by Tyler Wall
The elusive pistol squat. The bane of many a CrossFitter’s existence. One in very few can get them on their first try, but that most likely isn’t you.
Being able to squat on one leg is no easy feat. It requires balance, mobility, stability, coordination, and strength.
But with practice, it’s a fun and impressive movement. There are many benefits to the pistol squat; it's a fantastic movement for the development of strength and balance through the leg and hips. You don’t need any equipment and you can literally do it anywhere. What more could you ask for?
NOTE: If you have any current injuries or issues at any of the joints in the leg, take care of those first. Heal yourself up before you dig a deeper hole.
First, the soft tissue areas to focus on:
Always test and retest after doing soft tissue work and mobility. See what works and doesn’t work. Give it some time, sometimes the results aren’t instant.
Next, take a look at the mobility requirements, from the bottom up:
Deep dorsiflexion of the ankle
External rotation at the hip
Extension at the thoracic spine
Often times, lack of ankle mobility can be tied to lack of stability in the foot. Chances are, if you have flat feet, then you’ll have “tight” ankles. Even if you don’t have flat feet, they can present themselves as tight. If the body can’t find stability (and therefore balance) in the feet - our direct connection at the Earth at all times, then it will create stability elsewhere, oftentimes in the ankles. Here is a foot strengthening exercise to get you started.
Spend some time every day, multiple times a day practicing your short foot. Build those arches up. If you are diligent with them, you’ll see results in a short period of time.
Think about the foot: it is under constant use and stress. Therefore, it has to adapt quickly to the imposed demands placed upon it. Walk around barefoot whenever you can and connect with your feet. It will make a world of a difference.
If you already have great arches, you should practice some short foot anyway. In addition to that, you can also work on some banded ankle distraction.
Using a simple tool like a small band, you can distract the joint capsule at the ankle and work through some new ranges. Make sure to drive your knee over the third and fourth toes. Try 1-2 sets of 15-20 reps, both standing and kneeling.
If you can’t externally rotate your hip to keep your knee over your middle toes, then you’ll quickly run into some issues and potential danger for your knee. It's key to avoid having it cave inside the toes.
This tactical frog mobility exercise will help with this movement. And, pigeon pose is always a good one too.
Another exercise to practice that will have a direct carryover is a simple bodyweight squat. This will provide you some guidance as to your foot position, knee position and torso position.
“What about the non-supported leg?”
Oh yeah – that one. Super important. You’ll need to keep it flexed at the hip, and extended at the knee so it doesn’t touch the ground.
To insure you have adequate mobility, lie flat on your back and lift one leg straight up. If you can’t get it to 90 degrees, you have an issue. More than likely, this is due to a stability issue in the trunk. Remember earlier when I was talking about lack of stability in the foot creating stiffness in the ankle? The same thing can happen with the trunk and the hamstring.
When we are able to breath and brace, we’ll open up new ranges of motion through our extremities (shoulders too – we’ll discuss that another time).
Lastly, we need to have adequate control and range through the spine to maintain balance and an upright torso for the pistol squat.
As far as building strength through the hip and legs, I recommend beginning with a 90/90 split squat. Not only does the split stance help develop balance, it improves glute timing as well.
With that, you should work on your one leg hinge for balance, coordination and pure awesomeness. When you conquer that, add some weight.
Lastly, you should train Heel Drops as they’ll teach you about body position awareness and strength through the full range of motion.
As always, focus on form. Take your time. Make sure that knee is tracking properly. If you have access to risers, use those and build up the height over time. If you only have boxes at your box, use those. Don’t try to drop down all the way on your first time. Take it slow.
This one will really build the necessary strength to get down to and out of the bottom position of the pistol.
There you go, folks. Once you are able to master the pistol, go for reps. Once you can get 10+ reps, add some weight like a kettlebell in the same side hand of the non-supported leg.
Stay tuned for more guides in the “Kinetic U: Strength – So You Want To” series!