Single-leg strength is a highly-coveted physical quality when it comes to advancing your health, fitness, and performance.
It’s important to build durability in single-leg exercises so that your lower body can be strong enough to withstand the demands of playing sports, going for a run, and lifting weights.
We are going to break down single-leg strength with respect to the deadlift (hip hinge) pattern in this article. Be sure to check out part 1 of this series where we addressed how to build single-leg squat strength.
Take your time with these exercise progressions and make sure you master the technique and form each step of the way.
SINGLE-LEG FLOOR WORK
This is where exercises like single-leg bridges and single-leg hip thrusts come into play. Since we’re down on the floor, there are fewer things to think about from a stability and balance standpoint. The opposite is true for when you’re in a standing position.
Mastering these exercises below will give you the necessary strength you need to kick everything off.
1. 1-Leg Bridge w/ Squeeze
Start on the floor with a yoga block (or small foam roller) between the knees. This will help to engage the adductor (groin) muscles while performing this exercise. I like this as a starting point for most people to be able to feel what it’s like to load weight on one leg.
2. 1-Leg Bridge w/ Toes Up & Knee Drive Iso
The primary difference here is that we’re engaging the hip flexor muscles on the “knee drive iso” side, which helps to stabilize the hips. You’ll also feel the hamstring muscles activate by keeping the toes pointed up on the stance side. All of this will help to keep the ball rolling as you move forward along this exercise progression line.
3. Bench 1-Leg Hip Thrust w/ Knee Drive Iso
Now, support the middle part of your back against a bench or soft plyo box. We’re increasing the range of motion as we move away from single-leg bridges and into single-leg hip thrusts. Be sure to keep a good core position here and avoid arching your low back or flaring your ribcage.
4. Bench 1-Leg Hip Thrust w/ Knee Drive
The addition of the “knee drive” motion on the non-stance side, adds an element of dynamic stability for the stance foot. Continue to lock that core into a strong position as you perform this exercise pattern.
5. Bench 1-Leg Hip Thrust w/ Leg Long
This variation creates much more of a stability challenge for the hips since the non-stance side is long. Physics comes into play here, since we know that it’s tougher to stabilize longer levers. Keep a smooth rhythm here as you work hard to coordinate each rep.
6. Bench Chain 1-Leg Hip Thrust w/ Knee Drive Iso
Let’s begin to add some external load now, via chains. You could certainly use a sandbag or even a dumbbell here instead. The goal is to continue advancing by adding in a new layer of challenge each step of the way.
7. Bench Chain 1-Leg Hip Thrust w/ Knee Drive
Similar to the body weight version of this exercise, you’ll notice an uptick in the stability challenge in your hips. Continue demonstrating great technique and form, especially as it pertains to your core and ribcage position.
8. Bench Chain 1-Leg Hip Thrust w/ Leg Long
Here’s the final step in the single-leg floor work progressions. The amount of strength developed in these previous exercises will help to lay down the framework for what lies ahead.
PSEUDO SINGLE-LEG STANDING VARIATIONS
Not everyone is quite ready to jump right into single-leg training in a standing position. That’s why pseudo single-leg exercises serve their purpose.
In these types of exercises, the athlete is placing most of the weight on one leg. The other leg is only playing a small role from a stability and loading standpoint. Even though this doesn’t truly represent single-leg training, it is still a great way to build a solid foundation as you make progress on your path.
The kickstand position is a great place to start while you get comfortable predominantly loading the stance side with the heel of the other foot propped up in a kickstand.
Start working at it in the order below.
1. Medicine Ball Wall Kickstand Hip Hinge
Use the wall behind you to aim your hips forward while you reach the medicine ball forward with your hands. This will create a counterweight, which will help you balance as you groove the hip hinge pattern.
2. Medicine Ball Band Kickstand Hip Hinge
Now, add a band looped around the waist for added resistance in this pattern. Still, reach the medicine ball forward to create that counterweight effect.
