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October 23, 2022
The reigning king of all exercises, the deadlift is an incredible compound move that effectively trains both the upper and lower body. Its superiority in the gym has spawned endless variations, one of which is the single leg deadlift, which we'll discuss in this post.
Also called the one leg deadlift, it's an amazing unilateral move that trains the entire lower body, specifically the posterior chain. It builds strength and muscle, but its benefits don't end there! In fact, we could go on and on about how great it is (which we plan to do later on in this article).
In this post, we'll discuss:
A single leg deadlift is just as it sounds. It's a deadlift done on one leg, making it a true unilateral lower body exercise.
A unilateral exercise is performed one side at a time. This allows you to identify muscular imbalances as well as improve your balance and athleticism.
The single leg deadlift trains the upper and lower body while concentrating on the posterior chain muscles. Here's a closer look at the muscles worked.
The hamstrings are one of the primary muscles for this movement. This muscle group, which includes the biceps femoris (both long and short head), semitendinosus, and semimembranosus, crosses both the knee joint and hip joint. This means that their actions include flexing the knee joint and extending the hip.
During a single leg deadlift, the hamstrings help the glutes pull the hips forward, making it a great hamstring exercise.
While the single leg deadlift is primarily a lower body exercise, it relies on some upper body work as well, particularly the back muscles. By concentrating on pulling your shoulders back and together, your back muscles are activated.
The single leg deadlift requires a lot from your back muscles, specifically your scapular muscles (aka, your traps). While a tad unconventional, you could even add this move to your back workout.
If you talk about "core muscles", people tend to mean abs. While this is correct, the core also includes the obliques and lower back (some even consider the entire torso as the core).
Together, these muscles contract to generate stiffness and rigidness of the spine to protect the organs and skeleton. During the single leg deadlift, these muscles must keep the torso from twisting.
The glutes, along with the hamstrings, are the primary muscles used in a deadlift movement pattern. While there is some knee flexion (meaning quad work), this is primarily hip extension.
These are the most powerful muscles in the human body and are involved in basically every movement that takes place in the lower body. In the single leg deadlift, the gluteus medius gets special activation as it's the muscle responsible for balancing on one leg.
Here's what else makes the single leg deadlift awesome.
The posterior chain is made up of several muscles all linked together to stabilize the back and extend the hips. The primary muscles are the glutes, hamstrings, and erector spinae, all of which are crucial to overall health, human performance, and injury prevention.
The single leg deadlift is a great choice for training these muscles as it's a true hip extension movement, perhaps even more so than a traditional deadlift.
We have spoken about this before but the single leg deadlift's focus on one leg at a time makes it very hard to replace. In fact, the rest of the benefits on this list stem from the unilateral nature of the movement.
The balance component of the single leg deadlift is one of the variables that make this movement pattern unique and crucial for any leg workout. Everyone needs balance for sport and life.
Very few sports, or daily actions, take place on both legs, making unilateral training essential. Walking, running, and cycling all take place unilaterally. One step in front of the other.
While bilateral exercises are crucial for maximal strength development, a single leg exercise will replicate real-life conditions.
This may seem odd, as using heavy weights is a benefit of a traditional deadlift.
But using ultra heavy weights isn't always the best choice. Studies have even suggested that lighter weights can illicit higher muscle activation¹.
Taking away one leg during the deadlift drastically alters the exercise's movement and training variables. Here's a look at how they differ.
The traditional deadlift is primarily a strength movement. While some will use high reps for deadlifts, most lifters stay under the 5 rep mark.
While it's pretty obvious you're going to lift less weight during a one leg deadlift, lifters still tend to lean toward higher reps (8-12). This puts it into the hypertrophy, or muscle growth, training zone.
It's often assumed that when you perform a unilateral exercise, you can lift 50% of its bilateral counterpart. But that's not actually the case.
Enough research has been done on this topic that we can say, with a high degree of certainty, that more weight than this can be lifted when using a single limb.
In other words, if you perform a single leg deadlift on your left leg and then right leg, the combined load should be more than the bilateral counterpart. This assumes your balance is not an issue.
This was confirmed in a study that reviewed one leg squats. Research showed that when looking at the load of the barbell, a lifter's single leg squat performance was 42% of the back squat¹.
However, when taking the weight of the body, the single leg performance was 64%. In theory, this would total 128%.
The body's hormonal response to barbell movements plays a crucial role in human development. One of the hormonal responses is testosterone.
