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elevated pistol standard

A pillar of legs athleticism

If I was allowed to use one single exercise to develop my lower body — sans use of weights or training equipment for additional stimulus — there is nothing better than Elevated Pistol squats. There is no other exercise that gives you such a fundamental way to gain strength, power, balance and flexibility of your lower body.

Note that I am not actually talking about the classic pistol squat which is the original variant. The Classic Pistol squat may be great for show but doesn’t allow you to stress the working leg to its full potential, that, plus it’s totally annoying and non-natural to squat while holding one leg extended in front of you that high.

Later in the article I will go into details, list incredible benefits of pistols and why my preferred variant is superior to original and so on — but for now — let us first take a look at the standard and dissect everything in more detail later.

Marck Goran Lorencin

The Elevated Pistol standard starts with you standing in the elevated position (as high as needed or preferred) so you can focus better on your working leg while being able to easily hold your free leg in the air even while you are in a deep squat position. Here is the catch, you need to test your weaker leg. Full squat depth, full hip extension on top each time, nice and clean execution, maximum reps in 90sec.

You need to log in at this point as what you see bellow are levels for an average 25 years old male, your numbers might be very different as they are individualised to your age, height, weight, etc. but its impossible to show you your data if you are not logged in.

or REGISTER

> Level 3    Guardian          ~ 33 x
> Level 2    Fit human         ~ 20 x
> Level 1    Homo sapiens      ~  6 x
- - - - -
~ sub:level  demi-sapiens      1 x
… non:level  non-fit creature  none

original definition of the pistol

The single legged squat is a progression of the standard bodyweight squat. If you were to do the squat by standing on just one leg, the outward leg would need to be in front and pointing away from you, there by resembling “the pistol” position if observed from the side. Having such a cool name it was a given that everyone will want to show off with the pistol squat.

It can be done with or without weights, while holding a kettlebell or a dumbbell in front, from the floor or in elevated position, as an explosive one legged pistol jump from the floor onto a plyo box. There are plenty of ways to do both an easier as well as a harder version of the pistol squat but I believe the elevated pistol squat variant to be the most suitable to be used as a standard to train or test for.

rules of the standard

Take a good look of my execution — all the rules I write about are taken into account — which should make the standard easy to understand. I did my best to show you as good of a form as I could manage and took some extra time for each repetition to look clean while still managing to do more reps than required for level 3.

  1. Time limit: is set to 90sec, which is plenty to achieve a maximum number of unbroken reps without changing sides. The quality of each repetition matters, we are talking about standards after all.

  2. Elevated position: can be as high as needed, either by standing on a plyo box or any other stable platform to help you focus primarily on your working leg, without the need to hold the outward leg as high as it would be the case when squatting from the floor. Your working (standing) leg should be close enough to the edge of the platform for your outward leg to have free movement not just to the front but also to the side of the platform.

  3. Full depth: of each squat is required, there is no parallel or slightly below parallel rule to concern you. Full depth is maximal depth you can reach while going as bellow parallel — as your flexibility allows — anything less is not full range of motion. This is one of the reasons why you are doing this in as elevated position as needed, so you can reach full depth (sans excuses) more comfortably.

    It may be helpful to also reach with both hands straight out in front of you, to achieve some counterbalance against your lower bodyweight.

  4. Bare feet only: are allowed. It is not my problem you have a problem with mobility, flexibility or heel starting to raise upwards when you bend your knee. That being said, I absolutely want you to improve in this area which is why you don’t get any slack from me. This can be improved, there is no I can’t, only I don’t want, don’t care, am to lazy to do so, enter another excuse why.

    Even if you wear just socks it is still not the same as your toes will not be able to “grab the floor” in same natural way. Still, if you have shy feet and need at least socks then wear them. I want you to learn to use your feet better and more and this is a perfect opportunity to do so, train your feet and learn to apply pressure through your entire foot when you stand up. It doesn’t get more natural than that.

  5. Lack of mobility: as said, obviously can be a problem — especially poor ankle, knee and/or hip mobility, which is usually accompanied by poor muscle flexibility of hamstrings and calves — in which case you have a similar problem as my good friend Berni (see image). He had to work hard to improve enough to the point where all he needs to hold is a small weight with arms stretched in front. This allows him to reach more depth and gain additional counterbalance, even a small 6-8kg kettlebell can be enough help. This is allowed if you need it or if it's necessary to temporarily get round your limitations, still the goal is to one day get rid of this help.

