Pilates for Pistol Shooters Training With Christina MacDonald

A few people have taken advantage of the lockdown to get productive and create helpful resources for pistol shooters (thanks!). Christina MacDonald, of Target Pistol Coaching, is one of them. She’s created a series of physical training videos for shooters based on the Pilates method: Pilates for Pistol Shooters and Pilates for Rifle Shooters. She’s not only a Pilates and Yoga instructor, she’s also a target sports athlete like we are, so she knows well what pistol shooters need and what it is like to train and compete.

I’ve watched the 12 pistol course videos (almost 4h of content) and they are really interesting, covering warm up, strength, mobility, and stretching. Beyond being very comprehensive, they can be used regularly or to fix something specific.

If you are looking for help to improve your physical form for pistol shooting you should definitely watch this course. Plus, as a reader of Olympic Pistol you get a 10% off by using code Olymp1cPistol before May 30th. Don’t miss out! (PS: I don’t get anything myself, only you and Christina do).

You can also watch the introductory video to Pilates for Rifle Shooters.

My recommendation would be to quickly watch all the videos taking notes just to plan when to do what, and incorporate them in your weekly training schedule (eg: add the after training stretch to the end of some of all of your sessions, start with the warm-up, etc.)

To learn more about Christina and the course I sent her a few interview questions. I think you will learn something from her answers 🙂

Why did you create this course? How did you come to shooting, to Pilates and to making these videos? 

This question has a rather long yet hopefully interesting answer – all of which links together to make up my shooting and Pilates story!

When I was 14, I was a junior international hockey player and was also obsessed with horses. One day I was working at my local riding stables and went to pick up a water bucket. I heard a very loud crack which was followed by sharp pains in my back. 

After about a week, it still hadn’t gone, so my mother took me to the doctor; who in turn, sent me to a specialist. I was ultimately diagnosed as having a serious scoliosis (curvature of the spine) and that the movement I had made whilst picking up the heavy water bucket caused 3 of the bones on the inside of the curve to fracture. 

I was off school for nearly 2 years. I couldn’t walk properly and was in constant pain, having to spend the majority of my days lying on my back at home whilst my parents went out to work. At the end of this period, I was referred to a special hockey physiotherapist who introduced me to Pilates. Up until that point I had been having more traditional treatments such as steroid injections, an epidural, and other pain killing injections under anaesthetic… and absolutely nothing had worked even in the short term. 

Neil, my physio, gave me some Pilates exercises and techniques to try and I went from this very poor state of health to being able to move freely and almost run up and down the stairs in under 6 weeks. After that experience I began to believe in the power of movement and Pilates as a healing modality. (As a side note in my Pilates business, I have over the years employed 4 other teachers that have had similar injuries and stories, so this is not an uncommon route into teaching!)

I did ultimately manage to go back to hockey for a time – having played at a club since I was 4 years old, it felt like part of my identity. After a year or two, I managed to get up to playing in the National League. (This is the hockey equivalent of the Premiership in football.) However, after around about a year of playing at this level, the injury re-occurred. This meant that aged 20 I had to face up to the fact I would not be able to pursue the career in hockey that I had wanted. But I knew I had to do something because to me living without sport was impossible. 

So, I made a move across into modern pentathlon which is where I was introduced to pistol shooting. Shooting soon became my favourite and most successful discipline which was a great surprise to me because I had no interest in learning it when I had started the sport. 

When the London Olympics came around I happened to notice that my shooting scores were not far off the bottom quarter of the Women’s Air Pistol, so at that time I wondered that if I could hit those scores already, what level might I be able to achieve if I focused solely on my shooting so that’s how I made my way across into the pistol shooting community!

I started my business, Target Pilates, in 2015 as a way of being able to focus on my shooting full time and we began working in the equestrian market initially. At this point I realized that my real interest was in finding movement solutions for specific sports that I had been a part of. The fun was applying which physical attributes were helpful in allowing athletes to access better technique in their chosen sport as very commonly they are physically blocked and sometimes their coaches just viewed this as something they have to work around because they weren’t sure of the solution.

