Squatting's Biggest Double Standard - The Pistol Squat

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Overview

The pistol squat is the biggest double standard exercise we have. The rules that we apply to double legged squats should apply to single legged squats or more specifically, pistol squats.

There are two categories of training where we find the pistol squat:

  1. Movement Training
  2. Conditioning training

What we are talking about in this article is using the pistol squat for conditioning training, not movement training. There is no arguing that there are reasons to train a pistol for balance, coordination, body control, etc.

So what IS the double standard?

There are basically 3 main principles in squatting that I want an athlete to meet to consider it "good". Those are:

  1. Heels stay down
  2. Knee tracks over the middle to the outside of the foot
  3. Spine stays neutral

If someone was doing an air squat and their low back and upper back were rounded at the bottom, would you say "oh nice, that looks good!"? Of course not. We know we don't want to lose spinal positioning in the air squat, a back squat, or any other squat variation.

So how come when we use pistols instead of air squats we completely ignore the fact that everyone's low back and upper back is rounded at the bottom?

We sit there and go "wow those pistols look great" just because they got deep. But HOW they got deep in the pistol matters. Do we not see that their back is rounding?

The principles of good squatting shouldn't change whether you're standing on one leg or two legs. Why do we turn a blind eye when we are on one leg?

When we're doing high rep squatting, deadlifting, olympic lifting, etc, we want the lumbar spine to be kept in neutral to prevent low back injury. Most injuries in the low back are when it moves too much and we essentially end up with an overuse injury.

Why Does the Low Back Round More in a Pistol?

One of the reasons pistols lead to nearly everyone's low back rounding is hip anatomy. A squat is a game of balance. When you go from two legged to one legged squatting, your single foot has to be directly under your center of mass. This requires that the hip be relatively more adducted and internally rotated than a double legged squat.

So what? Hip flexion is reduced more in this internally rotated and adducted position due to the orientation of the hip socket. Some people have a hip socket that can better accommodate this motion than others. To see some cool pictures of hips to help this make more sense, check out this article on why we squat differently.

The Squat is a Balance Game

In order to not fall down in a pistol, your body weight has to be balanced over your foot. Since the hip in a lot of people is blocked at a certain degree of hip flexion in a pistol due to the anatomy mentioned above, you have to make that motion up somewhere else in order to stay balanced over your foot and gain depth.

There are two primary places where this motion happens:

  1. The ankle
  2. The spine

If you lack ankle or hip range of motion, either your heel will have to lift off the ground or you will curl your spine. This is all in an attempt to keep balanced over your foot.

The movement will occur wherever it's easiest and through the path of least resistance

As you descend into the pistol, if it becomes relatively easier for your body to move through the spine than the hip/ankle, then the back rounds. It's a matter of relative joint mobility, stiffness, and your pattern.

Are you saying don't pistol for high reps?

Yes, that is exactly what I am saying IF you don't have the ankle and hip range to not round your back. I would say the same thing about an air squat if someone rounded their back every time they squatted, wouldn’t you?

Just because squatting on one leg looks cool doesn't mean it makes sense to do for conditioning. Pistol squatting with a rounded back makes as much sense as air squatting with a rounded back.

Examples

In this first picture, you can see that Alanna's lumbar spine stays in its neutral position and her lordosis doesn't reverese.

air squat crossfit

In this second picture when she is doing a pistol, you can see that she loses her lumbar spine positioning and her lumbar curve reverses. Alanna's loss of lumbar lordosis in the pistol is mild in comparison to what you will see when you start analyzing this among other people. She has a lot of ankle and hip mobility that allow her to gain pistol depth, but even with her mobility, she still has to round her lumbar spine to get there.

pistol_not_neutral

So what can we do instead?

Bulgarian split squats or rear foot elevated split squats! You can still get a ton of strength on one leg without having your low back round. See the end of the video at the top of the article for a brief look at the split squat if you are unfamiliar with it.

But I want to work on my pistols!

Pistols aren't inherently bad. Low back rounding and losing squatting mechanics is the issue in high reps with intensity. If we can work on hip mobility and ankle mobility to improve the pistol, then let's do it! But don't put yourself at risk of back injury for the sake of doing pistols in a workout.

Research tells us that the spine loses 17% of its ability to resist flexion after repetitive rounding. That means if you do a workout with pistols and deadlifts, you could potentially be losing 17% of your spine's ability to resist flexion while deadlifting. Not good.

Here is a video showing how to work your ankle range of motion

Here is a video working on squat mobility

Remember, this article is about using the pistol for strength and conditioning training. In those applications, we should judge it by the same standards as the air squat.

In "movement training", it makes sense to allow the lumbar spine to round in a pistol. It is normal range of motion for the lumbar spine. When we start allowing that to happen during strength and conditioning training though, we run into problems. So...

Let's judge all squats equally!!

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