I searched everywhere on the internet looking for a good pistol squat progression to relearn how to do pistol squats after injuring myself. I looked up all the masters. The problem was that the pistol squat progressions given were for normal people whose bodies worked fine… they were just out of shape or a little stiff.
I was broken and I tried them all without complete success.
Here are a few of them. In some way, shape of form, they all contributed a piece of knowledge that at some point glued onto another piece to bring me to the final objective of doing a one leg squat.
In the end I have the routine and approach that showed me how to do pistol squats that worked for my body. My body’s kinks, injuries and limitations. If you’ve weight lifted using the squat, deadlift, bench, overhead press your whole life, then our bodies are probably similar.
The Sources Of Pistol Information
Pavel Tsatsouline (The box down method works if it’s only strength you need but if you are broken, then other methods are needed.)
Steve Maxwell (Just solid stuff that works)
Steve Cotter (Inspired me with the table jumping pistol squat)
Gold Medal Bodies (I find that GMB is better than gymnastics bodies for stiff, banged up adults.
Gymnastics Bodies – Getting rid of lower back curve and improving overall spinal mobility for the handstand spilled over to improving the pistol squat. However their video demonstrations are not consistent in form instruction and I spent a lot of time digging on the forum. I also bought their pistol squat course. Half way through they divided the course into two. Charging more for the piece they cut out. Those that came into the course already able to do deck squats like myself are SOL as that is the end of the first course’s pistol squat progression.
Kit Laughlin (Single Leg Squat Progressions)
Kit Laughlin is well known to those that are into flexibility and a fully functioning body but I wish he were even more known to the mainstream fitness crowd. He is a humble man who always speaks kindly and offers great courses for the most reasonable price if not free.
UPDATE: A new addition to the resource list. Here is an article on hip extension (very important) by Chris Ruffolo (instagram) (youtube) Check out those two links because if something isn’t working right, you’ll probably find out why after watching her informative corrective exercises.
How To Do Pistol Squats: The Pistol Squat Progression Starts With A Pain Free Squat
First, let me say that when I started learning how to do pistol squats, I couldn’t even walk right let alone squat. I had a limp and a left knee that felt like it was stiff and full of water. My right Achilles tendon was sore as well.
I was at work cutting some conduit (aluminum pipe that holds electrical wires). I went to get up and a huge cracking noise came from my left leg. It pretty much took me down but I limped out of the room to save face and try to figure out what the hell had happened.
I still don’t know exactly what happened. After I pulled my right side hip flexor, I heavily over used my left side for a while. I also previously pulled the left side hamstring doing lunges.
Long story short, almost nothing worked correctly and my left calf was doing most of my forward propulsion. I kept going despite the indicators and continued to do my fitness bootcamps instead of stepping back and only teaching.
End result, the leg locked up in a slightly bent position and I hobbled for weeks. It felt like there was congestion in there and it didn’t want to bend. Some days after a long warm up, I could almost squat but I would pay for it the next day.
Do More Of What Works And Less Of What Doesn’t
I spent a couple months messing around trying to get into a bottom squat without pain and then I finally started to see progress by doing two exercises I learned from GMB (Gold medal bodies). The side to side squat and squat circles holding onto an object.
If you try my pistol squat progression and have ANY lower body pain you’ll want to do the static bodyweight squat holding onto something as a first step. Depending of course on where your ability level is.
You bend your knees and try to get your thighs parallel to the floor in the bottom position for a couple of seconds or as long as you can take it. The goal is to get up to 10 minutes in the very bottom position without pain. The same position you would be in if you were reading a magazine in the bottom shelf at the store.
HOW YOU GET THERE: Do ten partial squats in your lowest position that has perfect form. Then keep muscular tension and hold that lowest position without fully relaxing into a collapsed squat for as long as you can up to 20 seconds. Do this three times daily.
