Why the Single-Leg Dead Lift Should Be One Of Your Go-To Leg Exercises

Why the Single-Leg Dead Lift Should Be One Of Your Go-To Leg Exercises

Why do I love single-leg deadlifts so much?  Well, for one thing nothing works the butt and legs quite like it.  Add the extra benefit to the back, core, lower legs and feet and you have a full body exercise.  As Gray Cook likes to say, “Maintain your squat and TRAIN your deadlift” – especially the single-leg deadlift.

I have to share with you a personal story; I’ve had four Patellar dislocations. Yes, FOUR! The first one happened after a two-hour ballet/pointe class. The second happened in the middle of a jazz dance class. The third happened when my tango partner hit my kneecap with his knee and the fourth happened when my shoe caught in an escalator and I fell.  Yes, dance is a very dangerous sport!

The last two times, I popped it back in and rehabbed it myself.

The single-leg deadlift was the most important exercise for strengthening and rehabbing my knee.  So this is an exercise close to my heart!

Now let’s get to way everyone should be adding this powerful exercise into their program.

The single-leg deadlift not only develops hip strength and power, but it allows the muscles of the hips and legs to act as stabilizers.  If you think about it, every time you stand on one leg, the ability to maintain balance, is achieved by using the same muscles for stability that are generally used for force production.

Forcing the body to maintain stability on one leg, allows the athlete and coach to see strength imbalances from left to right side.  This is extremely important for athletes as well as special populations, and can go a long way to help reduce injuries and improve performance.

Let’s first talk about the double kettlebell SLDL.  Holding kettlebells in each hand is easier on your core, by balancing out the load from side to side. This allows you to go heavy and train pure hip strength on one leg.   You can then watch for and correct left/right strength asymmetries.  The focus will be on initiating and driving forcefully with your glutes.

This hip drive, with stability is the same for both double kettlebells and single- arm kettlebell SLDL’s.  Moving to single-arm SLDL’s, has the advantage of requiring torso, pelvic, hip stability as well as strength production. Now the exercise can be used as a corrective exercise by resisting the rotational forces put on the body by loading one side.

The most common corrective use with the single-arm SLDL, incorporates holding the kettlebell on the opposite side of the working leg.  However, I have found many benefits and challenges holding a kettlebell on the same side as the working leg.  Both challenge the body to restrict rotational forces from loading one side.

It is interesting, but about half the people will find holding the kettlebell on the same side as the working leg find it harder than holding it on the opposite side.  And it may be different from left leg to right.

When using this as a corrective exercise, find your weakest link or most challenging combination and train the weak link 2-1.

Now let’s discuss how to perform SLDL’s correctly.  As I like to say, “Perfect Technique = Success”.   Go to any gym and you’ll see lots of sloppy SLDL’s.  The question is are they getting the most from the exercise? Are they risking hurting themselves?  The answer is No and Yes, respectively.

I’ll start with the basics which apply to both double and single arm SLDL’s.

  1. The back MUST remain neutral throughout the lift. If your back rounds or flexes you risk tweaking it and I guarantee you are not using your glutes.
  2. The hips HINGE and move back over your heel. It is not about the torso bending forward, it’s about the hips moving backward.
  3. The knee will bend, but it does not move excessively forward, remember we are deadlifting not squatting. And it is not a straight-leg DL, that shifts the focus and load to the hamstrings and off the glutes.  Think of the movement as an “elevator not a teeter-totter”.
  4. The shoulders and hips remain parallel to each other and the floor. Do not externally rotate your back leg and don’t let your working hip sink or rise above parallel.  The shoulders should also remain squared off and equal, this is the same with either single or double arm.
  5. The arms move as a pendulum from the shoulders as the torso moves forward. The elbows remain locked, no “pulling” with your biceps. And the shoulders remain engaged at the lat, do not let your shoulder disconnect from your body as your torso moves forward.  This helps to facilitate the rotator cuff and shoulder stabilizers working during the movement.
  6. The knee must tract the toe; do not let it collapse inward or outward.
  7. The feet are active, the entire foot is loaded, with a bit more weight towards the heel, but the big toe is working and gripping the floor.
  8. The back foot is dorsal flexed and the toe is facing down to help keep the hips “closed”.
  9. The back leg is an extension of the spine, the leg should not be lower than the hips or higher, but in line with the hips. Keeping the back leg active will actually help with balance.
  10. Squeeze your palms onto the kettlebells, this increases shoulder and core stability and strength.
  11. Keep your eyes focused approximately 3-6 feet in front of you. This will help keep your head in alignment and also assists balance.
  12. Inhale as you go back and power breath as you drive your foot down into the ground and lift up.

All these elements apply to both 2 arm and single arm SLDL.  An added focus when performing single arm SLDL, is to maintain your shoulders and torso level at all times.  You will need to fight the rotational pull with the weight.  Otherwise, all elements above apply.

A few other thoughts.  If at all possible, perform your SLDL’s barefoot. The neurologic information you receive proprioceptively from your feet will assist your balance and make you stronger.

Modifications for different populations include:

  1. Using platforms to raise the kettlebell(s) up to a level they can pick up the kettlebells safely AND with no spine flexion.
  2. Start at the top, rather than picking the kettlebells off from the ground. This way you are already loaded rather than trying to find tension and stability at the bottom.
  3. For some people with bad knees or balance issues, have them hold onto a wall or bar with one hand and hold the kettlebell in the other hand. That way they are not “fighting” for balance and risking tweaking their knees or back.
  4. Keep the back leg down as a “kick-stand”. This helps with balance issues.
  5. NEVER fight for balance! If you start to loose balance simply place your back leg down on the ground and regroup.

When training, start with medium loads to get a feel for your weaknesses while developing single leg strength and balance, 6-8 reps 2-4 sets.  Then go heavy, especially with double arm SLDL’s and drop the reps to 3-5.

You’ll find a link with a short demo of a 2-arm SLDL, as stated above all points apply to using one kettlebell.

This exercise should be performed slow and controlled. NOT fast and bouncy.  If you’re bouncing up and down, you are either hiding weaknesses or you went too light!

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