The Pistol – World’s Dumbest Exercise?
I’ve got a little secret. I used to absolutely hate pistols. I used to watch people who are good at them and just get mad. How the heck do they make it look so easy? At the time I was 170lbs and able to take 400lbs for a deep squat but couldn’t manage to complete 1 stupid pistol?
It’s frustrating. Everytime I’d go try to go down to the bottom of a pistol it would look like bambi on ice and I’d either fail miserably on my depth or fall backwards on my butt. I mean, it was really bad.
Over the years I’ve slowly become a little more proficient in the pistol. I’ve put in several years worth of knowledge, mobility, practice and accessory work to make them both look and feel a bit better. I wanted to share this knowledge with you.
First off, for proficiency in the pistol you’re going to need enough mobility in 3 basic places:
To test to see if you’ve got the mobility for it you’ll need to be able to squat comfortably with your feet together. It’s an easy test:
1) Ankle Dorsiflexion Problems
Don’t have it? Time to see where things fall apart. First check the ankles:
Failed the test? Better get to work:
2) Hip Flexion Problems
Pass the ankle mobility test but still can’t squat with the feet together? Must be either a hip or lumbar spine issue. You can check hip mobility by seeing if you or your athlete can lie on their back and pull their knees to their chest without their lower back rolling off the floor (Part of the SFMA deep squat breakout). To be strict try and keep your knees nearly together as you pull your knees to chest.
Now, there are about a million resources out there for improving hip mobility. The key here is to focus on exercises that improve pure flexion. Most mobility drills out there bias hip flexion into external rotation and horizontal abduction. I’m a big fan of quadruped hip rocking drills for hip flexion problems:
Aaron Swanson has a good video as well, just try to keep the knees and feet the same distance apart during mobilization:
3) Lumbar Spine Flexion Issues
Most people who can pass these two tests will be able to deep squat with feet together but lumbar spine mobility is also a player in pistols. Once you reach the end range of your hip and ankle mobility, your low back will start rounding (pelvis tilts posteriorly – good old butt wink). In a pistol, some of this may be needed if you aren’t a freak with hip and ankle mobility.
Side Note: Stuart McGill may hate me for this but performing a bodyweight exercise with an unloaded spine and allowing some flexion probably won’t lead to injury if you work yourself into it slowly and build strength in the required places (Some may argue with me here).
An easy assessment for lumbar flexion is a simple toe touch (I use the multi-segmental flexion test from the SFMA)
Your athlete should have a nice lumbar and thoracic curve without flat spots (You’d be surprised how many people can’t flex from their lumbar spines).
If you do in fact have a mobility restriction in the lumbar spine I like to use the rabbit pose borrowed from Yoga to try and regain lumbar flexion (Please do not force yourself into these positions unless you’ve had a professional tell you that it’s beneficial and appropriate for you. The last thing you want is your wife finding you lying on the floor in pain after she has come home from work because you’ve herniated a disc trying “Rabbit’s Pose”).
After you’ve gotten these things squared away, chances are you can pass the feet together squat test and start building the strength and stability to start pistoling. In the next series we’ll work on that. Until then get to work on your mobility restrictions and we’ll see if you’re ready by next week.
I hope Stu McGill doesn’t read this,
P.S. If you enjoyed this article then sign up for the newsletter to receive the FREE guide – 10 Idiot Proof Principles to Performance and Injury Prevention as well as to keep up to date with new information as it comes out via weekly emails.
The Best Manual Techniques to Improve Overhead Mobility
Shoulder Impingement: Part 4 – The Thoracic Spine and Ribcage’s Role in Impingement
Shoulder Impingement: Part 3 – The Shoulder Blade’s Role in Impingement
Shoulder Impingement: Part 2 – What Happens at the Shoulder Joint During Impingement
Why Do Stiff Ankles Cause “Knee In” or “Toe Out” During the Squat?
Ankle Mobility: A Small Twist to Make An Already Effective Exercise Better
3 Unique Eccentric Exercises for Overhead Mobility
How to Assess Overhead Mobility: Part 3