Mastering the One-Legged Squat
by Steve Cotter, RKC
What if I told you that by adding just one exercise to your training repertoire, you would be stronger, more flexible and more coordinated and be able to run faster, jump higher and have overall better health? Would it be worth investing the time to learn and practice? If you answered “Yes”, then I have just the exercise for you. The one-leg squat, or aptly named “pistol”, is one of the most demanding and beneficial exercises in existence , and the only thing you need to get started is your body and the determination to succeed. This article will describe the benefits of the one-leg squat, identify the most common limiting factors that restrict progress and outline several “troubleshooting” methods to help you achieve your goal of mastering pistols.
Bottom position of Pistol
Top position of Pistol, demonstrated by Steve Cotter.
Pistols have a wide array of athletic and real-world applications. The fundamental skill that pistols teach is exerting power through the entire range of motion of your stance, while on one leg. Whether running, jumping, or changing directions in an athletic competition, or walking, sitting, or standing in your daily affairs, powerful legs enable us to do what we do better, and with greater ease. The combination of skills that pistol practice develops simultaneously– balance, strength, endurance, flexibility and coordination– make it one of the most useful and important exercises to learn.
How to do pistols
The description of the pistol is the easy part: Stand on one leg, with the other leg out in front and parallel to the floor. Hands are kept to the side. Sit back and down, as if sitting in a very low chair. At the bottom, of the position, your support foot is flat and your hamstrings/glute is resting on your calf. Now stand back up to the starting position. That is one rep.
As simple as the description sounds, the performance of the pistol is actually a sophisticated motion to learn. To start you on your path of mastering this powerful movement, I will first identify the component parts of the exercise, and then teach you how to “troubleshoot” each component so that you can identify and correct weaknesses in your form. Lastly, you will learn how to put it all together, so that you are armed with sufficient knowledge to overcome any limitations that are now preventing you from doing the exercise correctly.
Components of a Pistol
The reason that learning to do pistols well is so challenging is because they involve an interplay of several different physical skills, all performed simultaneously. Below are the primary components involved. An inability to perform the pistol is a result of a deficiency, or “weak link” in one or more or these components:
Balance-pistols teach what is referred to in Internal Martial Arts as “rooting”, as in the roots of a tree, forming a solid connection to the ground. Because we are shifting the body’s center of mass over a narrow base of support, and for an extended range of motion, balance is challenged and trained in a dynamic fashion.
Flexibility-the muscles and joints of the legs, low back, hips and ankles are required to work at the extreme ranges of motion, both in flexion and extension.
Strength-the powerful muscles of the glutes and thighs are moving the body weight throughout a very narrow base of support, thereby recruiting tremendous stabilizer function in all the lower body joints; tension is maintained throughout the eccentric, isometric and concentric portions; the core musculature is recruited to maintain balance and alignment.
Coordination-the neuromuscular system is challenged by the multiple requirements involved in pistol practice-balancing, contracting and stretching.
Focus/Mental attitude-a clear focus and concentration is required to maintain control over the body; fear and restricted movement is overcome by releasing our fear of falling and reintroducing freedom of motion.
Once the weak links are identified from the components above, you can proceed to take corrective measures to strengthen those links. However, in the beginning, the skill can be so different from what we are used to, and so challenging, that it may be difficult to identify one specific weakness. It may seem that the whole movement is off kilter. At this point you may get discouraged and just accept the notion that “pistols are not for me”. Press on, because by using the simple tests below, you can identify the weak links so that you can take the necessary steps to correct them.
Here a word about specificity is in order. It is important to understand that there is always more than one way to “skin a cat”. So there is more than one way to address a particular weakness. However, because of the specific dynamics of pistols, it is most productive to select the tests and corrective exercises that are most similar in nature to the performance of the exercise itself. Rather than simply “stretch the hamstrings” or “strengthen the thighs”, we will select those movements that have a high degree of carry-over into one- leg squat practice.
Tests to identify weak links in the pistol:
Balance-Stand on one leg with the other leg off the ground and not braced against the support leg. Hold the position and aim for a “quiet” stance, no excessive movement. Increase the challenge by turning the head from right to left. Challenge further by closing the eyes and finally eyes closed and head turns simultaneously. This sequence will familiarize your body with the feel of the one-leg stance and teach you how to maintain your center of balance in relationship to the support leg.
