Maxwell Strength & Conditioning Blog

Enjoy a peek at the world through Steve's eyes as he delivers sermons on everything from training to peace of mind.


Saturday, November 13, 2010

How to Become a Pistolero

The term Pistolero was used in the days of the American Old West to describe a formidable gun-fighting man.  Pistolero implied someone able to take care of himself, bringing forth in others an emotional melange of awe, fear and respect.  Pistolero connoted someone living outside the law, somewhat wild and unorthodox.  

And so in the exercise world, where orthodox philosophy holds the squat as king of strength and muscle-building movements--and for good reason!  The squat and (arguably) the deadlift are two of the greatest anabolic, mass-gaining exercises ever, blah, blah, blah...BUT... if the squat is king of all bodybuilding exercises, the pistol is emperor of athletic assistance movements.  

Why do I assert this?  Because while the squat will produce massive gains in muscular size and weight, not everyone wishes to increase these parameters.  In other writings, I’ve talked about how as a kid, in my teen years, back in my high school wrestling days, I went from 154 lbs. to 205 lbs. on the old 20-rep heavy breathing squat routine.  I’ve also have used at various times,heavy weight/low rep barbell squats; heavy kettlebell front squats, Bulgarian split squats, hack squats, sissy squats, Hindu squats, deck squats and various and sundry lunges, with and without loads.  All of these heavy leg and hip exercises can produce worthwhile results but, in my opinion,noneof them come close to the free-standing pistol.  

So what is it about the pistol that, in my opinion, elevates it above these other moves?  Let me first state that pistols arenotfor everyone.  If you are skinny, with weak underpinnings--if your upper body has sued the lower body for support--then you should stick with the tried and true, the classic barbell squat and heavy kettlebell front squats.  But for me, the pistol has vast appeal for the following reasons.

I’m no longer interested in gaining weight or increasing body tissue, including muscular mass, especially in the lower body.  My legs are prone to growing disproportionately in relation to the upper body and don’t need the stimulation.  Heavy barbell squats tend to build out the adductor muscles, creating large and chafing thighs.  

Barbell squats also, by their very nature, create tremendous tension and tightness in the hips, causing inflexibility and immobility in the hips.  It can’t be helped, since to lift big weights, you must create tension; tension is strength, but this tension doesn’t serve everyone well.  I can’t tell you how many times former power lifters have come to me to learn jiu jitsu and submission wrestling and, after discovering how horribly tight and immobile they are, they all say the same thing: I wish I would never have lifted and done yoga instead. Every single time, the barbell beasts are shocked to discover how useless their strength is when it’s housed in a tight, immobile body.  They’d get tooled by guys half their weight.  You can imagine how discouraged they’d feel.  Again: it’s not about how strong you are, it’s how well you can move with that strength.

Barbell squats create tremendous shearing force on the spine.  There is also a lot of pressure on the neck and vertebral column.  

For people with inflexible ankles who have difficulty properly tracking the knees, heavy barbell squats can wreck the knees.  In all fairness, this is true of any squat exercise, including pistols, the stakes are simply higher with barbell squats because of the huge weights involved.  

Read this closely:  I am NOT maligning barbell squats.  I would put a skinny, undeveloped kid on them tomorrow--ask certain of my clients!  But even the king has his shortcomings, just ask the wives of Henry Vlll!  

So, who are pistols for?

1.  Athletes who want increased leg strength--without accompanying over-development of adductor muscles.

2.  People with imbalances of right and left sides--and there are many of them out there.

3.  People desiring to increase their athleticism and mobility.  For example, in the barbell squat, virtually no one can go into a deep, full squat safely.  In my experience, full ROM is impossible for 95% of people out there.  This is why it’s commonly stressed to go only to the parallel position.  But in many sports, the bottom position of the squat--the first inch or two--where the ass is literally almost to the floor, is the crucial range of motion requiring strength.  And I don’t know any other exercise--other than the pistol--that gets at the hips and thighs in that very position.  As a Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner, I find myself needing that full-range hip strength practically on a daily basis.  Rock climbers are another group of athletes that come to mind, as they reach up high with the leg to secure a toehold.  

I once had a martial arts instructor say to me, “just how strong exactly do your legs need to be?”  This was in reference to my kicks being rather weak and ineffectual because of my stubborn adherence (at the time) to heavy squats.  What those squats gave me in strength was compensated in a lack of speed, mobility and power.  Granted, these qualities could be developed through the practice of those skills themselves, but he was still right:  there is a point where increased muscle mass and/or absolute strength ceases to provide improvement and instead you get diminishing returns.  

For most athletes, I’ve found there is tremendous benefit to working single leg movements and emphasizing them in training.  It’s been my experience that many people favor one leg over the other and bilateral (single limb) training prevents hip girdle, lower back and lower body imbalances. If a right-left imbalance exists, legs in particular can raise havoc in the entire structure.  To help you avoid such an unfortunate event, I’ll to take you through a step-by-step process to develop the pistol below.  I have seen many people, even with a huge barbell squat and enormous leg development, unable to perform a single pistol.  Because of the athleticism and dependence on mobility and base, many people simply don’t have what it takes to do a free-standing pistol.  I’d also like to point out that free-standing body weight pistols require a much higher level of mobility and skill than holding a weight, which provides a counter-balance to the movement.

Development #1

Working the Feet and Calves

Most people are too inflexible in the ankles, feet and calves.  These are some of the most neglected areas of the body.  The ankles, feet and calves play a significant role in maintaining the balance and stability needed in executing the pistol squat.  Demonstrated below are two fabulous stretches for the feet and ankles.