    Berni | counterbalance with small weight

    Berni | counterbalance with small weight

    If additional counterweight still doesn’t solve your “temporary” mobility problem, then you really need to address your flexibility and/or mobility issues first, before you can start addressing your strength in a more complete fashion.

    Trust me this can be improved you just need to be patient, consistently do the work needed, spending each day 3-5min addressing critical mobility areas. Yes, daily or you will forget about it and probably never fix your problem, then complain forever why you can't do it.

  6. Weaker side: needs to be tested but if I were you, I would be curious to know the difference between my left and right side. Feel free to check how your stronger side does but only the result of your weaker side counts towards the standard.

  7. Balance: if lost and you step on the floor with your outward leg, well, you need to re-do the whole thing as not losing the balance is part of the challenge.

  8. Speed of execution: for each repetition it needs to be such that there is no bounce (rebound) at the bottom and full hip extension is visible on top of each rep. I don’t think it is possible to go much faster than I went in the opening minute for the reps to still look nice & clean. There is also no need to go faster as I managed more reps than standard required within 90 sec anyway.

benefits and reasons for the elevated pistol standard

The benefits of the Elevated Pistol Standard are not just huge, some of them are quite specific and unique. How you execute the movement is essential, this is true for any exercise but as there is no additional weight than your own bodyweight, quality of movement becomes even more important.

I already mentioned the main reason for the elevated position, which is to allow maximal focus with the working leg, while the outward leg provides counterbalance in a position where the outward leg doesn’t tire as much as if you were doing pistols from the floor, hence you fail not because of your outward balancing leg but because of exhaustion of the working leg.

You may have noted — in the rules — that you should stand close enough to the edge of the elevated platform, that the outward leg can have free movement both to the front and to the side. This is not by accident. The obvious reason is to allow for more ideal isolation for each leg while balancing both the strength deficit as giving more range to improve balance.

Standing completely barefoot makes a difference that you might not be aware of, even more so if you do strength stuff in running shoes which is an offense both to running as it is to weight training. Your feet need training and while I am not trying to force you to do this for everything gym related — like I enjoy doing — there are certain exercises which are perfect for me to demand to be done barefoot. Trust me if you wear socks it is also not the same as your toes will not be able to “grab the floor” in a natural way. Still, if you have shy feet and need at least socks I can let this slip by.

The not so obvious reason of the elevated position is to eliminate the possibility of so-called alternate pistol squats, where you are allowed to switch sides from left to right leg in each alternate rep, there by negating some of the best and most important benefits of even the original pistol squats.

Now-days the alternate pistol squat is pretty much a standard movement in CrossFit type competitions and while it may make sense to have it there it is nothing more than a workaround for those who would otherwise struggle with the non-alternate pistol squat, which demands more mobility, flexibility, strength and most of all better balance as you can’t be saved by rocking from one side to the other and there by negating true balance of strength/balance independently for each leg.

Obviously, the best competitors would have no problems doing non-alternate pistols from the floor and I believe same competitors would still come out on top so it’s kind of a head scratcher why alternate pistols are there as like I said they negate so many benefits of original pistol squats.

It is essentially a maximal strength exercise as there are few who can do this exercise for enough reps to treat it as a strength endurance exercise. Yet even for those few it does not take much for transition back into a maximal strength exercise as front racking even a moderately heavy kettlebell will have a dramatic effect on how many reps you can achieve.

weighted pistol

One legged squats is a unilateral strength exercise because it allows to train the strength of one limb versus the other, pointing to strength imbalances between left/right side. Imbalances between limbs (legs in our case) are common and nothing to worry about if they remain reasonably small, yet unfortunately this is rarely the case as the differences are commonly bigger than they should be.

Unilateral strength exercises can help us minimize the imbalance. How much weaker is our weaker side is the issue, which is why I generally test the weaker side first, as it is easier to point toward weaknesses. Once you are aware of this weakness, your first benchmark will be to work your weaker side up to match the already stronger side. Balanced strength between left/right side improves movement, bilateral strength (like when squatting with both legs), improves performance and minimizes potential for injuries caused by poor movement and muscle asymmetries.

