Category Archives: Working Out Your Legs

The Twenty Pistol Squat Challenge

Those of you who’ve been keeping up with me may recall the twenty pull-up challenge. Now I’m throwing down a twenty pistol squat challenge!

People often write to me wanting to know how to get better at pistols. The best way is simply to practice! Do this challenge as often as you can and you will quickly get better at them.

In the beginning, give yourself a rest day between efforts if your legs are sore afterwards. Over time you may build to practicing this routine daily. There is no trick – you just gotta keep working on it.

Ready, Aim, Fire!
The great thing about this challenge is that anyone strong enough to do just one pistol squat can participate. Even if you can’t do a single pistol yet, you can try the challenge with self-assisted pistols holding a pole, suspension trainer or other sturdy object for support.

There are three variations on the challenge; those of you starting with self assisted pistols should be able to perform an unassisted pistol by the time you’ve mastered the advanced version. Then you’re ready to go back to the start and do the challenge without assistance!

Beginner
Alternating legs, perform 40 total pistol squats (20 each leg) in as little time as possible. Rest in between reps only for as long as you need to in order to maintain good form. This may be anywhere from a couple of seconds to a couple of minutes depending on your fitness level. You can break the reps up however you like. Do them one at at time with long breaks in between if you need to – however you do it is fine as long as you get your reps in. With enough practice you should be ready to move to the next step relatively quickly.

Intermediate
Perform 10 consecutive pistols on each leg in a single set with as little time between reps as possible. Don’t sacrifice good form to do them quickly – keep your reps clean. Rest for as long as you want and then do the other leg. Take another break and then do it all over again.

Advanced
For the advanced version, the objective is to perform 20 consecutive clean reps on each leg without stopping. A true master of this challenge will be able to perform all 40 reps in less than two minutes. I’m still working on perfecting it, but I’m getting close.

Watch the video below to see me give it a shot:


For more information, check out my book, Pushing The Limits! – Total Body Strength With No Equipment.

Pistol Squats

The pistol squat is a fantastic exercise for building lower body strength, balance and flexibility. But of course there’s a catch – you have to be strong, well balanced and flexible in order to even do one!

The main muscles involved in the pistol squat are the quads, glutes and hamstrings, though a strong core is also essential. Like all advanced bodyweight exercises, pistols require a high strength-to-weight ratio, so if you’re carrying around a lot of excess body fat, you’ll need to clean up your diet and shed some pounds before trying to learn this exercise.

I’ve blogged about the pistol squat before, but it’s a topic that I get asked about often, so it’s worth discussing again.

The Flex Pistols
When you do a pistol squat, there are three joints involved: the hip, knee and ankle. In order to achieve a full range of motion, you will need to be flexible in all three. People who overlook the ankle flexibility will wind up shooting themselves in the foot (so to speak). You have to dorsiflex in order to perform a true pistol. Your knee should slide right up by your toes without your heel coming off the ground, otherwise you’ll fall back on your butt. If your heel does come up, you may be able to maintain your balance, but the change in leverage can be harmful to your knee.

Pole Position
Once you get comfortable with going deep on a standard two legged squat, you can do self assisted pistols by practicing in front of a vertical pole. Begin by standing in front of the pole, loosely grasping it with one or both hands. Now reach one leg in the air as you squat ass to ankle on the other, using the pole to guide yourself through the full range of motion.

When practicing pistol squats, it helps to think about squeezing your abs, particularly on the way up. Also bear in mind that keeping your other leg outstretched can be just as demanding as the squat itself. Squeeze that leg tight and reach it away from your body.

Pistol Progressions
For the advanced trainee who can perform several pistols in a row, there are many ways to add a new challenge. You could try my twenty pistol squat challenge or grab a kettlebell and do weighted pistols. Holding you hands behind your head is another way to add difficulty – this seemingly minor change in leverage will make the exercise significantly harder. If those get easy for you, try pistols balancing on top of a bar. If you’re more concerned with explosive power, you could even attempt a plyometric pistol squat.


For more information, check out my book, Pushing The Limits! – Total Body Strength With No Equipment.

All About Deadlifts

The deadlift is one of the most cut and dry ways to build or test your strength, you simply grab a heavy object and lift it off the ground.

While there are a ton of variations on the deadlift (we’ll get to them in a second), and a good deal of subtlety to performing it effectively, it really is quite primitive.

When deadlifting, there’s really only two things you have to remember: keep your back straight and your weight in your heels.

Proper deadlift form with the back straight

However, “keep your back straight” is an often misunderstood cue. People think it means they can’t lean forward, but in fact, you must lean forward in order to deadlift properly. The important thing is to make sure that you bend from your hips, not through your spine. You need to squeeze your shoulder blades together to keep your thoracic vertebrae aligned. Your back should not be anywhere near perpendicular to the ground, but it shouldn’t be bent either.

