The pistol is the ultimate calisthenics leg exercise. Once you mastered the classic pistol, you can do it everywhere, everytime. It’s challenging not only strengthwise, but also requires quite some flexibility in your hips, quads, hamstrings and ankles.
Basically, it’s a one-legged deep squat, where you hold one leg straight in front of you and push with the other leg. Not only does this require serious leg strength (the kind of strength you would need if you squatted with a barbell that’s about as heavy as your own bodyweight), but the balancing part adds even more difficulty. For this reason, the pistol also works your lower back and abs and even the quad of the passive leg. So it’s really a heavy compound exercise for your whole body.
You can progress in very linear fashion towards the pistol if you already have the necessary flexibility. Let’s see if you have it.
This position, despite it looking like you’re taking a dump in the woods, is a nice addition to your repertoire on its own. I first read about the grok squat on Mark’s Daily Apple. Basically, it’s a deep squat.
Stand with your feet about hip width apart and squat down as low as you can. Feet are completely flat on the ground. Ideally, your hamstrings and calves touch each other. Try to keep a fairly upright position, but know that a little rounding of the back is normal.
This gives you a nice stretch in your hips and ankles. If you have good overall leg mobility, this should feel like a resting position. If you’ve never done this before though, expect to struggle a bit to keep the balance.
Now, if you cannot get into this position at all, you need to seriously address some flexibility issues. Try to feel which part of your legs are hindering you from squatting deeply and work on those weak links. If you’re not super tight, you can work on this by simply holding on to a sturdy object with your hands, ease into the deep squat and slowly let your bodyweight do the rest.
Not being able to do the grok squat with ease means you will struggle to perform a pistol, even if you had the necessary strength.
I recommend getting into a grok squat at least before and after each training session that involves leg work. Ideally, do it daily if you struggle with this position. Hold it for at least 30 seconds. I did grok squats while brushing my teeth for a while. But again, I’m weird. When you’re in your 50s and your colleagues start to complain about back pain while you thrive, you’ll thank me.
The bodyweight squat is your foundation for any leg work, whether you’re a calisthenics enthusiast, a weight lifter or engaged in any kind of movement that involves your legs. No one who can’t perform these with crisp-clean form has any business doing advanced squats or weighted squats of any kind.
When can you move on to the next progression? Again, I don’t want you to get too hung up on the numbers, but 50 bodyweight squats, performed crisp and clean, is a desirable goal.
For an added challenge, try to tuck your hands behind your head or behind your back. This is called a prisoner squat.
A narrow squat is a bodyweight squat where you stand with feet together (big toes touching each other).
When you get good at narrow squats, again tuck your hands behind your head and continue to work on keeping good form.
The next progression would be deep narrow squats. Deep means as low as you can, so hamstrings and calves touch each other.
If you can do about 20 clean deep narrow squats with your hands behind your head, we can talk pistols.
To get used to the movement, I suggest starting to work on pistols with a bench or something similar behind you.
Stand in front of something sturdy that’s slightly above knee height (so when you squat down, your thighs are not yet parallel to the ground when your butt touches the object). Reach out with your arms straight in front of you for balance. Lift one leg slightly off the ground. That’s your passive leg. Keep the passive leg as straight as possible. For the whole exercise, the passive leg does never touch the ground. Now squat down with the active leg until you sit on the box. Immediately get back up. That’s one rep.
Use one leg for one full set, then change active and passive leg and immediately perform a set with the other leg. Alternate which leg gets worked first each training session.
Work on getting to 10-15 consecutive reps with each leg before moving on. Progressively use lower benches until you’re near ground level.
Doing a full pistol without sitting down is significantly harder. Even if you can bang out 10 reps from an object that’s near ground level, you might not be able to do a free pistol right away. As with the one-arm push-up, you can work the pistol from different angles.
Find a vertical pole or something similar. Stand in front of it and hold on to it with your hands while performing pistols. The goal is not to actively pull yourself up with your arm strength, but to only spot yourself to keep the balance during the pistol. This should make the move much easier.