While working lower into the squat check your foot arches on a hard wood floor. Make sure they never collapse and that you have equal weight distribution. VERY IMPORTANT. Don’t collapse your arches just to get deeper into the squat.
Being able to hold the bottom position of the squat or simply the act of working up to it will increase your hip and leg flexibility and greatly improve your quality of life when doing simple every day moments. Most people will need to hold onto a support like the kitchen counter or a door frame so they don’t fall backward initially.
You may find that at first you are barely getting down there due to sore knees or extreme tightness. Keep doing it daily. It will slowly improve. Trust me. I had to do this after messing up my knee. I was able to go from locked leg to pistol squats with daily practice and patience on this pistol squat progression.
The second step forward has you moving up and down while holding on to an object if needed. Of course if you’re legs start to burn and tremble with the static version in the previous paragraph, just mix in a couple up-down reps to shake the burn out.
After doing this for a while, start hold onto the object stabilizing you with less strength. Eventually getting to the point where you no longer need it to keep you from falling backwards.
Initially a wider stance will probably be easier for you. As your flexibility improves, start bringing your feet in to shoulder width if you haven’t already.
I was doing these in the quarter squat position but over time I started to get lower and I added in the frog hop, straight leg bear crawl and side frog until on most days getting into a squat was OK.
I still didn’t stick with any particular calf stretching routine. This was a big mistake.
Over time with continued use and consciously squatting to do things like tying my shoes and staying down for a stretch when going into the bottom cupboard. I could get into the squat no problem unless I made myself tight by running or doing something hard the day before.
Looking back, the straight leg bear crawl was stretching my calves and the frog hops were solidifying a proper squat position with the new found mobility in the ankles.
The side to side squats and circular squats were building the strength back up in my left leg that wasn’t bending.
When I was doing normal bodyweight squats to try and fix the knee problem, I would let the right leg take most of the work without really noticing. By shifting left and right, the left leg was forced to put out equal power and to use proper alignment.
This did not dawn on me at the time that this was helping learn how to do pistol squats. For some reason the steps were too far apart for me to realize I was progressing. As per usual, I saw the next shiny object and moved onto another approach. Even though I was moving better, I hadn’t mentally labelled what I just learned as “Getting Closer To Doing A Pistol Squat.”
I was “only” moving better.
It’s Not Really How To Do a Pistol Squat That You Want To Know
I mean all there is to it, is to balance on one leg, squat down and stand back up. Right?
I know… you want more.
What you really want to know is why you CAN’T do a pistol squat. You want to know how to fix the things that are keeping you from doing it.
This is where I burnt up the most amount of time while trying to learn the one leg squat exercise. I couldn’t figure out what was keeping me from doing it.
Was it my lack of ankle flexibility? Was I too weak in my legs to squat only on one leg? Maybe my hamstrings were too tight. Then again, maybe it was that my hip flexors were way out of whack from when I pulled one.
On second thought, my adductors are really tight and weak…
It went on and on and I jumped from one master trainers’s approach to another. Which is the worst thing you can do if you want to get good at anything.
Focus On A Mobility Movement Until You Master It
I thought about correct foot position and proper knee and thigh alignment and got lost trying to figure out even how to do the most natural and normal bodyweight squat. Kelly Starrett said one thing in his book Supple Leopard and my physio said another. So many conflicting theories I preventing the necessary focus on a single path.
Then one day I read a sentence by Kit Laughlin that said, “But first, the test. Can you squat down, in bare feet, with the knees together, and keep your heels on the ground?
Well, well, well…
This sentence did a couple things for me. It showed me that yes, my knees should be together. I had been told that my knees should rotate out yet all the pictures had knees together. I was a little torn as to the best approach.
The answer: Knees out for weight lifting loaded squatting. The bodyweight community does knees together to express movement ability. Not capacity to lift in the most structurally sound way.
I wanted to know how to do pistol squats. I didn’t care about how much I could back squat… for now.
Life lesson: being pulled in two directions is a shitty way to get somewhere fast.
