Perfecting the 1-Legged RDL

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As much as I poke fun at commercial gyms, I have to say, in the grand scheme of things, it provides for awesome blog content.  Almost without fail, anytime I feel a case of “writer’s block” rearing its ugly head – as has been the case the past week or so – I can revert back to chance encounters I’ve had at commercial gyms for some blog writing gold.

Well, to be honest, today’s post is a combination of something that happened at the facility yesterday and something that took place about a year ago – both of which involved Jessica Alba and a 1-Legged Romanian Deadlift.  Okay, I lied, it’s just the 1-Legged RDL.  But a guy can dream, right?

First, lets begin with the commercial gym story.  Every so often – whether it’s because I’m taking the day off from work, or just need a good laugh – I sometimes hit up the local globo gym to get a quick lift in.  And, as you might expect, between trying to keep my corneas from perpetually bleeding while watching some personal trainer make their client squat in a Smith Machine, not to mention the smell of stale Axe body spray that permeates the air, I’m always telling myself, “never again, Tony.  Never again.”

But, it is what it is – I need to train.  So, I do my warm-up, bust out my iPod, blast some Tribe Called Quest, and get my lift on.

So, not too long ago, I was in the middle of my training session, doing a set of 1-Legged RDLs when another dude (who was there training with this wife, which I thought was pretty cool) stopped to ask me a question.

“What are those,” he asked.

“Oh, these are 1-legged Romanian Deadlifts,” I replied (you can cue the Jaws theme music right now).

“Those work your core or something?“ he came back with. 

Side Note:  I don’t know about you, but I’m always amused at how, every time someone doesn’t know what a particular exercise is, they just assume it works your “core.”

“Well, I guess they do, in a way,” I said.  “Namely, though, they’re a single leg exercise that targets the posterior chain – glutes and hamstrings – and they’re also great for hip stability.”

[Crickets Chirping]

I lost him.

“Eh, well, I may have to give those a try sometime,” he gingerly said.  He walked away, and ten minutes later, as I was leaving, I see him in the corner of my eye doing something that resembled this:

I wouldn’t be surprised if many of you reading recognize this from your gyms as well.

Just to clarify, if it looks anything like the picture above, it’s wrong.  Okay?  Got it?  Good.

Which brings us to last night.  I was walking around the gym floor checking in with clients, when I turn around and see Vanessa (who’s getting ready for her very first powerlifting competition this August) performing 1-Legged, 1-Arm RDLs in much the same way as the picture above.

Well, maybe not quite THAT bad – but if I were making a check list of what NOT to do – rounding the back and shoulders, not packing the neck, lowering the DB too low, to name a few – she was doing it.  And, it had to be fixed…..stat.

The fact of the matter is, even for trainees with a fair amount of experience under the bar, 1-Legged RDLs are about as advanced as they get as far as single leg movements go.  Here, a lot of things have to harmoniously come into play (core stability, hip stability, upper back strength, balance, etc) in order to perform the movement effectively, and it’s not something you just haphazardly throw into the mix.

That said, below I’m going to share some coaching cues that I used to help fix Vanessa’s form and my hope is that you walk away with a better understanding of how to perfect your own technique.

But first, lets see what it should actually look like, so we can then break it down into manageable parts.

NOTE:  the video below shows an Offset 1-Legged Romanian Deadlift (using only one arm).  I like this variation because it really forces you fire your external rotators to help “offset” the pull of the dumbbell itself.

Key Points to Consider:

1.  Keep the neck packed.  Many will view this as looking down, but in fact, you’re just keeping the neck in a neutral position.  Ideally, when performing this exercise, you want to think of your entire backside as making a straight line (said differently, arch your back) from your head all the way down to your toes.  Resultantly, you can think of it as making your spine long.

Now, admittedly, I did bend my moving leg slightly – but, for the most part, you should get the general idea. 

2.  CRUSH the dumbbell with your grip.  By doing so, you create a phenomenon called irradiation, which forces the rotator cuff to fire and essentially “packs” the shoulder nice and tight.  This is important because you can’t think of this movement as actively lowering the DB with your arm – many trainees make the mistake of trying to touch the DB all the way to the floor, resulting in a significant amount of flexion, which I don’t agree with.

Instead, a better way to approach it is to think about pushing your hips back (again, keeping your back in a straight line throughout).  So, instead of actively thinking about lowering the DB, all you need to do is think “hips back,” until the DB reaches roughly mid-shin level.  At that point, you shoulde feel some pretty significant tension in the hamstrings.

