The Pistol squat is one of the best exercises to challenge your muscular imbalances and tell you which is your weak side. When it comes to kettlebell training, I advocate the use of the one-hand swing over the two-hand or double kettlebell swing because I believe in the concept of imbalanced training or as I like to call it, the secret of kettlebell training.
One of the many ways to explore this kettlebell secret is by training with pistol squats specifically kettlebell pistols. This brings me to this wonderful article written by Andrew Fox of Aim Workout.
How to master the “Pistol” (aka the one-leg Squat)
The Squat is hailed as the king of all strength training as well as Power Lifting and Body Building exercises. Why? It’s simple – the squat recruits and works more muscles in the body than any other exercise, barring the deadlift. It is a complete exercise that works the entire body including the core, shoulders and back. Not only does it increase muscle strength and size due to the large amounts of HGH (Human Growth Hormone) that it releases in the body, it also burns the most calories compared to any other body weight exercise.
However, we’re not here to talk about the conventional squat; we’re here to talk about that which cannot be named: the Pistol. If you thought the squat was hard, you’re in for one hell of a surprise with the pistol. The one leg squat (aka the pistol) is deceptively hard. Unlike the squat, where you can get away with average mobility, flexibility and core strength, the pistol is a whole different ball game. It requires the perfect mix of strength, mobility and balance that seriously separates the men from the boys and the tame from the extreme.
Burn your way through 2-3 sets of 10 reps of these killer one-leggers and you’ve earned a rewarding strength upgrade as well as membership into an elite club of strength athletes that few have the courage or grit to join. Ready to strengthen muscles you thought you never had and feel a new kind of burn. Let’s get started.
Before you even think of starting with the pistol, you should be able to perform the following with good form, speed and balance.
The conventional squat is your very first step towards the pistol.
To Perform: Keep your feet shoulder-width apart and turn your feet outward at an angle of 15-20° (essentially place them underneath your shoulders). Start by pushing your hips back slightly and then lowering your butt by bending at the knees. Make sure that your knees stay behind your feet and follow the direction of your toes.
You should be an able to at least 30-40 reps consecutively for 3-4 sets before moving onto attempting the pistol.
2. Squat (feet together)
This is an extremely valuable progression that will give you an idea of the mobility, stability and core strength that you will need to perform the pistol.
3. Jump Squat
For those of who think they’re ready to start training pistols, try your hand at a few reps of the jump squat. The jump squat builds immense power in your quadriceps and calves as well as great resilience in the muscles of your legs.
To Perform: The same as the conventional squat except for the jump on the way up. Control you landing by engaging the muscles of your core. The Descent should be slower than the ascent. Inhale on the way down and exhale as you burst up and push through your heels and calves.
4. Weighted Squat
Although the weighted squat is not strictly a prerequisite to the pistol, it does help with mobility as well as to further strengthen the core and leg muscles. Unless you’re goals is to put on considerable muscle mass and size, you don’t need to lift a tonne of weight to be able to lift your body using one leg.
Pistol Squat Progressions
Below are the a few pistol squat progression exercises that are most relevant and likely to benefit you. Although there are few other variations with bands, rings and other fancier equipment, the ones we’ve mentioned below require the least resourcefulness and help you focus on what actually matters – which is to train and train correctly without running around trying to organise equipment.
Depending on your individual level of strength and mobility you can choose what works for your and disregard the rest.
1. On a box or bench
This is the best starting point. What you will need is a box, chair or bench to sit back on.
To Perform: Keep your arms extended out in front of you at shoulder length, keep one leg straight out as you bend the other knee to begin your squat. With your foot firmly planted on the ground, bend down into a squat and sit into the chair or box. Start with a taller box or chair and decrease the height as your get better and stronger.
2. Assisted Pistol
Use a stable support such as a pole or table which will allow you to use as much upper body support as you need.
To Perform: Holding onto the support, lower down into the bottom of the pistol. Remember to keep the other leg straight out in front you, maintain your weight on the heel of your supporting leg, keep your knee bent in line with your foot and your chest out and upright.
Holding the position for 20-30 seconds as an isometric exercise will help strengthen your core and increase the mobility in your hip. Focus on increasing the time of your holds and start with low reps – between 3-5 for three sets.
3. Pistol with Weight
Once you’re comfortable with overall movement and can perform 3-5 sets of assisted pistols with relative ease, it’s time to move onto the next progression.
You’ll need a weight of 10-20 pounds to hold out in front of you to counterbalance your weight going down. A barbell plate works in our experience. As your balance and stability improve, you can use progressively lighter weights to test your strength.
4. Elevated Pistol Squats
The elevated pistol is a great progression that allows your opposite leg to hang down free giving more leverage to complete the full pistol with ease.
Stand on top of a bench or box that isn’t too high off of the ground and practise completing a few solid reps for a couple of sets.
The Full Pistol
With the required time, dedication and effort, if you go through the above progressions systematically, you will be able to perform full squats. And, then, the sky is the Limit.