3. Medicine Ball Hug Kickstand RDL
Remove the assistance of the counterweight and instead hug a medicine close to the chest. This exercise progression will teach you how to create stability in the trunk as you perform the kickstand RDL pattern.
4. DB Neutral Grip Kickstand RDL
Let’s put a dumbbell in each hand now. The neutral grip refers to the fact that your knuckles should be facing in toward each other while remaining in-line with your legs.
5. DB Kickstand RDL
The primary difference now is that you’re going to put your hands in front of your thighs with the dumbbells to create an added stability challenge for the hips as you load the hamstrings. You’ll also notice a greater ability to sit the hips back in this movement.
6. Landmine Kickstand RDL (Linear Orientation)
I like using the landmine set-up with the barbell since it aids in helping you groove the pattern. This is purely based on the way the barbell is angled in the landmine set-up, which certainly works in your favor. Start here with the linear orientation first.
7. Landmine Kickstand RDL (Lateral Orientation)
Once you’ve mastered the linear version, it’s time to move on and challenge yourself a bit more with this lateral orientation. The reason why it’s more challenging, is due to the fact that the weight is set off to one side, which places a bigger emphasis on single-leg stability and balance.
8. DB Wall Press 1-Leg RDL
I’ve recently become a monster fan of this exercise. I like it for a couple of reasons:
#1 – It’s very similar to the kickstand position, but now you are placing your foot directly into the wall instead. The stance foot on the floor is still in control and shouldering most of the load while the “wall press” foot is playing a supporting role. This unique set-up bumps up the difficulty a bit.
#2 – You’re really challenging your lower body to maintain the position and stabilize by pressing the rear foot directly into the wall. The entire lower body is active here, which serves as a solid way to tie everything in together prior to fine-tuning the pattern coming up next.
FINE-TUNE YOUR TECHNIQUE FOR A BETTER PATTERN
It’s pivotal for you to fine-tune your technique in order to master the pattern over time. You can do so in a variety of ways, which can be through adding support or assistance with the hands, using a medicine ball for a counterweight effect, or even adding tension via a resistance band.
Either way, it will be important for you to use each step along the way, to continue building a strong foundation.
1. Wall Press 1-Leg RDL Iso
Using isometrics in your training is a great way to master positions and build strong patterns. Holding a position for time during an isometric contraction, especially when it comes to this pattern, bodes well for feeling strong and confident as you make progress.
2. Table Supported 1-Leg RDL
I’m using a towel on top of a treatment table here to support my pattern. However, you could certainly use a plyo box instead. Adding in the sliding towel makes the pattern feel a bit smoother.
3. 1-Leg RDL
Here’s the first step of actually performing the movement pattern with no support or assistance. Let’s face it, single-leg balance and stability can become challenging for most folks. Take your time as you continue to refine your technique here.
4. Medicine Ball 1-Leg RDL
Using the medicine ball in your hands allows you to create a counterweight as the hips and non-stance leg reach back behind you.
5. Medicine Ball Hug 1-Leg RDL
Now, give the medicine ball a hug and perform that same exact pattern. You’ll notice that it’s slightly more challenging to stabilize.
6. Medicine Ball 1-Leg RDL w/ 3-Way Reach
Here is a great option to add in if you’re having trouble with the stability component as you control down and then back up. This isn’t always a necessary step in the exercise progression line, but can definitely be helpful for those needing to build better balance as they work their way up the ladder.
7. PVC Band 1-Leg RDL
You are using tension as your friend here. Engaging the latissimus dorsi, which is the largest muscle in the upper body, is key for trunk and hip stability. The other primary upper back muscles will be along for the ride here as well. The goal is to keep the PVC as tight to your body as possible through the entire range of motion.
8. Mini-Band 1-Leg RDL
The previous exercise variation allowed you to use upper back engagement with both arms. Now, give this version a shot by only using tension with one arm. There’s definitely a bump in the overall challenge.