In every sport there are aspects of technique that are rooted in our physiology. There are also commonalities in injuries that can end careers or at the very least a huge inconvenience for people. For example, a swimmer requires a very high level of shoulder mobility. If a swimmer does not have that, their technique will be severely compromised, and they may be better placed to work on this out of the water and then they will find that they can access more of their strength and power in their strokes. 

The same goes for pistol shooting. There is an optimum position for your joints to be in whilst you shoot, if your arm muscles from front to back are imbalanced then you may fatigue more quickly or struggle with tension which causes you to throw shots. If you have weak wrists you may find your front sight drops – there are numerous examples of how issues can be overcome through movement-based solutions and strength work.

The reason I wanted to make this programme was because I think often strength and conditioning programmes are made by personal trainers who have no experience of shooting and I felt uniquely placed to pass on some of the things that I have learned so far from combining shooting and Pilates. 

The Pilates method at its heart has 6 principles which are: breathing, centering, precision, control, concentration and flow. I strongly believe that if you just read these words on a page, they would also be a very accurate description of the process of shooting itself so there is a huge amount of synergy between the two methods.

I also wanted to make this series because I haven’t seen someone put together a programme that covers off all the elements that would help with shooting technique – there is plenty of content out there for individual exercises and the odd video which is of course great but I felt that there wasn’t a fully comprehensive plan currently available. It’s also something I have been asked to produce for some time – the Covid 19 lockdown just gave me the chance to get around to making something that’s been sitting in my head for about three years!

There are 12 videos within this series:

  1. Pilates for Pistol Shooters
  2. Core stability
  3. Spinal mobility
  4. Posture correction
  5. Warm up sequence
  6. Foot releases
  7. Building foot and ankle stability
  8. Building Wrist Strength and Endurance
  9. Gun Raise exercise
  10. Building Arm and Shoulder Endurance
  11. Back SOS
  12. After training stretch.

Who is it for?  

This may seem like a bit of a cliché, but Pilates is really for everyone. I think what people might find is that they try it out for sports performance reasons and end up sticking with it because of how it makes them feel. It’s a little bit like the perfect shot – there is always something more to aspire to in movement. It’s also very accessible – Pilates does not discriminate on the basis of age, weight, height or fitness level! Everyone will be good at some things and need to work more at others.

What are the main benefits pistol shooters will get out of this course? 

I hope that it will really help people to understand more about how their bodies work and how simple movement training can create a more stable base for shooting. It is not hard to do or difficult to incorporate into your existing training programme and I have tried to be realistic about workout lengths in terms of what people may be able to fit into their lives. The sessions I have created last between 10 and 30 minutes and you can cherry pick the parts that make sense to you or need to work on.

What’s your Nº 1 advice for physical preparation of pistol shooters? 

The honest answer to this question is to just do something! I really think it has been a far too long neglected area of training, perhaps because people don’t see the benefit or aren’t sure what to do.

I also think there is a lack of sports science data available in shooting, so we don’t really know what makes us better or worse at it.

Finally, there isn’t one single specific body type that we can link back to performance – shooters literally come in all shapes and sizes. Although ultimately mental training is a huge part, movement training is undoubtedly a bigger piece of the puzzle than most people realise. I believe that even if someone was at the top of their game, layering in some sports specific Pilates training would help make even further gains and ultimately improve consistency and repeatability of technique.

Hopefully this series gives you a comprehensive plan to work on. It’s also probably a good moment to mention that I am totally open to adding more sections to the programme if people have feedback for solutions they would like to see. 

How often and when to do the sessions? For how long?

The sessions we have made are designed to be used as and when they might be needed. They are also a press play solution: people just have to follow along with the video in real time and do the exercises with me (they are a maximum of 30 minutes in length). Some are pretty self-explanatory and most of the videos begin with me explaining how and when they could be used. For example, there is a warm up video you could do before training or matches; there is a stretch sequence that you could use after your match or training. There is a short back mobility video that can be used when it might be needed as a quick fix – possibly between a match and a final if you are feeling uncomfortable. You could use anything in the programme every day if you wanted to.

How long before a match / training session do the warm up? Dry firing? Break before match/ training? 

