By Sean Schniederjan RKC
I want to share with you a simple strategy for nailing a one legged squat, whether by you or one of your clients or students.
I first used Pavel’s Naked Warrior to do pistols. Pavel breaks down the strength aspect, has a power breathing lesson worth its weight in gold, and shows some progressions. Convict Conditioning gives you even more progressions for working up to the one legged squat.
They both work, but for me it wasn’t consistent until I learned to look at the pistol as not just a show of strength, but a show of mobility, caused by an improvement of flexibility.
Here I want to show you the equation for understanding how to master getting the mobility and strength to do an easy weighted or unweighted one legged squat.
Mobility (Flexibility) + Strength = Pistol
If you have this down, then pistols will no longer be a struggle or a mystery, they will be EASY.
This not only will get you pistoling, but Master RKC Andrea Du Cane teaches that these three elements, mobility, flexibility, and strength are the “Three Pillars” of the Ageless Body.
I see a lot of people who are halfway there, they can do pistols on some days, not on others. They can do them, but they look kind of contorted. The balance and mobility just isn’t there. They bend forward too much or just fall over when they’re in the bottom position.
This will help deepen your understanding and give you the tools so that you can nail a pistol ANYTIME and ANYWHERE, be it in a workout or when you have to get up and use the restroom in the middle of the night.
If you are going to do pistols, you need to OWN them.
Pistol Vs. Aging
For me, this picture sums up why you should learn the excellence in strength, mobility and balance of the one legged squat. At almost 67 years young, Dr. John shows you why this moves makes you practically age proof. Not many 20 year olds can do this. I remember a Master Instructor saying he had to teach NFLers how to do it, because at first they couldn’t.
While Others Are Aging, Dr. John is Doing Pistols
So if you don’t know the inner working of the pistol, it will be very difficult, if not impossible.
So I’ll show you a few secrets I’ve discovered and learned from others that you can practice and over a few weeks to a month will have you pistoling.
Talk to your doc before undertaking any new exercise program. Pistols are not for everyone.
Secret #1: Flexible Hamstrings
You have to have flexible hips to do a pistol. How do you get flexible hips? Its easy:
Flexible Hamstrings + Flexible/Strong Hip Flexors = Flexible Hips
So what’s the best exercise from going from creaky stale hamstrings to long and strong? IMO its the passive straight leg raise. I won’t go into the subtleties here, but this pic shows what your core and resting leg have to do to get an effective stretch:
Core and opposite leg stay down
Its called the passive straight leg to distinguish it from the active straight leg raise (PSLR and ASLR). In the former, someone or something raises the leg, the latter you raise the leg yourself without assistance.
I like to train alone so I just use a belt or a band to pull the leg back rather than having someone push. If you have really poor flexibility in this area, this will hurt, a lot, when you start. Pain is good, so just work through it and come out a stronger person. When your stretching leg is about perpendicular to the ground without bowing other parts of your body (ie bringing up your opposite leg or core), you have good flexibility in that area for pistols.
PSLRs will drastically improve your hip mobility, which not only will help with pistols but also loading the hips for kettlebell ballistics moves like swings and snatches and cleans.
You can’t do a Hardstyle Swing (sign up for the free report on the top right. It contains a lesson on the Hardstyle Swing from Master RKC Andrea Du Cane) unless you’ve worked through tight hamstrings.
Secret Number 2: Flexible and/or Strong Hip Flexors
We all know about how awesome the RKC hip flexor stretch is and how its the number one tool for back pain. So you should being the “Ageless” Hip Flexor stretch by now. Stretching your HFs make it easier to squat. In fact, Andrea teaches to do this stretch before squatting in your workouts (especially if you sit a lot).
In addition to stretching the HFs, you have to strengthen them to get deep down into a close stance squat or pistol, especially a bodyweight pistol. Strong hip flexors enable you to actively pull yourself down into the squat. Strong tibia muscles around the shin also contribute by flexing and supporting the ankle, which will be addressed below.
Here are a few ways to strengthen the hip flexors:
Being Upside Down is Fun, And Will Get You Pistoling Fast
A few quick points on inversion. It is very uncomfortable at first because it is so unnatural. But after a few sessions you get used to it.
In the picture above, note how there are two ropes hanging from each side of the man. You really have to have something to grab onto on the side for assistance, both for security and also to use for the squatting itself. Using some assistance for inverted squatting reduces the weight you’re pulling and is therefore is easier for beginners. I use a TAPS unit that comes off the ground and so use the side bars to hold onto for security and assistance in squatting. I wouldn’t recommend inversion without something to hold onto on the side.
