Increase hamstring flexibility bending forward

How My Wife Mastered thePistol Squat (12-Step Guide)

The Pistol Squat, one-legged or single leg squat is a textbook strength, balance, coordination, and mobility exercise that attracts the eyes of fitness enthusiasts.

Pistol squats may seem really hard or outright impossible to you.

But in reality, anyone can learn how to perform pistol squats and today I will show the exact steps that my wife used.

Here's a video of her doing pistol squats in sandals: (and celebrating it!)

Granted, it's not perfect, but bear in mind that she had:

  • NO previous training (never did any kind of squat before).
  • No sports background at all.
  • Knee pain from a previous accident and knee surgery.

Strengthening the legs and knees helped my wife eliminate her knee pain and it will help you reduce yours in any kind of knee flexion.

NOTE: pistol squats are not only a "cool" move to bust in front of friends, but actually an indicator of your body's aging process and health. Whether your goal is to perform pistol squats or simply strengthen your legs, this guide will definitely help you.

Before You Start

There are different approaches towards the right progression for pistol squats.

In my own experience, breaking it down into simple parts will let you find where is your weakest link, instead of focusing on the 80% that you may already be able to do.

You will notice that some steps are very easy for you to perform, while other steps are hard.

Pay extra attention to the steps you have trouble with.

Now let's get down to it:

Now is not the right time?

The Sequence

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1. Squat warmups

Warm up with 10-20 repetitions of bodyweight squats.

The goal is to go as low as you can when you squat.

However, don't try to go deep right away: make sure to do it progressively.

  • Inhale when you stand up, exhale when you squat down.
  • Look slightly down to avoid straining your neck.

Keep your shoulders and neck relaxed at all times

Doing your warm up exercises in a relaxed manner is more important than straining yourself: if your max squat is 90 degrees that's completely fine!

Some people prefer doing more reps to warm up. It's a matter of taste but I personally find that the other exercises in this guide are more important.

2. ATG Push Squat

Ass-To-Grass Asian Squat

Ass-to-grass, aka. Asian Squats are a great way to improve your hip flexibility.

First, sit on the floor and try to push yourself up without using your hands

If you can, keep your feet planted on the floor.

If you find it hard to do, try the assisted variation instead with a partner, door, bar, or almost anything that won't break:

Do 10 to 15 repetitions for 30 to 60 seconds.

You may feel a bit sore on your hip — that's an indicator that you're doing it right.

« But I am genetically incapable of doing Asian Squats! »

Keep calm and keep practicing! As I have mentioned before, squats happen to be unrelated to ethnicity and body proportions: farmers in America and Europe used to frequently squat before we all became stranded to chairs.

This is Al Kavadlo on a full beard and deep squatting.

Maybe you won't be able to attain a perfectly deep squat, but you will see many benefits from improving your range of motion.

3. Leg Kicks

Hamstring mobility

Hamstring flexibility and hip mobility are very important when it comes to pistol squats:

Using my wife as an example....

She has never trained on weighted squats (her max barbell squat being not more than 80 pounds), while some people who can squat more than 200 or 300 pounds have a really hard time with one-legged squats.

(Nothing against heavy squatting, I like to do them too sometimes and becoming strong is great, but at some point it can lead to diminishing returns if you neglect your mobility).

In this exercise, the goal is to kick the leg as high as you can.

If needed, use the wall as support:

Make sure you don't swing your leg up and down — focus on bringing your leg higher and higher.

If you don't have the necessary mobility and awareness, you'll end up using the lower back:

Wrong

Don't lean back when you try to kick your leg up, as you'll end up compensating with your lower back and hurting yourself.

Right

Instead, focus on keeping the back as straight as you can, even if the leg only comes up a few inches.

Focus on breathing comfortably, with your shoulders, neck and face relaxed.

