Ben Lee, BASc
The single leg deadlift is an effective exercise for the development of the glutes and posterior chain, grip, and lateral core, while also teaching proprioception, stability and force generation off one leg. Unfortunately, this exercise is often overlooked in favour of the bilateral deadlift and squat, and often poorly performed. While squatting and deadlifting on two legs allows you to use much heavier loads, and in turn develop strength and hypertrophy to a greater degree, the single leg variation is a great workout addition to any athlete who needs to be strong and stable in a unilateral stance.
Two major movement cues are necessary for this exercise: “straight back and forward facing hips.” Axial twisting or bending in the spine takes away from the efficacy of the exercise, violates basic movement laws for injury prevention and makes your movement inefficient – all terrible things if you want to perform at a high level. This exercise should mimic a drinking bird toy – moving back and forth and no wasted energy.
To keep the back straight we must cue the free leg to move with the torso. Prolonged spine flexion (bending your low back) under load is an injury mechanism of the spine; performed enough times this may cause flexion intolerance back pain (Callaghan and McGill, 2001). Cue yourself to maintain the natural curvature of your spine throughout the motion and allow the back leg to act as an extension of your torso as you tip forward. This is where an extra set of trained eyes can help coach your posture, too.
Another important movement cue is hip posture – shoulders and hips always facing the same direction. As the shoulders and hips deviate two things happen:
1) We induce axial twisting of the spine. This is a mechanism the spine does not like (Drake et. al., 2005). Pair this with added load, and we are sapping tolerance the spine can take before injury.
2) Movement inefficiency. How many fast and powerful movements can you think of that require the spine and hips to rotate away from each other? Most rotational movements (swinging a baseball bat, throwing a punch) require rotation of the hips and shoulders to work in concert to make rotational power more efficient.
There will be a natural tendency for the hip to want to open up to the free end, but fight to keep this hip down and pointed forward at all times.
More importantly we are trying to build good habits. If you get in the habit of getting lazy with the back leg and or hips, where else are you going to get lazy? At the bottom of the squat with 400 lbs? Pulling yourself under a snatch? Chasing after a loose ball?
Following the above movement cues can make the exercise safe, but the addition of motor activation cues makes the exercise more effective. These simple cues can be the difference between a mediocre exercise and an exercise fit for a world class athlete. We’ll start at the head and go down the kinetic chain.
- Clench the jaw and push the chin back. Avoid looking up or down. Jaw clenching may enhance neural drive through the entire body.
- Chin back/head neutral. Keeping the neck neutral helps reduce excessive extensor or flexor torque on the neck. It won’t make or break the exercise but does make it a bit friendlier on the cervical spine.
- Keep the shoulders in neutral posture while pulling the shoulder blades back, locking them in place and contracting the upper back musculature. As the lats have attachment points along the spine, activation of this muscle group improves torso stability. Imagine trying to squeeze a pencil between your shoulder blades and doing a Bruce Lee lat flare.
- Keep a tight, death grip on your weights. This follows the irradiation or co-contraction theory espoused by Pavel Tsatsouline which improves activation of musculature throughout the entire body. This is also a great way to improve your crushing grip strength and build a strong pair of forearms.
- Keep the core braced as if a friend or enemy is going to hit you in the stomach. If you’re loose it’s going to hurt, but if you’re braced correctly you’ll be fine. This is the same brace you should use when performing a SLDL or any load bearing exercise.
- Grip the floor with your foot like a monkey and root yourself into the ground to maintain stability between yourself and the ground.
- Contract the quadriceps and hamstrings to develop stability of the planted leg.
- Press the heel of the free leg outward, pulling the toes down and forcing the heel out. Keep this cue while you allow the leg to swing with the torso. This simple and often overlooked trick creates great neural drive throughout the entire posterior leg and keeps it rigid. By doing this we can create activation of the free leg’s glute, hamstring and calf. The same cue can be applied to the bird dog exercise and used to make the sankaku-jime (triangle choke) more effective.
Putting it all together it looks a little something like this:
Summary of Movement/Motor Cues:
- Neutral head posture
- Clench jaw, push chin back
- Rigid torso (contract upper back/core)
- Death grip on kettlebells
- Planted leg is rigid, gripping the ground
- Back leg is rigid, heel pointed outward
- Spine is in neutral alignment
- Allow back leg to kick up as torso tips forward. Imagine the leg is an extension of your torso
- Keep hips and shoulders facing forward at all times
Putting It Together
Why should you be doing this exercise? This type of hip extension is a great way to get your glute maximus working…single leg deads are fantastic for your booty. While the hypertrophy and strength gains won’t be as great as traditional squats and deadlifts, this exercise does a great job of ‘isolated’ glute strengthening and activation, as well as development of single leg stability and anti-rotation and lateral bending core stability.
More on the glutes. The glute maximus plays a big role in knee health (Souza and Powers, 2009). Females with internal rotation of the hip during jumping and landing (a common mechanism of patellofemoral pain and knee ligament injury) were measured to have high gluteal activation but performed poorly in isolated hip extension strength tasks. The interpretation of these results led researchers to believe that during hip internal rotation the body is trying to recruit the glute maximus to overcome this motion because the glutes are very strong hip external rotators, but lack of glute strength prevents this. Long story short – keep your glutes strong to keep your knees healthy, especially the ladies.