Don't bend your back like this when deadlifting

Barbell Deadlifts
The most common way to deadlift is with a barbell. It’s easy to grip and the weight distribution makes it ideal for lifting. Stand with your feet about hip width, then squat down and grab the bar with your hands just outside of your legs (overhand grip or alternated, whichever you prefer). Lift your chest, retract those shoulder blades and stand up. Think about pushing your heels down, thrusting your hips forward and squeezing your thighs and butt as you lift up the bar.

Romanian Deadlifts
The Romanian deadlift puts more emphasis on the hamstrings than the quads because more of the muscle action happens at the hip joint. Since your knees don’t bend very much when you do this variation, you may need to work on the flexibility in your calves and hamstrings in order to achieve a full range of motion. Also bear in mind that most people will have to go a bit lighter on this variation than on a standard Olympic-style barbell deadlift due to the decrease in quad involvement.
Sumo Deadlifts
The sumo deadlift involves taking a wide stance and keeping your arms inside of your legs. You’ll need to externally rotate at your hips to get into this position, which resembles the stance of a sumo wrestler. These are great for putting extra emphasis on the muscles of the inner thigh and groin area.

Strongman Deadlifts
As with all exercises, get creative with the deadlift! You can experiment with deadlifting kettlebells, medicine balls, sandbags or really anything! Different objects will present their own unique challenges. It is common in strongman contests for competitors to deadlift anything from huge concrete spheres to the axle and wheels of a hummer.

Every Body Needs Training
This is the part of the blog where I tell you to get a trainer if you’re at all nervous about deadlifting for the first time. This is one exercise you want to be extra careful with. Even though there is a video tutorial below, some people will not be able to properly learn this movement pattern without someone physically guiding them through it. (Thanks to Bell Fitness Company for letting me shoot this tutorial in their facility.)

Advanced Pistol Squatting

The pistol squat is a challenging exercise, but with consistent practice, it can become relatively easy. Once you can do 10 repetitions on each leg, you should try adding a new challenge.

My two favorite ways to do this are by bringing weights into the picture or adding a balance component. If you want to use weights, I recommend kettlebells, but dumbbells or barbells can also be effective. Start by holding the weight in front of you in the rack position. Once you get that down, you can try holding a weight overhead during a pistol squat.

If you choose to add a balance element to your pistol training, start by standing on a bosu ball or a half foam roller. For an extra challenge, you can try a pistol while standing on a bar.

Once you are ready to try a one legged squat on a bar, you’ll need to practice catching yourself so you can land safely if you lose your balance. For this reason, it is best to begin practicing with a low bar. Knowing how to bail out of a botched attempt without getting hurt is essential before trying a pistol squat on a high bar.

Attempting an exercise like a pistol squat on top of an 8 foot high bar might sound crazy, but with gradual progression it doesn’t have to be risky. Build your confidence little by little and you might find that the ability to overcome your fears on the bars will carry over into the rest of your life. When you find yourself doing things you once thought impossible, remember that our only limits are the ones we impose on ourselves.

Watch the video below for more:

The Shrimp Squat

If you think pistol squats are the be-all-and-end-all of bodyweight leg exercises, think again. The shrimp squat is a challenging single-leg bodyweight movement that can humble any sharpshooting pistol squatter.

To perform a shrimp squat, begin in an upright position, then bend one knee so you can grab your ankle behind your back (just like you would if you were stretching your quads). From here, slowly lower yourself down until your knee touches the ground, then stand back up. Easier said than done!

You may also choose to begin this exercise from the ground up, which can be more challenging due to the lack of downward momentum.

When performing the shrimp squat, reach your free arm out in front of you to counterbalance the weight of your leg behind you. Like most other squats, you’ll need to pitch your chest forward on the way up to keep from falling backwards.

Once you get the hang of the standard version, you should attempt the advanced shrimp squat. For this variation, hold your ankle with both hands. This will put you at a serious mechanical disadvantage, plus you’ll no longer be able to use your free arm for balance.

It takes a lot of leg strength to do an advanced shrimp squat, but it also takes core strength. Remember to practice your L-sits, planks and side planks!

Watch the video below for more:

Precision Jumping

Parkour involves strength, agility, quickness and grace. Precision jumping is a fundamental parkour move that encompasses all of those traits. I first learned of precision jumps when I was beginning parkour this past winter and I’ve been practicing them ever since.

As the name implies, this skill is about leaping onto a small target (often a ledge or rail) with the utmost accuracy. Precision jumps are typically performed from a stationary position, with both feet together during the take off and the landing.

You can precision jump between two points of equal height, from high to low or from low to high. Jumping from a lower surface to a higher one will make it harder to cover long distances, while jumping down will allow you to cover a greater distance (though downward precisions can be harder to control).