Surprisingly, studies have shown that using a single leg will produce similar increases in this anabolic hormone2. This is despite the smaller load.
This is huge for anyone who can't perform traditional bilateral leg exercises as you can effectively maintain elevated testosterone levels with the unilateral variation.
Romanian deadlift vs. deadlift: Which one does the one leg version most closely resemble? There tends to be confusion about what you're actually doing when performing a single-leg deadlift.
The truth is that there's a grey area regarding which one it falls under. But generally speaking, when people perform a one leg deadlift, it's more similar to a Romanian deadlift (RDL).
You rarely see a person begin the movement from the floor. Instead, lifters start from standing, like in the RDL. At the same time, while there isn't as much flexion in the knees, people can still go lower, as seen during a traditional deadlift.
Further, people do a single leg deadlift to improve things like balance and hypertrophy, not strength. This is better accomplished with the RDL.
Also, consider that standing on one leg will increase the activation of your stabilizer muscles but will decrease your stability. As a result, you won't be able to exert as much force, meaning less weight is used.
Think of it this way: What would you think about someone doing single leg squats with a heavy 3x3 rep scheme? We're not saying you can't. We're just saying a smart lifter wouldn't.
Something else to consider is that there are quite a few other single leg exercises. One of these is called the skater squat, and it looks like a true single leg deadlift.
We will go through several variations of the single leg deadlift below. However, the main movement for all of them is basically the same. Master the movement pattern, and then add weights based on your abilities.
For this how-to, we'll focus on how to perform the single leg deadlift using two dumbbells.
How to perform the Single Leg Deadlift:
Mastering this move is essential to gaining all of its potential benefits. Use these three tips to ensure you're performing it perfectly.
There are several single leg deadlift variations for lifters of all levels. Even if you're a strong deadlifter following a powerlifting program, starting with an easier version of the unilateral variation is still a good idea. This is because performing the movement on one leg is vastly different.
In addition, it requires significantly more balance. Here are 4 variations perfect for any fitness level.
This is not a Bulgarian split squat, but it is similar. You will extend your rear leg back so it's in a similar position to the Bulgarian split squat.
This means your leg is almost extended. It will then rest on a bench, step stool, or platform. The leg is acting as support as opposed to helping generate force.
The single leg deadlift version will simply use some sort of support, including things like a rack squat, door, or wall. You also have a few options as to how you use your support.
You can begin practicing the movement and working on balance by using a wall or door to support your back foot as you practice the single leg deadlift motions, or you can hold on to a rack squat (or something similar) with one hand as you move through the entire deadlift range of motion.
As you progress with the exercise, your goal is to use less and less support.
Once your balance is sufficient, you can perform the movement with just your body weight. This is a great way to master the exercise and your balance before throwing weights into the mix.
Once you can perform the single-leg deadlift with no support, it's time to start putting some weight on your muscles. To begin with, you can start with some resistance bands.
This is a good progression to acclimate to performing the single-leg deadlift with resistance. You can either attach the resistance band to something like a squat rack, or place the band under your standing leg, holding the ends in your hands. Remember that this will pull your arms back slightly when you lean forward.
Then to further challenge your balance, once you've mastered this variation, try adding a knee drive in at the end.
You should move through the above progressions fairly quickly, depending on your fitness level. When ready, move on to the two dumbbell variation we discussed above, or one of these options.
Using a kettlebell might be our favorite method as the grip is easier to hold due to the weight being below your hand.
If you want to use a single kettlebell, you will hold it in the same side hand as your standing leg. For example, if your left leg is planted, you'll hold the kettlebell in your left hand. When the right leg is planted, hold it in your right hand.
For two kettlebells, hold one in each hand. In either version, the kettlebell should come down in a straight line, just in front of your feet.
This is definitely an advanced single leg deadlift. While not seen often, you can use a barbell, but we only recommend it for experienced lifters.
Also, the barbell deadlift is the only version where you could try starting from the ground.
Not enough people are performing single leg exercises. But, now you can.
The single leg Romanian deadlift is an awesome exercise for building leg muscles as it has the perfect combination of difficulty, ease of progression, and effectiveness. This is why it's included in workouts for athletes and lifters of all backgrounds and experience levels.
The one leg deadlift is great for muscle hypertrophy and when light weights and high reps are used, it can be used for muscular endurance as well.
If you don't currently have any unilateral training in your fitness program, we highly recommend including the single leg deadlift. That’s assuming you want to optimize your training (and we're assuming you do!).
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