Single-leg Romanian deadlifts, also referred to as single-leg RDLs or single-leg hip hinges, deserve their spot in the exercise Hall of Fame.
Few other exercises can help you improve your balance and coordination, build muscle mass in your hamstrings and glutes, and improve your neuromuscular control the way single-leg Romanian deadlifts can. On top of that, they’re incredibly versatile and suitable for beginners and Olympic-level athletes alike, with dozens of variations to keep things interesting as you get stronger and improve your balance.
What is a single-leg Romanian deadlift?
The single-leg RDL is a no-impact, unilateral leg and lower body workout. In a nutshell, it involves balancing on one leg, hinging at the hips, and lowering the torso until it is near-parallel to the ground while extending the other leg backwards. The movement is then reversed back to the starting position.
How to do single-leg Romanian deadlifts for beginners
Assisted single-leg RDL
If you’ve never done a single-leg RDL before, keeping your balance will most likely be your biggest challenge. This beginner’s guide will focus on assisted single-leg RDLs to help you develop the balance, coordination, and confidence needed to perform many of the more complicated variations out there. The only difference between an assisted and an unassisted single-leg RDL is that you have something to hold on to for balance with an assisted single-leg RDL. While this means you won’t get all of the balance-related benefits immediately, you can easily switch to the unassisted variations when you’re familiar with the correct RDL form and motion.
- Hold on to the side of a squat rack, Smith machine, or any other stable piece of gym equipment with your right hand. Ensure that you have about 1.5 metres of free space behind you to ensure that you won’t swing your back leg into any equipment or people.
- Stand up perfectly straight (as if you’re holding a plank) and securely plant your right foot by evenly distributing your weight through your toes and heel. Slightly bend your knees.
- Initiate the movement by tilting your torso forward and downward to the ground while at the same time lifting your left leg and extending it straight behind you. It’s important to keep your head and back in a straight line while not dropping or lifting your hips. Keep your shoulders squarely in front of you without any twisting motion. We recommend asking someone to check this for the first few reps.
- Continue bending forward until your torso and leg are as close to parallel to the ground as you can manage. Try to keep your left leg as straight as possible without it swinging to either side. Keep your core tight throughout the movement, and make sure to engage your glutes and hamstrings.
- Reverse the motion and return to the starting position. Be sure to move your torso up and your leg down in a simultaneous motion, pivoting through your right hip.
- Complete this set (5 to 12 reps depending on your fitness), then turn around, switch hands, and repeat on the other side.
Please note that this technique is great for building confidence in your form and motion; however, it doesn’t provide the full range of benefits that single-leg RDLs are known for. Once you feel comfortable performing the assisted version, move on to the unassisted (standard) version of this exercise to rapidly develop coordination and balance.
Unassisted single-leg RDL
The technique for the unassisted, or standard, single-leg Romanian deadlift is very similar to the assisted version; however, it does require you to keep your own balance throughout the motion. Don’t give up if you feel wobbly or lose your balance the first few times you try this! It takes a few reps to get used to, and keeping at it will quickly help you develop your overall balance and body coordination.
- Start by standing up straight with your left arm at your side and your right arm extended fully to your side, in line with your shoulders.
- Evenly distribute your weight through your right heel and toes and slightly bend your knees.
- Initiate the movement by tilting your torso forward and down while lifting your left leg off the ground in a straight line behind you. Keep your head, back, and left leg in a straight line. Keep your left arm straight down to the floor and your right arm fully extended to the right to help keep your balance. Make sure that your hips stay level and that your shoulders stay square. If you’re new to this motion, ask a trainer or someone else to check that your head, back, and leg are straight.
- Keep pivoting around your right hip in a slow and controlled movement while extending your left leg behind you. If necessary, move your arms to help you keep your balance, but don’t misalign your head, back, or shoulders. Try to reach a position where your left leg and torso are parallel to the ground.
- Reverse the movement back to the starting position, making sure to move your left leg and torso in a straight line.
