If you’ve seen it done by an elite CrossFitter, figure skater or sprinter, you’re not wrong for being seriously impressed. The pistol squat, aka lowering into a ninja-like single-leg squat with the other leg extended in front of you, is the ultimate test of bodyweight strength, ankle mobility and balance control through the foot and hip. And if we had to guess, 98.7 percent of the general population can’t do ‘em (let alone do one with perfect form). Why? Very simply, “It’s so unnatural for us to do,” says Chris Ryan, fitness expert and trainer on NBC’s Strong. “Think about it: Squatting is so much more natural using two legs and two feet to stabilize and support our body.”
But there’s good reason to get out of your comfort zone. “You run and jump off one foot naturally. But when you can safely strengthen one leg at a time by overloading the leg muscles, you work mobility, strength, coordination and balance control — all in one exercise,” Ryan says.
Breaking Down the Pistol Squat
Don’t drop it like a squat just yet, though. The pistol squat is an advanced exercise, and requires a serious game plan to avoid overloading the knee joint, says Ryan. If you come up on your toes and your heel leaves the ground at any point during the exercise, that’s your cue to start building on the basics. Better yet, Ryan recommends breaking down the pistol into seven simple progressions, as demoed on a recent visit to Daily Burn 365 in the video above.
Our two favorite intermediary steps? Using a box or a band. To get the most from the box, focus on powering through the heel, Ryan says. “Mentally, only think about stabilizing through your heel and forget that your toes exist. Slowly go through a few inches of depth and the minute you feel your heel rise up, simply drop the other leg for safety to the ground.” Continue working on your ankle and hip mobility as well (we’re all about these five hip stretches) and you’ll eventually hit depth you need for the full pistol squat.
Resistance bands are another way to get your strength and mobility up to speed. When performing the assisted pistol with bands, allow your arms to assist in the movement as much as you need initially. “As you get stronger and more comfortable with the movement, you should use less and less ‘arm power’ to bring yourself back up,” Ryan says. Then you can progress from using two arms to just one arm — and hey, you’re half way there!
Give ‘Em a Shot!
Once you’re able to do the full-range movement, the temptation can be to fire from all cylinders. (Pistol squats are a great party trick, after all.) But a few quality sets of 5-10 reps every couple of weeks is more than enough, Ryan says. (And don’t forget to use the step-by-step progressions above as part of your dynamic warm-up.) “Doing pistols too often, with too much volume in one workout, or too fast can lead to excessive wear and tear on the knees,” Ryan says. “Treat them as a great accessory to work out, rather than as a workout in and of itself.”
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