Remember there are no set parameters in parkour; the idea is to work with what you’ve got in front of you. Don’t feel confined by so-called “rules.”


Precision Jumping Technique

To get the most distance out of your precision jump, lean forward from your ankles while reaching your arms up and away from your body. Once you are in the air, bring your legs up to get as much height as you can. More height means more distance!

Keep your eye on your target and remember to sink into the landing like you were performing a squat – this will help you absorb the impact. For this reason it is common to land towards the balls of your feet. Your objective should be to have as quiet of a landing as possible.

Precision jumping, like most things, is about your mental state as much as it is about physical fitness. It can be scary to attempt a long jump (especially if you are high up!), and if you psyche yourself out, you probably won’t make it. It is best to begin practicing with distances that you can cover without any hesitation.

Watch the video below for more:

Leapin' Lunges!

Lunges are one of my favorite leg exercises, but like everything in life, you don’t want your leg routine to become, well, routine.

Once you’ve gotten comfortable and confident with regular lunges, give yourself a new challenge. Turn them into a plyometric exercise by adding a jump. Here are 3 ways to do this:

Stationary Jump Lunge

Lower yourself into the bottom position of a lunge with your feet about a leg’s length apart. Jump up out of the lunge, gently landing back where you started. You can swing your arms for momentum or keep them at your sides. It might take a little practice to land comfortably without losing your balance. You can also try to jump laterally, so that you’ll land a few inches to the side of where you began.

Cycle Lunge
The cycle lunge is a harder variation of the jumping lunge. It starts out the same as the stationary jump lunge, but once you are in the air, quickly switch legs before you land. Continue to alternate legs, going from one rep right into the next.

Lateral Leapin’ Lunge onto Bench

Jumping up onto a bench can be hard enough without making it a lunge too, so don’t try this one until you’ve gotten good at the other types of jumping lunges. You’ll need to find a relatively long surface to leap up onto; a bench works great but feel free to explore other options. Once you’re ready to go, lunge down next to the surface you plan to jump (remember to position yourself parallel to the object) and go for it!

Have a Safe Landing
Always stay light on your feet during the landing phase of a jump. Remember that lowering down into the lunge as you hit the ground will help you to absorb the impact. These types of exercises will help you to build strength and flexibility, as well as balance and total body control.

Watch the video below for more:

All About Squats

Dorsi Flexion, Baby!

The squat is the king of all lower body exercises. Squats work every muscle in your legs as well as your abs and lower back. Since your legs are such large muscles, they require lots of blood and oxygen to perform squats. This makes squatting a great way to give your heart and lungs a workout too.

Don’t Know Squat
A lot of personal trainers, myself included, might tell you that proper squatting form requires you to keep your knees behind your toes. However, this is not always the case. Telling a client to keep their knees behind their toes during squats is a cue to help them understand the mechanics of moving from the hips. It isn’t necessarily the literal truth for everyone.

Dorsi Flexion
The term “dorsi flexion” refers to the movement that occurs at the ankle joint during a squat. People with more ankle mobility can keep their heels flat and put their knees in front of their toes at the same time because of dorsi flexion. As long as you initiate your squat from the hips, keep your heels down and retract your shoulder blades, you’re good to go.

How Low Can You Go?
Another common cue for squatters (no, not the punks living in the abandoned warehouse) is to lower down until you’ve reached 90 degrees of flexion at the knees. This is another generalized cue that is great for most, but not ideal for all.

First off, newcomers and people with limited mobility might not be able to get that deep without sacrificing proper squatting form. Second, many able-bodied fitness nuts will be able to squat much deeper than thighs parallel to the ground. One way to test your range of motion is to place your hands behind your head and squat as low as you can without coming off your heels (this is sometimes called a “prisoner squat”). If you can maintain a straight back (having your hands behind your head should help facilitate that), then feel free to go ass to the grass.

Advanced Squat Techniques

Front Squats
You might be surprised how much harder it can be to hold a weight in front of you when squatting as opposed to resting it on your back. Aside from the added challenge of supporting the weight on your shoulders, the balance changes when you have a weight in front, increasing the emphasis on your quads.

There are two basic ways to hold a barbell for front squats. One method is to bend your wrists back under the bar, the other involves crossing your arms in front as the bar rests on your shoulders. You can also perform a front squat with a kettlebell(s). For more information check out Stronglifts’ article on front squats.

Box Squats
At first glance, a box squat doesn’t look much different from any other squat except that you have a box underneath you. Once you attempt this exercise, you’ll see the challenge of the box squat is to initiate the movement from a seated position without any downward momentum to assist you. Beginning a weighted squat from a seated position is surprisingly difficult. This concept is similar to what I call phase one of pistol squats.

