It happens every so often, and it may happen even more often if my coach reads this: I get single leg Romanian deadlifts put into my program. I used to cringe when I saw Bulgarian split squats, but I have made my peace with the Bulgarians and their exercises. I actually enjoy them now.
But the Romanians… oh, you Eastern bloc countries, with your strength prowess. You make me work harder. And you make me better, which is why I continue to do the Romanian deadlift as well as a variation, the single leg Romanian deadlift. But they’re still tough.
The single leg Romanian deadlift in particular gives me a run for my money every time I work on it. My old hip injury might shed light on that: this exercise demands (and builds) hip stability like crazy. It also builds strength and stability through the entire posterior chain. That’s your backside, FYI. You know, your butt, hamstrings, and to a lesser extent, your back. It also requires your abs to help you maintain core control. Those are all good things to improve: so every time I begin doing single leg RDLs again, I remember that I should probably be doing more of them.
Here’s the lowdown on the single leg deadlift: what it is, how to do it, and when to use it in your workouts. Read on:
Basics first: what’s a single leg deadlift?
A single leg deadlift is a basic hinging movement that requires mastering strength, balance, flexibility, and overall control of your body. That’s a lot, isn’t it? For this reason, I like to have beginners start by just using their own bodyweight to practice.
Deadlifts in nature: I’m mostly thinking “omg it’s so hot. Why am I wearing pants?”
Why to use them:
Single leg Romanian deadlifts build strength in the butt and hamstrings, though I don’t use them as a main strength move in workouts. For building brute strength and muscle mass, I still rely on the “big” players like squats, conventional and sumo deadlifts, as well as hip thrusts and 2-legged Romanian deadlifts. The lack of stability one on leg makes it tough to add a huge amount of weight to the single leg variation – but that’s exactly why you should do these as an accessory exercise.
They do a bang up job of building single leg stability, core control, flexibility, and still give you extra volume to work your muscles. I also use them in metabolic conditioning.
When to do them:
I put them near the end of strength workouts, typically with 3 sets of 8-12 per leg. I also like doing the movement slowly with just my bodyweight as a glute activator.
How to do one:
You’ll start by thinking about your hips shifting back as you elevate one leg while your torso shifts forward.
Tips for getting off to a great start:
- If you think about bending forward instead of reaching your leg back, you’re more likely to round your back and you’ll never get that beautiful hip hinge you’re aiming for. Instead, think of your body as a teeter totter and your working leg as the axis. If you focus mostly on making that elevated leg really long, you’ll have an easier time getting the movement down.
- People move farther down than they need to: work on getting that lifting leg elevated toward the sky instead of worrying about your working arm reaching the floor. You want a big stretch on the back of your planted leg.
- Locking the knee: it’s no bueno. Instead, think about keeping your knee just a little “soft”.
- Try to keep your hips as square with the ground as you can. While doing this movement, it’s easy for the hip on your lifting leg to open up too much.
- Gaze at the floor about 10 feet in front of you – if you crane your neck up to see yourself in the mirror, it tends to throw off your back alignment and makes it tougher to get down into the position.
Balance bonus – if you have a tough time holding your footing, a few things may help you out:
1. Don’t be afraid to lightly drag your foot for a few moments as you extend it behind you. This gives you a little extra contact time with the ground that goes a long way in helping you learn to balance.
2. When you begin the movement, lightly brace your abs and try to maintain stiffness through your torso. A more active core makes it easier to stabilize your body.
3. If you have squishy shoes, consider taking them off and doing this exercise barefooted – or put on a very flat, stiff-soled shoe like some Chucks.
4. One balancing trick that really helps me is digging my big toe of my working leg into the floor. It also seems to help me avoid opening up at my hip too much.
Once you’ve mastered the basic move, load ‘er up. Give one of these variations a try:
- Hold one or two kettlebells:
I like the challenge of holding only one kettlebell, as it makes for feeling a bit more of an unbalanced load and makes me think about my core stability more. Grip it hard. I picked up this trick from Tony Gentilcore, who explains that a tight grip gets your rotator cuff firing and puts your shoulder into a better position as you move. Your shoulder will be less likely to creep forward.
- Barbell single leg deadlift:
Sometimes I don’t have access to heavy enough kettlebells or dumbbells to do my deadlifts. So a barbell variation does the job.
3. Landmine single leg deadlift:
I had this crazy fantasy that the landmine variation would rock my world because the bar would be less annoying to hold onto than a heavy dumbbell. While a big dumbbell or kettlebell is less stable than a barbell, try holding onto the end of an Olympic bar with a small hand: it’s a huge grip challenge! My grip strength is only slightly above grandma level, so I’ll be doing more of these.
If you don’t have a slick landmine holder set up in your gym, just do what people have been doing for eons: shove it into a corner of the room or into the corner of a rack like I did. Some people like to use the center hole of a 45 pound plate too.
Other ideas for your single leg deadlifting pleasure:
1. 1.5 rep single leg Romanian deadlifts – move to the bottom of your pattern, come up partway, back to the bottom, then all the way back up. That’s one rep.
2. Eccentric single leg Romanian deadlifts – take a full 4 seconds to lower yourself down into the bottom of your position.
3. Combo moves for metcon – try doing a rep of a single leg deadlift and then following it with a lunge. Do all your reps on one side, and then switch. Your legs and heart will be talking to you.
What’s your favorite way to do single leg RDLs? Leave a comment below and share!
Psst – if you want workouts to use the moves I talked about, I share them on the regular with my insider newsletter subscribers. Sign up for free below – I’ll hook you up with a copy of Fat Loss on a Budget too.