Flexibility-Test this by grabbing the outstretched foot with the same side hand-stand on R leg, extend L leg, grab L leg with L hand. If you cannot hold the outstretched leg out fully extended, hamstring stretching is called for. With the hand that is not holding the outstretched foot, place your palm against a wall to decrease the balance demands. Do several repetitions of flexing and extending the knee, by pulling the foot in towards your body, and extending it out again. You will feel the hamstrings lengthening.
If you can fully extend the leg, but feel tightness in the lower back, hold a rope or towel overhead with both hands and practice deep overhead squats.
For tightness in the hips and glutes, grab the inside of a doorway with both hands and place your outstretched leg on a box or chair in front of you. Holding tightly with the hands, fall back and down as if doing a full squat. You will feel this stretch in the glutes and lower back.
Strength-This drill is called the pole-assist method. I developed this drill as a way to strengthen the legs within the same neuromuscular groove as used in free-standing pistols.
Stand facing a sturdy pole (e.g. flag pole) or a very thin tree. Place the support foot in line with the pole so that your toes are just a few inches in front of it. The free leg (non-weight bearing) will be placed in front to one side of the pole, close but not touching–L leg to L of pole, and visa versa. The hands are circled around the pole, in front of you. Think of the pole as an external representation of your body’s center line, i.e. the spine. This center line awareness will develop proper focus and alignment.
From the extended position, simply sit back, as if sitting in a chair. Use the hands only as necessary to decelerate your momentum. On the initial sit back go to your lowest natural point (sticking point). From there, use the hands to walk yourself down the pole–going deeper to the rock-bottom position. It is imperative to keep your heel flat on the ground, and to keep healthy knee alignment–aligned vertically and laterally with the ankle and foot, and not extended beyond toes. You will have to experiment with the distance of your foot placement from the pole, based on the length of your arms, and trunk flexibility.
Pressing up from the bottom position, use only what assistance is necessary from the hands, by walking your hands up the pole, as if climbing a rope hand over hand. All tension/force generation principles apply here: grip the floor with the toes, press the heel forcefully into the floor and drive up, and create intra abdominal pressure by taking a quick breath into the belly at the bottom position, and hold the breath briefly through the sticking point-exhaling once past the sticking point.
This method is more direct than concentric only reps, because it addresses the entire range of movement. As you improve, the hand assistance will be less and less necessary until you are doing full bodyweight pistols.
Coordination-If coordination is your weak link, it will be self-evident. Test basic coordination by holding the position with one leg out in front. Do small movements with the arms and extended leg, moving them easily and gracefully to the front, back and side. If this simple coordination drill gives you fits, work on this only, for a few weeks before incorporating the other techniques. 10 minutes a day, switching legs back and forth will teach you how to get comfortable in this position.
Focus-Pick a point in space a few feet in front of you. Relax the gaze and keep your attention on that space. This gives you a frame of reference to move about, and reinforces the center line discussed above. Visualize a wall to each side of you and imagine that they support your palms throughout the movement, reinforcing lateral stability.
Attitude-It’s important to adopt a playful attitude, and recognize the practicality and reflexive nature of the action. When we stop having fun, things become too serious. You will overcome the fear of falling by having fun falling, realizing that it’s nothing to fear. The next exercise will show you how.
Putting it all together
You are now armed with the tools needed to address the weak links that have heretofore prevented you from excelling at pistols. You are ready to practice the specific sequencing that will lead you to your goal of free-standing bodyweight pistols. Some of you may be able to skip steps 1-3 and begin practice with Step 4. Others will have to go through each step before reaching the final step. You may skip any of the steps that don’t give you trouble, but make sure you can perform each step, before moving to the next. Quality practice is paramount, so don’t progress prematurely.
Step 1: Learn to squat properly-deck squat (rock-up squat)
The pistol, a one-leg squat, follows the same mechanics as a regular squat. The difference is that a pistol is performed with a much narrower base of support, thereby increasing the challenge to balance and flexibility. Before learning to squat on one leg, be sure to first know how to squat correctly on two. The deck (rock-up) squat will teach the correct mechanism for pistols, and will help you overcome the fear of falling back by falling back correctly, and liking it!
