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Perfecting the Pistol

February 18, 2011 04:44 PM

Performing a perfect pistol is a skill. It is the essence of Hardstyle …by combining strength, mobility, and internal focus the master of the pistol creates a movement that looks effortless and crisp. Like kettlebell drills, the pistol is athletic and powerful. It is a must have for those who wish to be ultimately capable, resilient, and possess strength that is matched by mobility. Pistols are a perfect blend of balance, raw strength, and discipline. With that said, they must be earned. 


Just like more advanced kettlebell drills, such as bent presses and windmills, pistols that are simply done to "see if I can do it" are dangerous and sloppy at best. As Pavel put so eloquently, most American’s bodies, including athletes, are pretty "jacked up" to begin with. There is no question that the individual who can perform a perfect, smooth pistol without needing a counter-weight has an advanced set of physical and mental skills. This is exactly the reason why we take the time to master this movement.


After talking to Pavel at RKC II, I realized that my preparation for the Beast Tamer Challenge lead me to a unique and simple protocol to master the mechanics necessary to knock off a clean bodyweight pistol, especially the eccentric portion of the lift. Now, a "naked" pistol has become so easy and my joints feel so strong that pistols feel more effortless than pushups. Weighted pistols are even easier until a certain point. Perfecting the subtle difficulties of the pistol by being patient and having discipline leads to an uncommon combination of assets that directly translate into highly functional movement. Let me explain. 


First of all, the obvious stuff. Don’t even attempt a pistol if you don’t routinely practice goblet/front squats. Without standard corrections such as creating space and length in the spine and hips at the bottom of your squat, stepping up to the pistol too soon will almost certainly lead to back and knee injuries. You need to feel comfortable, very strong, and confident that you can get your butt to your calves and keep an engaged lumbar spine with a wide stance and two legs before even considering trying a to squat down on one leg without the luxury of a wide knee to hip angle. Disciplined breath and cadence also play a huge role. Spend a lot of time perfecting front squats. I can’t emphasize this enough. 


Next, switch over to body weight, narrow stance front squats to work on the bottom position and the concentric portion of the pistol. Start with your feet touching and descend with straight arms until your butt touches your calves. Hold for a full second, and then come back up without rocking forward. This exercise will let you know if you are anywhere near ready to be safe in the bottom position of the pistol. 


If you cannot keep your balance at the bottom, spend a couple weeks using a wedge under your feet and hold a light kettlebell or med ball while descending as far as possible. The wedge and counter-weight will help you feel comfortable and engaged in the bottom position. Hold downward dog position (yoga pose) or a supine hamstring stretch with a straight spine for 10 breaths/30 seconds before your next set. Never let your lower/mid back disengage to get down lower. If you have rock forward to get out of the hole, you went too low. You will get there with practice and patience. Developing the mobility needed in this position may take months, but these improvements will translate beautifully to injury prevention and athletic movements. 


Once you feel good and comfortable with this exercise, alternate kicking one leg straight at the bottom of each rep without jumping. Work up to practicing a couple one leg concentric reps, but save the descent for the next step. 


Lastly, work on the eccentric portion of the pistol (the descent). The biggest mistake a trainee can make when attempting the full pistol is recklessly dropping to the bottom position, destroying the knee in the process. Trust me; your knees will rebel if you don’t take the time to gain control and strength. Here is what I did to learn to control my descent:


  • Find something you can stack that is between 1.5-2 inches thick. I used puzzle mats that I use to teach BJJ on. 2x4 inch lumber works great as well.

  • Stack them high enough so that they are at least up to mid-thigh. You will be doing 5 sets of 5 pistols per leg. Starting height depends on your starting strength, balance, and control.

  • Perform 5x5 pistols/leg on week 1. Your descent should be as slow as possible and your butt should just "kiss" the stack. None of your weight will rest on the stack, but hover at this position for a full second before coming back up. You will feel all the muscles in your quads and glutes firing, improving your holding strength, and preparing your for the more difficult ranges of the pistol. Reach forward with straight arms as you descend, but don’t lean forward. Pull yourself down with your hip flexors and make sure to reach the crown of your head toward the sky. Flex the quad of your opposite leg to signal your hamstring to release and keep your leg as straight as possible. 

  • Each week remove one piece of your stack, unless your form is anything less than perfect for all your reps. If your form, balance, or control gets sloppy, stick to that same height for another week or two. Maybe even work up to 5x5 by starting with 5x3 if you hit a sticky spot. Finish your pistol workout with at least one set of close stance front squats and hamstring and hip stretching. Your patience will be rewarded in the end.

  • You will find the range of the pistol that is most difficult for strength will be about when your butt is even with your knee and +/- 6 inches. When you feel ultra comfortable in this range of motion, you are really making progress.

  • Work down to the point where no stack is needed for 5x5. Make sure you never bounce at the bottom. Pretend like your calf is the stack…kiss, and then ascend. To your delight at this point, you will find holding a light to moderate sized kettlebell will make the pistol even easier!

Practicing the pistol in a safe manner will improve the health and injury resistance of the knee. Any variation of proper full-range squats will teach the trainee how to stay engaged while increasing the range of motion of the knee joint. The pistol is the most advanced variation, naturally. This sort of training is much safer and more effective than passive stretching that uses gravity and weight to force the knee joint closed. 


The pistol is a must for any athlete that needs exceptionally strong legs. The proprioception, balance, and deep engagement will stimulate neurological and muscular adaptations that will literally "program" the athlete to use more power through a huge range of motion when necessary. These individuals will "feel" the benefit of the pistol the most. It is also a must for athletes that are regularly in crouching type positions. For example, wrestlers use a "penetration step" to initiate takedowns. Rock climbers will especially benefit from the pistol.


The aforementioned protocols enabled me to work toward a smooth pistol with the Beast. Once I had the bodyweight pistol down, adding weight was easy and building up my strength was a matter of weeks. I distinctly remember the lift feeling effortless and felt tons of control on the descent. The bottom position felt balanced and rock-solid. The Beast stayed glued to my chest throughout the movement, down and up. What a feeling! Give these protocols a shot and keep me posted.



Danny Clark, RKC II