Unlocking Your Hips for Pistol Squats

by Benji Williford on May 20, 2014

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Benji Williford Bodyweight Pistol Squat

A strong body begins with flexibility, good body mechanics, and then progression. One of the biggest motivators to start calisthenics training is to conquer more advanced feats of strength like the pistol squat. But it is impossible to do pistols without adequate flexibility in the lower body as the hip, knee, and ankle are in deepest flexion at the bottom part of the rep. Before you can walk; you must crawl. Or in this case before you pistol; you must squat. A full range-of-motion squat is nearly impossible for most people when starting out as they spend most of their day sitting. Consequently, this usually results in tight hip flexors, calves, ankles, lower back, and weak glutes.

The first thing that I assess on new clients in regards to squats is their flexibility limitations in the hip and lower body.

Blessed are the flexible for they will not allow themselves to become bent out of shape!”

~ Adapted from Robert Ludlum

The hip is a heavily muscled area and is made up of a ball-and-socket joint that is formed between the os coxa (hip bone) and the femur. Aside from the shoulder, the hip joint allows for the most range-of-motion than any other joint. If it allows for the most range-of-motion, all of its muscles (along with the leg) should get stretched to foster strengthening throughout the most range-of-motion making skills like the pistol squat obtainable.

The main movements of the hip:

  • Flexion—Lifting the leg forward in front of the body. The major muscles used are the psoas and rectus femoris. Seven other muscles assist comprising of five adductors, sartorius, and the tensor fascia lata. With normal range of motion, the leg can be lifted so that the thigh is within two inches of contacting the lower ribs.
  • Extension—Lifting the leg behind the body. The major muscles used are the hamstrings and the gluteus maximus. This motion also recruits movement from the lumbar region of the spine. With normal range of motion, the knee will rise above the level of the glutes.
  • Adduction—This occurs when the thigh moves across the midline of the body. Hip adductors include the pectineus, the adductors longus, brevis, and magnus, and the gracilis.
  • Abduction—This occurs when lifting the leg out to the side away from the midline of the body. The major muscle used is the gluteus medius. The gluteus minimus and the tensor facia lata also assist.
  • External rotation—This occurs when the leg is rotated outward so that the inner thigh faces forward/up and the knee out to side (away from the midline of the body). Muscles used are the external rotators located beneath the gluteus maximus (which is also an external rotator).
  • Internal rotation—This occurs when the leg is rotated inward so that knee is facing midline of the body. The major muscles involved are the gluteus minimus and tensor facia lata which are assisted by the gluteus medius.

The following video will demo a series of stretches that can be incorporated in a yoga practice, used for static stretches after a workout or any time after warming up the hips and legs with some mobility work. These series of stretches were designed to open up all of the different directions of movements of the hips and consequently the rest of the lower body. Since these stretches will open up the hip flexors, an added benefit is that it can potentially help ease lower back pain too.

Once you have the flexibility to complete a quality rep, it’s time to commit to proper body mechanics on mastering reps and gaining strength on each progression of an exercise. This is where the brain-body connection comes in as the brain sends electrical impulses though hundreds of thousands of chains of nerve fibers to the muscles every time you think about performing an exercise. Moreover, an insulating layer over the nerve fibers made up of protein and fatty substances called the myelin sheath increases every time a muscle pattern is repeated. Developing the myelin sheath with good biomechanics will enable you to perform a skill without as much effort. However, the opposite is also true. If you consistently practice poor biomechanics, it increases the myelin layers to reinforce those bad patterns. This can lead to poor performance and even injury.

Nerve, Neuron, and Myelin Sheath diagram

In short, work on gaining the flexibility required to perform a skill. Practice perfecting the body mechanics needed for the skill while gaining strength and continue to progress.

***

Benji Williford, PCC, RYT, CF-L1 is a Personal Fitness Trainer located out of Eau Claire, WI. Benji believes that, “A successful fitness program is based on positive dialogue between the mind and body.” He can be reached through his website: http://www.benjiwilliford.com, or by email: Benji@ChainReaction-Fitness.com.

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  • Good stuff mate, I’ve been gradually incorporating your shoulder stretches into the end of my upper body training sessions and we’ve all been feeling the benefit. Think I’ll probably start doing the same with these in my other training sessions

    • Benji Williford

      Thanks David! I’m really glad the shoulder stretches have helped. Thanks again for the “shout out” in your blog. You’re doing a great job with it.

      • Yeah they’ve helped a lot, even with forearm pain which I quite frequentely get after a heavy session. No worries mate, the stretches fitted perfectly with the one arm handstand tutorial, thank you for letting me use it.

  • Matt Schifferle

    Outstanding explanation on all of the motions we need to consider with even the most basic leg exercises. I often find that I’m dominant in trying to ensure my legs move in a certain plain of motion but over time I neglect another and faulty movement patterns result. Your article is a great cheat-sheet I can reference to ensure I’m checking off all of the boxes with my leg training. Thanks Benji!

    • Benji Williford

      Thanks Matt! I can relate with you as this really came about out of necessity for me to work on my own imbalances. I hope all is well with you!

