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4 Steps To Your First Pistol Squat [VIDEOS INCLUDED]

by Ben Thompson

OVERVIEW

The pistol squat is a very challenging exercise that is a great expression of mobility, balance and  strength. Unfortunately, most people find it hard to achieve because they fail to have a structured plan to progress. 

Before outlining our recommendations for mastering this movement, we must first outline what are the potential limiting factors. 

Limiting Factor 1: Ankle Mobility

Ankle mobility is the common issue in a pistol squat. The greater the range of motion through the ankle, the easier it is to learn the movement. 

While there is not a black and white rule, we recommend you aim for 14cm+ of dorsiflexion of the ankle.

If you struggle with ankle range, check out our ankle mobility blog which includes our top 5 exercises to help with this. 

If you cannot achieve 14cm on the knee to wall test, ankle mobility is a priority over practicing the drills that will be outlined below. 

Limiting Factor 2: Balance

A key component in doing a pistol squat is having the balance to do so. To have control through the eccentric and prevent the knee collapsing inward, the lateral hip muscles must fire to keep the femur externally rotated.

The drills outlined below are regressions of the full movement and a great way to build up the adequate strength to progress. 

Limiting Factor 3: Strength

While a lack of 'strength'  is a less common issue, not having enough leg strength can also be a reason to not achieve a pistol squat. The goal is to be able to High Bar Back Squat 1-1.5x bodyweight to have the adequate strength.

Exercises like front squats, split squats, and lunges will also help build leg strength to help with this exercise.

STEP BY STEP GUIDE

A simple misunderstanding that occurs with the pistol squat is in relation to the centre of mass. The pistol squat is not a 'lunge', so it is important not to make comparisons to the movement pattern. 

In a pistol squat, you must reach forward with your arms to remain balanced. 

Mostly people try to 'sit back' and they end up falling on their backside each time.  

This is because they either
a) haven't got the adequate ankle range 
b) are performing the movement with poor technique. 

As mentioned above, if you fail to achieve 14cm of dorsiflexion each side, then this is your first priority. 

If you can achieve this, start progressing through the steps below: 

Step One: Assisted Pistol Squat 

To build strength and improve this skill component, we have to be able to create enough of a stimulus for adaptation. 

This first progression teaches the correct motor pattern but is regression in load. 

To perform this progression, start in an offset stance, lower down on one leg and use the toe of the rear leg to 'spot' as required.

In the bottom position, hold for a few seconds, ensuring the front heel is down and the arms are reaching forward.

Push up from here with the front leg, only using the back leg for assistance if required. 

Protocol: 4 x 3-5 each side (3x/Week)

The goal is to perform this multiple times per week, each time trying to rely less and less on the assisting leg to 'spot'. 

Watch below for a video demonstration. 

Step Two: Eccentric Only (One Down, Two Up)

Once you have built some capacity from step one, it's time to progress. In this step, the assistance leg will now be extended in front of the body - which is a more challenging posture. 

In this posture, it becomes more important to 'reach out in front' with the hands to counter balance. 

The goal is to practice lowering with one leg and coming back up with two.

Progress this by making the eccentric anything from 3-10 seconds. The slower the lower, the more control you can demonstrate.  

Protocol: 4 x 3-5 each side (3x/Week)

For this progression, aim for 5 quality reps each leg.

Make the lowering phase as slow as possible, hold the bottom position, bring the leg in and use both legs to return to the top position. 

Watch below for a video demonstration. 










Step 3: Counter Balance Pistol Squat

The final exercise is the ‘counterbalance’ pistol squat. This is done by holding a 5kg plate in front of you. Be sure to reach the arms forward and not sit your hips back when lowering. 

Holding the weight plate out in front does provide additional resistance, however it helps improve balance and teaches you to put pressure on the midfoot and not the heel.

Protocol: 4 x 3-5 each side (3x/Week)

Watch below for a video demonstration. 

Step Four: Pistol Squat

Now you have made your way through the progressions, it's time to practice the full movement. Remember to reach forward and not sit your weight back into your heel. 

Keep mid foot pressure, control through full range of motion and drive out of the bottom. 

Watch below for a video demonstration. 

SUMMARY

While there are many ways to skin a cat, we believe this is the best way to progress the pistol squat. 

There is no set number of weeks or sessions you should do on each, however we do recommended at least a few sessions on each. 

If you have any questions, comment below, and we will help you out. 


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