The Single Leg Romanian deadlift (RDL) is an incredibly effective functional movement to help build stability, strength and power.
It’s a unilateral lower-body exercise (i.e., each side of your body is tested separately) that primarily targets the posterior chain and core muscles.
Whether you’re an elite athlete or someone who spends a lot of the day sitting, including single leg RDLs into your workout routine is definitely worth considering.
But, technique is everything and we’ve seen/read some confusing recommendations when it comes to Single Leg RDLs online, so we wanted to create a clear guide that unravels the science behind the movement, the impact on your body, and the correct way to perform this hip hinge exercise.
- Single Leg RDLs primarily target the muscles of the posterior chain, including the glutes, hamstrings, calves and lower back.
- The movement involves a hinge at the hips, with minimal knee flexion.
- You can use all sorts of equipment, including dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells or resistance bands.
- If you’re struggling with balance, try b-stance RDLs or use hip airplanes as a way to get started with the movement.
What is a Single Leg RDL?
The Single Leg Romanian Deadlift (Single Leg RDL) is a unilateral exercise that primarily targets the posterior chain – a group of muscles located on the “posterior” (back) of your body, including the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back.
The exercise involves balancing on one leg while hinging at the hips to lower your torso towards the ground, and then returning to an upright position.
Although that sounds simple enough, this movement path not only tests your strength but it also tests your balance, coordination, and stability… making it a valuable addition to any workout routine.
It’s a versatile exercise that can be performed with various equipment like dumbbells, kettlebells, a barbell, or even just your bodyweight (if you’ve done it before, we’d definitely recommend starting off with just the bodyweight version first).
Unlike other lower body exercises like squats, quadricep activation is lower and the focus is ultimately on the back of the legs (glutes, hamstrings and calves)… so make sure you include quad-dominant exercises as well to maintain good lower body muscular balance.
Single Leg RDLs for beginners
How to Perform a Single Leg RDL Properly
To do Single Leg RDLs:
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in one hand (opposite hand to your working leg).
- Keeping your back straight and core engaged, hinge at the hips and lower your torso and the weight towards the ground while simultaneously lifting the non-weight-bearing leg behind you.
- Keep the weight close to your body and maintain a slight bend in the supporting knee.
- Hinge as far as feels comfortable. Hip mobility exercises may help improve this.
- Slowly return to the starting position by engaging your glutes and hamstrings to pull your torso back up.
Coach’s Tip – If you’re finding it difficult to keep your hips level, it might suggest weakness around the hip stabilizers (gluteus medius and minimus). We’d recommend trying to address that weakness before adding additional weight, or stick with regular RDLs to avoid the risk of losing your balance.
How do I know if my hips are stable?
Single Leg RDLs work the glutes, hamstrings, lower back and core muscles.
- Hamstrings – These are the main muscles worked during a Single Leg RDL. The exercise requires a significant hamstring stretch and contraction, leading to increased strength and flexibility over time.
- Glutes – The gluteus maximus, your body’s largest muscle, is heavily involved in the Single Leg RDL. The movement requires hip extension, a primary function of the glutes, making this exercise an excellent choice for building a stronger, firmer backside.
- Lower Back – The muscles in your lower back, particularly the erector spinae, provide stability during the exercise, helping maintain a neutral spine throughout the movement.
- Core – Your abdominal and oblique muscles are engaged to maintain balance and stability during the exercise.
- Calves and Ankles – These muscles and joints provide stability and balance, especially when you’re on one foot during the exercise.
- Quads – Your quads help to maintain stability as you hinge forward.
Single Leg RDL Benefits
Strengthens Posterior Chain
A strong posterior chain is useful in so many activities and movement paths. Whether you want to increase athletic performance or improve posture, strong glutes, hamstrings and a lower back will undoubtedly help.
The gluteus maximus often gets all the attention when we talk about the “glutes”… but the gluteus medius and minimus play a vital role in stabilizing the hips.
This impacts both upper and lower back movements and helps to keep the pelvis and spine stable (which subsequently reduces associated injuries from instability around the hips).
Improves Balance and Stability
The unilateral nature of Single Leg RDLs challenges your balance and stability.
Over time, this can improve your overall body coordination and proprioception, which is your body’s ability to perceive its position in space.
Enhances Core Stability
The Single Leg RDL requires a strong, engaged core to maintain balance and resist any sort of rotation. This engagement can lead to improved core strength and stability, benefiting your performance in other exercises and daily activities.
Aids in Injury Prevention
By strengthening your muscles and improving balance and stability, the Single Leg RDL can help prevent injuries, both in athletic performance and daily life.
A big part of this is improving the hip hinge movement, which helps to reduce stress on spine and back when we bend.
Think of it like this… the more you can hinge at the hips, the more you can keep your back straight as you bend. Over time, this can make all the difference.