A good auxiliary exercise is the standing, single-leg calf raise--with or without added load.  Also tibial dorsiflexion, which is specific for the lower leg.

Development #2

Close stance squatting

The next step in becoming a bona fidePistolerois mastering close-stance, full ROM squats.  Some people refer to these as Chinese squats.  The wily Chinee know a thing or two about productive exercise!  The yogis also use this as a preparation movement for the garland pose.

The close-stance squat is effective in itself as a hip-mobilizer.  It’s surprising how many otherwise seemingly athletic people are unable to do it without falling backwards.

  1. Stand with a yoga block between the knees
  1. Feet straight ahead and parallel like railroad tracks; you may hold the arms out front for balance
  1. Pull yourself down to the floor, using the arms held out to counter-balance
  1. If you can’t do a full squat without falling over, your hip immobility is significantly compromised

A primary cause of limited hip mobility is excessive fat storage in region of your gut.  In fact, almostallimmobility and inflexibility can be blamed on body fatness.  The reason for this is that the physical existence of the fat cells interfere with the joint’s range of movement.  Like a tumor, the fat pocket displaces body tissues and disrupts functionally, literally getting in the way.  

The fact is this: decreasing body fat will instantly improve all parameters of movement.  So, knowing this, do what you have to do, and when you can perform several sets of squats--of 20 reps each--you will be ready to begin the next drill, a one-legged balance.

Development #3

Single leg balance

1.        Slowly lower yourself down into the Chinese squat as described above

2.        At the bottom, shift the weight to one leg and slowly slide out the other leg, then straighten it--you may keep the heel of the extending leg in contact with the floor for balance

3.        Maintain this position, balancing for 10-15 seconds

4.        Switch back--again slowly--and do the other leg

5.        Rest

6.        Repeat until the total of static balancing time on each leg equals one minute.

Once you’ve achieved the single-leg balance (Marichyasana) on the floor, the next milestone is  lifting the leg up from the floor, then holding it statically in space.  Preparation for this feat includes a seated hamstring stretch.   I strongly recommend the yoga posture called “head-to-knee pose” or janu shirshasana.          

When you can successfully squat on one leg while holding the other leg in space for 30-seconds, you are ready to proceed with the full-range pistol squat.  At this point, the biggest obstacle for most people attempting the pistol is the bottom third range; it’s never the top range, so I’ve effectively reverse-engineered the pistol to overcome the most difficult stage first.  It is this bottom-range stage which induces the greatest fear in trainees and thus, once mastered, likewise builds tremendous confidence.  Most everyone approaches the pistol from the top position, which I see as a mistake because people will lower their bodies only so far, stopping short from fear of injury, or simply falling over backwards, also due to fear.  By working first from the bottom, you’ll build the most important range of the pistol and by holding a timed static contraction at the bottom, you’ll build the requisite strength.  

To clarify the above, in the bottom part of the pistol, you’re not simply holding, or even balancing, but isometrically pushing as hard as possible.  This is a form of embedded static contraction training used in gymnastics.  You may only be able to hold this position for as few as 5-6 seconds--but that’s OK.  Take a 30-second break.  Conveniently, by alternating from one leg to the other, you create a built-in break.  Continue practicing this move until the static holding time on each leg accrues to one minute.

The next progression is starting at the top position of the pistol and using the hands for light assistance, with the aid of a nearby pole, Jungle Gym strap, door knob or cable machine to aid balance as you perform the movement.

1.  From the top position, lower yourself down slowly, incrementally pausing and stopping your descent in stages for a brutal descent of 30-seconds, until you arrive at the bottom position, where you contract--hard--and maintain this contraction for 10-seconds.  

2.  Sliding the extended leg back into the Chinese squat position, now stand up on both legs

3.  Repeat the above 3-5 times per leg, alternating legs each rep.  Each rep should take 30-seconds.

If you aren’t strong enough to lower yourself over 30-seconds, it’s OK.  Keep working toward the full 30-second descent, you will get stronger.  Just be sure to always lower yourself into the final bottom position.

Continue assisting yourself with the hands--ideally just the index fingers--just enough to maintain the balance needed to perform the movement.  You may at first feel weak, but you will rapidly gain strength--on this you have my word.  This Maxwell method of achieving the pistol squat is frankly superior to sitting clients on a chair or bench and having them rise up again.  This chair method develops a false sense of confidence, merely strengthening the top of the movement, which is already strongest range.  

Development #4


By the time you can complete a 30-second negative, with pauses, you should find yourself already able to perform free-standing pistols.  If not, continue practicing the negatives but from the bottom use the hands to slightly aid you in hoisting yourself back up.  This is called an assisted pistol.  

The pistol squat is a tremendous athletic movement requiring a holistic balance between strength, mobility and flexibility.  It is fantastic for athletes looking to maximize leg strength with minimal bulk, though you could attain hypertrophy, if desired, via higher reps.  Because it is a body weight exercise, it is a perfect measure of lower-body strength-to-weight ratio, which means the pistol movement is greatly affected by body composition.  Like pull-ups, chin-ups, dips and one-arm push-ups, you are greatly rewarded with increased efficiency when excess body fat is trimmed, and conversely greatly penalized by body fat gains.  I consider the pistol the sina qua non of lower body exercises, arguably the only lower body movement you’ll ever need.

Postscript:  BTW don’t think the Russians invented the pistol.  As I sit here I’m looking at a book of yoga postures and it’s listed within as a variation on the pose Marichyasana.

In Strength & Health!


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