Pistol Perfection – Getting Started With The Pistol

In keeping with my recent theme of bodyweight exercises, I thought I’d run a series this week that’d help you either get started with the Pistol or hone your skills performing the Pistol.

DISCLAIMER: I don’t have any video right now – I’ll try and shoot some later this week and get it up for you.

The Best Non Kettlebell Exercise For Your Legs And More

Ok, before we get started on the “how to’s” I’d like you to consider why you should be routinely performing the Pistol.

1. It’s a Great Indicator Exercise

The Pistol can tell you where you’re lacking mobility (as if you don’t know) not only on each limb, but whether or not you have any imbalances between left and right (like I do) without having access to an FMS/CK-FMS.

It will help you identify missing rotary stability, ankle dorsiflexion, reflexive [core] stability, hip mobility, hip stability, core strength, spinal mobility and stability…

Of course all of those are really components of the “big 3” – balance, coordination, and posture. Yeah – the Pistol will help with those.

2. It’s Truly A Great Strength Exercise

I know that some people downplay the role of the Pistol in an exercise program saying that the old-timers used it as a “lift” – more of a stunt to be performed rather than an exercise to be practiced.

My incredibly logical and well thought out response is:

So what?

Yeah, I know – I think it’s a great response too. 🙂

An exercise is what you make of it, what you decide you want it to be. You want really strong legs? Learn how to master your bodyweight with the Pistol. Will it transfer over to the Squat? Brett Jones told me it did for him. My double kettlebell Front Squat has sky-rocketed since I’ve been doing Pistols. But don’t take our word for it, try them yourselves.

3. It’s A Great Exercise To Do Anywhere

For me, this is now key. I no longer want to be “chained” to exercise equipment of any kind, be it kettlebells, barbell, whatever. I want to know that I can travel and stay strong – total body strong. As one of my client’s said to me years ago, “The legs feed the wolf.” Strong legs, strong body. Pistols build strong legs. Period.

Speaking of anywhere – a great way to draw attention to yourself is to literally do your Pistols anywhere – anywhere you are going to be. Beach, pool, park, wherever.

Getting Started – Turning the Pistol Into A Kettlebell Exercise

The way I got started with the Pistol and probably the best way for you to get started is to actually use your kettlebell and not try and do these “bodyweight only.”

You’ll want to use your kettlebell as a counterbalance.

non-kettlebell kettlebell exercise - the Pistol

Pistol with the Beast - 106lbs Kettlebell

(Yes, I’m well aware that you might want to hold onto some straps or something else, but I find that the kettlebell in many cases gives more control than the straps.)

Simply hold one heavy enough by the horns (women use an 18lbs-er and men a 35lbs-er) and push it away from your body. Use either with straight arms or bent. It should go without saying that the heavier the kettlebell, the more you’ll have to bend your arms to keep the bell closer to your center of mass.

The counterbalance method works because you displace your center of mass forward and down, closer to the floor. This is a form of feed-forward tension, which allows your body’s reflexive stability to be heightened or tapped into. (Reflexive stability can be thought of as the body’s ability to stabilize and protect joints while moving.)

You’ll most likely feel your abs contract pretty hard. That’s cool. We want that.

Because they are, your body will then give you the required ankle mobility that it needs to perform the Pistol correctly (in many cases). The counterbalance will also help you pry into your hips, opening them up maybe for the first time in quite awhile. I know that for me, the Pistol is my number 1 or number 2 exercise for keeping my left (badly damaged) hip healthy and pain free.

Where To Start With Your Kettlebell Counterbalanced Pistols

Here’s a very simple progression/regression model for you to get started.

1. Down and up on 2 legs.

– Place your feet together – that’s right, insteps touching.
– Imagine pulling your butt down to your ankles. You’ll have to keep your weight over the center of your feet. If you shift your weight backwards, you’ll most likely fall over.
– Use your counterbalance to “steer” yourself – pushing the kettlebell out away from your body or pulling it in as necessary.
– Stand up by pushing your feet through the floor. Again, steer yourself with your kettlebell.

2. Down on 2 Legs – Pause – Extend 1 Leg – Pause – Up On 2 Legs.

Just like the heading suggests, descend on 2 legs, and stick one leg out and hold it out there for a few seconds. Then place it back next to the other one and stand back up.

If for some reason you can’t get your leg back underneath you and panic (not saying you would, but just in case…) simply roll back onto your butt. No harm, no foul. Place your kettlebell on the floor, stand up, and start again.

3. Down on 2 Legs, Up on 1.

Pretty self-explanatory here I think. But you should really feel comfortable practicing the previous progression because you’ll have to feel comfortable holding the non-supporting leg outstretched in front of you.

*Pistol Tip*

For the outstretched leg, focus on lifting the heel and pulling your toes back while simultaneously pushing your heel away from your body. This will help you keep your leg off the ground without your quad cramping (in most cases).

And here you have a true Pistol with a counterbalance.

If you found this sequence helpful, let me know – post your comments in the comment section below. If I get 10 comments, I’ll post part 2 of my Pistol sequence tomorrow.

24 comments… add one
  • Sean Schniederjan Jul 5, 2011 @ 11:07

    Great stuff.

    Practice these kinds of progressions and you will be going pistols, even if you now think they might be beyond your reach.

    A concern I have with pistols are imbalances. On my left I can get down all the way and back up without a counterbalance but not the right (due to a badly sprained ankle months ago).

    The pain is gone but unfortunately so is the rock bottom BW pistol on that side.