Put a mat on the floor or use a soft area, such as carpet or grass. Stand with your back to the soft area. Begin by sitting back and down, as if sitting in a chair. When you reach the bottom of the squat, roll back by touching your bottom to the mat and continuing back until your shoulders are on the mat. This is like the beginning of a back somersault. From this point, reverse the momentum by kicking your feet out and rolling back up into the initial standing position. To assist you in getting back up on your feet, push your hands forcefully out in front of you as you are standing. Also project your focus to a point 100 feet in front of you.
If you are having trouble getting back up onto your feet, these variations will make it easier:
–Instead of the floor/ground, sit onto a box, so that you do not have to squat down as low. A tall box will be easier than a short box. Be sure to keep the abdominals contracted as you rock back onto your bottom, otherwise you may fall all the way back off the box and hurt yourself. It is also a good idea to have a spotter place a hand behind your back in case you go back too far.
–Place a light weight in your hand, such as a 4 or 8 kg kettlebell. As you sit back and down, pull the weight against your abdomen. As you rock up onto your feet, forcefully push the weight out to a point in front of you. The weight will serve as a counter-balance, helping you back up until you learn to create the necessary force within your body.
The rock up squat will teach you to sit back and down with your hips, adjusting your center of mass to stay over your base of support.
Progress from the basic deck squat into the following variations:
1) Down 2 legs, up 2 legs
2) Down 2 legs, up 1 leg
3) Down 1 leg, up 1 leg—at this point you are doing a rock-up pistol-you’re almost there!
Step 2: Develop isometric strength at all angles throughout the range of motion.
Sometimes you may experience a lack of stability in the knee joint, during a particular range of motion. This usually results in pain/stiffness in the knee in the following areas:
Pain under kneecap-patella tendon-due to excessive knee flexion-knee extends too far forward.
Practice moving back and down, sitting into the bottom position. If you don’t yet feel stable doing this, hold onto the pole or inside of a doorway. Hold the bottom position with your heel flat and find the position that feels stable and pain free. If this is difficult, you may have an ankle flexibility issue. The most specific stretch for the ankle is to hold the bottom position and with each exhale, press the heel flat, using the hands to apply leverage against the pole or doorway.
Pain on inside and/or outside of knee (MCL/LCL) due to excessive rotation of trunk or knee.
Be aware of any point in the range of motion that feels unstable in the knee. Standing in the doorway or holding the pole, find the weak position, adjusting a little bit at a time, until you find the placement that feels stable and pain free. Gradually reduce the support from the arms until you can hold the position with little or no additional assistance.
Sometimes the lack of lateral/medial knee stability is not because of the position of the knee itself, but from lack of stability in your core musculature. Be sure to create sufficient core stability by tensing the abs and creating intra abdominal pressure, throughout the range of motion.
As a variation for developing isometric strength, place a chair just under your hips and practice holding the posture at various depths. You are not touching the chair, it is there as a support in case your balance or strength fails you. Adjust the range by using chairs, stools or boxes of different heights.
Step 3: Build strength from bottom up
You may have the strength to press up from the bottom, but have trouble sitting down into the bottom position. In that case, reinforce the strong part of the movement by doing concentric-only pistols for a few weeks. Simply start from the bottom position and practice driving up forcefully through the heel. Practice the eccentric phase with deck squats for now, as described in Step 1 above.
Step 4: Putting it all together—the pole-assist method
If you’ve spent time working on the first 3 Steps, you are now ready to introduce the pole-assist method, as outlined above in the strength section under the heading Troubleshooting.
Step 5: Practice free-standing
If you’ve carefully worked through Steps 1-4 above, you are now ready to take on the real deal-free-standing bodyweight pistols!
Of all the exercises to practice, pistols is one of the most useful because it teaches so many different things at once, balance, flexibility, strength, coordination, and focus. The best way to master the pistols is to start doing them. In my opinion, pistols are most useful as a bodyweight exercise, because most applications (sports, fall prevention, house work, etc) require the ability to control your own body at various velocities. Set a goal to be able to do 10-15 BW reps before concerning yourself with weighted pistols.
There you have it, a comprehensive guide to get you started on the road to powerful, athletic leg strength, with pistol power!
Steve Cotter is a San Diego based strength coach and martial artist, known for his rare combination of strength and extreme flexibility. With his background as a Senior Russian Kettlebell instructor and a US National Champion in both full contact fighting and forms, Steve has developed the dynamic Full K.O.ntact Kettlebells video instructional series. To contact Steve about his training services, visit http://www.fullcontactkettlebells.com