When it comes to advanced expression of squatting mechanics, the pistol is king. Like all unilaterally loaded movements, this single-leg squat demands more strength and flexibility than its two-legged counterpart, but the challenges don’t stop there. Loading the system to one side introduces rotation into the mix, unlike the typical squat where you have two feet screwed into the floor.
In that way, the pistol can be used just as much as a training tool as it can be viewed as a diagnostic tool. What does it mean if an athlete cannot perform a pistol to depth? What does it tell us if an athlete loses tension in the bottom of the pistol? Is there a glaring valgus knee fault (knee tracking in) when loading on one foot?
We quickly learn that being able to perform a pistol to depth with a stable hip and knee tracking over the toes is much easier said than done. Progressing the pistol, however, doesn’t have to be (that) hard.
Pistol by the Numbers
Let’s run through a checklist of performance markers that contribute to a technically perfect pistol.
Narrow Squat Performance
First things first, we can test for and rule out flexibility as a limiting factor with an air squat attempt with the feet together. If one can achieve depth (hip crease below knee) with the feet together and heels down throughout the movement, flexibility shouldn’t keep the athlete from a quality pistol.
Next, we need to see if the athlete is strong enough to perform a pistol. While standing on a box, the athlete can drag the non-working toe down the side until the foot reaches the floor. Driving through the foot still on the box, the athlete must return to standing on one leg. Do this exercise on both sides, increasing in box height until the bottom position on the box has the athlete’s hip crease well below the knee.
The last step would decide whether the athlete’s hips are working. While standing with two feet flat on the floor (no box), descend into a one-legged squat and return on one leg. If the athlete can perform the movement on both sides, he/she will need to check for only one key movement pattern. Navigating the rotation of this unilateral movement is a challenge, and to do so we’d like to see the athlete’s knee tracking over the planted foot at the bottom of the pistol. Most untrained athletes will fail inward since they lack stability on one leg. We can cue internal rotation of the athlete’s torso into the working leg in an effort to track the femur in line with the planted foot. Holding a light plate out in front to accentuate the rotation may help an athlete achieve this.
The pistol demands much more than strength and athleticism than most of the moves you likely do in the gym today, so if any part of the progression yields trouble, have no fear. Athletes can train their squatting mechanics at each point in the progression. Once you master it, you can start programming it into your workouts for greater gains. Becoming a pro? You can progress the pistol further by front-loading with a kettlebell or dumbbell.