Every shooter has their own sequence before a match, so you have to do what works for you. Personally, I run the warm up sequence I have put in the programme first of all, then go off to dry fire and often find a quiet space and do some breathing exercises to focus my mind before my match. It certainly wouldn’t negatively impact your match even if you did it right before you went on. I think having a set sequence before a match is a good way of doing things because it gives you confidence to have a routine.

Workouts: how long before / after pistol training? Alternate days?

There are three sessions within this series that I often use before training as they really help with how you feel on the range – they would be the warm up sequence, the posture correction sequence and foot releases. This is because they will put you in a great position and make you feel very grounded and stable. I would personally avoid any of the sequences that are about building endurance namely, the building wrist strength and endurance, the gun raise exercise and the building arm and shoulder endurance on days when you are training heavily, but if you are in pre-season you could still do them on the same days as you shoot if you have a few hours break in between the sessions. All of the other sessions would be fine to do on the same day as training.

How should shooters decide which session to do and how should they schedule them? 

I think everyone will have an idea of what they need to work on. If you have back pain, then working on your spinal mobility and core stability would be a very positive step forward with getting it under control. If you know that you lack endurance in matches, then working on arm and shoulder strength will be a great place to start. If you are short on time, we do have a 30-minute session that covers all of the elements of the programme in one class. You may know that you struggle to keep your foresight up, in which case working on your wrist strength and endurance would help you to improve this issue. Every video mentions examples of how they could be used so perhaps watching all the videos before you start will help shooters to decide how they wish to prioritise and proceed.

How should shooters distribute this Pilates conditioning throughout the season? 

Pilates is pretty low key compared to for example weight training. It depends also on where you start out. If you are coming to the programme from a low level of fitness it would be prudent to start small and work up. I personally struggle with my shoulder and arm strength and because working on this can impact my performance in training, I tend to go a bit harder on this out of season, but others may not find this to be the case at all. As I said, Pilates isn’t the sort of exercise that will give you delayed onset muscle soreness to the extent it would impact your regular training.

How to know when you are doing too much or working too hard? How often and when should shooters take breaks from these Pilates workouts? 

Pilates is very much about technique so it’s easy to scale it up or down. However just like shooting, accuracy is important, and this can only be achieved by concentrating on the precision of your movement and breath. The quality of the movement is much more important than the quantity. So, if for example you can only make four good repetitions of an exercise, that is preferable to 10 poor quality ones. In shooting would you prefer to shoot 4 x 10s or 6 x 8s? Pilates is similar. Do you best with everything, accept where you are and that might mean resting at points. If you feel pain, of course stop immediately.

What should shooters pay special attention to in order not to get hurt working out? 

There are a few things to say about this:

  1. Start slowly and build up. This is especially true if you have had a break. Don’t assume that where you left off is where you can start back up again, particularly if there are weights involved. Taking the all or nothing approach tends to end badly!
  2. More is not more! Some people have this preconceived idea that doing more or lifting bigger weights is better. This is often not the case and commonly results in injury. Remember also that technique is king. Without technique there is no point. Repeating something that is poor quality is a futile exercise. All this does is train in mediocrity in a sport that demands perfection!

    The best analogy I have heard with regards to fitness comes from the author Tim Ferriss, who says that exercise should be treated like medication. If you don’t take enough, it won’t work, but if you overdose that can be even more harmful, so you should take the prescribed dose of exercise! There is more on this a bit later, where I talk more about the use of resistance.
  3. Know the difference between good and bad pain and listen to your body. Most people do know the difference; however, some people ignore the red flags. Let me tell you that the negative impact of training days lost to injury is far greater than missing a few repetitions of an exercise you can’t manage. Bad pain would be considered things like hot, stabbing, shooting and acute pain as opposed to dull ache sensations. If you suffer from ‘bad pain’ consistently, get it checked out as soon as possible.
  4. Consistency is important. Coming back to the idea of ‘start slowly and build up,’ you need to do the work consistently over time. There is no shortcut in resistance training, you have to put the work in. 

Dealing with pain and injury. What to do if you get hurt (in the workouts or at the range)? how to get back into pistol and Pilates training?