Then there is also the issue of balance and coordination, all this in addition to everything mentioned greatly impacts your ability to create stability in a dynamic environment, both in daily acts of life as in any athletic endeavours.

Back squats are of course the king but still, the stronger you become, the bigger weight needs to be loaded to your bar, more stress on your whole body, especially your spine, god forbid some weak part of your back. I am not stating the case against heavy back squats which I generally do at least 2x per week, rather I am stating the case how “the elevated pistol standard” can — alternatively or complementary — allow you to train for maximal leg strength without being under heavy load, without any compression on your spine. Even more so, it decompresses your lower back and provides for a natural stretch when you reach your full depth position. The lower your mobility/flexibility allows you to go, the better decompression and stretch of your lower back. Obviously, this comes with a cost as getting up from that position demands more strength, which is then trained in a maximal range of motion. Interestingly, on the way up it is not only your leg muscles that do the work and stabilizing, it is your lower back as well, yet again in a very natural way without any compression to your spine.

I am guilty of going at length emphasizing small details, many of which are regularly overlooked or dismissed as unimportant, while I am looking for new value and reasoning behind all. Demanding full depth for elevated pistol squats has different value than demanding same for heavy back squats.

I don’t believe much in the traditional approach to flexibility and mobility, basic strength exercises should provide for all the needed flexibility and mobility in most cases. To illustrate, full depth back squat can be used to improve not just strength but also mobility and flexibility under load. Power lifting type back squat allows to for generation of maximal strength and power. Stretching for a powerlifter can be a full depth back squat with lighter weight. While the elevated pistol standard can serve both as strength as also a flexibility/mobility exercise, either as something complementary to a strength athlete or just a simple bodyweight exercise for those who dislike weight training for any reason. The point being it is a special variant of the squat that offers benefits to everyone.

I think we can pretty much agree the elevated pistol standard first demands, improves and ultimately maintains general flexibility and mobility along the posterior chain, increases ankle joint, knee and hip mobility and flexibility. It improves balance and proprioception through the leg and core.

Finally and as additional emphasis, for those who like to know which major muscle groups are worked as if full leg chain activation doesn’t mean everything, here you go: hips, hamstrings, gluteus, quadriceps, calves, core stabilizers (abdominals and obliques) and even hip-knee-ankle-foot stabilizers. Involvement of the quadriceps is obvious for obvious reasons, hamstrings and gluteus are active in a similar way as in back squats but the strain of additional balance required is felt mainly in your hamstrings and gluteus. If you manage just a few reps this is not felt but if you can manage 15-20 or more like I did, you will feel the burn very hard. I had to slow down — during my execution of the standard — mainly because my hamstrings and gluteus got fried, and I was ready to fall even while my leg was extended, stabilization support of the big leg muscles was on fire.

the elevated pistol standard as a diagnostic tool

Before you can gain the full benefits from this exercise, majority will probably find out that there they have some major deficiencies to work on. The easiest problem to address them would be the strength difference between the left/right leg. How your leg generates strength distribution through whole range of motion is another difference between each side. You may find out you can do a few reps at full depth with one leg, while you are completely unable to do even one such rep with your weaker side. If this is the case you have more than just a strength problem, usually this is accompanied by a lack of both flexibility and mobility on one side. If you can’t get below a certain depth, you cannot develop nor train strength there, you can only gain strength in the range of movement you currently achieve. What does this mean, well, this means that elevated pistol standard was a diagnostic tool which pointed to a problem that needs addressing.

Berni | temporary counterbalance

I may have said I don’t believe in traditional approach to flexibility and mobility exercises because I see no need to use any of them until there is an actual problem that needs to get fixed. Now that you know — as I am almost certain you already knew but played ignorant, there is a problematic issue on one side, or even both sides, mobility of ankle, knee or hips (for majority it’s the ankle) — there is an actual need to dig out, learn and seek additional knowledge, better yet help of a professional to show you how to gradually improve your mobility issue in critical areas. Obviously not just so you can execute my elevated pistol standard but to be able to move better in all other exercises and physical activities in general.

