Single leg deadlifts may be one of the most beneficial—and butchered—exercises out there. If you’re gonna do them (and you should be doing them), do ‘em right.
“Everything Good in Life Starts With a Hip Thrust.”
Hey, he has a point, right? And innuendo aside, hip extension (picture moving your upper leg from a position in front of you to one just behind you) is fundamental to life and sport alike. But hip extension alone isn’t the full picture. Most of our daily activities—though maybe not the act(s) Dan was alluding to above—require hip dissociation; one leg moving into extension while the other moves into or remains in relative flexion. If this sounds complicated relax—it may be the most common form of movement known to man—it’s how we walk.
In fact, it’s how we walk, run, jump, leap, bound—without good hip extension we’re left shuffling around like a bunch of plucked penguins. And forget about sport.
While the deadlift gets the lion’s share of the attention—after all they're a great way to develop hip extensor strength—the single leg variation helps us transfer that strength into movements we can use. Why? Because it requires the same dissociation of the hips—one leg forward, the other back—that so much of what we do involves.
Why Yours (Probably) Sucks (Short and Crooked)
All good, right? Sadly, probably not. If you’re reading this, you’re probably pretty in tune with things like exercise technique and form, but I’m still willing to bet your single leg deadlift kinda sucks. Well, not yours, but the next guys’. It sounds simple enough—one leg stays forward, the other moves back—how can it be that hard?
The reality of it is that most of us aren’t actually very good at running, or even walking! We’re not as good at hip dissociation as we ought to be (for a variety of reasons, a lot of which come back to lifestyle), and as a result we shift and waddle our way through life more like a penguin that we care to admit.
Those same issues are reflected in the single leg deadlift: hips swing open, legs internally or externally rotate when they’re not supposed to, and we tend to kinda fall forwards/sideways rather than hinging through our hip. Put in simpler language, most single leg deadlifts are kinda short and cooked.
Short and crooked—talk about innuendo. Still, doesn’t sound good, does it?
Two bits of good news: the single leg deadlift can help fix a lot of these issues, and I can help fix your single leg deadlift.
How to Fix It
The single leg deadlift and its cohort of issues can be a bit of a monster, so rather than attacking it head on I like to sneak up on it. Below is a progression of exercises that help us find good position and slowly move closer and closer to a single leg position.
For some readers it may be enough to feel a set or two in each position before moving on, but for most it’s probably a good idea to live with the hardest variation you can absolutely crush for four or five weeks before moving on to the next one.
Look, you’ve gotta walk before you can run, right? While the kettlebell deadlift doesn’t involve any dissociation of the hips, it does require good hip extension, and it’s a great place to start if you have any trouble at all maintaining a neutral spine.
This variation keeps me on both feet, allowing me to benefit from both the improved stability as well as the tactile feedback from the second foot on the floor (proprioception).
By knowing where my hips are in space it’s easier to keep them level, but I’ve introduced a subtle degree of hip dissociation. With one leg slightly in front of the other (and 90% or more of my weight on that forward foot), I’m beginning to move through hip extension with my legs in different degrees of flexion/extension.
Slide Board Deadlift
This variation and the following can be used in either order. I’ve found some clients are quick to master one but struggle with the other. In most cases, however, I think this is the next step.
The slide board keeps both feet on the ground, but introduces a more recognizable dissociation of the hips, with one leg extending out behind the lifter. As with the B-Stance Deadlift, most of the lifter’s weight should be on the front (working) leg. To emphasize this I’ve actually had clients try a set or two in shoes—rubber soles on rubber flooring—forcing them to nearly “float” their back foot.
If you don’t have access to a slide board, a sock foot on a smooth floor works just as well.
Wall Press Kettlebell Deadlift
When I first ran into this variation I felt a little bit like a paleontologist discovering the missing link: this was what I needed to help bridge the gap between being on two feet and being on one.
With the foot off of the floor I’ve lost some of the familiarity and comfort of the previous variations, but with the feedback and relative measure of added stability the wall (or in the case of the video the box) provides, it’s still easier to keep my hips level.
*Setup tip: use your shin as a measure... you should stand just far enough from the wall so that your knees are still next to each other.
Single Leg Kettlebell Deadlift
We did it… a single leg deadlift!
90% of the time I find that a contralateral loading scheme is best—holding the kettlebell in the hand opposite the working leg. This is more intuitive for most lifters, as it reflects the same counterbalanced approach to movement we use when we walk or run.
Snatch Grip Single Leg Deadlift
This one here is one of the tougher deadlift variations I’ve come across. It also happens to be one of my favorites. A set of eight of these, done well and with the right load, almost completely crushes me… and then it’s time for the other leg!
In reality, these may be beyond what most lifters can or even need to incorporate into their programming. I mention them in order to dispel the myth that unilateral training is somehow “easy” or not as beneficial as heavier, bilateral work. If you’re in that camp, grab a bar, load it up, and give these a go. I used a fairly “light” 135 pounds for the demo, and while I didn’t struggle, I was glad to finish even this abbreviated set.
What A Great Single Leg Deadlift Looks Like
If short and crooked is what we’re avoiding, long and straight is a good starting place for a good single leg deadlift. As a reference point, I’ll help clients find the bony prominence on the front of their hips knows as the ASIS (Anterior Superior Iliac Spine). As they move through their deadlift I ask them to picture these points as headlights, and to keep them pointed straight forwards (or down, depending on where they are in the deadlift). Mastering that, and staying long from head to heel, goes a long way towards cleaning up one of the more challenging exercises out there.
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