You will have a tendency to use your arms, this is natural. Work on minimizing the use of your arms. Ultimately, the aim of this progression is for you to get used to the movement. This essentially gives you practice with the movement pattern without focusing on the balancing part.
Try to get to 10-15 clean assisted pistols. Clean means that you’re using minimal arm strength. It’s okay to do 5 clean reps and then bang out a couple more reps with more assistance to work your legs even more. Just know that if you have to pull too much, you still need to work on this.
Perform only the lowering part of the pistol. This means lowering yourself with one leg, then tuck in your passive leg and get up with both feet on the ground, like a regular bodyweight squat. Rinse and repeat with the other leg.
You can also try this the other way around, but it’s usually harder. Get down into a deep squat with both feet on the ground, then stick out one leg and try to get up. That way, the active leg is not fatigued from the lowering phase and you might be able to get up.
Candle Stick Roll
This is a cool move on its own. Do the negative pistol, but this time let your body fall back so that you roll on your upper back. Roll back and land on your active foot and use the momentum to assist you with getting up again. Try to keep the passive leg straight throughout the movement.
Get up on a bench or something else that’s above ground level. Let the passive leg hang on one side of the bench (so that it could touch ground if you lower yourself far enough). Now do a pistol. This variation is easier because you don’t need to keep your passive leg up all the way. You should still try to keep it above the level of the bench, but it’s okay if you don’t manage to do so.
This removes the strength and flexibility challenge for the passive leg, but it also makes the balancing easier, which in turn makes the whole movement much easier than a pistol on ground level. It’s sound to aim for 10 reps on each leg for this progression.
Holding a weight between your hands in front of you actually makes pistols easier because it acts as a counterweight. It makes the balancing part much easier. Use a weight that’s light enough for you to hold straight in front of you but heavy enough to actually act as a counterweight. I weigh about 75 kg (165 lbs) and used a 5 kg (10 lbs) brick for this.
If you consistently used one or more of the progressions above and have the necessary flexibility, you should be ready to try a full pistol.
A clean pistol looks like this. The passive leg should be as straight as possible, never touching the ground. Again, a little rounding of the back is normal and not harmful at all. It’s performed with control and no bouncing at the bottom. The movement goes from locked out knee to hamstrings and calves touching and back up. Feet of the active leg stays flat on the ground.
If you’re still not able to do a pistol, go back to one of the easier progressions. You don’t have to do all the progressions. You might get the full pistol with just seated pistols and assisted pistols. Or not. Or you’ve tried all the progressions and you still cannot perform a full pistol (although that’s unlikely).
As always, consistency is key here. Try one progression for a couple of weeks and nail it. Don’t jump back and forth between them all the time. Do one progression until you can consistently perform about 10 consecutive reps each leg. Then try a full pistol. Still not there? Try another variation, preferably the one that’s the most challenging for you, because this one might target your weak link.
If you’ve hit a plateau and can’t seem to manage to increase the number of reps, be it in one of the progressions or the full pistol, try a different rep scheme. What helped me was something I call the alternating pyramid.
Perform one rep of a one-legged progression. Immediately change legs and perform another rep. Now change legs again and do two reps. Then perform two reps with the other leg. Increase the reps on each leg by one as long as you can. Let’s say you got to 5 reps on each leg. Now decrease the reps by one each time until you are at one rep per leg again. That’s one set. So your rep scheme looks like this: 1/1, 2/2, 3/3, 4/4, 5/5, 4/4, 3/3, 2/2, 1/1.
Try and do 1-3 sets per session of this rep scheme if you’re stuck with your progressions. And yes, you will probably get sore legs from this.
Another alternative might be to simply alternate between legs on each rep. That way, each leg gets a longer break between reps, so you should be able to perform more reps in summation. This is especially useful if you want to clean out your form and need more practice while avoiding fatigue.
There you have it. These are all the progressions I used to get my first pistol. Experiment with them to find out which work best for you, as everyone is different and not all of these work for all trainees.
Photos: Sabine A