Legs kicks are tough, but slowly they get easier. ;)

Do this step for for 20 to 30 seconds and after you finish, shake your legs and relax your toes:

4. ATG Push - One Leg Forward

Option A B C

Improving your balance is a great way to strengthen your legs and also to avoid injuries: 20 to 30% of people in older age who fall report moderate to severe injuries.

Balance and strength are both key factors on your health and reduced risk of injuries.

How to perform this step:

  • Similar to the ATG Squat Push, the goal is to push up from the floor while keeping your front leg straight.
  • The first and easiest option is to bring your hands or fingertips on the floor and push yourself up, while keeping the front foot on the floor.
  • If you got it, try to avoid the front leg touching the floor.
  • The more difficult option is to bring the hands forward or grabbing your ankle or chin:

Alternate between left and right foot forward for 10 to 15 repetitions on each side.

If you feel uncomfortable on your knees, take it easy. Try the easiest option until you are strong enough to progress to the next option.

5. Bend Forward (relaxed)

Option A B

Relax in the forward bend by placing your hands on the floor (option A) or simply by grabbing your elbows (option B).

Hold it for 30 to 60 seconds.

The key point here is to relax as much as possible. Avoid using your hands to push yourself deeper into the forward bend as the goal is to relax —not strain— your hamstrings.

Keep your head neutral and shift your bodyweight to the tip of your toes:

Wrong

Leaning back will cause extra tension on your hamstrings.

Right

Instead, lean forward, trying to bring your legs in a 90-degree line (heels in line with your hip).

5.1 Tight Calves and Ankles Variation

People who have flexible ankles and calves have an easier time doing deep squats.

To improve your calf flexibility, you can try the variation below:

Ass-To-Grass Asian Squat

If you can't reach your hands on the block is fine, but try to follow the same rule as the forward bend: reach your hips forward, as you can see in the picture my hips are almost in a 90 degree line with my feet.

Hold it for 30 seconds and then release it. Try to do it every time you do forward bends.

5.2 Tight Hamstrings?

Most of us experience tightness since our daily lives puts a lot of stress on our lower backs and hamstrings. If this happens to be you, check out our 15-minute guide for tight hamstrings.

 

6. Marching

Walk around bringing your legs as straight and as high as you can for 45 to 60 seconds.

The goal is to reach your front leg at least to 90 degrees.

If you can easily reach to 90 degrees, try to do it with your hands forward and "kicking" your hands:

If you don't have space to walk, you can do it in place.

When you finish, shake your legs and walk around to relax your legs.

7. Gorilla Pose

Hamstring mobility

The Gorilla Pose is an incredibly important mobility and strength exercise.

Here's how to perform it:

  1. Bend your knees to around 45 degrees and put your hands on your thighs.
  2. Use your hands to open and push the chest up, while keeping the knees bend.
  3. Bring your hands down or up around your chest and stay for 30 to 45 seconds.

Make sure that your knees don't come too much forward. Aim to keep yourself in a 45 degree angle.

The gorilla will help you strengthen your legs while working on your hip mobility and spine flexibility.

It's normal that you feel very sore on your legs after the gorilla pose if you spend a lot of time sitting throughout the day.

8. Single Leg Bend Squat

We will try an easier variation of one-legged squats by keeping one leg bent.

Try to do anywhere between 2 to 5 on each side.

Going down is easier than coming up, but both are very effective, so don't worry if you can only go down for now.

If you feel it's too much for your knees, don't overdo it: do a couple of repetitions on each side to get yourself used to the movement and try to add a one more rep the next time you try the sequence.

You will slowly build the necessary strength while avoiding injury if you take it slow.

Alternatively, if you have a partner you can practice assisted pistol squats:

Tell your spotter to support your hands instead of holding you or pulling you.

9. Thigh Release

Option A B C D

After today's sequence, it's important to relax your thighs (quads):

Bring one knee on the floor while reaching the other knee forward to 90 degrees — option A.

If you feel comfortable, try option B: reach forward and bring your thigh as close as you can to the floor while keeping your back straight.

