Originally written for Bodyweight Training Arena
Getting my hands on Convict Conditioning led to my first foray into advanced bodyweight training back in the spring of 2012.
At the time, I was feeling beat up from all the heavy barbell training I’d put my body through over the previous couple of years, and welcomed the idea of using nothing but the resistance of my own body when training on a chin-up bar and a pair of gymnastic rings at a local park over the entire summer.
Flipping through Convict Conditioning, I came across the one-leg squat a.k.a. pistol squat that the author dubbed “the ultimate lower body exercise”.
Being a huge fan of loaded barbell and dumbbell lower body exercises, and having barbell squatted double bodyweight just a few months prior, I couldn’t fathom how this innocuous-looking, unloaded movement could ever provide enough challenge for anyone but the weak and deconditioned.
As I soon found out, it most definitely could.
The first time I tried to do a pistol squat, I got duly embarrassed.
I was flailing and falling over from the get-go, never even able to break parallel, let alone sink all the way down into a full 1-leg squat.
After the third try I was frustrated with myself, and on the brink of giving up:
“Damn! How do those ghetto street workout guys on Youtube make this stuff look so easy?”
Getting my ass handed to me by a single-leg squat got me mad and determined at the same time – I vowed to myself I would find a way to master this simple yet deceivingly hard exercise, no matter what it took.
By the end of that summer, I hit a personal best of 15 pistol squats in a row.
The key to mastering any advanced bodyweight movement lies in breaking the movement down into smaller, more easily attainable regressions that over time build up towards the skill you’re looking to attain.
It’s the only way to see progress from week to week and keep you motivated.
Below are the progressions I personally found effective going from zero to hitting pistols for reps with ease within a couple months.
The first thing to check off the list on your way to a full pistol is to get your muscles, joints and tendons strong enough to withstand gravity over an increased range of active motion. This is best done with 1-leg box squats and by gradually working with a lower box as you gain ROM.
Once you’ve built some decent range of motion with the 1-leg box squat, the next step involves sinking into the bottom of the movement, hamstring to calf, by using a pole, door handle, TRX or whatever you have available as assistance.
Assisted concentric pistol squats are simply a continuation of the previous step. This time you descend under control on your own, then use a pole or something similar to get back up.
Here you’re using full ROM without assistance but standing on an elevated platform will give more room for the non-working leg to tag along, making it somewhat easier than 1-leg squatting on the ground.
Having achieved the elevated pistol squat, full ROM pistols should be in the bag shortly after.
As always with bodyweight exercises, you want to make things harder over time by either moving on to a more difficult progression or adding external load.
The same goes for pistols. Once you get proficient at the bodyweight version of the movement, increase resistance by wearing a weight vest, or hold a weight plate in your hands or a kettlebell overhead.
Start applying these progression steps today and you, too, can be hitting pistols in a few weeks’ time.
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Yunus Barisik, CSCS, is the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for an elite junior hockey organization based in Espoo, Finland. He has trained hundreds of hockey players at the junior, college and pro levels, including NHL Draft picks and World Champions. An accomplished author, Yunus has had articles published on top fitness and performance sites, including STACK and Muscle & Strength. He also wrote Next Level Hockey Training, a comprehensive resource for ice hockey players on building athletic strength, size and power, while staying injury-free.