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Pistols For a Bad Back

January 16, 2008 11:30 AM

In the early days of my recovery from a back injury, I could put my back out tying my shoes (I see some of you nodding your heads in agreement) so why on earth would I want to perform an exercise that requires rounding my spine? Because the one-legged squat, hereafter the "pistol," is not only a tremendous exercise, it can be great for your back if you do it right. (Don't know what a pistol is? Please read Pavel's Naked Warrior before continuing.)

Don't stretch your back to help your pistols

Pavel has likened stretching a bad back to an oil change on the Titanic — it may help temporarily but it doesn't address the larger, underlying issues.
If you have a bad back, the muscles and connective tissues in your lower back may be weak and tight, over-stretched, or both. Consider staying away from passively stretching your lower back until you are sure it is strong enough and you are aware enough of what's going on that you can stretch it safely — and even then, be careful not to overdo it.

Pistols to achieve better lower back mobility - Use your strength to:
  • Pressurize your abdomen to support and open your lower back;

  • Actively look for space in your spine and hips as you descend;

  • Round forward through the upper back and shoulders as much as necessary to keep your balance;

  • Keep your weight on your heel by pushing yourself back, and not just down, as you lower;

  • Open your hips, as taught at the RKC — try to make your thighs longer to the back;

  • Actively grip the ground with your entire foot — I find it helpful to think about spreading my foot into the ground, you may find it works better to think about contracting your foot, but whatever your method, be sure to actively use your foot to stabilize you.

How to work up to a full bodyweight pistol

If you already have the flexibility to get into the bottom position, and the strength to get up from it, try to find a way to do a full pistol by using a counterweight, e.g., hold a light kettlebell by the horns, or a couple of light plates or dumbbells. I worked with an 8 kg kettlebell at first, and when I could do that, I started to gradually lower the weight. My next step was to hold a 5 lb. plate in each hand, and then I bought pairs of dumbbells in 4, 3, 2, and 1 lb. and worked with those, gradually lowering the weight until I was able to get a single bodyweight pistol. I eventually used Pavel's 54321 protocol, e.g., 5 reps w/ 5 lbs. in each hand, 4 reps w/ 4 lbs. in each hand, and so on.

If you do not yet have the strength to get up from the bottom position with bodyweight only, work on two-kettlebell front squats to rock-bottom depth until you do. Try to be able to front squat a pair that together comes closest to your bodyweight without exceeding it, e.g., if you weigh 145 to 175 lbs., then work up to a 1RM of a pair of 70 lb. bells. Remember, pull yourself down into the hole under complete control for every rep and do not just collapse into the bottom.

If you do not have the flexibility to get into the bottom position of a pistol even with a counterweight then you must work on your flexibility first. Try deep two-legged squats while holding onto a door knob, actively pushing the hips back as you descend under control to a rock-bottom position. Work up your reps this way — it can be quite a good workout, especially when you're on the road without access to weights. The cardinal rule always applies — lower under complete control, no exceptions allowed.

Summary and Recommended Reading

Focus on opening and lengthening the hips and spine while reaching forward hard as you lower slowly under complete control. Keep you weight on your heel. Try to find a little space in each joint - the goal with the spine is to "spread the load" so that you don't "hinge" at just one place.

To understand more about the problems of the lower spine and how to best handle them, read:

Robin McKenzie's "Treat Your Own Back"

Stuart McGill's "Ultimate Back Performance"

Clear your pistol training with your doctor.

Steve Freides, RKC Level II, NSCA-CPT, AAU deadlift world record holder, maintains a web site at