One of the most famous bodyweight skills in CrossFit is the one legged squat or pistol.
We’ve all seen pictures of people doing pistols in front of the Eiffel Tower, on the Chinese Great Wall or on a coconut tree in the Maldives… looks fancy for the picture but it’s a really hard skill if you don’t have the mobility and strength required.
In order to accomplish this skill we have to spot two different requirements : strength and mobility/flexibility.
Pistol Squat: Strength + mobility
The strength of the quads and glutes of the leg supporting the weight but also the strength of the hip flexors that are maintaining the opposite leg straight in the air.
The mobility and flexibility of the ankle and hip of the leg supporting the weight and also the hip of the lifted leg.
So where do we start?
First: Work on your mobility
You should start checking mobility first.
With a simple test you can check if your ankle has enough range of motion to perform a pistol: the half kneeling dorsiflexion test.
- Kneel down in front of a wall in a lunge position
- Check the distance between the big toe and the wall while performing a knee flexion.
- The knee will travel forward until the point that the heel starts to come up, there we measure and if you have around 5 inches or 12 cm you have a good mobility of the ankle and the necessary range of motion to be able to perform a pistol squat.
- Check both feet and make sure that you can perform a deep squat (hip crease below parallel) so the hip mobility required is also on point.
In case you fail the test and the distance to the wall is less than 5 inches or 12 cm you have to work on your ankle mobility.
Try these simple exercises at the beginning of your training sessions and you’ll feel the improvement.
Mobility exercises for a pistol squat
Calf raises: for warming up do 10-20 calf raises from the floor, just go on your toes and down.
Eccentric calf raises: step on a thick book, or a step if available, and place your toes on it, perform 10 calf raises with a 1 second raising phase and a 4 second descending phase. Make sure that you end up in a stretch position for the calves. Rest for 1 minute and repeat 2 more times.
Ankle end range of motion stretch: place the foot on a chair/box, make sure you have the toes pointing forward and that the arch doesn’t collapse. Go to knee flexion making sure that the knee cap tracks the second toe and the heel doesn’t come out of the chair. Put some pressure at the end of the range of motion by bringing the chest to the knee and pressing down using your weight. Maintain that position for 20 seconds and do the same on the other ankle. Repeat the process 2 more times.
With these simple exercises done everyday you will feel the difference.
No fancy or complicated exercises, just your commitment to do them everyday will make you improve.
So once we have addressed and fixed the mobility on the ankle you should assess your hamstrings and adductors.
You want to make sure that you have enough flexibility to keep the leg straight on the pistol (hamstrings) and also to be able to deep squat (adductors).
Two stretches that can help you improve are:
Frog stretch: lay down with the knees out and the hips in external rotation, hold that position for 10 seconds and start a PNF stretch where you press against the floor for 5 seconds and relax and let the stretch go deeper for 10 seconds. Repeat 2 more times and come out of the posture.
Hamstring stretch: with the same PNF technique that we used before (5 seconds press and 10 seconds relax for 3 sets) place your foot on a chair while standing. Keeping a neutral spine hinge on the hips and bring the chest forward as you press your foot against the chair.
Ok I’ve worked on the mobility and flexibility so I can do pistols, right?
Well…not so fast…we have to check that you have the strength to lift your bodyweight with only one leg.
Strength exercises to do a single leg squat
Try these exercises, that beside being useful to test your strength, will help you gain it as well.
Shrimp squat: with this progression you’ll shorten the range of motion making it easier if you still don’t have enough strength. Start holding one leg behind you and perform a lunge, stop your descent when your knee touches the floor. Do 4 sets of 5 reps with each leg.
Step downs: stand on a chair or a box and as you lower yourself aim to reach the bottom position of the pistol. If you are strong enough you can try to go up and complete the movement. Being on a chair allows you to have the opposite leg a little bit lower making the movement easier. Complete 3 sets of 5 reps with a descent of 5 seconds.
Time to try the pistol
After you’ve practiced and mastered these two movements it’s time to try a pistol, make sure your knee tracks the toe and do your best to keep your balance.
Don’t drop down uncontrolled because you can hurt your meniscus, that’s why you want to make sure you’ve gained enough strength to descend in a controlled way.
Watch coach John Singleton’s video tutorial showing us more tips and progressions to improve the single leg squat.