Strength: noun. the ability to overcome.

Pistol Perfection – Getting Started With the Pistol, Part 2

by GEOFFN on July 6

In my last blog post I gave you my reasons and a starting point for what is in my opinion, the best non-kettlebell kettlebell exercise there is for your legs – the Mighty Pistol.

In this second installment, I want to share with you the second phase of my progression in my journey, which is significant for anybody trying to learn, achieve, or perfect the Pistol.

I’m pretty sure this will help you out, because I’m not supposed to be doing Pistols.

My orthopedic surgeon said I should refrain from doing all flexion exercises below 90 degrees at the hip joint and all loaded hip flexion exercises. They will aggravate the connective tissue damage (multiple labral tears), and the cartilage damage, and the arthritis I already have.

Of course, I’m stubborn and hate the thought of being told “no” so, I set about to figure out a way to do all this pain free with an improvement in function. To make matters worse, I am also missing cartilage under my right kneecap which has altered the way it rides on the knee. All this to say, that if I can do Pistols successfully with this kind of damage, you most likely, with persistence, will be able to do them too.

(DISCLAIMER: I am not a doctor nor have I ever played one on TV. Nothing in this post is to be construed as medical advice. If you have medical issues precluding you from doing any of these exercises, discuss it first with your physician.)

So now you’ve gotten the kettlebell counterbalanced Pistol under control. You feel pretty good – comfortable doing them, and have even gotten a significant amount of volume under your belt with them. And maybe you’ve spent some time doing some serious strength work, progressing up a kettlebell size or two.

Here’s Where You Go Next -

The Decline Bodyweight Pistol

It’s time to remove the counterbalance.

(DISCLAIMER #2: Yes, can you believe it – 2 disclaimers in one post? As you know, I am not very technologically savvy. I had my wife take pictures for you to insert into this post to help you out. After modifying them and whatnot, I cannot for the life of me get them into this post. Sorry.)

Use a wedge – as high as you need to, but preferably no more than an inch-and-a-half (about the height of the wedge in a weightlifting shoe) and start practicing.

wedges to train the Pistol

Different wedge thickness using books

You can use a book where you elevate your heel or you can use a hill.

I started with the book but quickly moved to the hill outside my house. It feels more natural and for some reason, provides a sense of greater stability and balance.

Don’t worry if you don’t feel comfortable or can’t maintain your balance.

Pistol on a decline

The Decline Pistol

You can do what I did and just sit at the bottom playing with your balance point by placing one hand or another on the ground and just giving your body some time to adjust.

Finding your balance point

Think of it not only as learning, but as play and you’ll be a lot more successful with these. Because transitioning from a counterbalance to bodyweight only, no matter whether you can Pistol a Beast in the counterbalanced position the Pistol will just feel different – almost weird.

You’ll use a lot more of your abs and in a different way than with the counterbalance. It’s hard to describe to you in print. You’ll just have to feel it, and you’ll know it when you do.

Why The Decline Works

Many of us lack that reflexive stability we spoke about in the last post. This means our bodies won’t give us the “extreme” ranges of motion we want from them (in this case full active ankle dorsiflexion, knee flexion, and hip flexion) because it can’t dynamically stabilize (and therefore protect) all of our joints at one time. In the Pistol, I believe this shows up as a lack of full active ankle dorsiflexion (pulling the foot back toward the shin).

The decline accommodates for this lack. It allows us to get a sense – almost the full experience actually – of the bodyweight Pistol and all that is required from the body to perform it.

I used to think that using a heel wedge or decline was somehow “cheating” – that I had to “earn the right” to do a full Pistol. I then realized the fallacy of my thinking and figured that using the “assistance” of the wedge/decline would pattern the resemblance of a true bodyweight Pistol much better than no Pistol at all! (Duh!)

The decline also allows us to learn how to create the space inside our bodies to perform a true bodyweight only Pistol. Because, as I can tell you from experience, the difference between the Counterbalanced Pistol (CPi)and the Bodyweight (BPi) only Pistol are incredibly different.

In the CPi, your energy and attention are somewhat compressed. That is to say, that you’re using the irradiation from your grip to facilitate your core contracting and you are also lowering your center of mass to accommodate for your lack of mobility.

In the BPi, you actually have to project your energy away from your balance point (your foot), much like an animal sprawling to recover its balance. In fact, “sprawling” is actually a great way of looking at how you need to perform the BPi. Your balance point is your foot, and you are projecting your energy – sprawling – with both your hands and your elevated foot. This takes a tremendous amount of coordination and effort when you first get started. And the decline/wedge helps you get a feel for this.

The Key To Making This Transition Work

The key here threefold:

1. Make it Easy.

Start with a decline or wedge that’s higher than you think you need. Get some good quality reps in. Sit here. Find your balance point. Discover what it feels like to project your energy. Discover the differences between your left and right sides, as there are most likely some. What are they? Do arm and head positions change from one foot to the other? How so? Can you replicate them from rep to rep?

2. Make it Fun.

This part really picks up where #1 left off. Notice the differences between sides. Make physical or mental notes of them. Replicate them. Make this a form of “play.” Again, this is a process of discovery. If you make it such it will become fun. When you get tired, stop. Don’t force through or push through anything. (See #1.)

3. Go Slowly.

There’s no hurry here. Make this process enjoyable. Practice when you feel like it. The more frequently, the better for skill acquisition. But remember, there’s no hurry. Enjoy the journey and you’ll get there sooner than if you try to force and rush this.

How Well Does This Work?

Well since we are all essentially the same (human – 46 chromosome) it will work basically the same for everybody. But since we are all unique, some will find great benefit in the decline/wedged Pistol like I have. For some it will be a quick transition to the full Bodyweight Pistol. Others, will really labor here and have to do some work.

I personally love this stage. I am still using it with great success. My most recent accomplishment was 75 Pistols each leg or 150 total just last week. For me, it’s a very good way to build the volume necessary to learn the skill and acquire the strength. And I’m seeing it transfer over to my strict Bodyweight Pistol.

So once you’ve passed the Counterbalanced Pistol, give this one a shot. If you’re already comfortable with the counterbalance, move right along to the decline.

I hope you find these as enjoyable and helpful as I have in my quest for Pistol Mastery.

Feel free to leave your comments here. Just like yesterday – leave at least 10 and I’ll finish up the installment tomorrow, including some of my key discoveries about load placement on your foot.

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