A Simple Way To Improve Your Pistols And Other Musings

Not too long ago I set myself a goal – be able to do a Pistol barefoot, with no shoes on, with no heel elevation.

See, I’ve been able to do them for quite some time, but even when I “Tamed the Beast” I couldn’t do them without some sort of heel wedge to compensate for limited ankle mobility.

Shouldn’t be a problem you say.

Many would agree.

But ultimately, I’ve embraced the philosophy that things should be done naturally, the way God intended.

About 45 days ago, I reached that goal. I actually did 10 sets of 1 each leg. And they were good, but kinda tough.

(I don’t remember the timeline, but I at some point I decided that I wanted to be able to do a set of 20 consecutive Pistols each leg, and the 100 total – 5 sets of 20 each leg as an ultimate goal. That would be pretty strong I think.)

I’ve messed around infrequently with them since then, until yesterday’s training session. I was feeling whooped because I went to bed late and was roused from sleep several times that night by some hollering from our son. And I was supposed to Squat with the barbell, but like I said, I didn’t have any energy.

So, Pistols popped into my mind.

And I was feeling really lazy. I didn’t want to have to use a ton of tension, and lose what energy I have, so instead of going flat-footed, I elevated the heel on the edge of one of the horsestall mats in my studio, which is about 5/8 of an inch thick – less than my Oly shoes.

The first one on each leg was very easy. Too easy. Didn’t use any tension at all and remained very relaxed, which of course means that the movement wasn’t taxing to overcome.

The I thought, “What the heck – let’s try sets of 5.” So I did. 3 sets each leg. And they were easy.

And here’s where it gets interesting –

The little voice inside my head – my intuition, which I will NEVER surrender to someone with letters after their name again – said, “Try them flat-footed.”

So I did.

I easily knocked off 5 each leg with a pause at the bottom of each rep!

That is a PR for me! I’ve never come close to doing that before!

So, again, the little voice started speaking. It told me to go over to the mat again and elevate the heel for 10 reps a side.

And then I did it! Another PR!

They both felt great!

Imagine – gaining mobility and stability without doing any specific isolated mobility work! No ankle circles. No hip circles. No opposing joints. No circling whatsoever or figure 8s or clovers – weighted or unweighted. No messing with eye position or any of that stuff. None of this is supposed to happen without that kind of “secret technology!”

And yet it did.


Well, that’s my own secret technology! 😉

The Crux

But what I really wanted to point out is that I do believe that there is perfect form for any particular exercise, despite what some people will tell you. And it’s common to all of us as humans, only it looks slightly different from person to person. (This is called dynamic stereotype – taking into account a person’s technique based on their anthropometrics – or body type and limb lengths.)

And on the path to “perfect form” are modifications of exercises that accommodate for your particular weaknesses and restrictions – Like elevating the heel on the Pistol. It’s a transition exercise that gives you traction – close approximation to the original exercise and desired outcome so you can positively chunk that experience and use it for recall in a future practice.

It’s easier to make progress with smaller jumps – being able to do Pistols with heel elevated to Pistols flat footed then going straight from doing no Pistols to attempting full Pistols.

Speaking of Pistols, here’s why I’m focusing on Pistols, in case you’re wondering:

I believe they’re the Ultimate Leg Exercise.

You can do them anywhere and they challenge hip and ankle mobility and hip and core stability. Their a good diagnostic tool as well (as I learned from Pavel at my RKC2 way back in ’06).

(For more on the Pistol, you should check out The Naked Warrior. In it Pavel, who also thinks the Pistol is the Ultimate Leg Exercise, gives you a series of progressions and modifications that will allow you be able to do Pistols. Plus, there’s a GOLDMINE in there on strength acquisition skills.)

Plus, I wanted to use them as a measure of functional leg strength. Somehow I equate them with being a better dad – as long as I keep doing them, I’ll be able to keep up with #1 Son. Strange, I know. But life is like that – it’s all about associations.

Hey, speaking of associations – here’s another.

I didn’t time it per se, but I think tonight’s Pistol session only took about 20-25 minutes. It literally FLEW by! So it falls into that category of “Time Efficient Training” we’ve been talking about in the past couple of blog posts.

So you can do that to be efficient with your time – just do one exercise in whatever period you’ve alloted to work out. A really good plan would be to pick two exercises, one strength/grind and one conditioning/ballistic and alternate back and forth – the simpler you keep the program, the easier it is emotionally to do.

Here’s an example:

Alternate between Workout A and Workout B.

A. Double Kettlebell Clean and Press

B. Single Kettlebell Snatch

Do it 4 days per week. 15 minutes per day or whatever you’ve alloted.

Simple but effective.

Ok, that’s it – gotta run. But let me know what kind of success you’ve had with Pistols (or failures).

11 comments… add one
  • Meredith Patterson May 13, 2011 @ 10:42

    I love pistol squats!! I found the best way to train those was to hold onto the toes of the straight leg, this forces your hips into perfect position. Only when you push your hips way back can you descend properly.

    • GEOFFN May 16, 2011 @ 21:01

      Hey Meredith – that’s a GREAT way to do it – if you have the flexibility for it. Glad you do.

  • Cody Hill May 13, 2011 @ 19:39

    Speaking of goldmines, your blog/emails are EXACTLY just that. You keep bringing informative and incredibly useful training knowledge (for free!) that anyone can incorporate in their routine. Keep up the great work!

    • Billy Meyer May 16, 2011 @ 15:13

      I just want to resound what Cody said. Gold and it’s mine, for free. Reminds me of something else.

      • GEOFFN May 16, 2011 @ 21:01

        Yeah Billy, but this really doesn’t compare to that…

        • Billy Meyer May 17, 2011 @ 13:00

          You are right, not even close.

    • GEOFFN May 16, 2011 @ 21:01

      Thanks, Cody – I appreciate the compliments.

  • Justin-kettlebells Jun 28, 2011 @ 2:01

    Geoff, what do you recommend as a pistol progression for long legs and a short body?

    My leverage seems way off to do pistols correctly but I am not a believer in anything being impossible based on body shape.

    • GEOFFN Jun 28, 2011 @ 10:18

      Hard to say Justin – because that may not be the thing holding you back from doing Pistols. Pistol strength is due to many things – reflexive core stability, rotary stability, hip mobility/stability, ankle mobility, thoracic spine mobility… Start working those and your leverage may work itself out…

      • Justin-kettlebells Jun 29, 2011 @ 19:30

        Thanks Geoff, it is something I definitely need ot do a lot of work on.

        I have a goal of 20 consecutive good form pull-ups at the moment. Pistols will be my next challenge but will certainly take some well thought out progression.

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