We tend to think of the hamstrings as muscles that primarily work the knee, but they play a massive role in hip extension too, so when you squat down on both legs and the angle between the thigh and belly closes – that position mirrors exactly what you do when you reach forward to touch your toes. Only difference is, the knees are bent when you squat – so you don’t feel the hamstring stretch behind your knee where we are used to – but if you’ve been playing around with the squat and stretch techniques from my previous post, you might be getting familiar with the feeling of a bent-leg load-bearing (weight of your own torso) hamstring stretch.
With a pistol squat it’s not so important that you maintain that lower back arch – that’s mostly for when you’ve got both feet on the ground, you’re loading up with weights, and the whole hamstring flexibility pelvic tilt thing is to help you understand why you might be falling backwards, and what to do about it – ie. improve your hamstring flexibility. One of the best and simplest ways of doing this is to relax into a hamstring stretch and hold it for a long time. Up to a few minutes. Every day or so. If it feels tight behind the knee, bend the knee a little – that should move the stretch a little higher into the leg, in the belly of the hamstring, where you want it. You want to feel stretches in the belly of the muscle you’re trying to stretch, not in the tendony insertion areas. It can take a while to develop a good sensitivity for this.
If you only work on one thing in preparation for the pistol squat, make it your hamstring flexibility. Leg strength can come later, or from other things you’re doing too.
You do, however, need to be confident that your lower back, buttocks and hip flexors are strong. They all work like crazy to complete this technique. In anatomical terms, hip extension is where it’s at. Knee extension only really powers the movement for the relatively easy top half of the movement. It’s powerful hip extension that gets your ass off the ground with one leg.
This heels-elevated position still requires a whole bunch of hamstring flexibility, and if you’re too tight you’ll compensate by moving the knee forward. This isn’t necessarily dangerous enough to justify how much people seem to freak out about your knees shooting forwards past the toes, but it does reaveal that the quads are doing all the work, and the hamstrings and buttocks are just coming along for the ride. You’ll never be powerful if you’re only using a third of your possible leg capacity, and over time an imbalance of strong quads relative to weak hamstrings and buttocks can – and frequently does – lead to knee problems.
We want to be developing healthy joints over time, not degrading or injuring them with poor movement patterns and the application of inefficient leverage.
When you’re inflexible, or the back of the leg and hips are nonresponsive, your heel will lift up. This makes you super unstable, puts more pressure in the knee, and cripples your ability to drive with the butt muscles. If you’ve got a solid, wooden or hard rubber heel – the kind you find in a dress shoe, that will provide a super strong platform you can stabilise the heel on. So you can actually get away with the knee creeping forward a smidge, you can compensate a little for inflexible hamstrings or calves, and get the back more upright, without sacrificing butt engagement, if you like.
Olympic lifters train and compete in fairly high wedges, actually – and if you’re trying to do pistol squats in running shoes, they’re too squishy and very unstable, so it’s going to be harder to balance. Try wearing something more supportive, with a solid sole.
Firstly, you should be able to sit comfortably in either kneeling position, as pictured, for a short period, without your knees aching. If you can’t do this, you aren’t ready for pistols.
Of course, you should also be able to do at least fifteen or twenty full range of motion squats with both feet on the ground, also whilst holding a dumbbell or some other kind of moderate weight in your hands.
You need to have a conscious awareness of the muscles of your lower back, buttocks and hamstrings. You need to know what it’s like to press through the butt and hamstrings to move some weight.
You need to feel confident about your hip, knee and ankle mobility and integrity.
These really are a few requirements when you add them up. But there are ways to progress that make allowances for relative weaknesses or different stages of progression.
You’ll notice in the photo to the left that if you’re practicing on a high step, you don’t need to hold the leg up so high. The benefit of this is that you can reposition the body and work around a degree of hamstring tightness.
Notice that when the non-squatting leg extends forwards, the body must lean back further to compensate. This makes it harder to remain balanced on that one small foot. If you can lower the other leg a little, you can move your body’s weight forwards, and this can help with balance and leverage.
Of course, you can also practice good old step-ups. You can let your other foot touch down to the ground, transfer your weight on to it, and then step back up from the ground. Try to avoid using the non-squatting leg too much, of course, because if you’re just bounding up from the ground with the calf strength and momentum provided by the other leg, it won’t transfer to the pistol squat so well later on. But it’ll have other benefits for other things, so y’know – do what works for you.
Find a bench, step or ledge of some kind that you can rest your heel on, as pictured. Make sure the leg is straight, lift it up and hold for a count of five. Try to keep your supporting leg locked out straight too, and have your supporting foot pointing straight forward, not angled out to the side.
If you can’t hold it for five, you’ve chosen a ledge that’s already too high. Find something smaller, and repeat the exercise. Lift for five, rest for five, and repeat up to eight or so times. Then stretch the heck out of your hip flexors and thighs. You’ll probably want to. A good way to do this (under load) is through practicing the Bulgarian split-squat, or rear-foot-elevated-lunge, which is also a good preparatory exercise for pistol squats by itself.
Once you’re at the point where you’re confident you can start practicing the full pistol, it might be counterintuitive, but if you hold onto a small weight with your arms out in front of you, it can also help to counterbalance the body (pictured above). It makes some aspects of the lower position much easier, but of course you could be adding several kilograms of weight when you do this, so the actual squat itself gets harder. To assist you in standing up – the leg that you’re holding out straight – keep it straight, but let the heel lower down to touch the ground. That’ll give you a little leverage to stand up with, while still keeping most of your weight over your squatting leg. Then lift the foot back up off the ground and see if you can lower all the way down, with control, before repeating again.
And of course, all the same rules apply to this lift as for any other: if your joints feel funky, stop, investigate, and progress in a way that suits you, that’s appropriate to your progression. You should feel the strain in the muscles, not the joints. When you push through muscular pain, you can become stronger, you can become fatigued, you’ll learn something about yourself and intensity either way. However, when you push through joint pain, you become injured. Be attentive to your body and respectful of your limitations, as you seek to exceed them.