EYC Podcast #32 – Musings of a Pistol Squatting Man
The pistol squat looks like a fairly simple movement when seeing it performed, however achieving it is anything but. Even those that can barbell squat hundreds of pounds can find the pistol squat a worthy challenge, which is a good indicator that strength isn’t the only important part of the equation. Over the years my pistol squat has improved tremendously, and that is because I was able to buckle down and really take a look at what makes for a well-executed pistol squat, and then train like hell. So, here I am today, with what I would say is a pretty solid pistol squat, and I thought it would be a good idea to reflect on the process and discuss things that might not be apparent at the outset. My hope is that you can apply some of this to your pistol squat training and reach your goals quicker. Even if the pistol squat isn’t in your sights quite yet, these ideas will apply to earlier squat training so you should be able to glean something from this episode no matter where you are. The main ideas that I want to touch on today are the building blocks of a squat, how I believe I could have improved my own pistol squat training throughout the process, and a few strategies to take with you.
Just like any other chain in progressive calisthenics, each step is there for a reason. They allow you to build the necessary foundation to be able to progress to the next step. In the case of the bodyweight squat, it is important to start from the beginning and work toward mastering the deep variation. This involves developing the necessary strength, and flexibility to bring the hamstrings down to the calves when executing the movement with proper form. Ideally, you are able to hold that position for 5-10 seconds. In my experience, the full bodyweight squat position actually becomes very comfortable to hold indefinitely. The reason this is such an important building block in the foundation of advanced squats is because it helps develop flexibility in the areas necessary to execute them, like the hips, knees, and ankles. At the bottom position of the pistol squat for example, each area is in deep flexion so it is key that we are able to develop that range of motion very early on in the process. While this flexibility can be developed though direct squat training, it can be helpful to supplement it with stretches that will contribute to your overall progress. Mastering the deep bodyweight squat will also help you develop strength through that range of motion which will be important as you work toward more difficult variations like close deep squats, or asymmetrical variations like split squats. The bodyweight squat is a fundamental movement, so even if you don’t strictly train using calisthenics, developing a proper squat is important. If you cannot execute a proper squat without weight, you cannot do it with weight. What is a proper bodyweight squat? It involves looking forward, maintaining an upright posture, with the chest up and out throughout the movement. The hands are most commonly extended out in front, however can be bent and folded over one another, or even crossed at the chest. It involves keeping the feet at shoulder width, or a little wider, bending at the knees and hips, while maintaining a straight back. The key is sitting back and down with the tailbone and torso moving in unison. Focus on control, and technique. Try not to bounce at the bottom of the squat since it can put great pressure on the knees. If you can’t bring the hamstrings to the calves, go as deep as you can, and slowly develop that range of motion. If you find your back is bowing, reduce the range of motion till you can maintain proper technique. Similarly, you want to keep the feet flat on the ground with weight balanced in the middle of the foot. If you find the heel is coming up at any point, reduce the range of motion so it remains on the ground. As you develop strength and flexibility, you will be able to perform the squat without any worry of this. The devil is in the details and they are absolutely fundamental to developing solid technique. They will also give you the tools to develop and get the most out of more advanced variations, and ultimately the pistol squat. Early on in training I was fortunate enough to be conscious of this and spent, and still do spend, a great deal of time maintaining, and developing my squat skills. I guess it helps that I love squats and have no issues whatsoever training them. This episode does focus on the pistol squat, however I am mentioning all of this because it shouldn’t even be attempted until the fundamentals are mastered and progressions like the close squat, and split squats have also been conquered.
While I believe my earlier squat training, which is basically everything before I began to work specifically toward pistol squats, was effective, I do think that I could have done a lot better in a couple key areas.
The first key area I want to address is assisted pistol squat variations. What I mean by assisted variations is holding on to a fixed object that will allow us to mitigate some of the demand off of the working leg, or legs. For example, holding on to a parallel bar during a bodyweight squat, or a vertical bar to help during a pistol squat. Where I’ve found assisted squat variations particularly effective is fine tuning technique. Since assisted variations mitigate some of the difficulty, more focus can be placed onto slowing the movement down, and performing it with as clean a technique as possible. My epiphany came when attending a PCC event in 2014 and found that my pistol squats needed a lot of work. I’ve always taken squat training seriously, and am my own worst critic when it comes to the level I am at, so it hit me pretty hard. This is when I decided to basically reset my squat training and approach it in a way that was less about reps and rapid progress, and more about clean technique, and quality reps. Another reason assisted variations are so effective is they allow for a finer a degree of tweaking because there are many ways of increasing or decreasing the amount to assistance you give yourself. For example, using both arms, one arm, one arm with full grip, one arm with only two fingers, a higher or lower apparatus, and so on. Assistance can even only be used at certain points in the range of motion. For example, pushing up from the bottom position is a common sticking point for those looking to conquer the pistol squat. This being the case, the assistance can come at this point, then be released, as in the press pistol. This is a much better alternative to shifting weight forward and using momentum to get back up. You may be asking, why would I mention that, I would never do it! Well if so, good on you, however it can be a tempting prospect for some, especially if the foundation wasn’t built in earlier squat variations. It is dangerous for the knee so I don’t recommend it. What you want to ensure when using assisted variations is that you maintain proper technique throughout, and you aren’t assisting yourself so much that the leg isn’t doing the work it needs to do. If that’s the case, it may be a good idea to regress to earlier squat variations because you may be doing more harm than good. Requiring too much assistance from the method you are using can be jarring, and affect technique if you don’t have the requisite strength, potentially causing injury. Be honest with yourself and regress if necessary. The way I have always thought of it is I need to be 80% toward this movement, and I can use assisted variations to help with that remaining 20%. If I feel like I am less than that, I still have work to do. You should be able to maintain proper technique and control throughout. Three years later I can attest that assisted variations have improved my pistol squat tremendously, and at the PCC earlier this year, three years after the first, I was very impressed with my showing. I had to take a step back, which was a blow to my ego, however a change in approach was necessary, and well worth it.