The single leg stance also develops frontal plane (side to side) stability. When we stand in a uniform bilateral stance we are in symmetry; each leg bears half the bodyweight load spaced equally from the body’s centre of mass. However, as soon as we are required to balance on one leg, we put ourselves in uneven load distribution and must generate muscular force to maintain stability to keep ourselves from tipping over. In this unilateral stance, two groups of muscles contribute to stability – the glute of the planted leg and the opposite lateral core. When these two muscle groups activate together they prevent the torso and knee from buckling laterally; the challenge to these muscle groups is increased under external load.
You may ask ‘why don’t we train squats and deadlifts to keep the glutes strong?’ Good question, and that has to do with load sharing capabilities of the body. In complex multi jointed movements such as squats and deadlifts there are so many muscles working during the exercise that if the glutes are weak the body can compensate with the hamstrings and spinal erectors. In the single leg deadlift the movement is much more constrained, and the glutes have no choice but to work. If they are too weak, the exercise will not be successfully performed.
There are plenty of ways to implement this exercise in your program. It can be used as a heavy main exercise to train balance and hip extension force off one leg, or it can also be used as an activation drill during a warmup prior to a knee dominant exercise. I personally perform low reps of increased weight as a glute activation drill prior to any squat based exercise (barbells squats, split squats, lunges) to turn my glutes on and keep my knees a little safer.
The way you hold weight in your hands will alter the loading pattern of the exercise, too. Weight held in the hand on the same side as the planted leg will be the easiest loaded version. The external load is placed over the base of support so the external twisting torque is minimized. The same weight held in the opposite hand will increase the anti-lateral bending and anti-rotational components significantly and is a great way to train the core. Weights held in both hands will still increase demands on lateral and rotational torso stability, although not as much as the second method. This loading method also increases demands on anti-flexion of the spine while loading the glutes to a higher degree. Barbells will be more difficult to use than kettlebells or dumbbells simply for the reason there is a concentration of mass further laterally from the centre of the body.
What I hope you take away from this article is an understanding of the movement and motor patterns of this exercise. This is a lot to take away from just reading but try this out for yourself. While there are a lot of cues to learn and use. please do not get lazy when doing this. Lazy habits make for lazy performance. Don’t get frustrated if you can’t pick up all the cues at once, too. I don’t expect anyone to learn this in a single session, and the more you practice deliberately the better you will get. Perhaps take a session to train basic movement patterns and one or two cues. As you get better and it becomes easier, add more cues until you are perfect.
As always, exercises are just tools. The way you perform an exercise makes or breaks how effective it is. Is a single leg deadlift a good exercise? That’s like asking if a shovel is a good tool. If you’re digging a hole, yes. If you’re raking your lawn, no. Just performing an exercise won’t reap you any benefits and if performed poorly will actually make you worse.
The application of this exercise to sport and every day life is numerous. As you master the single leg deadlift trying picking up your backpack like this. It may look weird, and I’m not recommending that you do this all the time, but it might make life a little easier. By strengthening the glutes and training balance with this exercise, look for differences in the ease of your main power/Olympic lifts, as well as your stability in your sport. Drill this well and see how this training infiltrates its way into your every day life. To quote the master swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, “In all forms of strategy, it is necessary to maintain the combat stance in everyday life and to make your everyday stance your combat stance. You must research this well.”
Practice perfectly, practice hard, practice often.
Do you perform the single leg deadlift? If not, will you start now? If you have any questions for Ben, comment below and remember to “like” us on facebook!
Ben graduated from the University of Waterloo with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and is currently pursuing a Masters Degree in Biomechanics. Aside from his academic base, Ben has close to 10 years of experience in the weight room with training histories in bodybuilding, powerlifting, strongman, Judo and competitive Muay Thai. Currently he is rehabbing from a multiple tendon rotator cuff repair and re-establishing athleticism while trying not to break his body.
His research interests include the influence of core training types on core stiffness and its effects on athleticism, injury prevention and rehabilitation. The application of this research is hoped to improve performance in weight training, sport specific skills and the ease of activities of daily living.
Ben runs Athletic Enhancement training where participants are taught methods to enhance their performance in various training methods (prowler sprints, loaded carries, rope pulls, etc) in a no-nonsense environment. In this event deliberate practice and a focused mindset are drilled along with establishing efficient movement technique. You can expect to train near your limits both physically and mentally, but reap the benefits of unlocking your potential athleticism.
- Drake, J.D., Aultman, C.D., McGil, S.M.,& Callaghan, J.P. (2005). The influence of static axial torque in combined loading on intervertebral joint failure mechanics using a porcine model. Clinical Biomechanics, 20(10), 1038-1045.
- Callaghan, J. P., & McGill, S. M. (2001). Intervertebral disc herniation: studies on a porcine model exposed to highly repetitive flexion/extension motion with compressive force. Clinical Biomechanics, 16(1), 28-37.
- Souza, R. B., & Powers, C. M. (2009). Differences in hip kinematics, muscle strength, and muscle activation between subjects with and without patellofemoral pain. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther, 39(1), 12-19