Make sure to use a towel or padding on your bottom knee if you're doing this on hard floor and use blocks to make it easier on your shoulders.

If you've done this before and feel comfortable, try option C or D: bend your bottom knee and grab it with your hand.

Hold it for 30 to 60 seconds. Remember to breathe and don't go past your tolerance limit.

The number one rule is that if you're breathing comfortably, you're doing it right.

10. The Pistol Squat (optional)

Once your legs are more rested and relaxed, it's finally time to try the pistol squat!

Try to slowly go down while grabbing your calf or your foot.

Make sure to avoid falling back and hitting the floor too hard -- you can fold a mat and put it behind you to be on the safe side.

It doesn't matter if you fall back or not, if you can do this part then you got 50% of the pistol squat mastered.

Coming back up

The most challenging part of the one-legged squat is to come up from the bottom. Here are some tips that will help you:

  • Make sure that you think about kicking the front leg up (just like in the leg kicks) instead of rushing to bring the hip up.
  • Helping yourself by holding your leg up with your hands will make your leg lighter and hence easier on the supporting leg.
  • Don't try to come up too fast: doing it halfway in a slow and controlled manner is the best training for your strength, balance, and coordination.

Why is this step optional?

By following all the preparation steps that you already did, you are strengthening your legs and working on your pistol squat!

Coming back to my wife, she seldom practices the pistol squats but instead works on the steps required to perform it, as that is how she can find out where she needs improvement.

When you have the required strength and mobility, you will greatly reduce your knee pain as your knees will be more stable.

One could almost say that being able to perform the pistol squat is just a bonus :)

11. Frog Pose

Option A B

It's normal to feel tight on your back and sometimes sore on your knees the first few times you do this sequence.

The frog pose will help you relax your back and knees, provided you do it correctly:

  • Open your knees as much as you can (while feeling comfortable) and bring your forearms or chest on the floor.
  • The key point in the frog is that you should never let anybody push you or push your spine down as this will put extra pressure on your lower back:
Wrong

Don't push your spine down or let others push you.

Right

Instead, curl your spine slightly up.

If your knees feel uncomfortable, make sure to add extra padding on your knees.

Flexibility is NOT a Competition

Everyone will have a different range of motion in the frog pose and the key point here is to relax.

Just because someone is more flexible than you doesn't make them any kind of expert, so don't let them push you down. Stay injury-free!

Hold it for one minute and then slowly close your feet and knees to come out of the pose.

12. Relaxation

Relaxation

After you finish the sequence, relax for 2" to 10 minutes on the floor. depending on how much time you have.

Remember that relaxing in the end is very important. Even if you can only rest for 1 minute, that is enough.

If I am really tired, I will snooze for 10 minutes.

Questions Answered

I have never done squats before, are they safe on the knees?

Many kind of exercises are safe provided that you have the strength, coordination and mobility to perform them.

If you have experience riding a bycicle, riding it is very safe. If you know how to drive a car, driving is very safe.

By breaking down the pistol squat into simple exercises, you're basically acquiring the strength, experience and mobility that may be actually affecting your knees in the first place.

If you had an accident, surgery, or a more serious condition, you should consult with a professional in person.

How often should I do this sequence?

Once or two times a week is enough for this sequence, as rest is also important. You can alterate it with the hamstring flexibility sequence.

In the beginning you may feel especially sore after this practice. The thigh release step will help you.

When will I be able to do pistol squats?

There is no definite answer as it depends on your body proportions, height and both training and quality of resting time.

I have long arms, so it's easier for me to hold my foot.

People with longer legs usually have a harder time.

Don't linger for too long thinking about your age, past or genetics, as you can't really change much of those:

My wife has long legs compared to her torso and was untrained, but she learned how to do pistol squats in about 6 months with ocassional practice.

We're preparing the sequence in Video.

Comments or Questions?

Let me know through the comments below if you have any question or feedback:

MF
MF