NAIL YOUR FIRST PISTOL SQUAT
The pistol squat is a beautiful and skilled combination of mobility, stability, and strength. This movement is extremely difficult if you do not possess all three components.
♦ Mobility: ankle dorsiflexion, knee flexion, and hip flexion
♦ Stability: foot, ankle, and hip
♦ Strength: quad and glutes
Ankle dorsiflexion mobility is necessary for the knee to move forward past the toes and the hips to drop below the knee. If you are limited in ankle dorsiflexion, check out this video highlighting PAILs and RAILs to improve ankle mobility. This mobility drill emphasizes muscle activation in the front of the shin to maximize ankle dorsiflexion. You may be surprised at how much you use this small muscle group in the bottom range of the pistol squat.
Hip flexion mobility is also necessary to perform a full-range pistol squat. This could be limited by a tight posterior capsule, tight glutes, or impaired hip internal rotation. Check out the video below for a mobility band drill to help improve hip flexion.
Foot, ankle, and hip stability are necessary to maintain balance and knee positioning throughout the pistol squat. Activation of the small muscles in the bottom of your foot is necessary to maintain arch support, which contributes to stability of the entire leg. Ankle and hip instability can result in knee valgus (the knee moving inward), increasing your risk of knee injury. This movement is commonly associated with ACL tears. Stability of joints above and below the knee is crucial to reduce risk of injury when performing pistol squats.
Even with sufficient ankle mobility, a weak quadricep/quad tendon can prevent the knee from moving forward over the toes, limiting squat depth. If your quad/quad tendon is unable to support the knee in a forward position, the elevated heel squat is a great accessory exercise. Elevated heel squats increase activation of the quads and also build load capacity of the quad/patellar tendon. Combining full-range elevated heel squats with single-leg depth progressions will train the quad muscle and tendons to support the knee through a full-range pistol squat.
While quad strength is essential for controlling and supporting the knee, the glutes are the powerhouse that drive your hips out of the deep squat position. I recommend using a single-leg box squat progression to build glute strength through this movement pattern. In early progressions with a higher surface, changing your target area on the box can train different muscles. Sitting your butt farther back on the box, keeping your knee over the ankle, will increase glute activation. Tapping your butt on the edge of the box while driving your knee forward over the toes will increase quad activation. Both variations are useful depending on your individual strengths and weaknesses. As you lower your target surface, mobility and strength of the entire leg begin to come together in order to achieve full depth. See the video below for a demo of single-leg squat progressions.
Try these mobility and strength exercises to start making progress towards your first pistol squat! If you are experiencing significant pain with any of the above, seek care from a local physical therapist.
Have any questions? Leave a comment below!
Written by Hannah Sweitzer, DPT, OCS, CSCS