The single-leg deadlift (SLDL) is about a whole lot more than building a strong, tight booty (although I don’t mind that side effect at all!)
It’s about improving your overall body function, strength, and performance. It improves balance, foot strength, ankle mobility, knee stability, hamstring flexibility, hip hinge ability, posture, shoulder stability, grip strength, as well as strength in the hamstrings and quadriceps. And, of course, glute strength and definition.
So, while as you might expect, the SLDL will increase your strength for your squat and deadlifts, it will also impact your performance on many other strength moves. For example, at StrongFirst, we use the SLDL as a tool to increase balance and strength for pistol squats as well as as the lunge pattern for the Turkish get-up. Few other exercises bring improvement across such a varied range as quickly and effectively as the SLDL.
Plus, there are many progressions and regressions for the SLDL, making this exercise appropriate for all strength and fitness levels—as well as useful for those who want to wave the loads in their training week. Add slow bodyweight reps, weighted reps, and holds at your sticking points into your weekly training program. (You can perform this movement at a fairly high volume without over-working the knees.)
Unfortunately, apart from being widely underutilized, the SLDL is also often performed incorrectly, putting exercisers on the fast-track to injury.
Before adding weight, first use only your bodyweight to pattern the proper movement slowly. Practice hinging at the hip while maintaining proper alignment and tension, before adding weights.
By gripping the floor with your toes you will feel more rooted to the ground, which will improve your balance and strengthen your feet. As you grip and create a more stable base, this allows you to focus on the tracking of your hip, knee, and toe as you descend into the hip hinge.
It will also help to increase your proprioception, that is, your ability to sense the position and movement of your body parts in the surrounding space, without having to look. Having good proprioception improves your balance, agility, and coordination, helps you move more efficiently, and reduces your risk of injury.
Performing the SLDL too quickly prevents you from owning the “sticking points” (the parts where, when performed correctly, you might struggle a little more, literally getting stuck in those parts). One common error I see is valgus collapse, which is when the knee caves inward. While this can happen simply due to performing the descent too quickly, sometimes it’s happening due to weakness or lack of motor coordination in the hip stabilizers (gluteus medius, specifically).
Like the deadlift and Romanian deadlift, the SLDL is a hinge with a neutral spine. Prior to hinging, it is important to plant the front foot and extend the back leg straight behind you. When you start this movement with the back leg bent, it can cause you to hunch or round your back as you hinge forward. Rounding your spine in this position, particularly while lifting a heavy weight, can cause back pain and greatly increases your risk of injury.
As you hinge at the hips, allow the knee of the front leg to bend slightly for greater depth, to increase recruitment in the hamstrings, quads, and glutes. This right here make the SLDL more efficient than a straight-leg (or stiff-leg) deadlift, which doesn’t recruit as many muscle fibers.
It is important to keep the hips and shoulders square to the floor and not raise the non-working leg too high. Raising the leg too high will cause you to arch your lumbar spine and lose that very important glute contraction on the back leg.
Instead, think about extending your body from the top of your head to the very tip of your heel of the back leg in a straight line. A helpful cue here is to visualize reaching with your your heel to try to touch a wall behind you that is too far away for you to actually reach. By thinking about reaching behind you toward a wall, you will deepen your hinge, maintain alignment, and recruit more muscles.
Keep your back leg straight, bend the front leg, maintain a straight line from your head to the heel of your back foot.
After you have spent time practicing the slow bodyweight SLDL, record a short video of yourself to see if you have perfected the movement. If you’re confident and comfortable, now you can pattern the movement loaded with either a kettlebell, dumbbell, or barbell. Remember, especially when loading the SLDL with a heavy load, to maintain the slow and mindful movement, and make sure you’re not rushing past a sticking point.
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