3.  Also of note, with the standing (supporting) leg, I like to tell trainees to keep a “soft knee.”  It shouldn’t be locked or stiff.  Ideally, you want about 15-20 degrees of knee flexion.

4.  Again, pigging back on the points above, grip the DB HARD, push your hips back, and think about driving your moving leg’s heel up towards the ceiling.  Like I noted, you want to try to keep your backside as straight as possible, and I’ve found that using the “heel towards the celing” cue works wonders in that regard. 

Likewise, as you push back, you should feel the brunt of your weight shift back into your supporting leg’s heel.  if you feel your weight shifting more towards your toes, try taking your shoes off as the additional heel lift will shift your weight anteriorly (which you don’t want).

5.  To finish, try to “pull” yourself back through the heel and squeeze your glute to finish.  Repeat. Don’t tip over.  Be awesome.

6.  Lastly, I’ll just add that it’s perfectly okay to perform this exercise in your “usable” range of motion.  In other words, if you’re unable to do it using a full ROM, there’s no rule stating that you can’t shorten the distance.  Again, this is a very valuable exercise, and there are a lot of things coming into play here.  So, if you have to limit the ROM due to poor hip stablity (for instance), that’s fine.  As you grow more proficient, you’ll undoubtedly be able to increase your ROM as you go.

And there you have it.  While it’s a bit presumptuous, obviously, to say that this is perfect form (is there such a thing?), I feel that the above suggestions will drastically improve people’s performance with this exercise.  Try them out today, and let me know what you think!

 

 

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  • Geez Tony, leave the commercial gyms alone will ya? Not all of them are bad, just ask Joe Dowdell! I'll agree some have their heads and prostate in close proximity, but the situation doesn't define the individual, the individual defines what happens in the situation. You're throwing the baby out with the bath water here dude!! A naked-ass baby is now floating through the sewers because of you!!

  • “Instead, a better way to approach it is to think about pushing your hips back (again, keeping your back in a straight line throughout). So, instead of actively thinking about lowering the DB, all you need to do is think “hips back,” until the DB reaches roughly mid-shin level. At that point, you shoulde feel some pretty significant tension in the hamstrings.”

    That's a huge one in my experience coaching this.

    – I think getting the shoes off does wonders.

    – Dowel on the 3 points points of contact helps

    – Doing them with a light med ball, gripping it with both hands, and sticking the ball out in front, trying to get LONG has proven helpful in teaching the hip hinge in a one leg stance.

    What's your take on the raised leg? Do you keep the knee flexed purposefully to change the length tension relationship (glutes/hams)? Or is it kind of person dependent (whatever helps them get the rest of the body doing the right things)?

    Great Stuff Tony!

  • I've found arching the back does wonders to prevent lumbar flexion.

  • Mike

    -Initiate by driving heel back, once you feel the glute tight then you can start to descend upper body (prevents lumbar flexion and neglecting posterior chain of trailing leg)

    -long leg (trail leg)

    -drive through heel

    -finish tall

  • R Smith

    Tony,

    Leave it to you to give me my first laugh of the day. At least he tried it. I've never seen it attempted at my gym.

    The offset 1-arm, 1-leg RDL is my favorite hip-dominant single leg exercise. It kicks my ass, makes me sweat beads the size of a quarter and elicits hammy grow like a MF. (Chad Waterbury was right about it being the best exercise for hammies.)

    It took for me to watch numerous videos to learn the correct way to do the exercise, but nothing helped more than (a) listening to Dan John talk about hips back, (b) reading Weingroff's thoughts on packing the neck and (c) hearing Mike Robertson talk up the importance of tripod feet.

    During the fall, while using Cressey's TUOSTM, I was doing 3x8e w/a 95-pound dumbbell in the opposite hand. Now, thanks to EC's lousy programming, slim fit jeans are a thing of the past 🙂

  • Tony Gentilcore

    @ Dean: I know dude. Not ALL commercial gyms are eye sores – but, lets be honest……it's close. I know you do a bang up job making sure the other trainers in your facility are competent.

    @ Niel: a sense a little sarcasm…….;o)

  • Rozin Abbas

    I added these in after going back and reading Mike Robertson's “Hips Don't Lie: Fixing Your Force Couples” since I'm pretty adamant about fixing my APT these days.