Overhead Squats
An overhead squat is another variation that adds a great degree of difficulty to an already challenging exercise. Overhead squats require tons of core strength and lots of shoulder mobility. I have difficulty performing this exercise properly with any significant weight due to my tight upper back and shoulders. This is going to be the case for most men when starting out with overhead squats. If that is the case for you then go light and focus on proper form. Check out Dave Draper’s article on overhead squats for more information.

Pistol Squat Tutorial

The pistol squat is one of my favorite bodyweight exercises. Pistols are challenging on many levels, requiring core strength, leg strength and flexibility. I often get asked about this exercise, so I decided a formal tutorial was in order. Once you’ve gotten comfortable with two-legged squats, you’re ready to learn the pistol. I like to break it down into three phases.

Pistol Squat – Phase One

Begin by sitting on a bench with one foot flat on the ground and the other extended out in front of you. Reach your arms forward and simultaneously press your foot into the ground while tightening your abs. Don’t let your heel come off the ground. If you’re strong enough, you should be able to lift yourself off the bench. Once you get to a standing position, try to lower yourself slowly and repeat. You will likely lose control during the lowering phase and wind up plopping down onto the bench at the bottom. That’s fine for now. In time your control will improve to the point where you no longer need to sit on the bench.

Take a seat during Phase One.

Pistol Squat – Phase Two
Stand on a bench with one foot hanging off the edge. Squat down so that the opposite leg drops below the level of the bench. Make sure you stick out your hips and butt, and lean forward a bit. If you are having a hard time balancing, hold onto something to guide you. A broom handle works well if you are doing these at home. If you have a training partner, have them assist you by either holding your hand or standing near you so you can grab them if you lose your balance. This is an exercise where I will literally hold my client’s hand through the first time they try it!

Work your way up - Phase Two.

Pistol Squat – Phase Three
Get down into a deep squat with both feet flat on the ground. Try to reach one leg out in front of you while balancing on the other. You’re now at the bottom position of a pistol squat. Get comfortable with your balance here; it will come easier to some than to others. Once you can balance in the bottom position, try to stand up. It’s okay to use assistance until you can perform the move independently. With practice, you will build the necessary strength and stability to perform the pistol with confidence – then you can move onto advanced pistol squats!

Editors Note: Make sure to check out the new tutorial on pistol squats for more info on this exercise.

Watch the video below for more:


For more information, check out my book, Pushing The Limits! – Total Body Strength With No Equipment.

Performing Perfect Squats

I began training a new client recently who had been working out on her own for years. She realized that she was in a bit of a rut with her routine and that she would benefit from taking me on as her trainer. Smart girl.

There is always an assessment period when I begin working with a new client. The first session or two allows me to get a feel for what that person is already capable of in order to find out what challenges I can present to them, and what weakness they may have that we can work towards improving. (This assessment period usually works both ways–they are feeling me out as a trainer as well!)

One of the exercises that I typically have a client do during our first session is the squat. After watching my new client do a few squats I cued her to initiate the movement from her hips and also to go down lower. (These are two of the most common corrections that I give people on squats.) As soon as she began following my cues, she exclaimed “Wow-I really feel this now,” then added, “I guess I’ve been doing them wrong all these years!”

The second part of what she said bothered me. I told her, “You weren’t doing them WRONG–it’s just that now you are doing them BETTER.” Doing squats the way that she had been might not be as effective or efficient as the way I instructed her to do them, but it is way better than not exercising at all! I am certainly not suggesting that improper form is great for you, but it isn’t the end of the world either. This is a really important distinction to me and it comes up all the time–and not just with squats but with everything.

I generally do not believe in the concepts of RIGHT and WRONG. I find them to be a huge oversimplification. Like all things, squats are not simply a case of black and white–there are a lot of shades of gray in between. There is no such thing as a perfect squat–perfection is an illusion.

Having said that, there are certainly ideals that we want to strive for when performing a squat and there are ways to potentially injure yourself by doing squats improperly. Keeping good posture, making sure your heels stay in contact with the ground and initiating the movement from your hips are three key components to performing squats safely and effectively. But even if you fail to do those things, you’re still probably going to wind up okay. You might not get the results you want, but you haven’t done anything “wrong” as far as I am concerned. Just make sure you improve your form before you start loading up a ton of weight.

My point in saying all this is twofold. First, I don’t want you to beat yourself up over thinking that you’ve been doing things wrong. If you are making an effort to improve your fitness then you are doing something right. Second, it’s important to remember that in exercise, like all things in life, there is always room to expand your knowledge and see things from another perspective. Allow yourself to be open to growth, but try not to be hard on yourself when your weaknesses are made apparent. Being humble doesn’t mean throwing yourself a pity party. In fact, it’s just the opposite.