  • A great discussion of mobility and the squatting, Benji. I often hear guys laying into “pistols”, saying that they are more about “skill” than “strength”. In my opinion, this is not true. When you try to get a guy to do a full one-leg, the biggest problem at first is mobility (then strength–particularly strength on the stretch). Skill is actually a distant third. The worst mobility offender is the ankle joint, and the taller you get the worse it becomes. But it can be overcome by everyone! With time and progressions, everything can…

    It’s also great to see young trainers like you start advising folks to build supple strength as part of the squatting pattern. That makes me happy–for decades, the only advice athletes had was “squat (badly) with barbells and if your ankles aren’t mobile enough, just stick a block of wood under the heels!!” No wonder there are so many screwed up knees in gyms.

    • Benji Williford

      Thanks Coach Paul! I’m glad you expanded on ankle joint flexibility. Although I neglected to specifically mention it in the video, I sequenced for it during the splits prep stretches. Hopefully the viewer can see that my ankle is deeply dorsi flexed at the 4min 20sec. I agree 100% about the blocks and screwed up knees. There is a huge difference between a modification and some ridiculous cheat that is going to literally break a person in the long run. Unfortunately, the two get mixed up way too often.

      • I think it was a fine article young man–perfect–and I really hope we see more from ya!

        Paul

  • IvanRadek

    Coach, Benji, once one masters the pistol (strict, full ROM, slow 20+ reps per leg) and pistol box jumps (3×5, for example) what do you recommend that we do next for the strenght and strenght-flexibility? Weighted pistols or Al Kavadlos jumbo shrimps (maybe even the elite shrimp from Ido Portal) or something else?

    • Benji Williford

      Hey IvanRadek. That’s a great question. First of all, you are a beast if you can perform 20 strict pistols and pistol box jumps. I’m not sure if you have a specific goal, but I recommend working on the shrimp squats. I think you’ll find that they propose a different challenge than the pistol squat. More importantly, I think they help ensure that your training is well-rounded.

      • Agreed! Shrimps, then work to jumbo shrimps.

        There are also many other types of jumps and sprints (hill/stair, etc). Also–improve your pistol jumps. Just doing 3 x 5 is one thing–adding inches is another!

        You got this, Ivan…

  • Joseph ‘Joby’ Fryou

    Great article! I recently started working on pistol squats because it looks awesome and would help out a lot with my sport performance! The article will help me get closer. I got a question that’s related to pistol legs and c-mass ebook I just read (added that to my favorite books!). I am probably thinking too much, but as coach Paul said about quads being activated by pressing through toes and hamstrings with heel despite both group of muscles being able to contract at same time, how would pistol squats help with jumping and sprinting? Pistol squats must be performed by pushing through heels. As the ebook said, the hamstrings are strongly activated in sprinting yet when humans sprint with proper foot landing, they are only pressing with balls of feet. Sorry about rambling on lol!

    • “both group of muscles being able to contract at same time…”

      You already answered this. There is no “despite”.

      Nailed it, Joseph! (And thanks for gettin C-MASS, bro.)

      • Leo

        Dear Paul,
        I got C-Mass too, it’s AWESOME!
        You mentioned in there that Dips are much more stressful on the Shoulders, Elbows and Forearms. Is this due to gripping while pressing?
        Because I can’t do hard moves on flat palms I did different Hand positions on push ups. Doing knee push ups on knuckles works well. Fingertip wall push ups are also good.
        1. I want to start Dips for Pec development and an alternative to flat palm push ups. Which progression is to start best with?
        2. As I get stronger I want to start Handstands. Which hand position should I use (parallettes)?
        3. I don’t want to get Tennis elbow from gripping while pressing.
        If I do Dips, knuckle push ups and Parallette handstands, can I balance that out with fingertip push ups?
        4. I tried out (stupid) doing close push ups and other hard tricep exercises and since then (1-2 Months!) the outside of my elbows hurts.
        I can do knee push ups with a shoulder wide hand position without much pain and my triceps aren’t weak at all, but my elbows will probably hold me back from doing

        • Leo

          Harder push ups and triceps extensions. What should i do?
          5.I mastered Close Squats some time ago and tried out uneven squats. Even the easiest hidden step (with my outstretched leg either on the ground or on a flat book) caused me enough pain, that
          I can’t do any squats anymore. I’m working on shoulderstand squats since then. It’s a pity, cause I were close to jumps and I will lose some hard gained leg mass. I tried out a Wall Squat too and after months of training I was able to hold It for almost 5 minutes.
          But even this hurts my knee. Any advice?

          My muscles and willpower are not holding me back, but my fucked up joints do.
          I’m working on full pull ups and bent hanging leg raises.
          I’m able to hold a clutch flag for 10 seconds, a Wall Knuckle Handstand and a One arm knuckle elbow lever, so I’m not weak, but I really want to do something that will heal my joints and help me progress to harder exercises.
          Leo

  • Martin

    I learned the pistol squat, nearly perfect form but….. I have this “butt wink” when squatting below paralell. Is this a problem?

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