If you have any concerns with regards to physical pain or anything out of the ordinary, the best thing to do is to get it diagnosed as quickly as possible and take medical advice on how to proceed. If they tell you to rest for a period of time, then take heed of that advice. I can’t tell you how many athletes I have worked with that have ignored medical advice and their injuries have dragged on far longer than they should have which is generally why they have wound up in my studio and we have to spend a great deal of time and effort putting them back together. This is a slow and at times disheartening process which is best avoided where possible. The goal should always be to get back to training in the shortest time. That means listening to the professionals around you.

How do you know when to go up with weight? Should shooters go beyond 1 kg? 

This is a great question and also a very important one! In a couple of our videos we use resistance – either a band or hand weights. You will know when to increase the weight in any of the videos when you can complete the sequences with ease, without breaks and get to the end without feeling fatigued. You might have a sense that you could have completed another round. Once you have done this, you can increase the weight.

In shooting there is a defined outcome – you need to be able to raise your pistol without fatigue impacting your technique for the duration of a match. Most of us will have an idea of how many gun raises that would be – 60 shots plus however many aborted efforts you may have. For most of us this falls within the 65-80 shot range. So, if you know you can achieve that, then the objective of the training has been met.

The weight of the pistol is also fixed, therefore we don’t in my opinion need to increase the weight beyond that. There is also a physiological reason for this, namely, for shooting we want muscles for endurance rather than speed and these are totally different muscle types. As having ‘explosive power’ is not a consideration for a shooter’s physical preparation, you are better placed working on the thing you actually need, which is muscular endurance.

Can you share one exercise of the course?

One of my favourite exercises to do is what we call foot releases for which you need a tennis ball. Assuming you don’t have a foot injury!

Start off by taking a mental snapshot of how your feet feel, where your balance is, perhaps if you are rocking forward or back or to the inside or outside of the feet. Whatever you can notice is great.

Place the tennis ball between your first and second toe and put some of your weight down through the ball – it may feel uncomfortable if the tissues on the bottom of your feet are tight. Slowly roll the ball in a straight line down the foot to the heel and then roll it back. Repeat this around 10 times and perhaps take a little more time over any sore or sticky parts. 

Next take the ball to the little toe side of the foot and repeat the exercise. Finally roll the ball side to side across the foot, starting at the top and slowly working your way down the heel and back up again. When you have completed one whole foot place it down next to the other and see how it feels. Compare and contrast the two and then repeat on the other foot. 

When you have completed both feet, you should feel very connected to the ground and more balanced and stable.

Do you think that breathing volume matters? Do our breathing muscles get better with your programme? 

I think breathing is absolutely central to shooting technique and the management of the mind during matches. To achieve this long, slow deeper breaths have the soothing impact on the nervous system that we want so breathing volume is definitely a big consideration for all target sports athletes.

Breathing also happens to be the first principle of Pilates, so correct breathing will certainly help you perform your Pilates exercises better and also by extension, improve your shooting. However, it’s not just that. One of the biggest impacts on the quality of a person’s breath is their posture. If you suffer from poor posture as so many of us do, you will find if you take the postural correction class regularly it will free up the mechanics of your breathing which we all know is so important for shooters. If the diaphragm isn’t blocked in its descent into the abdomen, then a deeper inhale can be achieved. This also has an impact on controlling heart rate which may be of interest to some shooters.

What are your recommendations for stretching after shooting? When should we stretch?

There are two types of stretching used in this programme. The first is what we call maintenance stretching: this is the after-training stretch routine which has the aim of returning your muscles to the length they were before you started training. In an ideal world, you would do this before you leave the range, however knowing some ranges this may not be possible or appropriate. My old club range for example was so cold that it would have been dangerous to stretch there so if you do it when you get home, that works too!

The other type of stretching we use is more corrective. When muscle groups are out of balance, by definition, some muscles are weaker than they should be, and others tighter than they should be. A great example of this is the posture correction sequence. For most of us, our upper back muscles aren’t strong enough and our chest muscles are too tight. This results in us being round shouldered and impacts our balance for shooting. That sequence looks at how we can rebalance that part of us through some corrective stretches. This system can be found throughout the Pilates method and these videos.

Go check out the Pilates for Pistol Shooters videos and remember to use the code Olymp1cPistol before May 30th to get your discount 🙂

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