Second, I couldn’t get into a deep squat if my heels stayed on the ground and my knees where together. I would just get stuck in a quarter squat.
I could get into the bottom position if I let my arches collapse… Then Kit said, “Maintain your arches.” BIG piece of the puzzle.
So was it my calves or something else holding me back? How do I remove the calves from the equation?
Are Your Calves Keeping From Doing A One Leg Squat?
That’s when I remembered something from an old bodybuilding magazine about squatting with heels elevated on a board. I also remember that I used to squat in my combat boots when I was in the army and that I also knew how to do pistol squats back then. Combat Boots have a nice hard heel in them…
I grabbed a 2 foot long piece of 2×6 out of the garage, ran downstairs and put it on the floor. Sneakers off, I put my heels on the board, feet and knees together and attempted to squat.
Full, rock bottom squat with a straight back. HOLY SMOKES. Of course there was some snapping and popping from my knees because they haven’t been that compressed in a while due to what I now knew was tight calves.
FIRST EXERCISE TO ADD: Heels elevated squat with knees and feet together. Do 5 sets of 10 repetitions or whatever fatigue tells you is enough before dropping a little elevation in the heels and starting over.
Now knew that my calves WERE the problem or at least part of it. “I have to fix this,” I thought. Stretching my calves so far did not work.
It must be either the stretches or how I do them. Maybe both. So I thought, “What has worked for me in the past?”
I remembered buying “Kit Laughlin Master The Full Back Bend” where he did a contract/relax method. I also saw him demonstrate a single leg downward dog variation of the calf stretch. It occurred to me that when I do yoga on a regular basis my stride feels better and so does going down stairs.
I tried a set of single leg downward dog calf stretches with a contract relax method between sets of heels elevated squats. If you maintain the arch when you do the stretch and externally rotate your femur, you’ll be doing it right.
The sequence for the stretch is to go up on your toes high, straighten your leg dragging it backwards, THEN let the heel descend for the stretch.
Each round got smoother and smoother. Addictively smoother. To the point that I thought, “I want to do these every day!”
Here is the single leg downward dog pose calf stretch.
When doing the heels elevated squats I noticed that the outside of my left calf was getting wound up tight and the right heel wanted to move in.
Both my legs were doing their own thing. Again I consulted Kits forum and
discovered his first step when learning how to do pistol squats was to do speed skater squats. I saw this previously but blew it off as too easy without trying it.
After trying them again and failing miserably, I knew I needed to take several steps backward. Getting my upper body parallel with the ground with hands over head and then squatting for 5 x 30 seconds per leg had to be mastered first. Here’s how to do the easiest version of the speed skater squat:
So there is the first piece of how to do pistol squats. Get moving and do:
10 reps of each exercise – Side to side and circle squats with bear crawls (10 steps forward and back) and frog hops. This is simply to start moving your body and bring some blood in.
The daily SPECIFIC pistol squat work:
Single leg downward dog calf stretch – ten reps then hold tension in the lowest stretch.
Followed by side to side lowest position squats – ten reps then hold tension in the lowest stretch each side.
Followed by Cossack Squats – – ten reps then hold tension in the lowest stretch each side.
For the frequency, do them as frequently as you can without making yourself too sore. If you are hitting muscular failure on the squats then make sure you cut back the reps some. It is better to do a little every day, then kill yourself once a week. I did the above circuit 3 times a day until I had equal mobility and pain free strength in both legs.
You want to get the blood and movement in there daily until you can, “Squat down, in bare feet, with the knees together, and keep your heels on the ground.” To this end, I would do a couple sets of the heels elevated squats every day. Progressively using a thinner hardcover book as I was able to do 5 sets of 10 repetitions. This was not failure, just a movement and blood flow thing.
Now if your muscles are able to handle this and you can walk without pain after doing the above, then there is more to add. I’ll detail that for you in a loaded stretches article.