This gymnastics exercise can be frustrating for some CrossFit athletes because for many, the mobility demand outweighs the strength demand. If you don’t have pistols in your arsenal, read below to see how you can develop this crucial CrossFit skill. (If you suspect that your mobility is the problem, click here to check out some ways you can improve your ankle mobility!)
What is a pistol squat? What muscles does it work?
Pistol squats, also known as single leg squats, are typically performed in CrossFit workouts or as a skill. The athlete must perform a squat that breaks parallel while supporting themselves only on one leg. The high demand of strength, balance, mobility, and coordination is what makes this exercise so advanced. That aside, incorporating pistol squats in your training will help to develop your quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves, core, and hip flexors. Have pistols develop muscle recruitment, flexibility, mobility, and proprioception. Being a body weight exercise, it’s relatively low impact and when performed properly, can potentially help to strengthen your joints.
For more in-depth overview on how to perform this exercise, see out video below. Don’t forget to follow us and subscribe to our channel on YouTube for more tutorials:
Why can’t I do pistol squats?
Some people may struggle to perform pistol squats due to various factors, like lack of mobility, balance, and/or strength. Here are some common reasons why some individuals find pistol squats challenging:
Pistol squats require a significant amount of hip and ankle mobility to maintain balance and achieve proper depth. Strong quadriceps help to maintain balance and control throughout the exercise while a strong core is needed to stabilize the body and keep it upright during the movement. If an athlete has limited flexibility, it can make it difficult to perform this movement comfortably.
It’s worth noting that pistol squats are an advanced bodyweight exercise, and not everyone may be able to perform them immediately. However, with consistent practice, mobility work, and strength training focused on the relevant muscle groups, many individuals can work towards achieving pistol squats over time.
4 Exercises to Develop Pistol Squats
You can work your way up to your first pistols or improve your skills by following our progression below:
NOTE: Pistol squats are a safe exercise however it’s not uncommon that you may feel tension or cramping. If cramping occurs in your quads, hamstrings, or glutes, self-massage and rest are enough to solve the issue.
Adjusted Air Squat
The first progression we’re going to start with resembles a traditional air squat except with a few intentional adjustments.
- If you struggle with hip or ankle mobility, starting with a slightly wider stance than usual will decrease the demand from those areas, however the objective is to progress into a narrower stance while achieving deeper squat.
- As the hips descend, you’ll want to push your knees as far forward as possible. Engaging and rotating the muscles at the front of your shins (tibialis anterior) will also help you to get your knees out past your toes.
- Sit as deeply as possible in a squat position and hold for three to five seconds. Pausing at the bottom helps with your body’s ability to adapt to this position. Be sure to keep tension in your core, quads, glutes, and hamstrings in the pauses.
- You can gradually make this exercise more difficult by bringing your feet closer together. It’s important to make sure that as your stance gets closer, you’re still able to keep your knees together and your heels flat on the floor. The idea is to be able to perform the exercise with your feet touching.
This drill is very similar to a typical reverse lunge however again, we will make some intentional adjustments specific to training pistols and building single leg strength.
- Come to a half-kneeling position, pushing your front knee over your toes as much as possible.
- Lean forward slightly, loading your front leg and keeping tension in your glutes and abs. Come to a standing position using your back leg to help.
Just like in the previous progression, the idea is to gradually close your stance (a short stance) to increase the demand on the working leg. Perform this exercise alternating sides on each rep as you would with reverse lunges or pistol squats.
Progress this exercise by incorporating ankle plantiflexion and eventually, a leg lift:
From your short half-kneeling stance, extend the ankle of your back leg before leaning forward and pushing out of the position. This will load your front leg more, making it more challenging to stand.
Ultimately, you will be able to lift the back leg off the ground completely before standing.
Negatives focus on the eccentric part (the lowering phase) of the exercise to help us get stronger and more efficient at controlling the concentric part of the exercise.
