Thursday, May 14, 2009

Troubleshooting the pistol squat

A pistol squat, in case you don't already know, is a full range of motion single leg squat with the free leg extended out in front. It's a tremendous test of leg strength, core strength, balance and flexibility, and it's completely safe if you're doing it correctly. But you probably aren't.

Next time you do a pistol, take a look at yourself in the mirror. Does your foot rotate outward? Does the arch of your foot collapse? What about your ankle? Does it also collapse inward instead of staying straight and strong? And what's your knee doing? Is it is it bowing in or out?

Now, ask a patient friend to watch you doing some pistols from behind. Does she notice the heel of your foot popping up off the ground? Your hips shifting to one side? Your torso rotating?

If the answer to any of these questions is "yes," it means you've got a muscle imbalance that needs to be addressed. The beauty of pistols is that because they are such a demanding exercise, they're a great way to pinpoint the weak links in your kinetic chain. Fix those, and your performance will go through the roof! That's the carrot. The stick is that if you don't, you're putting yourself at risk for joint pain and injury. And you really don't want that, because if you care about doing a proper pistol squat it means you're a fitness nut who would probably go insane if she were ever forced to take a lot of time off from exercise due to injury.

Now that I've gotten you paranoid about your pistols, here's what you should do:

Call me for a personalized assessment and corrective exercise prescription that will cost you an arm, a leg, and a left lung, but be worth every penny.

Only kidding! Actually, a personalized assessment by me or another qualified trainer is always your best bet because, well, this is what we do. Inevitably we're going to pick up on things that an untrained observer is going to overlook, not because we're smarter or anything, but because we know exactly what we're looking for. And, yes, we're worth what we charge. Or rather, as they say in the L'Oreal ads, YOU'RE worth it :)

That being said, you can learn a lot from a self-assessment, and once you have a sense for where you're going wrong you're already halfway to correcting it. Here's how:

Basically, all movement is the result of our muscles working in an integrated fashion. To move optimally all our muscles must be in balance. But in real life they almost never are. This can be because of trauma, improperly designed exercise routines, or activities of daily living that stretch some muscles while causing others to become short and tight. Say you have a job that requires you to wear dress shoes with a heel. Over time your calf muscles will become chronically short and tight, while your shin muscles will become lengthened and weak. If you're a runner, shin splints are probably an issue for you. And if you do pistols you likely have trouble keeping your heel grounded and your foot pointed straight ahead. You need to stretch your calves. Self-massage with a foam roller is also a good idea.

If collapsed arches are your problem, you probably have tight peroneals. The peroneals are the muscles on the outside of the calf that are responsible for foot eversion. Again, using a foam roller to massage these muscles will be helpful. You'll also need to strengthen the muscles on the underside of your feet; a good way to do this is by placing a light weight on one end of a small towel, then using your feet to scrunch the towel so that the weight comes toward you. There are also some great Theraband exercises to strengthen and stabilize the feet and ankles. More on this in an upcoming post.

If your knees buckle inward you've probably got tight, overactive adductors and tensor fascia latae (TFL). The TFL is a muscle on the side of the hip that is responsible for internal rotation of the femur and external rotation of the feet. (Strange, but true.) Again, you'll want to get out your handy-dandy foam roller for some self-massage followed by stretching of these areas.

You'll also want to strengthen your medial glutes, which tend to be underactive and weak when the TFL is tight. One of the most effective ways to do this is with lateral tube walking. Take a Theraband or length of tubing and tie it in a loop about 1' in diameter. The loop goes around your calves, somewhere between the knees and ankles. Come down into a semi-squat and do a side step, maintaining the squat throughout. Keep going for about 15 seconds, then reverse directions and come back the other way for 15 seconds. It's even more fun than it sounds, trust me :)

(Note to self: get camcorder so I can post instructional videos of me doing some of these admitttedly dorky-looking exercises for your edification and entertainment.)

The lateral hip shift is also indicative of tightness in the TFL and adductors, and the fix is the same: lateral tube walking. Leg abduction exercises can also be useful. No, not those stupid machines--you know the ones I mean. I'm talking standing side leg raises--what we call degages in ballet class. No need to point the feet, though, and don't try to turn them out either. In fact, try not to turn out. If your TFL is tight it'll probably be hard not to, but do your best.

There's also a nifty leg abduction exercise you can do using the TRX. Your feet go in the cradles, then you come up into full hip extension and maintain that position isometrically while bringing your legs out and in. Important: do not do this in front of your significant other, or he will make rude remarks.

The topic of corrective exercise is huge, and I've only just touched on a few of the most common dysfunctions that may be keeping you from complete and pain-free mastery of the pistol squat. If you think you may have one or more of these dysfunctional movement patterns, give my corrective strategies a try and let me know how they work for you.

NB: This post is all about injury prevention, not injury treatment. If you think you have a sports-related injury don't go to a personal trainer for help. Instead, go to a physical therapist or orthopedist. And, trainers, never be afraid to make referrals. It won't cost you clients. On the contrary, you'll probably end up getting some. Physical therapists make referrals too, and they tend to approve of responsible trainers :)