance to an isometric hold, and we take off some of the load by adding assistance, you should be able to find the perfect first challenge. 

Progressively load the ankle by using the straps less and less as the exercise becomes easier. Thirty seconds on a hold is great.

(6) Squat Toe-Touch*

*To be completed only after progress has been made and confirmed by reassessment. 

Not to be confused with a typical bend-patterned toe-touch. Don't worry about hinging back. I want you to drop that booty for 8 reps on this one.

I also want you to look for a lot of ankle dorsiflexion i.e. push that knee forward to challenge your new range of motion. 

And move slow! Speed makes everything harder. A four count down and a four count back up, minimizing any shift on the foot as much as possible to be successful. A loss of balance is an indicator to you that your learning speed may be slower than you think.

And finally, remember that space concept from the hurdle holds? Root to rise! 

The Program

(1) Foam Roll Calves (60sec)

(2) Stretch Calves (30sec)

(3) Band Ankle Mobilizations (x8-10 strides)

(4) Core-Activated Hurdle Hold (30-60sec)

(5) Assisted Split Hold (30sec)

*(6) Squat Toe-Touch (8 reps) After clear progress has been measured

 

Now, once you get to that magic 4-inch mark, don't just jump right back into long sprints and heavy front squats and loaded bulgarian split-squats.

Adding load and jumping ahead too quickly is a sure-fire way to negate your progress.

Start with short sprints. Begin with unloaded split-squats and lunges. Stick to easy reps on the front squats. 

The benefits don't just stop here. Your single-leg lifts should all benefit from the ankle work. And you may even find your glutes engage a little bit better as well. As your newly named glute goddess, I know a thing . 

#adequateankles #sophisticatedstrength

Hip Flexor Happiness

Tight hip-flexors are a serious problem. They are annoying enough as is, getting super uncomfortable just walking around. But they can also cause you a number of other issues. For instance, they can prevent you from pulling yourself into a squat. They can mess with your stride efficiency when you run or sprint. They can cause your lower back to spasm in pain. And, as Drive client Sheila pointed out yesterday, they can make you look fat. “Is that why my belly sticks out?”

OK, that’s not entirely true. Nor could Sheila ever look fat. Lady must be walking around at 10% body fat. On the average day. At age 40. She’s amazing. But anyway, tight hip flexors can add the appearance of an extra few pounds by altering your standing posture. 

Tight Hip Flexors Affect Your Posture

This is because tight deep hip flexors can pull on your pelvis in such a way that you end up looking like you have what I affectionately call “shelf butt.” Your tail bone points behind you instead of down. Your belly is lengthened (what Sheila was talking about) and your lower back muscles are shortened, giving you a significantly rounder appearance. You got a shelf back there. Not too difficult to understand how this extra stress can also cause you some wicked lower back at the end of a long day of work. Or why you can't seem to develop the lower part of your abs. 

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And these babies can get tight and unhappy for a number of reasons, starting with common culprit: sitting at a desk all day. Of course, wearing heels all of the time can also mess you up, while doing a lot of distance running can cause repetitive stress. Or maybe all three if you are living in NYC. Tight hip flexors are a common complaint of my hard-working Class Pass chickees.

And the reason why they are tight in the first place matters. Of course you want to know what you can do differently in the future. But you cannot change the past. Much like life, better to focus on the present situation. What’s going to make you happy right now?

Tight Hip Flexors Are Weak Hip Flexors

Well, what we do know is that these muscles are probably not just tight, but also weak. And that’s something you actually can change right now, in fact. And I’m going to show you how.

But first, how do we know they’re weak? Well, my lovelies, we need to talk a little science here. Don’t worry, I hate using big words. I like to keep even the most complicated of concepts simple and sophisticated, you know?

If your peripheral nervous system had a manifesto, it’s mission statement would read something like “on a life-long quest to constantly and accurately determine the level of threat to the body.” Consider it your personal risk management consultant. 

And your brain, the central nervous system CFO, is super intelligent. It wants to protect you from risky moves that could lead to injury. So if the peripheral investigation reports weakness in a certain movement, the brain will limit your freedom of motion there, in order to avoid those dangerous ranges.

Now if only it was so good at assessing emotional risk of certain ex-boyfriends... I digress.

Why Stretching Alone Doesn't Work

Back to my point. You need to give your brain reason to believe that loosening the grip on your hip flexors is OK; that it’s safe. You need to teach them to be strong. But you won’t be able to do so successfully without first getting your pelvis to a neutral position. 

So, yes, you still need to stretch your hip flexors to achieve that. But then you need to consider that this temporary release is nothing more than a magic moment, an opportunity that must be followed up directly with some good targeted strengthening exercises. 

Cause if you don’t, you’ll probably be stretching your hips every day until the end of time. This is the reason you keep stretching them and it never seems to stick. 

Now, mind you, this is not an automatic fix. But if you make a commitment to follow this protocol every day 2x a day for two weeks, or you add it into your warm-up for the next month, you should find that your posture improves, your back pain diminishes, and your squat numbers mysteriously jump 20 lbs. And as Sheila mentioned, you’ll look like you dropped at least a few pounds, easily. 

Stretch Your Hip Flexors First

First, you’re going to stretch your hip flexors. The RKC hip flexor stretch is my fave. You just need a dowel, or a foam roller like I use (see below).

Start in a half-kneeling position with hips squared and the rear toes tucked. Inhale and push the roller into the ground while creating total-body tension. Exhale, releasing all tension except in the glutes, and push hips forward. Repeat for three breaths.

But, if you’ve got some knee issues, you could always use this basic bow stretch, following the same breathing pattern (see below).

Now, don’t stop here! Your hip flexors and back may already be feeling happier, but you must lock in the goodness and strengthen. In a rush? This routine requires but three more minutes to complete!

Then Strengthen Your Hip Flexors Effectively

Use this band hurdle hold exercise to challenge the hip flexors and low abs. Place the band (like this one from Perform Better) around your feet and lie on your back with your hands interlace behind your head. Pull one knee in and exhale as you reach the other foot away to provide resistance. Hold for three seconds. Repeat for eight reps per side.

 

Troubleshooting: Keep your spine flush to the ground. Place a lift like an aired pad or folded up mat underneath your head if your lower back cannot make contact. Keep in mind, the extended leg does not need to be locked out to create an adequate challenge. Just reach as far as you can comfortably.

Next, practice this slider exercise to challenge the psaos(one of the flexors). Start in a push-up position with the slider (like this Valslide) under the foot and out on 30 degrees. Exhale as you grind the slider into the floor and pull towards the midline on that diagonal. Reset on the inhale. Repeat for eight reps per side.

Troubleshooting: Push the slider into the floor as hard as you can! Keep you your shoulders and hips square. 

Real Magic

As perviously stated, you can practice this five minute routine twice per day for two weeks to realize noticeable change. Or you can add the sequence to your daily routine for a few more weeks for equal success. Either way, you will be well on your way to #hipflexorhappiness without constant stretching. #sophistocatedstrength