Why the Single-Leg Deadlift is a Go-To Leg Exercise

by Andrea Du Cane on June 22, 2016

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Andrea Du Cane Single-Leg Deadlift

Why do I love single-leg deadlifts so much? 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.” I think this is especially true for the single-leg deadlift.

I have to share 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!

Here’s why everyone should add this powerful exercise to their program:

The single-leg deadlift not only develops hip strength and power, but it also allows the muscles of the hips and legs to act as stabilizers. If you think about it, every time you stand on one leg, you’re using the same muscles for balance and 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 it can go a long way to help reduce injuries and improve performance.

Double Kettlebell Single-Leg Deadlifts:

Holding kettlebells in each hand is easier on your core because it balances 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 single-leg deadlifts.

Single-Arm Single-Leg Deadlifts:

Single-arm single-leg deadlifts have the advantage of requiring torso, pelvic, and hip stability as well as strength production. This exercise can be used as a corrective exercise because loading one size requires us to resist the rotational forces put on the body.

Holding the kettlebell on the opposite side of the working leg is the most common corrective use of the single-arm single-leg deadlift. However, holding a kettlebell on the same side as the working leg also has many benefits and challenges. Both versions of the single-arm single-leg deadlift challenge the body to restrict rotational forces from loading one side.

Interestingly, only half the people who try holding the kettlebell on the same side as the working leg will find it harder than holding it on the opposite side. And it may be different from left leg to right.

When using the single-leg deadlift 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 single-leg deadlifts correctly. As I like to say, “Perfect Technique = Success”. Go to any gym and you’ll see lots of sloppy single-leg deadlifts. Are they getting the most from the exercise? Are they risking hurting themselves? The answer is “no” and “yes”, respectively.

These basics apply to both double and single arm single-leg deadlifts:

  1. The back MUST remain neutral throughout the lift. If your back rounds or flexes, you risk tweaking it. And if your back rounds or flexes, I guarantee you are not using your glutes.
  2. The hips HINGE and move back over your heels. This move is not about the torso bending forward, it’s about the hips moving backward.
  3. The front knee will bend, but it does not move forward excessively. Remember, we are deadlifting not squatting. Plus, this is not a straight-leg deadlift—straight-leg deadlifts shift 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—for both the single or double arm variations.
  5. The arms move as a pendulum from the shoulders as the torso moves forward. The shoulders remain engaged at the lat, do not let your shoulders disconnect from your body as your torso moves forward. This helps the rotator cuff and shoulder stabilizers work during the movement. The elbows remain locked, no “pulling” with your biceps.
  6. The knee must track the toe; do not let the knee collapse inward or outward.
  7. The feet are active. The entire foot is loaded with a bit more weight towards the heel, with the big toe working and gripping the floor.
  8. The back foot is dorsiflexed and the toe is facing down to help keep the hips “closed”.
  9. The back leg is an extension of the spine, and the leg should not be higher or lower than the hips. The back leg should be in line with the hips, and active to help with balance.
  10. Squeeze your palms into the kettlebell handles, this increases shoulder and core stability and strength.
  11. Keep your eyes focused approximately 3-6 feet in front of you to help keep your head in alignment and to assist balance.
  12. Inhale as you stand back up. Power breathe as you drive your foot down into the ground and lift up.

All the elements listed above apply to both the two arm and single arm single-leg deadlift. For added focus, maintain level shoulders and torso at all times when performing single arm single-leg deadlift. You will need to fight the rotational pull with the weight.

A few other thoughts: If at all possible, perform your single-leg deadlifts barefoot. The proprioceptive, neurological information from your feet will assist your balance and make you stronger.

Modifications for Different Populations:

  • Use platforms to raise the kettlebell(s) so that they can be picked up safely AND with no spine flexion.
  • Start from the top instead of picking the kettlebells up from the ground. This way you are already loaded, instead of trying to find tension and stability at the bottom of the movement.
  • People with bad knees or balance issues can hold onto a wall or bar with one hand and hold the kettlebell in the other hand. They will not have to “fight” for balance and risking tweaking their knees or back.
  • Keep the back leg down as a “kick-stand”. This also helps with balance issues.
  • NEVER fight for balance! If you start to lose 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. Try 6-8 reps 2-4 sets with this medium load. Then go heavy, especially with double arm single-leg deadlifts and drop the reps to 3-5.

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 chose a kettlebell that is too light!

Here’s a short demo of a two-arm single-leg deadlift. As stated above, all points apply to using one kettlebell:

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Andrea Du Cane is a Master RKC Kettlebell Instructor, CK-FMS, CICS, and RIST, ZHealth certified, she has a BA in Psychology from the University of Minnesota and is also a Pilates instructor. She is the author of several books and dvds including The Ageless Body, The Kettlebell Boomer, and The Kettlebell Goddess Workout She has over twenty years of aerobics, weight training and fitness experience, with an additional background in… Read more here.

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