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6 tips to improve your pistol squat

Posted by Polona Fonda on

We all have friends who travel and do CrossFit. That said we also have friends who post photos of them holding a pistol squat in one of the summer vacationing destinations they have visited. You know, a typical travelling, CrossFit photo :)

Pistol squat

Not everyone can take a photo like that though. A lot of Crossfitters still struggle with the so called pistols. Let’s have a closer look.

Pistols are single-leg, or one-legged, squats. Opposed to a regular squat, they are a unilateral exercise, which means they are a movement which is executed by one limb (one leg in this case).

Unilateral movements can contribute to better stability, balance and body awareness, stronger core, lesser muscular imbalances and therefore, improve overall strength and body resilience.

Usually there are two main reasons why people struggle with pistol squats: mobility and strength.

  1. Improve your air squat first

Air squats are often labelled as too easy. At least until you ask the athletes to execute them in a perfect form and hold the bottom position for a few minutes. Static holds often reveal one’s weaknesses.

The challenge of sitting down in a squat for a longer period of time quickly shows who is comfortable and who is struggling: the athletes who look uncomfortable, most often find pistol squats hard or even impossible.

Your first goal on the road to achieving a pistol is to work towards a level of flexibility that allows a perfect, comfortable air squat.

  1. Proper flexibility is crucial

If your air squat is not perfect, you should not even attempt a full-depth pistol squat. The ankles, Achilles tendon, knees and hips all need to be flexible enough to allow a smooth range of motion.

Tip: Practice air squat barefoot and focus on feeling comfortable: keep torso upwards by activating core muscles. Feet must stay fully on the ground: don’t raise the heels. Try using your upper body to lean forward on the knee, each separately, to stretch the calves. 

Stretch calves and hamstring daily. Remember, a lot of the inflexibility issues are related to those eight hours you spend sitting behind the computer.

  1. Balance and body awareness are important

Most of the people struggle with pistol squats because they feel out of balance. Balance is correlated to improper flexibility so once those issues are improved, lowering to a bottom position will be easier.

Tip: In case you are struggling with balance in the lower position, try holding a rack, rings or the band. Search for a feeling of stability while trying to let go of the assistance equipment. Do not try to stand up yet: not until you develop a proper mobility and leg strength.

Practice side lunge stretch (hips go into a full depth position). Focus on making your ankles more mobile. You can also move the leg forward and try to lift it up a bit while keeping the knee extended. For now, just notice how your balance is being allocated (how it feels). To get a better feel, try engaging the core. Do all those moves barefoot.

  1. Leg strength: dynamic and static

If not the mobility, the reason you’re struggling is leg strength: to be exact single leg strength.

At the competitions, most of the athletes will bounce out of the bottom position. They will use the elastic energy to stand up easier and more efficiently. Remember, their goal is to be as fast as possible while your aim is still to build a solid and controlled pistol squat.

Before bouncing, every athlete should master a slow pistol squat with five-second pause at the bottom.

It might sound impossible, but it’s not. I assume you are regularly doing back and front squats so your muscles, joints and tendons are used to a certain level of resistance.

Tip: Start with a box or a bench assisted pistol squats. Stand on one leg while keeping one leg extended in front, lower slowly and sit down on the box, but keep your core engaged (do not relax) and stand back up. Focus on stability: not caving the knee in and keeping the core active. The more you squeeze the core muscles, the easier will be to stand back up.

Work on the scaled version until box assisted squats become too easy. Eventually you can start using lower boxes to increase the depth - range of motion. Keep in mind that you’re building strength that will later assist you in all other CrossFit moves as well.

Leg strength is not just squatting down and standing back up; it’s also holding your leg straight in front of you (static hold.

  1. Squat down and up while holding the rack

Once you feel strong enough to pistol squat on the box, try doing a full depth movement while holding a rack.

Tip: At the beginning, stand up by pull yourself up by using the arms as assistance. Work on those until they become comfortable enough for you to try a pistol squat without any support. Don’t rush: a lot of people can perform a pistol squat, but many of them also feel a pain in the knee (at the first stage of getting back out, standing out of the hole).

It’s better to gradually build proper control and take more time, than to push through and end up with a knee injury. 

  1. Supplement your training with proprioception

Have you ever done proprioceptive training before? It could be a great addition on the road to mastering a pistol squat.

Proprioception, explained very simple, is a sense for the body positioning, movement and acceleration. Proprioceptive training is most often used as injury prevention or rehabilitation to improve athlete’s motor (and movement) control.

Can you walk in a straight line while keeping your eyes closed? Can you jump and land on the balance disk with one leg only? How do your knees and hips react?

Tip:  Add those balance exercises into your warm up. Proprioceptive training is not just health investment, it’s also additional tool to improve stability, balance and movement control. 

To master a pistol squat you have to strive for perfection: full depth, no bounce, upright torso, straight, extended leg. But this perfection takes time and practice.

Crossfit pistol squat

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