The other area I want to discuss is embracing the skill aspect of pistol squat training. I touched on it earlier in the episode when I mentioned that strength isn’t the only factor when working toward pistol squats. Other areas of importance include balance, muscle recruitment, and proprioception. I remember the days where my goal was to just pump out as many reps as I could without being aware of how I was performing them. Sure, maybe I busted out 10 reps, but they weren’t all quality ones. I feel much prouder of the reps I’m performing now, even if it caps out at 5 or 6. They are controlled, focused, and clean throughout the entire movement. There is no issue pressing back up from the bottom of the movement, and I am balanced and stable throughout. What really helped me was not focusing at all on how many reps I could perform but only how I was performing them. I would still count, but not feel bad about only performing 1 or 2 reps because I knew they were clean. In the end, I feel this is much more fulfilling then performing more reps, but at a lower quality. But hey, if you are able to bust out 20 clean pistols, all the power to you. My main point is don’t sacrifice quality for reps. Another strategy I would use is performing the reps very slowly. This helped me create an overall awareness of my body, and how it was reacting during the movement. Often those just beginning will be a little wobbly, with their arms constantly moving to achieve balance, or they aren’t able to visually focus on one spot. Taking things slower and being able to focus will help develop the balance necessary to perform clean reps, as long as the necessary foundation of strength has been developed. Slow Assisted Pistol variations are awesome here. Be aware, slowing down the reps is a principle of progression so it will make each rep more difficult. Slow reps can not only be used as a test of your strength and endurance, but as way to gauge your capability at all stages of the movement. Sometimes, even without realizing it, we use momentum to help us get past sticking points. Slowing things down will bring out your weaknesses really quickly so they can be identified and targeted for improvement.
Another useful strategy is to take advantage of full body tension during your reps, most importantly engaging the core. It promotes greater unification in your movements, keeps your technique solid, and promotes greater stability and strength. This is why you should never neglect the core in your workouts, it will improve just about everything you do physically. When performing pistols, my favourite arm positioning is straight out with my hands fully clasped. I then squeeze my hands together and engage my arms, along with my core. It really makes you feel rock solid and takes the workout to the next level. Full body tension also helps create razor sharp focus which will help you maximize the effectiveness of each rep. These strategies improved all aspects of my pistol squat training, not just strength. It takes practice, so it’s a good idea to go into your training sessions with that in mind. For me, I’d dedicate one session to balance and put my focus into maintaining balance. Then the next one, maintaining full body tension and so on. These things are not mutually exclusive, and all will improve as you train more, however I found that approaching my pistol squat training with greater focus helped me get more out of each session, and expedite the process. These strategies can be used at any level of squat, not just the pistol. In fact, I wish I used them a lot more as I was making my way through the various progressions, but unfortunately I was so fixated on reps that I never really took the time to appreciate how I was performing them. Quality, not quantity.
A couple final things I want to address are the raised pistols and range of motion. Raised pistols aren’t a variation that I necessarily regret not using very much, because I didn’t have too much of an issue with flexibility, however I still think they can be a valuable tool. Throughout a lot of my earlier squat training I followed the progression in the Convict Conditioning book that included a pistol variation where the raised leg rests on a ball throughout the movement. This is supposed to aid in keeping the leg raised, and act as assistance for the loaded leg, however in retrospect I don’t think I would have used this variation, at least until I was extremely comfortable with pistols. But for those new to the pistol squat, I feel this variation is conducive to awkward positioning and/or technique and can potentially cause injury because the necessary strength, stability, and balance have not been developed yet. Furthermore, as I touched on earlier, it can be difficult to keep the raised leg up due to flexibility and strength limitations. This is where raised pistols can come in handy. Raised pistols are a variation performed on a raised surface where the non-loaded leg can fall below the surface that the loaded leg rests on. This allows you to keep the non-loaded leg lower without it impeding in the movement. As strength and flexibility develop, the practitioner can lift the leg higher at their own pace, eventually performing the pistol on even ground. If I had to do it all over again, I would have used a combination of raised, and assisted pistols and ditched the Convict Conditioning variation that included the ball.
Finally, if performing pistol squats with a limited range of motion, whether intentionally, or due to current capabilities, it is important to include regressed full range of motion variations along with them. For example, Chair Pistols are a variation in which the range of motion is inherently limited because the chair that is below the squatter is meant to catch them during the movement. We want to train the muscles at their full range of motion however so it’s a good idea to include something like the Close Squat in the routine.