Shoot ‘Em Up: It’s Pistol Time

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by LARRY PASTOR

Perhaps, at this point in your CrossFit career, you have mastered the air squat and you are starting to add some serious weight to your weighted squats. Think you’re a badass? Think again. Have you tried performing a pistol? Watch this athlete at CrossFit Cult performing a pistol — also known as a one-legged squat. (FYI: He does standard pistols for the first minute and then shows weighted variations and more as it goes on.) If you’re an athlete looking to take the art of squatting to the next level, the pistol is definitely a movement that will get you there.

“Why Should I Work on Pistols?”

FYI: Pistols will help you improve your back squat, front squat, overhead squat, and your deadlift.
Out of the list of physical skills that CrossFit nurtures and develops, the pistol tests four out of those ten skills: strength, balance, flexibility, and coordination. What separates the pistol from the standard 2-legged air squat is that the pistol practices and develops unilateral loading of one leg. Through this unilateral loading, one can diagnose any differences in leg strength, balance, or flexibility between the right and left legs.

As T-Nation explains,

Single-leg squats help to improve overall balance and proprioception by strengthening some of the smaller stabilizing muscles in the hips and pelvis, namely the adductor magnus, gluteus medius, quadrates lumborum, and the external hip rotators to prevent rotation of the femur and pelvis in a way that doesn’t occur in a bilateral stance.

Single-leg squats allow you to target the legs with greatly reduced shearing force on the spine.

Far from a neat parlor trick, developing the strength to do pistols will benefit all of your other squats as well as your deadlift. Steve Kotter outlines why they are so demanding:

Balance-pistols teach what is referred to in Internal Martial Arts as “rooting”, as in the roots of a tree, forming a solid connection to the ground. Because we are shifting the body’s center of mass over a narrow base of support, and for an extended range of motion, balance is challenged and trained in a dynamic fashion.

Flexibility-the muscles and joints of the legs, low back, hips and ankles are required to work at the extreme ranges of motion, both in flexion and extension.

Strength-the powerful muscles of the glutes and thighs are moving the body weight throughout a very narrow base of support, thereby recruiting tremendous stabilizer function in all the lower body joints; tension is maintained throughout the eccentric, isometric and concentric portions; the core musculature is recruited to maintain balance and alignment.

Coordination-the neuromuscular system is challenged by the multiple requirements involved in pistol practice-balancing, contracting and stretching.

Focus/Mental attitude-a clear focus and concentration is required to maintain control over the body; fear and restricted movement is overcome by releasing our fear of falling and reintroducing freedom of motion.

Pistol Progressions

Getting your body mass centered over a narrow base is essential to the pistol. Your abdomen will compress over the top of your thigh.
Because the pistol is such an advanced skill, developing them requires practicing some progressions to gradually build strength, range of motion, and flexibility. It is not necessary to master the pistol in a day, but as with double-unders, committed practice to developing this movement can only benefit your athletic development. Below are some movements and progressions as described by Beastskills that will help develop the pistol:

  1. Weighted back squats to full depth: If you already have the strength to move through the complete range of motion of a back squat, working toward a pistol will be much easier. Remember to focus on solid technique before going up in weight.
  2. Modified single leg step ups with bodyweight shifted forward over the top leg and a dorsiflexed foot with the bottom leg: This is harder than it seems, because you have to resist the urge to use your bottom foot/leg for assistance.
  3. Pistol squats onto a box starting with a high box and gradually moving on to a shorter box: No need to sit fully on the box; keep your weight over your bent leg and just touch your butt lightly to the box before standing. As your range of motion increases, continue to lower the box height.
  4. Assisted full range of motion pistols using a door way, bands, or a counter-weight: Stay focused on your technique, as the assist can give you a false sense of stability, especially at the bottom of the pistol.
  5. Deck pistols using a back and forward roll to generate momentum into the pistol: Practice rolling back and standing up with two legs before you work on standing up with one leg. This is still challenging, but the extra momentum will help you stand up.

Another way to perform pistol progressions is by using gymnastics rings for assistance. As Crossfit East Sac demonstrates with their athletes, “this is one of the easiest ways to begin building strength for a one-legged squat while keeping the movement safe.” 

Be creative!

Stack books or plates accordingly to change the height of your box for pistol practice as needed.

They also suggest two other pistol progressions to try: a leg balance step up and doing pistols while elevated on a box. The latter allows an athlete to work on the full pistol depth while still developing the strength & flexibility to extend the opposite leg out fully.

Expert coach Jon Gilson of AgainFaster offers a 7-minute tutorial for the pistol. Besides walking through the progression of practicing with a bench and continuing to increase range of motion with a lower target, he emphasizes why getting the weight over the squatting leg matters: to balance the body’s center of mass over the foot. He clearly demonstrates this concept by drawing an imaginary midline with a PVC pipe as the athlete squats into the full depth of the pistol.

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