Reduce Total Load on the Spine
If you’re recovering from any sort of back injury, you might want to opt for exercises that don’t put a lot of load on your spine (such as a heavy back squat or traditional deadlift).
Single leg variations allow you to reduce the total load and focus it all on one side of your body at a time.
The ankle/foot of your working leg has to constantly fight against the imbalance of standing on one leg. This helps improve stability, which can be a great way to reduce the risk of the falls.
Spot Muscular Imbalances
One of the reasons Physical Therapists and CPTs love unilateral exercises so much is that they offer a simple solution to spot muscular imbalances. If you can clearly lift more weight on one side, or your technique suddenly changes when you switch sides, it suggests an imbalance between your sides.
This can be common for lots of athletes, who may have a dominant side… but addressing the imbalance helps to improve movement paths and reduce injuries associated with muscular imbalances.
Common Mistakes to Avoid
Hips Not Straight
This sounds like a small consideration but it’s actually really important. If your hip aren’t straight as you hinge, it means you aren’t activating the glutes and hamstrings properly.
For example, you might just be rotating your torso or externally rotating your hips to give the impression of a hip hinge, without going through the biomechanics of what the movement actually requires.
Working on strengthening your hip stabilizers, such as the gluteus medius and minimus, can help to correct this.
Rounding the Back
Keep your back straight throughout the movement to avoid putting unnecessary strain on your spine. Rounding your back can happen when you aren’t able to hinge at the hips, due to poor hip mobility, so you try and overcompensate by rounding the back to get your torso closer to the floor.
To practice hinging with a straight back, try holding a dowel on your back as you hinge forward, ensuring the top, middle and bottom of your back are touching it.
Squatting Instead of Hinging
Single Leg RDLs are first and foremost a hip hinge movement… not a squat.
You want some knee flexion, but avoid bending your knees so much that you end up doing a squat.
If you’re struggling with balance, try performing the exercise near a wall or a sturdy object that you can hold onto if needed.
Similarly, the b-stance RDL involves a “kickstand” stance that allows you to focus on one leg, and use the other one to help with balance.
Rushing the Exercise
Don’t rush the exercise… instead, aim for slow, controlled repetitions.
We wouldn’t recommend including any sort of deadlift in timed rounds/circuits, as this can encourage rushed repetitions, which increases the risk of injury.
Locking Working Leg
Try and include a slight bend in your working knee to avoid the leg locking out.
The b-stance RDL is a great alternative if you’re struggling with balance. This involves adopting a “kickstand” stance that means your back leg can help add stability during the hip hinge.
Banded Single Leg RDL
For this variation, you’ll need a resistance band. Stand on one end of the band and hold the other end in your hand. As you perform the exercise, the band’s resistance will increase, challenging your muscles in a new way.
For guidance on using a band, check out our guide on deadlifts with a resistance band.
Single Leg RDL with Row
This advanced variation adds an upper body component to the exercise. As you hinge forward, perform a single-arm row at the bottom of the movement, then return to the starting position.
Standard RDLs (i.e., not standing on one leg) are also great for strengthening the posterior chain, and better for those who want to lift heavier weights.
Getting Started with Single Leg RDLs
Frequency – As a strength training exercise, Single Leg RDLs can be performed 1-2 times per week. This allows for adequate rest and muscle recovery between sessions.
Pairing with Other Exercises – Single Leg RDLs work well in a lower-body focused workout or a full-body routine. They pair well with exercises like squats, lunges, and step-ups for a comprehensive lower body workout. For a full-body routine, consider pairing them with upper body exercises like bench press or pull-ups.
Workout Placement – Single Leg RDLs are a compound exercise, meaning they work multiple muscle groups at once. Therefore, it’s generally best to perform them towards the beginning of your workout when you’re still fresh. This allows you to perform the exercise with optimal form and minimize the risk of injury.
Sample Workout Routine – A sample lower-body workout could include: warm-up, squats, Single Leg RDLs, lunges, step-ups, calf raises, and a cool-down stretch.
Can beginners do Single Leg RDLs?
Absolutely. Beginners can start with the bodyweight version of the exercise to master the form and balance before adding weights.
What if I can’t keep my balance during the exercise?
Balance comes with practice. You can perform the exercise near a wall or a sturdy object to help with balance. Over time, your balance will improve.
Can I do Single Leg RDLs without weights?
Yes, you can perform the exercise with just your body weight. It’s a great way to focus on form and balance.
Can Single Leg RDLs help with back pain?
While the exercise strengthens the lower back muscles, it’s important to consult with a healthcare professional if you’re experiencing back pain. They can provide guidance based on your specific situation.
The Single Leg Romanian Deadlift is a great exercise that offers a whole host of benefits, from strengthening key muscle groups to improving balance and stability.
Start slow, focus on your hinge at the hips, and gradually increase the intensity as your strength and balance improve.
Featured image and video demonstration credit – Chris Bostock