The Pistol Squat is an incredible tool for training athletes, but it often takes a back seat to the more prominent bilateral exercises. Furthermore, this movement is often pushed aside even in the discussion of unilateral exercises. I believe that the Pistol Squat is often neglected because most athletes look so bad doing it. Or some coaches might be hesitant to teach it because of the degree of difficulty. As with anything else in the weight room, proper progression to hone in on the technique will yield exceptional results.
Two things can happen when an athlete is asked to perform a Pistol Squat. He or she can either do it very well or their form is terrible. If the athlete is a beginner, odds are it will be the latter.
If form is poor, the exercise needs to be regressed. I want to present my own unique way of teaching this movement. I realize that a lot of smarter/better coaches have a similar plan of attack, which has influenced the way I teach the movement. I've tried to take what I've learned and not only apply it but also add my own twist.
It is important to complete certain prerequisites before starting your actual progression. Don't set yourself up for failure by jumping into this complex exercise. I find that most athletes lack experience training on one leg, which explains why a majority of them can't do this exercise. This is especially true for high school athletes and college freshmen, who didn't have a sound strength and conditioning program in high school. You always want to build a strong unilateral strength base by introducing less difficult one-legged exercises. Some of the exercises you can implement prior to the Pistol Squat are:
- DB Bulgarian Split Squats
- DB Step-Ups
- Single-Leg RDL's
- Lunge Patterns
To get the full positive training effect of the Pistol Squat, you must perform it properly. This unilateral Squat is loaded with benefits, including injury prevention, strength, mobility, flexibility, balance and coordination. So do them the right way!
High Box - Assisted to Unassisted
Most athletes are limited from a range of motion standpoint. More than likely, you will be able to maintain good balance squatting to a high fixed object. At first, you might not be able to control the lowering portion of the movement. This could cause you to plop down on the box. As much as it pains me to say this, dont harp on this too much in the beginning. You are still getting the concentric part of the Squat (even though its limited) in a unilateral fashion. Keep in mind the goal we are working toward here: you must be able to control your body weight eccentrically to the high box before you move on to the next step. If you are having an extremely difficult time doing so, hold onto a fixed object with your hands.
Door Frame, TRX, Band with Partner
This portion has three variations, ordered by degree of difficulty. Each one allows you to support yourself with your upper extremities. The door frame is obviously the most stable of the three, so begin with that. After you feel comfortable using the door frame for support, move to the TRX straps. The TRX has a little bit of instability, but it does allow you to sit back in the squat position while maintaining tolerable posture. Third, perform the excercise holding one side of a band while a partner holds the other. This adds a higher degree of difficulty to the movement.
Get close to parallel on these three variations, but if ROM is a problem, make necessary adjustments.
This is for people who struggle getting their "off leg" to hip height on the descend. By standing on a bench or a box you alleviate some of the stress of getting/keeping your leg up and out in front. This makes it a lot easier to get proper depth. Some of you will struggle keeping your balance. If that happens, just hold onto something. Use assistance if needed but work toward avoiding dependence on an object.
Uneven with a Ball (Rolling)
In this variation of the Pistol Squat, you start with your "off foot" on a ball. As you go into your descent, you roll the ball out in front of you with your foot. This may be uncomfortable at first, because the ball rolls up the back of the foot and ends around the soles. Also, this gives you a greater stretch in the hamstring of the "off leg," which could present issues if you lack flexibility. I place this following Elevated Surface in the progression, because the ball reinforces keeping that "off leg" around hip height, again encouraging good depth.
Unloaded & Unassisted
Now it's time to perform the exercise without assistance.
The variations in this progression may not suit each athlete. They are just tools that you can use to improve your Pistol Squat. Some of you might struggle or have problems in areas different from your teammates. And you might need to use only two of the variations in the progression.
After you master the movement unassisted, add other variables to raise the difficulty. You can add resistance in a variety of ways, including a weight vest, dumbbells and kettlebells. Also, you can hold a stick overhead to promote shoulder health and function. All of these things will give you more bang for your buck.
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