Progressions & Regressions: Pistols
The pistol squat is an incredible way of building unilateral strength in the body. If we can squat well in the air squat, which is a bilateral exercise, trying the single leg squat may very well highlight mobility restrictions, imbalances or mechanical problems when performing bilateral movements, due to compensating on our stronger, more mobile side.
Working unilateral exercises is a great way to create a balanced functional foundation for everyday life. We all have one side of our body that’s more dominant than the other, like the leg you would automatically kick a ball with or the arm you write with. It’s so important to incorporate unilateral work into your training to make your body as strong as possible on both sides, as this will help to even out imbalances and prevent injury.
Besides that, it’s equally as important to try performing everyday tasks on your non-dominant side. Try switching shoulders when carrying a bag or even practise writing in the opposite hand. If anything it’s a great way to keep the brain actively challenged.
This is an effective way to test your ankle range in dorsiflexion. Stand in front of a wall, keeping your heel down and send your knee towards the wall. Repeat this motion, moving the foot further back each time and measure the maximum distance you can reach between the wall and the foot. Test both sides and notice if there’s a difference between the two. If there is, maybe one side is tighter from an old injury. If both sides are tight it could be down to your foot wear.
I’ve always run around barefoot for as long as I can remember and this has been hugely beneficial regarding the range I have available to me. If you’ve spent a lot of time in high heels you may find this has negatively impacted the range of motion in your ankles. We also want to consider the musculature around your joints such as the calves and shins.
Here are three mobility tools you can use to check in with your body and help open it up a little.
Plate on Knee - Keep your heel down and with the bumper plate on the thigh, draw the knee forward over the toes. This is best to do without foot wear to work through your true range. If the heel comes up you are defeating the point of this mobilisation.
Banded Ankles - Place the resistance band around your ankle and come in to a lunge away from the rig upright to create enough tension. Draw the knee forward over the toes keeping the heel down.
Foam Roll calves - Move around side to side, circling the ankle when you come across really tight areas in the calves. You can place your other leg on top to add extra pressure.
With each of these tools spend 2-4 minutes per side, remember to test and retest your ankle range before and afterward. These are quick fixes and unlikely to provide lasting change, but if you feel a positive benefit from doing them prior to squats or pistols then keep doing them.
Sitting in a squat more often will greatly help you improve your range, and what should be a natural range of motion.
I have been fortunate enough to have travelled and witness other cultures, where eating dinner wasn’t sat around a table while hinged at the hip and switching off in the body. Instead, they sit comfortably in a squat and eat, chat and play chess. We have negatively impacted our bodies neurologically and created all sorts of physical restrictions by sitting down in chairs, switching off physically and mentally. This was something we built for ease and comfort that ironically now makes our lives less comfortable.
If you try and spend some time every day sat in a squat, I’m certain you’ll notice huge benefits over time. It might start with 1 minute a day, but build that up and do it more often.
This movement will tell you a lot about your abilities in the bottom of a pistol squat. It will test your balance, mobility and awareness in the bottom position. Sit into a narrow squat, can you take your weight onto one foot and then extend the opposite leg out? If not, then most likely the ankle is struggling with this position, resulting in you probably falling backwards.
The other thing to take note of, is how the hamstrings, hip flexors and quads feel in the extended leg. This is your body's feedback, and it might be telling you about an area you need to work on. Notice if one side performs this more easily than the other. If you’re struggling with this then take a bumper plate or fractional weight and hold out in front of you with your arms extended and see if this helps. You could also test placing a fractional plate under your heel and see if that makes it more accessible, but don't always rely on this. Remember, identify what is it that’s restricting your movement instead of masking it. Mobility progress takes time and a lot of patience but be consistent and it will pay off.
Adding some momentum is a fun way to check how capable you are in the bottom of a pistol. It will help with balance, range of motion and strength in the ankle, as well as teaching how to distribute your body weight correctly. Try rolling in and out and then see if you can stand up.
You can also try a full pistol on the way down. Try to keep it slow and controlled, then add the momentum when you need it by rolling back and then forwards into the bottom position. You can do this with a weighted bias too for a little assistance. Holding the weight out in front helps to add a counter balance, which may help you to stand up more easily than without.
Similar to the above, however now we don’t use any momentum. Instead we move with extended time under tension to build stability, awareness and control in the range of movement we have available. The weight held out in front helps distribute our weight in the right position to help with our balance throughout the movement. Again, we need to keep the heel down. If you’re coming onto your toes, all you’re doing is most likely compensating for the lack of dorsiflexion in your ankle.