There are several advantages to owning a pair of gravity boots and a pull up bar. What I’ll focus on here is how they’ll help you do a pistol. So find a way to safely get upside and pull yourself up like you are doing a squat. Note the feeling in your hip flexor muscles. It feels really good. You are overcoming almost half of your bodyweight on each leg to pull yourself up. Strengthening your HFs in this way will make your squatting back on planet earth much easier, especially close stance squatting (squatting on two legs with your feet so close together they touch or come close to touching) that requires more hip and ankle mobility.
I couldn’t do a close stance squat at the first bodyweight workshop I produced with Pavel. The next year we did them and I was getting compliments on my mobility. The reason was I started doing inverted squats.
Secret Number 3: Ankle Mobility/Strength
Inverted squats will make your ankles more mobile. How? Because when you are inverted, your whole bodyweight is supported by your feet. And when you pull yourself up, the tibia muscles around the shin fire because it is an anterior strength exercise. When your tibia muscles get stronger, it is easier to dorsiflex your ankles (the tibia are responsible for lifting the ankles up, or dorsiflexing them), a necessity for doing pistols where there is a bend not only at the hips and knees, but also the ankles. Note the ankle of Dr. John’s ankle in the picture of the pistol, above.
So doing inverted squats not only helps with hip mobility through strengthening the hip flexors, it also gives you strong, mobile ankles by strengthening the tibia. And when your tibia is strong, you can have people kick you in the shins and the extra muscles will protect you.
If you don’t have gravity Boots and Don’t Feel Like Going Back to the 80s
There’s a partner drill that has a similar effect. Its not as good, but it does work. I couldn’t find a good pic, but imagine the person laying down’s knees are bent:
Bend the Knees and Have Someone Pull...See how your HFs feel
Another thing you can to stretch the hip flexors and strengthen the tibia for ankle mobility and strength is loop a kettlebell around your foot and pull it up. The downside is that it is unilateral, but it works.
Mobility for the Pistol
You don’t need to do a pistol to demonstrate you have the mobility needed to do a pistol. Do something easier: the close stance squat. Once you can put both your feet together and go all the way down and come all the way up, then you have the mobility to do a pistol. Using these techniques to lengthen your hamstrings and strengthen your hip flexors and strengthening your tibia will get you to a close stance squat quickly.
The Other Thing: Strength
OK, so you have the mobility to descend into the bottom of a pistol. But that won’t do much getting back up, because in order do pop “out of the hole” you need strong legs.
I like the idea of improving the conditions for developing the leg strength to do a pistol. When you are learning to pistol, that bottom position is not comfortable. So if you are trying to get strong in that position, you are worrying about keeping your balance and mobility on top of the strength work. Its too much to juggle in your mind. Turning to front squats removes the difficult mobility and balance conditions so that you can keep your focus on strengthening your legs.
If you can overcome the resistance of two heavy kettlebells pushing down on you, then you can overcome the resistance of your bodyweight using only one leg.
And what is the best exercise for strong legs? I believe that would go to the kettlebell front squat. In Return of the Kettlebell Pavel mentions that 1000 pound squatter Donnie Thompson uses two 88 pound bells for 3×8 and that is “all he needs.” So that means if I can use two 70 pound kettlebells to do the same, then there’s nothing to worry about. For you, it doesn’t have to be 70 pound bells, but it has to be heavy enough to be difficult and therefore to make you stronger. Use bells you can double front squat between 5 and 10 times.
Master RKC Brett Jones doing a double KB Front Squat
If you don’t know how to front squat, visit an RKC or read Return of the Kettlebell. There’s a chapter called “How to Squat Like a Pro in 29 Minutes or Less” that will do just that.
Programming All This
Dan John says “programming is reps.” So do reps. You can either do too few, too many, or the right amount. So if you don’t do anything, you won’t get results. If you kill yourself doing too much, then you won’t get results. So just do the right amount and don’t worry about the numbers so much. Enjoy the process of getting more flexible and stronger.
Try doing the stretches three or four times a week for about 5 minutes or so. For the front squats, do a few days a week, a light day and a heavy day. Work up to 5×5 and then 5×10 on the heavy day. If you can do 5×10 with two bells, you can move up to heavier bells.
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