Let’s assume you improved your mobility issue and you can now manage my elevated pistol standard once you gained enough strength. You are now addressing strength, mobility, flexibility, balance all simultaneously and the mobility exercises that got you here are in most cases now obsolete, you are already doing all you need in this one movement.

limitations and exceptions

Even though there is very little skill involved in the execution of this standard it demands a mixture of many things modern humans are lacking more by the day. You need a combination of good flexibility, mobility, strength and balance and if you are lacking just one of those the standard will leave you exposed. Like all of my standards — but this one especially — it serves as a good diagnostic tool for the general assessment of differences between your left and right side pointing to one or more areas which were — wilfully — neglected for too long.

There may very well be some other valid reasons why you can’t do the Elevated Pistol Standard. Obvious valid reasons are that you are suffering from some serious injury which unfortunately left you handicapped and/or with limited functionality of your back, hip or any other part of your leg. A recent medical procedure or serious illness come to mind as the first possible candidates as do specific issues or limitations related to your individual case which I can’t predict but you are aware off.

The Elevated Pistol Standard is one of those you either can or can’t do in full. You can’t really say you don’t know how to do it as you cannot be saved by skill. Limitations I mention above basically demand you develop a good balance in all areas of strength, taking care of and correcting any poor movements, posture or flexibility issues which may affect your abilities when it comes to this standard. This will be repeated for many of my published standards as standards are in fact something of an ideal, which even if never reached, can always remain a guide for improvement.

My standards exist for one main reason, to make you better than you were yesterday. To make you aware where you are strong and where you are weak. To pinpoint your deficiencies, imbalances and other holes in your game which you would rather ignore. The standards are here to build your longevity, improve your physical performance and general physical preparation.

working with limitations

Acknowledging your limitations is important. This is how you become better, how you improve. If your flexibility is limiting or bad you need to work extra and improve it. My experience tells me that those who don’t have good flexibility starting out also rarely do much to improve it while they are champions in using it as a permanent excuse why they can’t do this or that. You are not expected to be a ballerina so stop treating yourself like you are inflexible as a brick, do your homework to improve as much as you can and don’t expect results overnight.

I use to rely on weightlifting shoes

Weightlifting shoes will also add to your range of motion until you can go without them. If you temporarily lack the flexibility needed for this elevated pistol standard, then start with a regular full depth bodyweight squat, work on improving your flexibility in general, then move to one legged squats where you progressively sit back/stand up from a lower bench. Use the infinite information available on the web to look up many possible regressions and alternative ways to improve.

there is no i can’t for you

In case your situation isn’t covered in any of the valid excuses I already mentioned then you have no excuse why you can’t improve, only one reason remains then, only I do not want to improve remains. That is fine with me. I am not trying to make you do anything you don’t want to actually do …just don’t sell me the lie that you can’t when in fact you don’t want to. There are probably more important things in your life than me telling you what you need to do. I am not here for you.

You have to admit though it is pretty amazing you read all the way to here about something you don’t want to do? I did not make you do this, the same way I am not telling you to accept my standards. It is your choice to remain like you are or change something that can be changed.

final words

The Elevated Pistol Standard — I am just repeating this for those who skipped to the bottom of this article — you have 90sec to achieve the maximum number of unbroken reps on your weaker side, while standing on an elevated platform. Please read the rules for additional guidelines and watch the video which is self-explanatory.

You need to log in at this point as what you see bellow are levels for an average 25 years old male, your numbers might be very different as they are individualised to your age, height, weight, etc. but its impossible to show you your data if you are not logged in.

or REGISTER

> Level 3    Guardian          ~ 33 x
> Level 2    Fit human         ~ 20 x
> Level 1    Homo sapiens      ~  6 x
- - - - -
~ sub:level  demi-sapiens      1 x
… non:level  non-fit creature  none

Finally, the Elevated Pistol Standard is an impossible standard for the majority of the population, this holds true even for the majority of all who do sport on a regular basis, as even they may not reach the requirement even for a Fit Human because they are lacking high enough standards to point to their deficiencies. I expect fit women to be way ahead here, they usually lack only strength and rarely have mobility or flexibility restrictions to hold them back.


Marck Goran Lorencin © all rights reserved