The Single-leg Deadlift: The Most Underutilized and Powerful Skill

If you have spent time on the StrongFirst blog, on our forum, or attended one of our Courses or Certifications, then you know we are a school of strength and our principles are the same no matter the modality of choice.

What you may not be aware of is that some of our skills cross over between the different branches of StrongFirst and across our modalities of training. The single-leg deadlift is one of those skills, and it is not only the one that is my favorite, but the one I believe is most often underutilized.

The Value of the Single-leg Deadlift

The single-leg deadlift (SLDL) has so many benefits that it should be in everyone’s training arsenal. We teach the SLDL in the SFB Certification for greater balance, flexibility, and stability. We also teach the loaded version for strength gains for the pistol. We teach the SLDL in the SFG Certification to improve the lunging pattern in the get-up. Once you begin owning this pattern and advancing to heavier loads, the SLDL will also improve your barbell deadlift, should you desire you also attend our SFL Certification.

Single-leg Deadlift Instructions:

  1. Stand with your feet together.
  2. Plant the working foot and press hard into the ground.
  3. Slide the unloaded leg back behind you until it is slightly hovering off the ground.
  4. Straighten the back leg, dorsiflex the foot, and push through the heel.
  5. While maintaining a flat back with squared hips and shoulders, inhale a breath and begin to slowly hinge at the hips.
  6. Begin to bend the working side knee more for a deeper hinge and push farther back with the straight leg for more muscle recruitment of the hamstrings, glutes, and quads.
  7. After reaching the bottom position, pause for a second to work balance. Then use a power breath to return to standing position by pressing hard into the ground and fully extending the hips.
  8. Pause at the top of each repetition in a single leg “standing plank,” then repeat for desired reps.

Progressions:

Once you have performed SLDL slowly with your bodyweight only, then feel free to advance to performing the movement while loaded. When it comes to how you load the SLDL, there are many tools that can be used and different hand placements to choose from.

As you begin loading your SLDL, the same instructions from above apply, but you also must make sure you maintain the lat-shoulder connection. You should be controlling the weight—the weight should not control you. It is still important to do the SLDL slowly while loading them in order to not rush past a sticking point.

Watch the video for demonstrations of each of the following versions of the SLDL:

  • Bodyweight (slow and controlled)
  • Kettlebell (single or double)
  • Double Dumbbell
  • Barbell

We often see students performing what we call a “drinking bird” version. This is when the SLDL is done with a straight working leg. This is not the most efficient technique. If the SLDL is done with more of a bent-knee hinge, it recruits more muscles and builds strength in the glutes, hamstrings, and quads, while also building balance and stability in the ankle, core, and shoulder. And once you have mastered the bodyweight version, then adding load will increase your grip strength.

Common Errors in the Single-leg Deadlift

By falling into these common mistakes, you will miss out on the major benefits that make this skill so effective. Look for these mistakes in your SLDL or have SF Certified Instructor watch you, so that you can then incorporate the corrections:

  1. Rounding of the spine: If you find you are not maintaining a neutral spine while practicing bodyweight-only SLDLs, I recommend placing a dowel along your spine. The following three points of contact should be maintained for the duration of each full repetition: head, thoracic spine, and sacrum.
  2. Bending of the back leg: When you bend the back leg, you allow it to get “soft.” Often, this means you will also be soft in the core and rounded in either the thoracic or lumbar spine. Pressing through the heel and into the ground will help you stay tight and prevent rounding.
  3. Opening or twisting at the hips: Twisting or opening to the side decreases the tension and efficiency of this skill. Place a dowel or a water bottle on your lumbar, perpendicular to your spine, and balance the object from hip to hip during the movement to pattern properly squared hips and shoulders.
  4. Not maintaining lat connections: If you find that you or those you train lose lat connection, place a foam roller between the toes of the non-working leg and your palm, then perform the movement without losing the foam roller.

Try Adding the Single-leg Deadlift to Your Training

Adding the SLDL into your training program will improve your balance and help you hit new personal records in your pistol, get-up, and barbell deadlift, while having carryover to many other skills. No matter your goals, it’s an excellent and often underutilized skill to work into your training.

31 thoughts on “The Single-leg Deadlift: The Most Underutilized and Powerful Skill

  • this article is very heavily influenced, if not completely stolen, from an article written by Al Kavadlo in 2014 on his blog

    • I am sorry you feel that way, but I wrote this from my own opinion. I have personally never read any of Al’s work, his blog and absolutely would not steal someone else’s work.

      • Youre sorry i ‘feel’ that you stole an article? what? ?
        You ‘havent read’ and you ‘would never steal’? sure…

      • ahh crow eating time… I’m sorry, you touched on the same points but, looking back, they’re different…sorry again

    • I think of it in terms of a progression but I may not be correct: To me, both hands is a good place to start. This helps engage both lats and may help keep shoulders square. Next, holding in stance side hand is the easiest for single arm but you have to watch for trunk rotation more! Holding it opposite the stance arm is the most challenging for the core which includes trunk and hip muscles!

    • Different people like/prefer to hold the bell in different places. I personally like to have my students start BW only to build a solid foundation of balance. We work them slow and controlled. I then progress to weighted. I like to perform them contralateral and feel most people do better with this set up.

  • Interesting comment above mine! Maybe I will try to do SLDL instead of swings.(which I don’t like because of their explosiveness. I prefer slow exercises and building up raw strength.)

  • Fantastic post, I love this movement and you reminded me why I need to get my students doing it more too. Great technique and loading tips, learned a lot from reading this.
    Thank you, Karen. Amazing 🙂

  • I’m very familiar with the SLDL. I use it a lots in my strength training, as well as my Judo/jujitsu training.
    I am confused about the correction described in the article:
    “place a foam roller between the toes of the non-working leg and your palm, then perform the movement”
    I have never seen this correction, nor can I visualize how it could be done? Any way to shoot a video demonstrating it?

    • The foam roller being placed between the foot and palm forces you to dorsi flex the foot while simultaneously pressing down with the hand forces you to engage the lat. If you do not flex the foot, keep the leg straight and press the palm into the top of the foam roller then the roller will fall showing you have disconnected and have a leakage of tension.
      I hope this helps. If not email me at karen.smith@strongfirst.com and I will record a video for you.

  • Great lesson Karen. I’ve never tried these before but plan to add them to my routine to improve my TGU’s….thank you!

    • Thank you – agree they are great for balance. I have my students do them bodyweight for very slow reps with pauses at different level and then as their balance gets really good we load them.

  • Brilliant article. I’ve found SLDLs to be a great rehab tool as well. They work things that conventional DLs and swings miss and build great brain-body connection

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