When most yogis think about what it takes to do a pistol squat—a.k.a. single-leg Chair Pose—our minds go to the parts of the body we need to strengthen. (We’re looking at you, quads!) However, pistol squats require a lot of mobility and flexibility as well.
Build Hamstring flexibility to master the pistol squat
In a pistol squat, many practitioners are concerned with the strength of the standing leg. However, it’s just as important to focus on the non-weight bearing leg. If your hamstrings are tight, bringing this focus to your non-standing leg can be especially challenging.
Here are 3 Poses to Build Hamstring Flexibility:
1. Arda Hanumanasana
Half Split is a wonderful stretch for the hamstrings. Start in Low Lunge and shift your hips back so that your hips are in line with your back heel. Flex the toes of your front foot upward as you straighten the front knee. Place your hands on blocks if you need more support. Starting with a long spine, hinge from your hips, and continue to fold forward on the exhalation.
2. Runner’s Hamstring Stretch
This movement pattern will come in handy when we progress to strengthening the standing leg. For now, let’s focus on the hamstrings: From standing, step one foot forward 6 to 12 inches. Hinging at your hips, pitch your torso forward at a 90-degree angle. Reach your hands to the ground or blocks for support. Flex the toes of your front foot toward the sky, trying to keep your front knee straight. As your hips shift back, add a soft bend in your back leg.
See also 4 Ways Yoga Primes You for Running
3. Seated Leg Lifts
Strengthen your quadriceps and start to form an intelligent conversation with your hip flexors. Sitting on the floor with your back against a wall, extend one leg completely straight. Bend the other knee, placing your foot flat on the ground with your heel close to your seat. Flex the foot of your extended leg, ensuring all 10 toes are facing up. Keeping your foot flexed, lift your left leg off the ground. Be sure to keep your back flat and abdominals engaged. Hold for a slow count of 10, and repeat 5 times on each side.
Build ankle and knee mobility to master the pistol squat
If we break down the elements of a pistol squat, one very important ingredient is a range of motion for the ankles and knees. In our modern world, we tend to move in patterns that encourage squatting where the hips lower to about knee level, maybe a touch higher; we pay very little attention to the bottom of the range of motion. Finding your pistol squat requires an incredible amount of flexibility and strength at the bottom range of motion.
3 Poses to Build Ankle and Knee Mobility
1. Parallel Squat (static hold)
A great place to begin is to test out your range of motion is in a parallel squat. For starters, you’ll need to find stability and a large range of motion in a parallel foot position. Bring your feet hip-width distance apart with all 10 toes facing forward. From standing, shift your hips back, bend at your knees, and come into your lowest variation of Chair Pose (Utkatasana). From Chair Pose, continue to reach your fingertips forward as you sink your hips back and down below knee level. Pause where you need to. When you find the place where it feels almost impossible to hold, that is your bottom range of motion. It could be Chair Pose level or it might be with your seat almost on the ground. In this static hold, continue to reach your arms forward and out, reaching your heart up towards your hands.
2. Parallel Squat (extension)
Once you establish the bottom of your range of motion, work from that lower place and stand up completely straight, keeping your arms out in front of you. On a count of 10, slowly lower back down to your lowest point. As your range of motion increases, so will the strength of your pistol squat.
Pistol Squat Drill
Now that you understand the basic components of a pistol squat, you can start to work on the stability and strength of the standing leg. This pistol squat drill is a great place to start:
Start standing at the top of your mat. Draw your right knee up to your chest and extend your right leg forward at hip height. Engage your quadriceps and core to keep your leg floating. After 5 breaths, hold onto your foot with both hands and hold for 5 breaths. Then, release your foot and extend it forward so that your heel lightly taps the floor about 6 to 12 inches in front of you, similar to the Runner’s Hamstring Stretch. Lightly touch the ground with your fingertips as you hinge your hips and bend your back knee. Keeping very little weight in your front right heel, see if you might be able to float it an inch off the ground. As you kick your heel forward, continue to lower your hips until they hover above the ground. If your heel doesn’t leave the ground, place a towel under your heel so it can slide forward. Once your hips are close to the ground, step your feet into your parallel squat, rise up to stand, and repeat on the other side.
About the Author
Kristin Calabria is a Los Angeles–based yoga and fitness instructor currently pursuing her master’s in social work. Learn more at kristincalabria.com.