- Complete your set based on the number of reps you planned, then work out the other side by switching your lifted arm and leg.
Incorporating single-leg Romanian deadlifts into your workout
Single-leg RDLs are a good option to incorporate into almost any workout or fitness regime. Unless you have legitimate health reasons to steer clear of this workout, for example, spinal injuries, it’s a great option for beginners and pros alike.
Assuming that you’re still fairly new to working out and are still figuring out what works for you, we would recommend adding single-leg RDLs to your workout near the start of a session. While they might not be the most physically challenging workouts in terms of the sheer power required to perform, attempting single-leg RDLs at the end of a session when you’re already tired and shaky might not be the best idea. Going for it on a fresh set of legs will improve your chances of staying balanced and maintaining the correct RDL form.
When it comes to the number of reps, the options are wide open. Studio Society recommends that beginners look at doing more sets with fewer reps in each set. As you work your way through each set, your muscles will get increasingly tired. This could affect your balance and form, resulting in a less effective workout. By keeping the number of reps low (5 to 8 reps per set), you can focus on ensuring stable and balanced motion. As your strength and balance improve, you can either increase the number of reps per set or look at some of the single-leg RDL variations that incorporate loads.
Single-leg Romanian deadlift variations for beginners
Once you’re comfortable with the standard single-leg RDL, you can start looking at some of the many variations to keep it interesting. There are variations that focus on both the upper and lower body, so we’ll provide a beginner-friendly example of both. Feel free to consult a personal trainer for more variations that suit your fitness levels.
Single-leg RDL with dumbbell or kettlebell row: upper body focus
This variation involves holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in the same hand as the lifting leg and performing a rowing action halfway through the rep. This variation further activates your core and stabilisers in your back as your body fights against tipping over. It’s also a good way of working out your arms and shoulders, truly making it a whole-body workout. We recommend starting with a lighter weight and working your way up as you get used to being pulled to one side. Do not compromise on RDL form!
Start a standard single-leg RDL as described above, but securely grip a dumbbell or kettlebell on the same side as the leg you are lifting behind you. When you’re halfway through the rep (back leg and torso parallel to the ground), pause, and perform a rowing action with the load by pulling your elbow up. Make sure to use a stable and controlled motion and avoid jerking the weight towards you. Slowly release the tension and lower the weight until your arm is fully extended, then complete the single-leg RDL as usual. Complete your set, then switch sides.
For a slightly easier version of this variation, hold the load in the hand opposite the leg that you are lifting. This will make it a bit easier to keep your balance and is a good option if you’re struggling to stay upright.
Single-leg RDL to reverse lunge: lower body focus
This variation includes a reverse lunge at the end of each rep to further activate and strengthen your glutes and hamstrings. It’s very easy to understand and doesn’t require any additional equipment.
Perform a standard single-leg RDL, but instead of placing your foot down at the end of the rep, immediately go into a reverse lunge with the same leg that just came down. To do this, step back roughly one and a half shoulder lengths and bend both knees. The goal is to get your rear knee as close to the ground as possible without actually touching it, then stand up and return to the starting position by pushing through the heel of your front foot. Both knees should bend to almost 90 degrees, but make sure that your front knee doesn’t extend past your toes. If it does, take a bigger step back. Make sure that your knees stay aligned and pointing straight forward, not leaning to either side.
Personal trainers at Studio Society
Studio Society employs a host of highly experienced and skilled personal trainers. Our multination team includes former professional coaches, national wellness champions, qualified massage therapists, and international track & field and triathlon athletes. With a roster of personal trainers this strong, we are 100% sure that we have someone on our staff who can help you set and achieve realistic goals and jaw-dropping results way beyond what you would expect.
For more information on our personal trainers or to book an obligation-free consultation, please visit our Personal Trainers page. You’re also welcome to take a look at our group classes to join a growing and dedicated community of fitness enthusiasts.