Pistol Perfection – Getting Started With Pistol, Part 3

In this, the last part of this series, I’ll cover the last step I’ve used to regain my bodyweight Pistol – the ultimate non-kettlebell kettlebell exercise.

If you missed Parts 1 and 2, here they are – Part 1. Part 2. (By the way – got the blog fixed and the pictures uploaded for Part 2 if you want to see them.)

Now you’ve got the Counterbalanced Pistol and the Decline Pistol down pat. Or maybe not totally, but you’re cruising along nicely and are ready for the real thing.

So that’s exactly where you go next – a Bodyweight Pistol.

Now the first time you try it, you may fall over on your butt, like I did. No problem-o.

Here’s what you do in that case – and it was the #1 thing that helped me finally nail this sucker:

Use High Tension Techniques.

Yep – I realize they’re not exactly en vogue right now in some circles, but there’s no denying they work if and when you use them correctly.

So, focus on the following:

– Squeeze your fists.
– Tense your abs.
– Pull your butt to your heel.
– Power breathe on the ascent.
– And use the tip I gave you yesterday about the elevated leg.

Now I’m not going to go into the detail about why this works. That’s Pavel’s expertise. And, if you’re going to seriously practice the Pistol, you should read The Naked Warrior. (I have it. It’s a gold mine. There’s information in there that transcends the Pistol.)

Anyway, so that’s how I finally nailed my first true bodyweight Pistol.

For me, the fist-squeezing and the pulling my butt to my heel really were the two that helped me the most. You’ll have to play with all of those cues to see which is the most effective for you. And remember, we’re “playing” here, so there is no right or wrong or fail. It’s just play. It’s just re-learning body mastery, which is why the Pistol is such a great exercise.

On Foot Placement

The best way to make sure your feet are placed or set correctly for the Pistol is to simply start with your feet together and your ankle bones touching. Most people get this.

But where most people fail is letting the arch of their foot collapse. Big No-No.

When you lose the arch of your foot, the lower leg internally rotates. This in turn makes the femur internally rotate. Now you’ve lost control of your hip. So you won’t be able to “pry” open and stabilize your hip. So, you’ll most likely collapse into the bottom. And if you don’t fall over immediately, it’ll sure be tough going to stand up without full use of your hip musculature.

So how do you overcome that?

Well, first, work on creating and maintaining your arch. There are plenty of ways to do that, but they’re beyond the scope of this article. (Sorry, not trying to leave you hanging, but that’s a whole ‘nother topic for another time.)

Second, direct your intent while standing on your foot.

Try this but start on 2 feet.

Scrunch up your feet – try to make them shorter. You’ll know you’re doing this correctly when you see your foot get wider as your big toes travel toward the midline of your body and your arch rises. Now squeeze the ground without losing the arch.

Once you’ve got that, stand on one foot and do it.

Once you’ve got that, now it’s time to aim your knee.


Yeah, you may not have heard anyone talk about this but it’s critically important for success. And probably most people who are naturally good at Pistols probably do this intuitively, but I had to figure it out on my own, thanks to the trusty right knee pain that Pistols usually create.

So here’s what you do:

Push your knee out over your third and fourth toes and beyond.

This maintains the arch in your foot.

It also keep your hip open.

And when you are sitting in the bottom position, it makes it that much more comfortable and easier to stabilize.

Plus, when you go to stand up, all your bones and joints are aligned, allowing your muscles to direct the force straight down into the floor instead of trying to prevent the leakage caused by a wobbly knee or ankle.

By practicing this, I’ve been able to virtually eliminate all the knee pain in my right knee while doing Pistols. All of it. And it feels great!

What To Do With Your Hands

Earlier I suggested making fists.

I no longer need to. I am able to generate the right amount of tension during each Pistol without using this.

But for me, since I have a very long torso in relation to my inseam/leg length, I have found that my arms cannot at this moment go straight out in front of me. This is because this shrugs my shoulders – unpacking my shoulder joints and closing my hips down. (This is due to the fascial systems in the body. I can go into this some other time. Or maybe I’ll write a book on the Pistol and cover all the cool kinesiological concepts and tricks in there…)

So instead, I project them down and out, sometimes almost touching the floor.

And this brings me to an important point which a gentleman emailed me about – does leg length/inseam matter?

Yup. It sure does.

I think it’s easier for people with longer legs and shorter torsos to do Pistols than people like me with short limbs and long torsos. Someone will undoubtedly argue with me and jump on and say the opposite is true with squatting. To which I will reply that it isn’t.

Why is this the case?

Well, think about it.

You only have so much muscle length and therefore so much leverage in your leg to counterbalance the weight and length of the torso. To make up for that you need an exceptional amount of coordination and strength in that leg to counterbalance the mass of that torso.

And that’s what most people fail to see about this exercise and the squat pattern in general. That increased center of gravity and mass must be overcome by less muscle mass, rather than more, like it is in the case of a long-legged, short-torso squatter, such as my wife.

But I digress. This particular post isn’t about biomechanics. We’ll save that for another post sometime.

All that to say, my arms are projected somewhat down. (My wife on the other hand can project them straight out.)