- When performing negatives for the first time, have something sturdy to hold onto for extra support. Support yourself on one leg while keeping the other out in front of you. Slowly bring your hips down and push your knee and body forward as you descend. Hold the deepest position you can for three to five seconds.
- Place your other foot on the ground flat and come to standing. If you can’t lower yourself enough to perform an RX rep, (your hip crease below your knee), keep working on this position, trying to get lower each time. Little by little, you should need less assistance from your upper body to pull you up.
Once you’re able to control through negatives without any assistance, you can begin to apply tempo training. A good place to start is taking two seconds to lower down and two seconds holding at the bottom before coming up.
From there, you can progress into performing faster and faster pistols for example in workouts. If that doesn’t work well, spend more time working on the earlier progressions to get stronger in end ranges and mobilize the joints that are limiting progress.
Common Errors and Mobility demands
Even if you’re able to do a valid pistol, odds are you could be more efficient. By avoiding a few common errors and using some reinforcing drills, we can make our pistol squats technically sound.
Avoid heel raising – if your heel comes up when you get to the end range of the pistol squat, this could mean that you have restrictive hipper ankle mobility. Obviously, the long-term solution is to work on those zones in order to have access to those ranges of motion; however, a short-term fix is to elevate the heel using a small plate or lifting shoes. A thicker plate will provide more “support”, so progressing to thinner plates is the goal in this case.
Get smoother reps – Your hip flexors do a lot of work to keep your non-working leg up as your body gets closer to the floor. Work on holds and contractions to help keep the non-working leg high and in front of your body when you’re at the bottom of the pistol. Mastering this position will help you to cycle through reps more fluidly.
Use your feet! – Keeping your arches active will also help you to execute efficient, smooth reps by making it easier to “get out of the hole”. Engaging your feet will lead you to maintain tension in the bottom position and prevent your knees from caving in. Work on it by doing pistols barefoot to develop the balance and stability needed for high volume and speedy sets. Not to mention, without any additional support, practicing this way will make performing pistols in shoes a piece of cake.
Mobility Drills for Better Pistol Squats
Whether you have pistols or not, most athletes can benefit from these drills that target increasing the range of motion and flexibility in the hips, ankles. Try this routine before you practice the progressions or before a WOD that features the exercise:
Stand on a 10, 15, or 20 kg plate and use a stable support (like a wall or a rig) to support yourself. Let your heels hang off of the plate and perform calf raises with a 1 second raising phase and a 3 second descending phase.
Make sure that you end up in a stretch position for the calves.
Complete 2-3 sets of 10-20 reps.
Ankle End Range 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 off of the chair.
Put some pressure at the end of the range of motion by bringing your chest to your knee and pressing down using your weight. Maintain the position for 20 seconds and do the same on the other ankle.
Complete 3 sets of 20-second holds on each side.
Lay down with the knees out and the hips in external rotation. Hold that position for 10 seconds and go into a PNF stretch (bottom picture) pressing against the floor for 5 seconds. Relax and go deeper into the stretch for 10 seconds.
Accumulate 1 minute.
With the same PNF technique that we used before (5 seconds press and 10 seconds relax) 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.
Accumulate 1 minute.
With these simple exercises done everyday you will feel the difference.
Scaling Pistols in WODs
Just because you don’t have pistols yet doesn’t meant that you should avoid them all together. Try any (or all!) of these substitutes the next time you’re confronted with pistol squats in your training:
- Shrimp squat: with this progression you’ll shorten the range of motion making it easier if you still don’t have enough strength. Start by holding one leg behind you and perform a lunge, stop your descent when your knee touches the floor.
- Box Step downs: Standing on the side of a box, lower yourself down aiming to reach the bottom position of the pistol. Control down until the non-working leg reaches the ground or if you are strong enough, you can try to go up and complete the movement. Being elevated from the ground allows you to have the opposite leg a little bit lower, decreasing the mobility demands of the exercise.
Once you can achieve a full range of motion, control and tension are the keys to mastering pistol squats. Even if you’re starting from the most basic progression, investing time in intentional practice will guarantee results and put you on the path to dominance.
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