Placing a target behind you to pistol onto can be a great way to feel safe while you perform the movement and grasp the mechanics. You can gradually lower the platform over time and measure your progress. The key here is to not drop on to the platform, and instead lower down onto it with control. As soon as you feel the platform underneath you, immediately stand up, driving the heel into the ground. You’ll still build unilateral strength by working through your available range. I recommend you pair this up with some mobility work for the lower body to work on the areas holding you back.
Stand on top of a bench or box and perform a pistol. You can now send the extended leg to a deficit, which will help access a bigger range in your standing leg than when trying it on the floor. This will greatly strengthen the standing leg, while also working the anterior of the opposite leg, such as the hip flexors and quads. When performing these, think about lifting the extended leg as high as possible rather than letting it drop down, even if the height you can lift it to doesn't feel very far, we still want to keep active. We want our body to get used to the feeling of holding our leg out in front and engaging the quads. If you’re not used to your leg being in this position you may experience cramps, but you just need to make this position more familiar. Be aware of moving controlled and not dropping while ascending.
Similar to placing a platform underneath you, adding a resistance band can act as a target but also give you some resistance when coming back up. It can be a fun way to learn how to perform the movement without falling over. I recommend performing this one alongside a couple more of the strengthening variations, as the band will help you out of the hardest and lowest part of the pistol, where we need to build strength.
Stand with the feet wide. Slowly bend one leg, shifting your weight to one side. Keep the knee tracking the toes. Go to the range you have available keeping the heel down. You can also play about with going on to the toes, sitting lower and using the hands for support. This is like an archer push up for the lower body. Both feet are on the ground and so they inevitably support each other, making this movement easier than the pistol in terms of balance, but also a great way to strengthen and create more overall ankle and hip mobility. You’re still however working harder on one leg than the other, so we still get the unilateral benefits too. We can challenge the cossack squat in loads of ways like adding weight, holding a plate or barbell overhead, or using your body weight to try to sit all the way down and get back up without the use of our hands.
This is a good movement to feel your weight transferring to one leg. Take the top of your foot behind the opposite leg and focus on driving up. Avoid hooking your toes when taking the leg behind you, as we want to take as little weight through the back leg as we can to better mimic the pistol. This is an excellent movement to warm up for pistols or to improve balance and mechanics toward achieving pistol squats.
The dragon pistol is going to test your hip and ankle mobility, strength, balance, coordination and awareness on a whole new level. We take one leg around behind the other, whilst performing a one legged squat. The angle of the body will feel different to the normal pistol squat whilst you try to control your centre of mass.
A lot of the time you will see people holding their foot to maintain control and balance. You can do this but try to learn without holding the foot, as it will test your active range, especially the strength in the hips and adductors. There are plenty of ways to progress toward this movement, so it’s a great variation to add to your training. Accessing and unlocking available, yet challenging and more awkward positions in our movement is going to improve our overall athletic ability, but greatly build stability and awareness in our bodies while also safeguarding our range of motion by moving less linear. Besides this, working towards a more challenging movement can be incredibly fun and rewarding.
Once you’ve mastered pistol squats, why not play with some fun variation? Here’s a great challenge I nabbed from Carl Paoli some time ago and love playing with it because it really tests your mobility and balance. Get in to your pistol squat and rise up on to the ball of your foot. Now take the knee to the floor and transfer the weight back into the heel before standing up again.
The Shrimp is super challenging in terms of balance, ankle and hip strength and mobility. This variation can be done by sending one leg back, reaching the shin to the floor and back up again. To progress this movement, try holding onto the foot with one hand, then holding the foot with both hands.
Add weight to your pistols to build more strength, but make sure you keep it balanced on both legs. Always start on your weaker leg first and then repeat the same weight and reps on the stronger side. You can perform these on the ground, to a platform or on a box. If you don't have weight then build strength in the range you already have by simply slowing the movement down - how slow can you go? Adding pauses at intervals can also help to target certain areas that might feel less efficient when performing the pistol.
- Strengthen the anterior of the legs by working on your hip flexor strength. This will make the extended leg in the pistol squat stronger and more familiar with the position required.
Inner thigh Adductor Raises
- The closer the body is to the floor in this position, the easier the movement will feel.
- Sit upright to make it more challenging.
- Too easy? Challenge yourself further by placing a fractional weight on your foot.
- Add in pauses instead of going fast through this movement.
Standing Hip sequence
- This hip CARS (controlled, articular, rotations) sequence is one I took from a workshop I went to run by ‘Ollie Frost’ and taken/inspired by FRC Functional Range conditioning. It has so many benefits including strengthening and improving range in the hips. This is something I do pre-squat session or as part of a movement and mobility day. Adding this in to your routine will greatly impact your movement if you’re consistent enough. Add pauses and holds to build strength and a better active range in the hips. Move slowly with awareness and notice if you feel any imbalances between both sides.