The single-leg deadlift is a key exercise that works the muscles on the backside of the body known as the posterior chain. These muscles include the hip extensors such as the gluteus maximus, hamstrings and a groin muscle called the adductor magnus. The hip extensors, particularly the gluteus maximus, are often underdeveloped in runners due to our modern, sedentary lifestyles and the compromised postures and range of motion they create, yet they are crucial to a powerful, robust stride, which makes learning this movement pattern and improving glute strength that much more important.
Since running is performed one leg at a time, it’s important to learn the single-leg version of a deadlift to maximize the benefits of the exercise to the demands of running. The single-leg Romanian deadlift not only challenges posterior chain muscles, but it also challenges pelvic and ankle stability to maintain balance and ideal form. Let’s break down this exercise and go over common mistakes.
Bend the Hip, Not the Spine
One important movement pattern to learn when strength training is the hip hinge. The hip hinge involves bringing the knee toward the torso or vice versa. This movement is used to correctly perform exercises such as deadlifts and kettlebell swings. This video explains how to bend the hip without bending the spine when doing the bilateral deadlift:
To perform the hip hinge correctly, first put one hand on your stomach and the other on your low back. Stand with your feet hip width apart and soften your knees. Feel that you have a neutral spine posture. Don’t be too arched or too rounded.
Next, bend over at the hip, pushing your tailbone back and your chest over the front of your feet. Keep your back flat and abs tight. Once you reach roughly 90 degrees of bending, you should feel tension in your hamstrings. This is good tension implying that you are bending through the hips correctly.
Return to the upright position and squeeze your glutes at the top. Notice that as you move through that range of motion, your spine does not change its shape. If your spine changes shape in between your hands, you need to brace your abs a little stronger and focus more on bowing.
Stagger Your Stance
To help you progress to a true single-leg Romanian deadlift, it’s helpful to learn the staggered Romanian deadlift next. The version of the deadlift will teach you how to keep your back flat while putting more weight through one leg.
Stand with your feet hip width apart, then slide one foot back so your toes line up with the heel of the opposite foot. Bend the rear leg knee and lift your heel in the air. Transfer more weight to your front leg and think of your rear leg as a kickstand for balance.
Place one hand on your low back and the other on your stomach again and soften the knee of your stance leg. Bow over similar to the bilateral Romanian deadlift. This time, you should feel a more intense contraction in your stance leg’s hamstring when your hips are at 90 degrees. This is because the stance leg is working harder to perform this movement since it’s carrying more of your weight. Return to standing and squeeze the glute on the stance leg side.
Use a Wall for Balance When Going to One Leg
The next step is to make this exercise more running specific. To transition to a single-leg Romanian deadlift, it’s helpful to use a wall or to hold on to the arm of your treadmill.
First, stand about 4–5 feet in front of a wall. Stand on one leg and soften your knee. Keep the same posture as above, but this time when you bow, raise your opposite leg behind you. Reach for the wall in front of you and extend your leg behind you. Similar to the double-leg Romanian deadlift, you’ll feel tension in the hamstring in your stance leg.
Hold the wall for balance and gently push your hips backward. Your back should be flat and hips at 90 degrees. Make sure you hips and torso are flat and parallel to the floor. It’s common to twist the spine or to have one hip higher than the other in the middle of the exercise. Feel as if you’re trying to form the shape of a capital letter T.
As your balance improves, you will not need the wall for assistance. Return to standing and squeeze the glute in your stance leg.
Add an Offset Weight
To progress the exercise, increase the challenge by holding a dumbbell in the same hand as the lifting leg. This will challenge your hip extensors and core to stabilize your body and torso position. A good starting weight can range from 10–20lbs. Do 3 sets of 12 repetitions/side, twice a week.
Jon-Erik Kawamoto, MSc, CSCS, CEP is a Strength & Conditioning Coach with 15 years of experience and is co-owner of JKConditioning, a health and fitness business in St. John’s, NL, Canada. He’s a retired competitive runner and a long time contributor to PodiumRunner. Find out more at JKConditioning.com and on social media @JKConditioning.