“If they haven’t mastered single leg squats, I don’t understand why they’re putting weight on their back. If you haven’t taken care of first things first, what are you thinking?”
– Coach Sommers (Source)
The Pistol Squat: A magical bodyweight exercise that increases balance, strength and flexibility all at once!
Will I be able to do full pistols eventually just with box pistols?
Most probably. I found this “top-down” approach was the best way I could get close to the pistol squat while still maintaining proper form. As I practiced, I was able to go lower and I realized my ankles were getting looser too, by virtue of the exercise alone.
Why do tight ankles and calves affect the pistol squat?
When you first try a pistol squat, if your knees can’t go ahead of your toes, you’re not going to be able to go down all the way, or if you try, you’re simply going to topple back on your butt. Or your heel is going to come up to compensate for the lack of dorsiflexion. It’s the same reason why your heels come off the ground in a narrow, deep squat: Your calves and achilles tendon that insert into your heel are tight.
To help your heels stay down on the ground, work on ankle dorsiflexion (lifting your feet up).
Rather than simply focusing on lowering your butt, try to actively dorsiflex your ankles and they will be the best pistols you’ve done to date.
One leg is a lot weaker than my other one! How can I make them equal?
This is very common and pistol squats will make these differences very obvious. The good news is, pistol squats are also perfect for evening out these differences! Simply do more sets with the weaker leg and less sets of the stronger leg so that it evens out.
For example: I would recommend 2 sets for the weak leg, 1 set for the strong leg, so the weak leg catches up over the weeks.
- To magically generate extra power (especially on those last reps), make fists with your hands and/or point your toes.
- Breathing: Inhale as you squat/sit. Exhale as you stand.
When you start trying to do it without a box, use a counterweight to HELP you!
At the moment, I actually can’t do a full pistol squat without the counterweight! I know it sounds counter-intuitive (weight usually makes things harder!), but in this special case, that extra weight prevents you from falling backwards in the bottom position!
How to increase ankle flexibility and dorsiflexion?
Many people from first world countries suck at dorsiflexion because of the type of shoes that we wear (thick heels). Ankle mobility is essential to work on when it comes to pistols.
Something not mentioned in the video above is that box pistol squats will automatically increase ankle flexibility. I attribute the most of my ankle flexibility toward decreasing the platform on which I did the pistol squats over the months. However, it doesn’t hurt to try other things as well, such as…
- Go down into a regular, deep squat (“3rd world squat”) in front of a pole, and just hold the pole and pull it towards you so that it helps open up your calves and ankles. Make it a goal to stay in that position for 30 seconds at a time. Overtime you may find yourself not needing the pole. Experiment with different widths. If you’re a tall person, don’t compare yourself with short people who can do deep squats with their feet together, we all have different anatomical ratios!
- To make your squat become awesome, follow Ido Portals Squat Clinic.
- Try this calf stretch against a tree.
To Test and Track Your Dorsiflexion
Place your big toe a few inches away from a wall, keep your heel down, and try to bend your knee and touch the wall. Treat this as a tracking method of your flexibility, and as a stretch. Hold the position for 30 seconds, and repeat 3x on each side.
So these box pistols are a “top-down” approach, what about a bottom-up progression?
I believe the safest way for most people to get to the bottom will be with box pistols alone. However, when you feel you’ve exhausted that exercise, you could improve your pistol squats by simply holding the bottom of a pistol squat for time (say, like 30sec sets). You could also start working on pistols from the bottom-up with a roll-to-squat, but I remember when I tried this in the early days that I couldn’t hold the proper knee position. I don’t recommend these until you have exhausted the box pistols because it may be impossible to hold proper form.
Hope that helps! Pistol Squats made my balancing abilities go through the roof not just on ground, but on the slackline! And I noticed much more power during my bicycling adventures!