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How To Do Pistols with Bad Ankle Mobility

Learn how to progress into the full one-legged squat if you have dreadful ankle mobility.

Pistol squats require a good deal of strength, balance, and mobility, and performing pistols with bad ankle mobility can make the exercise even harder than it already is.

This isn’t to say that you’ll never achieve a pistol if your lower-body mobility leaves a lot to wish for – there are more elements to pistol squats than just how mobile you are.

In most cases, bad ankle mobility can be fixed and, if you’ve reached the point where you’ve gone as far as you can realistically get, there are many other areas you could focus on and still achieve efficient pistol squats.

Here are a few progressions and exercises to try out if you want to learn how to do pistols with bad ankle mobility.

What are pistols?

Also known as single-legged squats, pistol squats are an advanced bodyweight unilateral exercise which involves an athlete squatting with their weight balanced on a single leg and standing back up, while keeping the other leg extended in front of them, always off the floor.  

To perform a pistol, your only point of contact with the ground is the foot supporting the movement. A good rep requires you to lower your hip below the knee as you squat and stand back up, ensuring your other leg never touches the ground.

How to do pistols with bad ankle mobility

It is easy to blame bad ankle mobility if you struggle to perform pistols efficiently or can’t do them at all.

One common fault when you start training pistols is to lift your heel as your hips get closer to the ground. This makes balancing a lot harder and won’t give you access to the full power you’ll need to stand back up.

Good technique maximizes work accomplishment while minimizing energy expenditure.

Bad ankle mobility could be the reason for this fault, but bear in mind this is not always the case; lifting your heel up could be a response to lack of leg and ankle strength, or weak hip flexors and glutes.

If bad ankle mobility is your issue then:

There are many mobility and strengthening drills that can help you achieve your first pistols with bad ankle mobility.

The aim of them is to increase your ankle dorsiflexion. Plantar dorsiflexion is the backward bending of your foot and happens when you move your toes towards your shin.

Increased dorsiflexion can help you feel more comfortable in a deep squat and help you power out the bottom of the pistol.

Pistol drills for athletes with bad ankle mobility

Deep split squats

The stance is the same as a lunge, but a deep split squat requires you to push your knee as far forwards over your toes as possible and push your weight onto the foot.

This exercise can help you build ankle strength and muscular awareness, bringing you to a position similar to the pistol squat.

High step ups

Use the leg that’s on the box to drive the force upwards, pushing your knee forwards. High step ups can help you build strength and awareness to the mechanics of the pistol.

Calf raises

Place your toes on an elevated surface and lift yourself up. Bring your weight down in a controlled manner until your heel is lower than your toes. This exercise strengthens your calf muscles and ankles, and can increase your ankle mobility.

Box squats

This exercise will see you perform pistols going down onto an elevated surface. You can start with a block under your heel for the first few reps and then place your foot flat on the floor.

When you’re comfortable with this, try to reduce the height of the box.

Other ankle mobility exercises

Read more: Ankle Mobility: How and Why you Need to Improve Yours Today

Other reasons why you can’t do pistol squats yet

It is perfectly possible that range of motion in your ankles is not the reason you’re unable to do pistols, even if it might feel like it. You might be missing strength, control and awareness on your ankles, hips or even upper back.

Weak ankles

Weak ankles, even if they’re mobile, will have an incredibly negative effect on your performance. Sometimes, your ankle dorsiflexion is as good as it’ll ever realistically get and the reason why you’re failing at pistol squats is because you’re weak in your end range positions.

Strengthening your ankles can be the difference between success or failure in the pistol.

Weak hips

Coming out of the bottom of a pistol squat not only relies on your single leg strength, but also the strength of your hip flexors on the other side to keep the opposite leg off the floor.

You rely on this strength a lot more than you think, so practice l-sits or straight leg lift offs to increase your hip flexor strength and see if this was the reason why you couldn’t do pistols.

Lack of upper back mobility

It sounds farfetched, but lack of upper-back mobility could well be the reason you can’t do pistols.

If you can’t extend your thoracic spine when you squat, you’ll have to find ways to counterbalance the movement. These might include shooting your hips back or pushing your torso forward, which in turn will move your centre of gravity away from the source of power and make pistols way harder than they need to be.

pistols with bad ankle mobilitySource: Photo courtesy of CrossFit Inc.

Do Pistols with Bad Ankle Mobility

If you have bad ankle mobility practice the exercises and drills mentioned above, but keep in mind that your mobility might not be the sole problem if your pistol squats are ineffective or you struggle to do them at all.

Think about strength and joint awareness too, and spend some time improving those areas as well – it might make all the difference.

Everything you need to know about pistols

We have covered pistol squats extensively in the past, have a look at these articles if you’re after useful progressions, workouts with pistols, or want to learn all about the benefits and muscles worked during the exercise:

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