    Unfortunately, I was butchering this exercise haha. Thanks for posting this up, Tony.

  • Kashka

    Hey Tony

    I'm might be alone in this, but I think the latest trend of packing the neck is ridiculous. I have tried it for awhile after watching bret's video on it, til I hurt my lower back on deadlift, which has never happened before. It wasn't even a max effort.

    I find packing the neck makes me lose my lower back arch easily. Using your irradiation example, I think the extension of the neck cause the lower back to maintain a tight arch. It feels to me, that packing the neck is tightening of front of neck and relaxation of the back of neck which is the spinal cord. It's hard to only tightening parts of the spine and not as a whole. I don't know, I'm only speaking for myself here.

    Kash

  • Oh

  • Tony Gentilcore

    Thanks Greg – I was just about to link to that.

    Kashka, I respect your opinion (you're entitled to it, obviously), but I'd be REALLY surprised the culprit was packing your neck – I don't really “see” how maintaining a more neutral spinal position could be detrimental. What's more, when you state that “extension of the neck allows you to maintain your arch,” what YOU'RE describing is flexion. Again, I'd disagree with that. Read the link that Greg provided. Charlie's a lot smarter than myself, and makes a strong point in his argument.

    Of course, this isn't to say that what you described isn't what played into it – but I highly doubt it.

  • Kashka

    Sorry I meant to say flexion instead of extension. I just read Charlie's article. Here's my thought on it, which is probably wrong, but tell me what you think.

    To me, the spine is never neutral while moving, it moves through neutral. It is only neutral while standing up in a certain still position. Neutral position is the optimum position to hold our heads while standing up, I have hard time believing this is also the optimum position while bending over to pick up something heavy. So to say to you gotta maintain a neutral spine at all times I think is invalid.

    Charlie talked about packing the neck while standing is more table than relaxed neck. That's true, but it's hard to pack the neck without tighten the upper back which is the source of the stability. But while flexing the neck, I find it that it is natural to tighten not only the upper back and also the lower back. which I can't do without really concentrating on maintain the lower back arch.

    I also think that when you flex the posterior chain rather than a neutral spine it is better for the muscles to contract and better protect the spine. I think of it as making a bicep while let the arm hang vs. make a bicep while curling the wrist and forearms.

    I'm not a doctor or trainer, so I could be or most likely to be completely off.

    Kash

  • Kashka

    I meant flexing the neck at bottom position of DL makes better tightening of lower back muscle. It doesn't really do so at the top of the movement.

  • “Packed” is an awesome cue to use, it really helps tuck the chin.

  • Kashka, neutral spine doesn't just have to be out the spine (although it's the main reason I, myself, use it).

    A BIG reason I preach neutral spine is to effectively position the rib cage and pelvis so that the diaphragm can help you with your movement by providing you stability. It only works when you're positioned correctly, however.

    Aside from that, it teaches better stabilization patterns. Someone who arches their back when they squat or deadlift relies on their hip flexors and erector spinae for their stability. This asymmetrical pull, also known as Janda's Lower Crossed Syndrome, is inefficient for force transfer as it causes you to rely on your passive restraints (ligaments, joints, bone) instead of your active restraints (MUSCLES!).

    Not picking on you or anything, just trying to educate.

    I would have to agree with Tony in that packing the neck is probably not what's causing you to lose the (natural) arch in your low back. I would look for other factors, specifically at your starting position before you go and the weight you're using because it may be (temporarily) out of your reach for safe and effective training.

    I could talk for days. I suggest posting about this topic on Mike Robertson's new forum (www.robertsontrainingsystems.com/forum/). Some really smart people can help you in a much more conducive setting than Tony's blog.

  • Tony, I saw that picture of bad form before I read anything and thought EO was playing some sick prank on you, coaching you into that position. Good to see that wasn't the case.

  • Kashka

    Thanks Lance I will take this topic to Robertson's forum. I'm trying to get educated on this topic, because it hadn't made sense to me yet.

    Also Tony, When isn't extension of the neck mean head tilted back, and flexion mean tilted forward? I'm confused, but all this time, I just meant to say head tilted back makes a more stable arch.

  • I really appreciate this post. I uploaded a video on youtube about a month ago doing single leg RDL's (http://www.youtube.com/user/heyjoob?feature=mhee#p/a/u/2/P12imXplplI) and went back to compare my form.

