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Pistols for Big Guys

March 18, 2004 04:48 PM

One-legged squats, or pistols, are an impressive sight. They quickly separate those with true functional strength from those whose muscles are all show and no go. They require balance, strength, coordination, and flexibility. Like most bodyweight exercises, they are even more difficult if you are a big guy. The following are a few tips that got me to doing pistols at a bodyweight of 294lbs (133kg).

This article is specifically for those of us who are having difficulty due to size. If you are new to pistols, check out Steve Cotter's article at for pistol basics. If your problem is leg strength, check out for a good, solid progression for developing leg strength & pistol technique. If you're a big fella who's done that already & still haven't succeeded, read on.

There were 2 primary obstacles that kept me from accomplishing the pistol. Leg strength wasn't one of them, and I knew it. On any given day, I can squat 6-8 reps with 365lbs. Figuring the problem was technique, I worked on pistols from a box or stair step, planning on lowering the height as I got better. I could do them off a 10" step with no real problem for up to 6 reps but still not full range. Why not?

The first obstacle was poor mental focus. More accurately I can honestly say it was fear, plain and simple. I would get into the top position and immediately feel uneasy and unsure in the pit of my stomach. I realized this was a fear of falling. I corrected this by practicing deck squats for literally about ten minutes, until I got comfortable rolling onto my back with a kettlebell in my hands. First I did them 2 legged, and then I did a negative pistol, followed by a 2-legged deck squat. I found that it was easier to do with a heavier kettle bell. This led me to the discovery of the second problem.

The second problem was an issue of balance that only affects people with big thighs and too much body fat around the waist. In the bottom position, my thigh and belly were coming together and pushing me backwards when I pressurized. I had been doing pistols with no weight, thinking it would be better to build technique first. I was wrong. I needed a counter-balance.

I picked up a 24kg bell, took position, pressurized and pulled myself into the hole. At the bottom, I kept the pressure in my abdomen, squeezed my glutes, crush-gripped the KB handle while pushing it forward and sort of "floated" up. The heavier weight kept my body over the center of gravity allowing me to fully utilize the hips, quads and hamstrings. Success!!

As I continue to shed pounds, the pistols will only become easier. I am taking the approach of turning a weakness into a strength. Rather than think "I can't do this, I am too heavy," think of using your bodyweight like a weighted vest. The extra weight, which once hindered me, will actually leave me stronger once it is gone. And isn't being as strong as possible the reason we do this?

David Whitley, RKC is based in Nashville, TN. Contact him at or visit his instructor page