Pistol Perfection – Getting Started With the Pistol, Part 2

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.

15 comments… add one
  • Jerry Jul 6, 2011 @ 13:50

    I’ve been working on bodyweight pistols for a while and have recently seen great improvement since doing dead lifts. I can now do up to three each leg. Pavel credits the deadlift as THE exercise, and it has taken me to another level. I’m lovin the results I’m seeing in my body composition and the definition in my legs. I recommend training with someone who can show you how to do it properly and go heavy.
    This is nothing new to you, Jeff. I’m just sayin.

    Also, I broke my ankle several years ago and can’t hyperflex the right one like the left one. I use a sprinkler cover I bought at lowes as a platform to work from instead of off the floor. You could probably use a sturdy chair, too and use the back for assistance with one hand as you progress. I like to use something to balance off of and push me through my sticking points, too. It’s good to get some reps in to grove and balance your movement.

    And, if you’re a weight lifter and not doing some unilateral work, like the pistol, then you should. It will help your deadlift, too. A symbiotic relationship, they are. (yoda)

  • Matt Jul 6, 2011 @ 13:50

    I’m enjoying this very much Geoff! I have 3 girls ages 3 and under so the last 3 years have been tricky for staying committed to my training. I’m looking forward to adding the pistol now that I have more knowledge/confidence in how to build up to the movement.

  • Manuel Cabrera Garcia Jul 6, 2011 @ 13:51

    Thank you again Mr Neupert ,just one big favor,Would you be kind to video all this process,Many of us will appreciate your kindness and effort .Manuel

  • jim Jul 6, 2011 @ 15:00

    Another outstanding article! Thanks for all the info you post, it really helps alot. Caint wait for part 3.

  • Concetta Jul 6, 2011 @ 15:30

    Hope you find a way to post pictures. I would like to see the progressions.

  • Jesus Revezzo Jul 6, 2011 @ 15:46

    More inspirational words and advice from a man who talks the talk and walks the walk. Thank you for sharing your time and knowledge with all of us. I just started my Cpi today with a 16 kg about 5×5, I am on my way to pistols. Thanks again.

  • Wayne K Jul 6, 2011 @ 16:23

    Many thanks for the insights on the pistol, I’m looking forward to part 3!
    This is great stuff from a battle scarred fighter, it’s encouraging to see that no does not always mean no. Just don’t let my son hear that!

  • Jason Jul 6, 2011 @ 18:01

    You’re the first RKC that I’ve seen OK the wedge under the foot… I had thought that this was a “No-No” that I’d never questioned because ‘The party is always right!’.
    Has the view changed, or was I misreading something earlier?

  • Tate Jul 6, 2011 @ 19:18

    I sit at the top of a stairwell and do pistols….decent progression.

  • David Jul 6, 2011 @ 19:41

    I’ve been practicing by holding onto my kid’s playground swing. Grease the groove fashion, set of 3-5 when I go outside. This does not inflame the twice reconstructed ACL. Yes Geoff, your favorite LE buddy. I’ll try the counterbalance one tomorrow.

  • John Jul 7, 2011 @ 1:07

    Your articles on the pistol are great. It happens to see in your articles the progressions I used a year ago and had similar feelings although luckily I have no injuries in my legs, the only difference is that I never made a workout with that many reps as you described.
    I tend to believe that this specific exercise except from a whole body exercise is an exercise that requires great mental strength and focus.
    After a year of practicing the pistol I have stopped doing heavy squats and I have replaced them with heavy weighted pistols (I perform them with two 20 kg kettlebells) and I trully feel great. I consider the pistols and the one legged deadlift the best leg (and whole body) exercises that work for me (really important if you think I am a volleyball – beachvolleyball athlete). I think pistols also help with the ankle impingement I have in my right ankle.
    Thanks again for the great articles.

  • Peter Nurman Jul 7, 2011 @ 14:58

    Hi Geoff, great article! I’m also like you and won’t take no for an answer. My question is I’ve attempted the pistol however I have PFS in both knees. I don’t have an issue with the decent however it’s the accent that gets me. My knees start to feel sticky on the way up(no pain) on the FMS standpoint it would be FP?(finished reading Gray Cook’s Movement book a few days ago for kicks) what recommendations do you have? I’ve tried some of the recommendations in the Naked Warrior and I always have a sticky point on the way up.

    Thank you.

    One last thing…enjoying Kettlebell Burn started it last week.

  • Larry Peterson Jul 7, 2011 @ 22:36

    Geoff: Thanks for the tips-I will try tomorrow-I promise>Thanks again,Hugs for everybody>especially the little guy holding a DeSoto>best All ways>Larry

  • Larry Peterson Jul 10, 2011 @ 2:28

    Geoff=I have been without email for two days other wise I would have gotten back to you sooner. I don’t know what I did, but I have hip pain now, and can’t bend my right leg at all. Can’t walk without a cane-not because of your pistol, but I went to see “Hot Teacher.”It was in the balcony, high enough to plant a flag and claim it for the USA-tough climb! But I fell all the way down on the way out,so it wasn’t that difficult to get down + the movie was awful. I couldn’t move the next morning, but am out of food, so today,I will try again.>hugs to all>Larry

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