    This was definitely useful for me… and I'll keep my head down in the future!

  • Tony Gentilcore

    @ Kashka – hahahaha, yes, you're right. I was an ass and TOTALLY made a bob boo. Glad I came back to re-read what I had originally said. No gold star for me today!!!

    I read your original response while I was in a rush running into the office and confused myself on what you were referring to. My apologies for the confusion. Extending the neck BACK is extension.

    Either way, as Lance noted, much of why we're (Cressey Performance, I-FAST, etc) starting to incorporate a packed neck is due to the PRI philosophy as it relates to diaphragm, ribcage, spinal positioning, etc.

    @ Lance: EO is a cyborg. There's no way in HELL he'd allow a flexed spine within a 200 ft radius of himself. Come on!

  • @Kashka: I would recommend performing the crap out of some scap wall slides, with an emphasis on keeping the shoulder blades tucked through the entire range of motion. The benefit of this is that your neck is kept in a fairly packed position and teaches the shoulder blades to tuck, which in turn keeps the low back from arching.

    If you can properly perform scap wall slides, you should be able to pack the neck quite a ways without losing your arch as long as your shoulder blades can stay tucked.

    Just my two cents.

  • Lance Goyke

    @Tony, I guess that's what severe back injuries do to you! Haha.

    @Michael, that's a good suggestion. I like having the wall there so that you don't have to think about your neck position a whole lot.

    I would like to add a coaching point: make sure to keep your spinal position in check. Lots of people, myself included, like to substitute that scapular movement for spine movement, which is not only inefficient, but also dangerous.

  • Elcee

    Hey Tony,

    Thanks for this article! I've had a hard time getting the 1-legged RDL right.

    Cheers

    Elcee

  • Matt

    This is how you single leg deadlift: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PboE7gQjklo

  • Tony, I have always been manly a rehab not S/C specialist. But, I started to appreciate the DL as a way to activate the posterior chain. More recently M Boyle has made me realize that the 1 leg DL is invaluable. Your presentation is spot on. 1 thing that I wanted to ask you about is your crediting PRI for why you rec. the neck packed position.

    Since Pr Janda 1st taught the Upper Crossed Syndrome motor control error of poking the chin, shrugging shoulders & kyphosing the T4-8 region in the 70's I think credit for avoiding this chin jut, C0-C1 hyperextension, C-T flexion position should more appropriately go to him. Just my bias.

    Thanks for a tremendous post & all the cueing comments too. We will be exploring these w/ our patients at L.A.S.S. Monday!

  • Vanessa

    Hey Tony, way to call me out!

    Thanks, though, your coaching and this post are totally helpful.

  • All-Star Tony, Thanks!

  • Kimberly

    After reading a few comments here. I strongly recommend a professional Pilates Coach to help with pelvic disassociation, neutral spine and balancing on the tripod of the foot. I see many people go into lumbar extension or anterior pelvic tilting as a way to prevent flexion. Gotta' learn how to control each segment of the spine off load for a while and then take it to standing. The tactile feedback from the supine (off load) training in Pilates is excellent for lengthening while providing the sensation necessary to understand what is required in spinal alignment when standing without this feedback.

    I love these posts!!!

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  • Foz

    Could they not have been attempting a 1 leg russian deadlift? This is what i do, and it looks more like the image shown – (unless i’m doing it horribly wrong haha)

  • aman

    Wow you are miserable

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  • ted doss

    Or you could quit the fancy pants stuff and just Deadlift.

    • TonyGentilcore

      The meathead’s answer to everything…..;o)

  • Chi-Chi Omeokwe-Singleton

    Does it matter which hand is holding the kettle or dumbbell? Thank you.

    • TonyGentilcore

      You “could” make a case for holding the DB or KB on either side. I, however, prefer to hold the implement on the OPPOSITE side of the stationary (standing) leg.

      • Chi-Chi Omeokwe-Singleton

        Thank you for responding. I found, when I did this exercise this past week, that holding the KB on the same side as the stationary leg helped me maintain my balance better but I felt that it possibly made my hips uneven (the one on the working side a bit higher than the stationary side). I wondered if that affected the efficacy of the exercise.

  • like, has everything you need to know on the RDL, it’s such a great workout not nearly used enough, if you want to read more about this exercise in detail I came across this detailed online review, recommended: http://howtobuildmuscless.com/romanian-deadlift/