Super Important Side Note: It’s very important to understand that building stability safely in the pistol is going to take months to years depending on how strong/mobile/stable you currently are. Doing too much too soon is a great way to end up in my office complaining of cranky knees. Just looking at a pistol can tell you that it’s going to place high stresses on the knee. I generally recommend performing some pistol work 1-2 times in a 7-10 day cycle. I’m also mindful of how much accessory work we’re doing that also stresses the knee in the current cycle. (i.e. how much squatting / lunging / oly work is currently in my program, and how much volume of these exercises) Again, too much too soon is a sure fire way to hurt yourself.
There are 3 things I think are vital to mastering the pistol
Mastering the short foot and tracking the knee over the toe properly
Building adequate strength in single leg exercises
Progressing and training the pistol appropriately
1) Mastering the short foot and tracking the knee over the toe properly
We all know just how important it is to keep the knee tracking over the toe during squatting movements. The amount of valgus I see during pistols sometimes makes me feel like vomiting. I can’t tell you how often I end up treating this at my clinic. Now, valgus can happen for a large variety of reasons. I’ve written about this extensively HERE. The idea is that we’ve got to promote people having their knees track over their toes during the squat.
In a double leg squat it’s very easy to utilize your opposite leg and hip to promote external rotation of the hip and get the knee over the toe during the squat. On 1 leg, it’s much harder. A lot of control is now going to have to come from the foot to line things up appropriately. I believe enough has been written about the hips in regards to eliminating valgus (And you can read the above article series for more info) but not much about the foot. The short foot is a term popularized by the late Dr. Janda as a way to create an arch in the foot and thus bring the knee over the toe. Here’s a brief explanation (I should have been a foot model):
Once we know how to utilize the short foot to gain some stability you can start progressing through some exercises to reinforce that control and get stronger. I wrote a nice article full of progressions you can try HERE: We never want to use an exercise that is so difficult that our athletes end up falling into valgus. You’re going to have to be patient here and spend a lot of time getting good at this before getting into pistols.
2) Building adequate strength in single leg exercises
Remember, pistols are freaking hard. To even try them you should probably have a nice sound strength base in the traditional deep back squat, logically being able to perform several reps with 1 to 1.5 times bodyweight in that movement.
The other piece is that most boxes are not regularly and systematically loading and improving single leg exercises. Sure we squat, deadlift, and olympic lift a ton, but how often do you see rear foot elevated split squats in the strength portion of your workouts? My guess is seldom. Getting good at pistols is going to require great strength and balance in single legged movements. If you aren’t already, I’d start loading some single legged exercises into your program. Some good choices are rear-foot elevated split squats, lunges and step-up variations:
Although Mike is not teaching the split squat in this fashion, I like to take a shorter step (front foot is closer to rear foot) so that you’re forced to use more dorsiflexion during the split squat. Remember that in a pistol we’re going to be using all of our ankle dorsiflexion and we want to train the same position during our single leg exercises.
3) Progressing the pistol appropriately
I’m a big fan of building strength and control in all portions of a movement. Pistols are no exception. We want to build control during each part of the movement, particularly the bottom. This is generally where we see things fall apart. Obviously we’re looking for proper tracking of the knee, both avoiding valgus as well as the knee wobbling all over the place. I’ve made a progression video of how I like to work the bottom portion of the pistol shown below:
Another option is to build the pistol from the top down by gradually squatting to a lower surface as your strength and balance improves. So many options, time to get to work! Give some of these suggestions and get back to me. Also, if you have any additional exercises you like that have worked well for you post it in the comments below.