Pistol squats and back pain

Pistol Squats: Back Pain & Other Problems (Home workout for men)

Pistol Squats: Back Pain & Other Problems

When I started falling in love with bodyweight exercise, pistols seemed the way to go with lower body training. People in the bodyweight strength industry, who I considered role models, were all praising it.Even though I knew that rounding your back is wrong when similar movements like barbell squats, I became a victim of the classic “bandwagon effect“. So I let my biases blind me…  I thought: It’s a “natural” bodyweight exercise, everybody is doing it after all…

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect. Mark Twain

Introducing Movement specialist George Georgas

The last couple of months, the more my project has been growing, the more I noticed people finding this exercise too difficult – if not impossible.  After receiving some remarks as well from movement specialist and online friend of mine – George Georgas, I realized that this is a topic we must further research. During our research, we found some other people who had also come across these issues (although they weren’t so many). You can find supplementary reading material in the end of the article.

Major Problems with the Pistol Squat

In part 2 of this article, we will offer alternative bodyweight/home lower body exercises. Before we do that though, l it’s crucial to explain what exactly makes the pistol problematic…

1. Back rounding

With very few exceptions, performing the pistol without rounding the back at all, doesn’t seem possible for the average bodyweight exercise enthusiast. Some people come close to perfect (sketch below), but still these are usually people with insane ankle mobility and other beneficial anatomical differences. If you go online and search pistol squat videos, you will notice that 99% of people round their back in this exercise – including me! I’ll let my friend George hit you with some science now, take it over George!

intervertebral disklumbar flexion during pistol squats

On the right picture you can notice the typical (bad) Pistol squat form most of us use

final george georgasGeorge: “The role of repeated full lumbar flexion in spinal disc herniation & bulging is well documented even under medium compression forces. Combining flexion with torsion (twisting) reduces even more the compressive strength of the joint” (2). “The spine’s ability to absorb axial loading is optimal when the disks are in a neutral position. Cool science people like Gordon et al (1991) and King (1993) concluded that the once the lower back’s natural arch is altered, it can handle less axial load and can be more easily deformed. Callaghan & Mc Gill 2001 (World renowned spine expert) also highlight that repetitive movements, even when the load is light, lead to degeneration of intervertebral discs plus other potential back problems. Videman, Nurminen and Troup 1990 found that disc herniations can be related to a sedentary job and/or lifestyle. One of the main characteristics of the sitting position is posterior pelvic tilt, which also result in lumbar flexion. Chronic exposure to this posture also seems to degenerate the interverebral disc.”

Conclusion: Added axial load is not the most important factor for the occurrence of disc herniation and disc bulging. Repeated full flexion of the spine seems to be a major factor of the damaging mechanism.

IN SIMPLE WORDS: Even if you don't have anything heavy on your back like a barbel, the combination of twisting and flexing in your spine that occurs during pistols might be enough to cause damage in the long run!


2. Problems caused by the hanging leg

Hamstring Muscles George: Α big part of our hip extensors go through our knee and hip (see pic on the left). If you were a puppet, you could think of them as the strings that connect your hip with your lower leg, which are responsible for posterior movements. These muscles are fully elongated when our knee is straight (full extension) and our hip is fully flexed (thighs are close to your belly). As you can see in the sketch above, this is exactly what happens with your hanging leg as you’re squatting towards the bottom position of the pistol. During this downward phase, your hip extensors (long head of the bicept femoris, semitendinosus and semimembranosus muscles) have to elongate in order to allow the hanging leg to elevate in front and prevent it from touching the ground. When the hip extensors don’t have the required length (which is usually  the case) the only way to maintain this position is through posterior pelvic tilt. The bigger the lack of flexibility in these muscles the more the lumbar spine is going to flex (due to more posterior pelvic tilt).

IN SIMPLE WORDS: The lack of extreme flexibility in our posterior thigh muscles causes our pelvis to rotate downwards in order to maintain our hanging straight. This is the main reason people use bad form during a pistol by rounding their backs.


3. How the pistol can be detrimental to your knee & hip:

George: Getting into a deep pistol squat requires serious alterations in the ankle and knee joints, and the hip again. In order to maintain balance during a pistol the following happen:

medial lateral rotationpronation

a) excessive pronation (inward roll of the ankle)
b) dorsiflexion (pic)
c) hip medial/inner rotation and adduction
d) valgus collapse (knee caving inwards).

“All the above misalignments do not occur due to muscle imbalances/weaknesses as a lot of proponents of the pistol claim. These are necessary physical conditions for maintaining your balance during a pistol. Simply observe yourself during a pistol and you’ll notice that the deeper you get into the squat, the more obvious these misalignments’ are. Other factors that may increase the strains mentioned above might be 1) already existing knee problems (such as valgus collapse syndrome) and 2) already existing decreased hip mobility (in terms of internal rotation and adduction). Due to this lack of mobility, getting down to a full squatting position might be not possible and even painful causing twisting forces in the spine.”

IN SIMPLE WORDS: Several misalignments occur in the ankle and knee joints plus the hip while getting into a deep pistol squat in order to maintain balance. These can eventually cause knee and hip problems/pain.

Final Thoughts

Many people in the fitness industry avoid to admit that they have been occasionally wrong. So, they continue to spread outdated/false knowledge in order to avoid staining their reputation and hurting their ego. Admitting that you might have been wrong at some point of your career and re-evaluating your work isn’t a sign of stupidity but a sign of intellectual honesty that shows commitment for progress. Learning never ends and people who love their jobs should always see themselves as eternal students… always staying alert and constantly open to advances of science and new ideas!

Part 2: Alternative Leg Home Workout for men

Click here to read Part 2

1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3407338/
2. Stuart McGill – Low Back Disorders (2Rev Ed)

Supplementary material:
– A Squatting Double Standard: Is the Butt-Wink Okay in Pistols?
– Single leg squats Video by Tom Purvis



Anthony Arvanitakis

Anthony is a motivational personal trainer currently living in Amsterdam, NL. He has a B.Sci in Sports Science and Physical education and is a Bodyweight exercise and mindfulness meditation enthusiast. Learn more about Anthony's story in his recent 5-star book on amazon - Here.