Rediscover the push up and the pistol squat

by Ryan Wagner

We all have a list of exercises that we don’t really do anymore. They were either deemed too simple to be effective, not challenging enough or we just grew plain sick of them. But that’s a shame because even the most simple of exercises can be made into an effective challenge.

I have (2) examples. One, the push up, is very approachable and familiar to us all. The other, the pistol squat, is for the advanced crowd that is all too often fixated on the back squat.

Push up

I would argue that the push up is the king of all exercises. You can do it anywhere and all you need is the ground on which you stand.

It challenges you to maintain trunk stability while at the same time testing your upper body strength. If your core is weak, or if it’s not firing prior to the muscles in your upper body, then your hips are going to sag and you’ll noticeably lack rigidity.

And it’s this rigidity that is perhaps the single most important theme behind a good push up. At Motus I spend a lot of time talking about tension because I really think it’s one of the most overlooked aspects of how people train today (we have plenty of fitness apps to track our progress, but fewer and fewer coaching cues that could really clean up our technique).

And yet despite the many benefits of the humble push up, rarely do I see someone in the gym doing one! It’s even more rare for a trainer to include push ups in his/her client’s programming. Probably because the exercise seems too simple. Too standard.

But as we see over and over again, the really successful athletes are often the ones that seem to regress their training. They are the ones that focus on the basics and the ‘old school’ training methods.

Therefore, I think it’s time that we all took a closer look at the push up. But for me to help you rediscover the push up, we’re going to need to get a little technical.

So back in the day, probably sometime in grade school, you were told to get in the push up position – hands under your shoulders and press. Simple as that. And while that’s true, there is far more going on behind the scenes.

Let’s try something. Read through these pointers and then set yourself up in the push up position, but this time be fully cognizant of the tips I outline below:

1. Place your hands under your shoulders as before, but this time, grip the floor. Imagine a Bruce Lee open fisted punch. Try this on a carpeted surface and you’ll gain a better understanding of what I’m talking about.

2. Squeeze your glutes together – really squeeze them!

3. Brace your core hard, like you’re about to get punched by Mike Tyson.

4. Tuck your chin so that you maintain a neutral head position – you’ll be looking down at the ground.

Once you go through this mental checklist, press up through your palms and hold it. Get comfortable. The movement is the whole point, not the reps.

And when you’re ready to descend, keep everything locked up and slowly lower yourself by bending at the elbows and keeping them near your body as you lower. There are many different ways to perform a push up, but for the purposes of this blog I want you to really understand how things feel when you keep those elbows in. This is more of a gymnastics style push up. And by keeping your elbows locked in you are making it easier for you to keep your upper body nice and rigid.

Try doing a few push ups like this.

Are they more challenging than what you’re used to?

And for the girls, I challenge you to try to perform a push up on your toes, not your knees. By keeping your body really tight using the cues above, you may just find it easier than you remember to press up from your toes.

Pistol squat

Unlike the push up, the pistol squat is an exercise that you probably haven’t done. And let’s be clear that it’s not for everyone. You need healthy hips, knees and ankles. You’re going to be squatting through quite a full range of motion and if you read my last post, you’ll know that this is sometimes when you can get yourself into trouble.

But if you are a healthy individual the pistol squat can be a great tool. It’ll challenge your stability, your strength and even your breathing!

The movement is relatively straight forward. From standing, shift your weight to one leg and extend the other leg out in front of you. Bending at the hip and knee of your standing leg, begin to lower yourself down to a comfortable height and make sure that your flexed knee is tracking your foot. If you have a little knee valgus that you are still working to correct, then leave your ego at the door and make sure you have good movement before attempting to perform a pistol.

Keep your arms out in front of you for balance.

Keep everything tight and then press back up.

This is the purest form of a pistol squat, but what about progressions? Well, there are a couple of things you can do.

Progression #1: Try getting familiar with the so-called shrimp squat. The set up is the same, but instead of extending one leg out in front of you, place it behind you and bend slightly at the knee. Keep your torso upright and then start to lower down until the leg behind you starts to get close to the ground.

Progression #2: Another thing you can do is to stand on a short block or step. This way when you extend your leg out in front and lower, you’ll have extra room for your extended leg to drop down. This is useful if you are finding it difficult to keep your leg extended in front of you or if you feel as though you’re about to topple backwards.

Parting thoughts

Did I help to shed some new light on these familiar exercises? I hope so. And even if the last thing you ever want to do is another push up or a pistol squat, I hope I have at least encouraged you to look at old (and deceptively simple) exercises in a new way.

I don’t care what the exercise may be, you can always make it far more effective and challenging by cranking up your body’s tension. It may mean crushing the barbell or squeezing your glutes hard on your next bench press day.

Train smart, ask questions and keep moving forward.

By Ryan Wagner

By the way, Fit Mornings is returning next Friday, October 3rd. And for those of you not in the Denver area, I hope to have the video from September’s talk uploaded in the coming weeks!

Further reading

Another great source for pistol progression: Exercise Spotlight – Pistols

Feature image:

Rediscover the push up and the pistol squat by