Sets, Reps, Rest, and The Such

Many of you have asked how to incorporate this into a program. Well, being known as a “program guy”, I suggest that you follow a loose template that would look like the following:

1. Counterbalanced Pistol (CPi)

– Multiple sets of 1-3 reps. Get control, form, feel down.
– Multiple sets of 3-5 reps. Build strength.

2. Decline/Wedged Pistol (DPi)

– Multiple sets of just “isometrics” – holding and balancing at the bottom for feel and confidence.
– Multiple sets of 1-3 reps.
– Multiple sets of 3-5 reps.
– Multiple sets of 5-10 reps.
– Multiple sets of 10+ reps.

Of course, this is based on your rep range preferences. But I do believe in (and practice) higher rep sets of Pistols.

3. Bodyweight Pistol (BPi)

Follow the same format as the Decline/Wedged Pistol.

I think this is a good starting point for program design for most people. And you can certainly alternate your training days between 1 and 2 and 2 and 3. I currently alternate training days between Decline Pistols and Bodyweight Pistols.

Sometimes, I’ll even load kettlebells into the rack position as a way to overload the BPi’s . This is the ultimate form of body control and mastery as far as I’m concerned. I look forward to the day when I can load a pair of 48kg kettlebells into the rack and knock off a rep or two.

Hopefully you’ve found this series on “Getting Started With The Pistol” helpful. Again, if you want to know even more about the Pistol, and get a deeper understanding of it with some other Pistol regressions and assistance exercises, I strongly urge you to grab Pavel’s, The Naked Warrior if you haven’t already.

9 comments… add one
  • Russ Moon Jul 7, 2011 @ 14:42

    “The Naked Warrior – (I have it. It’s a gold mine. There’s information in there that transcends the Pistol.)”

    *You were deadly accurate with BulletProofAbs2 and now The Naked Warrior is on order, if there is a flexibility selection by the same author what would you recommend ?

    “Well, being known as a “program guy”” – that is one of your defining dimensions and one of the reasons your work is art, the known end results comes because the trainees follow the “program” or path to completion. I know they work, Period.

    “Or maybe I’ll write a book” – anything I can do to support that goal is yours. I’ll pay for the first copy before the book is written. That’s how strong I believe the material will be….when you have the time.

  • Matt Jul 7, 2011 @ 15:14

    A final thank you for the series! It may be time for me to poney up and get a copy of that Naked Warrior.

  • Martino Jul 8, 2011 @ 12:05

    I will also forward my thanks for this series which will serve as a template for a pistol program. Thanks! I had been recently thinking about setting pistols as a goal as I am much better at squatting than say pullups so I believe I could perform some bodyweight pistols within a reasonable time, perhaps six months. The pullups will stay as a nemesis program which continues to provide slow benefits for me. I wonder if Litvinov did pistols as part of his front squat program–not discussed anywhere but Geoff’s comment that front squats are taking off from pistol work is very interesting. MM

  • Joe Jul 8, 2011 @ 23:44

    What is acceptable for how low to go for a squat or pistol I gave very bad hips ankles bak and knee joints but I want to learn how to do pistols

  • Frank Jul 10, 2011 @ 14:38

    Thanks for the pistol pointers. I got a copy of Naked Warrior about 2 years ago and have been incorporating body weight exercise into my kettlebell training sporadically since then. Before your articles, my most advance form of the pistol was down to a 10 inch bench. I didn’t know if I would ever be able to keep my balance and go all the way down without ripping up my knees.

    Last week we went to the beach for vacation. To minimize the time spent working out, and the number of bells to lug along, I decide to use the program you outlined a few weeks ago where you workout 10 to 15 minutes everyday, and to do pistols on the squat days. For the first leg workout last week, I did 10 x 3 pistols to the 10 inch bench in 15 minutes.

    Then I saw your blog on the pistol. I decide to try the counterbalance pistols the next leg workout. I was amazed that I was able to get all the way down (and up!) with no problems. I did 5 x 1 each. Then I got even braver and tried doing the pistols using a 2×4 piece of wood under my heel. Again, I was able to get all the way down and up with no problems. I did another 5 x 1 each with the wedge.

    Those tips gave me the confidence I needed to do pistols. I am positive that now I will eventually be able to do them without the wedge. At 61 years old, I can now do something that I couldn’t do when I was much younger. Thanks again.

  • LH Jul 12, 2011 @ 18:14

    Thanks for this amazing series on the pistol! It’s geting me closer to achieving one of my training goals!

  • LH Jul 12, 2011 @ 18:15

    I mean ‘getting’.

  • Steve Jul 21, 2011 @ 8:40

    Naked Warrior is a must! However, it should be read and employed comprehensively, i.e. keep the contents in context. Yes, it does mention high-tension techniques, but it also provides a balance between the two. Actually, in my own pistol progression experience the more time one spends “practicing” Phase 2 the less tension is required for Phase 3 — nailing the full BW pistol (without props).

  • Billy Meyer Jul 22, 2011 @ 8:46

    I think this article is awesome. I’d like to see an article on pushup perfection and variations. It has been helpful in my shoulder rehab and strength improvements. There’s not much out there on horizontal pressing movements with the kettelbell. But I’ve only got 4 DD, DVDS’s and 2 of there books… so I guess like my son says, I’m a “newb”.

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