  • Concetta Jul 5, 2011 @ 11:31

    I especially appreciate the tip for the outstretched leg. After finishing KB Burn 2.0 (thanks!) I felt my legs were stronger. This will be a great way to continue and finally perform a pistol. Great info, thanks.

  • Amber Jul 5, 2011 @ 12:30

    I am slowly working my way towards a pistol and have definitely found that the closed squats (with insteps touching) were a great first step in the progression. Hoping to see more on this!

  • Drew Franyo Jul 5, 2011 @ 12:33

    Are pistols first on leg days?
    How many sets?

    What follows?

    Great stuff.

    Thanks

  • jim Jul 5, 2011 @ 12:36

    Thanks Geoff! I have really been wanting to get good at this move for some time, and this post gives me some good progressions to work through. Cant wait for part 2!

  • Joe Jul 5, 2011 @ 12:40

    Great post, Geoff. Do you have any numbers for the progression/regression model that you suggested above? How many of reps/sets should we be doing at a given time? Also, how many times a week should pistols be done?

  • Chris Jul 5, 2011 @ 12:53

    I currently practice all types of progressions throughout the day trying to achieve my first “true” pistol squat. Doorways, two-feet descent, body rocks, etc…. I definitely need to start using more counter-balance movements and will give this sequence a true shot.

    Thanks again for all of your great info.

  • Dave Jul 5, 2011 @ 12:56

    Hi thanks for this the only way at the moment I can do a pistol is to hold onto my safety cage I shall definately be giving you starter method a try
    great tip thanks

  • Luigi Jul 5, 2011 @ 13:10

    I plan on using this article to begin working on my Pistols ASAP…I find the Pistol rather impressive.

  • Aaron Depledge Jul 5, 2011 @ 13:39

    Have lacked the courage to try pistols due to problem knees and a weak left ankle. Have used the FMS to identify this and been working on corrective strategies. Will start the pistol progreesion you describe next week, your timing is perfect, thank you.

  • Wayne K Jul 5, 2011 @ 14:03

    Thank you for the post! I have struggled with the Pistol, and after reading your progressions and suggestions feel confident that I will be able to do this. The outstretched leg tip is priceless!!

  • Joy Jul 5, 2011 @ 14:23

    Great article Geoff! I totally agree that pistols are one of the best exercises. I started working on them this past winter with the progression you just described. Now I can do them “naked” standing on my left leg holding my right toes. Sometimes I can do them on the right “naked”, but I often have to use a 5lb counter weight even if just at the bottom. Pistols definitely unmask your weaknesses!

  • Jesus Revezzo Jul 5, 2011 @ 15:24

    Great as always. These help me want to do more pistol training. I often feel that my legs are not nearly as strong as they should be.
    Thanks.

  • Scott Moehring Jul 5, 2011 @ 15:25

    I think this is one of those few movements, perhaps like pullups, that the majority of people can’t do without progressions, but that most can do once they follow those progressions. I suspect that’s why the old-timers used them as a “stunt” – because you couldn’t just copy them on the spot. Simple, but not easy.

    I’ve wondered if doing them on a hill, or standing on a wall or stair, might be a good way to get started. That way the focus is more on the pressing leg than the lifting leg. On a hill you could gradually move up or down the hill until you were on level ground, doing proper pistols.

    10 comments! Please post the second half tomorrow! 🙂

  • Daniel Hanscom Jul 5, 2011 @ 15:52

    “Stunt: def- An action displaying spectacular skill and daring.” That seems to fit the pistol… but I’m like you… I don’t understand why that would deter somebody from practicing them. I love pistols.

  • Matt Jul 5, 2011 @ 16:27

    I’m glad to see there is already 15 comments. Looking forward to part 2!

  • Manuel Cabrera Garcia Jul 5, 2011 @ 16:37

    Thank you Mr Neupert for sharing this valuable informmation with us. Manuel

  • Valerie Jul 5, 2011 @ 17:52

    Hahaha! I went thru the progressions for a couple of reps, it was soooo ugly. LOL! I’m gonna have to work on this for quite some time I definitely have some balance issues, but most people do so I don’t feel too bad. Thanks for the tips. Good stuff 🙂

  • Clement Jul 6, 2011 @ 8:23

    I’ve been waiting for an article like this to address an issue I may be having with regards to the pistol. I’ve filmed myself and found that I seem to be rounding my back a little too much. In other words, my upper body seems to contract to offer myself more stability. Is there such a thing as rounding my back too much? Could it be that I’m not making my body tight all over, as Pavel always reminds us to do?

  • Tom Jul 6, 2011 @ 8:34

    If I am just starting this program, how many reps and how often. Great info as always.

  • Kim Jul 6, 2011 @ 16:55

    I am just getting started with kettlebells and I have pistols as one of my goals. I decided to give it a try to show a client what we will be working on and was able to do it with no problem…it put a smile on both our faces because we know we will progress quickly! Great descriptions for a visual learner, thanks!

  • Martine Jul 7, 2011 @ 10:54

    Talk about good timing. With hands nicely healed from my June RKC in Italy, I’m thinking onward to what’s next. Being a smallish female (under 5’2″, 50ish kg), it’s the RKC II pistol that freaks me out, never having done one, having no idea how to train for one and being the only RKC in the Middle East, not having a whole lot of resources to turn to. At least now I have a plan! Will let you know how I progress.

  • Andy Jul 22, 2011 @ 13:46

    Geoff, I’m to the point where I am at step 2 very comfortably. However, at step 3, I just don’t have the strength to stand up. Any tips for developing the leg strength?

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