LOAD THE PATTERN TO BUILD STRENGTH
Now, the time has come to load the pattern. This is where everything you’ve accomplished prior to this will pay off. You’ve locked in both trunk and hip stability, added in sound technique, and made sure that the balance and coordination boxes have been checked off.
Let’s begin loading and layering more strength into the mix.
1. Cable 2-Arm 1-Leg RDL
I like this option first since it provides resistance from the cable column in both hands. This gives you a greater ability to remain stable as you perform the pattern.
2. Cable 1-Arm 1-Leg RDL
Let’s drop down to one handle only now as we continue bumping up the difficulty.
3. KB Goblet 1-Leg RDL
Placing the kettlebell against the chest in the goblet position serves two primary purposes:
#1 – You are essentially turning your body into a see-saw. Your head, neck, and shoulders need to keep the kettlebell glued to the chest as your non-stance leg reaches back behind you.
#2 – It continues to hammer home the importance of trunk stability via an anti-flexion challenge. This means that you want to avoid slouching down at the chest, and instead, work toward keeping your core muscles engaged and your spine in a relatively neutral position.
4. DB 1-Leg RDL (2 DB’s)
Here you will be performing the very same action as you did in the first exercise on this list. The only difference now is that you’ll be holding a pair of dumbbells instead of holding a handle in each hand from the cable column.
5. DB 1-Leg RDL
Similar to the previous exercise, you’re dropping the handle from the cable column and using one dumbbell instead on the non-stance side. This, in my opinion, is the most commonly used loading variation of this exercise.
6. Tempo KB 1-Leg RDL (Tempo: 3-Sec, 3-Sec, 3-Sec)
Add in a specific tempo now to increase the overall difficulty. Focus on spending 3 seconds during the eccentric (descending) component, holding a 3-second isometric (pause) in the bottom position, and then spending 3 seconds during the concentric (ascending) portion.
7. Barbell 1-Leg RDL
Using a barbell in your hands helps to create an even distribution (for the most part) between each arm. You can effectively engage your upper back muscles and keep constant tension as you continue to strengthen the pattern.
8. Landmine 1-Leg RDL (Linear Orientation)
I enjoy using the landmine options as a way to continue challenging the pattern at different angles. The unique angled barbell set-up from the landmine allows you to do just that. This linear orientation option serves as a good starting point.
9. Landmine 1-Leg RDL (Lateral Orientation)
After mastering the linear version, go ahead and place the barbell out to one side of your body in the lateral orientation set-up. Make no mistake though, this is certainly a challenging variation.
USE THE DEAD STOP TO BUILD STRENGTH AT THE BOTTOM
By placing the kettlebell on the floor for a short moment, you’re emphasizing trunk and hip control in the bottom position. The bottom is the most challenging aspect of this pattern, which is why the dead stop variations represent the final step in the process.
Be sure to use a kettlebell here since they are typically greater in length than a dumbbell. This means that you’ll have slightly less range of motion to travel in. If push comes to shove and you have no other option, then go ahead and use a dumbbell. However, be sure to understand that you’ll be challenged to greater depth if you do so.
1. KB Dead Stop 1-Leg RDL
This is truly one of my all-time favorite exercises. I love how it forces you to own every single segment of the movement pattern. You can also go a bit heavier with the dead stop options.
2. Tempo KB Dead Stop 1-Leg RDL (5-Sec Down & 5-Sec Iso)
Here is the final step in the process. A “double dead stop” is in effect here. The first dead stop comes at the 5-second isometric (pause) just before placing the kettlebell on the floor. The second dead stop comes when you actually do place it on the floor. This is truly a challenge.
Single-leg strength isn’t easy to build but sure pays off handsomely for your overall physical activity and health. Taking your time during each step of the way will ensure technique mastery and strength development, both of which are qualities you will want to build.