The traditional deadlift, a compound exercise that strengthens your posterior chain, is so beneficial that it's sometimes called "The Healthlift." Still, you shouldn't snooze on other deadlift variations, which often tout their own laundry list of health benefits. Most exemplary: The single-leg Romanian deadlift.
A unilateral exercise, the single-leg Romanian deadlift is a pulling lift that improves hamstring, glute and core strength and endurance, while also protecting your lower back from future injury.
Read on to learn exactly how to do the single-leg Romanian deadlift with good form — plus how to add it into your current exercise routine.
- What is a single-leg Romanian deadlift? Short-handed as the single-leg RDL, the single-leg Romanian deadlift is a variation of the beneficial traditional deadlift that maximizes time under tension and single-leg strength. Each rep begins and ends with the weight at your thigh — rather than moving the weight up and down (as in a traditional deadlift), you move the weight down and up.
- What muscles does the single-leg Romanian deadlift work? It strengthens your posterior chain muscles, according to Grayson Wickham, DPT, CSCS, founder of digital movement platform Movement Vault. This includes your hamstrings, glutes, calves and erector spinae muscles.
- What's the difference between a single-leg Romanian deadlift and a Romanian deadlift? The single-leg Romanian deadlift is done while standing on just one leg, rather than two. "It's a unilateral movement, which means one leg is doing the bulk of the work at a time," says Wickham. It also means the exercise excels at editing out muscle-imbalances between sides (more on that below).
- Who can do the single-leg Romanian deadlift? The single-leg Romanian deadlift requires you to lift one foot completely off the floor, which requires more balance and coordination. Because of this, it might be challenging for beginners. First, you should work on nailing a staggered-stance deadlift before progressing to this move. Then, perform this move with no weights before attempting to add weight.
- Is a single-leg RDL safe? As long as you follow precautions — like using a manageable weight (or no weight at all) — and maintain proper form throughout (which we talk about below), single-leg RDLs are safe.
How to Do the Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift With Proper Form
- Stand with feet hip-width apart, a slight bend in both knees, hands on your hips.
- Engage your core and simultaneously press your butt back and hinge your hips forward, extending your right leg behind you. Press your left foot into the ground while doing so, and keep your left leg slightly bent.
- Hinge forward and continue lowering until your torso is parallel to the ground or you feel a pull in your glutes and hamstrings (whichever comes first). Keep your shoulders rolled down and back (so they are in line with the hips).
- Press into your left foot, squeeze your glutes and reverse the movement to return back to the standing start position.
- Repeat for the designated number of reps before switching legs.
Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift Variations
You can also do the single-leg Romanian deadlift with no weight, in a staggered stance, with your back leg on a bench or holding onto a TRX strap to modify the move. It's best for those who have never done this movement to start with these options and focus on nailing proper form.
How Do I Make a Single-Leg RDL Harder?
To make this exercise harder, increase the amount of weight you use. How heavy you go for a single-leg RDL depends on your current strength and fitness level.
However, it's important to be mindful of how much weight you add to your deadlifts. It's recommended you increase the amount of weight you lift gradually, by no more than 10 percent each week, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). Following this rule can help you prevent injury.
Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift Benefits
1. It’s a Full-Body Exercise
Wondering what muscles are worked in a single-leg Romanian deadlift? When you execute the movement correctly it's a full-body exercise, according to Wickham.
Think about it: All the muscles in your core are turning on to keep you from falling over, and all the muscles in the leg and foot planted on the ground are engaged to allow you to hinge forward and stand back upright.
Your upper-body muscles get in on the action when you hold a weight in one or both hands. Doing the movement with a barbell, for example, forces your body to call on your grip and forearm muscles, as well as your shoulders, traps and upper back, Wickham says.
2. It Strengthens Your Posterior Chain
It's true that your body calls on all of your muscles head-to-toe to execute the single-leg Romanian deadlift. But the primary movers are your posterior chain muscles.
"The posterior chain refers to all the muscles along the back side of your body," Wickham says, which includes your hamstrings, glutes, calves and erector spinae muscles.
Having strong posterior chain muscles, Wickham says, is essential for proficiency in sport and life. You need posterior chain strength in order to execute daily tasks like bending over to get a package off the stoop, as well moving with strength and speed on the field, pitch or track.
"Name any sport, and odds are you'll become better at it by strengthening your posterior chain muscles," he says.
So, single-leg RDLs are good for sprinters, speed demons, power athletes and endurance exercisers alike. Unfortunately, given the modern day sit-sit-sit lifestyle, few people have a strong posterior chain.
"When you sit all day, your hamstrings and glutes are allowed to 'turn off,'" Wickham says. "When you sit all day in a chair, your core and lower-back muscles can turn off, too," he says.
As the saying goes, if you don't use it you lose it. Overtime, this can create weaknesses in your posterior chain, which increases your risk for lower-back injuries.
"Strengthening your posterior chain is a form of injury prevention," Wickham says. Cheers to prehab!
3. It Increases Hamstring Mobility
The amount of time Americans spend sitting (an average of 10 hours per day, according to Get America Standing) doesn't just impact hamstring strength, it also impacts hamstring mobility.
As a refresher, mobility is your ability to control your body through a range of motion, according to Wickham. "It's a strength within your flexibility," he says.
Hamstring mobility is essential to getting your body into the positions it needs to bend forward, pick something up off the ground and move safely and without pain.
"If your hamstrings are not mobile for you to get into the correct positions, other muscle groups in your body will be forced to compensate," he says. Most commonly, your lower-back muscles.
Over time this can lead to what Wickham calls an "unhappy back," which is a back that is at risk for overuse injury, as well as regular aches and pains. Not ideal for anyone looking to live and move pain-free.
4. It’s a Unilateral Exercise
The traditional deadlift and a majority of deadlift variations have you stand on two feet while you pull. The single-leg Romanian deadlift, as its name suggests, puts just one leg to work at a time.
"It's the hamstring and glute of the planted foot that are doing the work to allow you to hinge and stand," Wickham says.
As it goes, this helps uncover any asymmetries that exist between your two legs, and then helps correct them by forcing the less-strong side to put in work, says Heather Perrin, a senior master trainer with Lagree Fitness.
In sport, this can teach you to stop favoring one side over the other when you squat or jump, for example. In everyday life, this can promote side-to-side symmetry, which translates to more sound form when you walk, climb stairs, dodge people on the sidewalk or otherwise use your legs.
5. It Will Improve Your Balance
"When you're standing on just one foot, your obliques and core need to work harder to keep you balanced," Perrin says. The stronger your midline muscles are, she explains, the better your balance becomes in and out of the gym.
"When you are able to train for balance you are also able to train for longevity," she says. Why? Because it reduces your risk of falling as you age, which is the number one cause of injury and injury death in people over the age of 65, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
How to Incorporate Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts Into Your Routine
Anyone's exercise routine can be elevated with the addition of the single-leg Romanian deadlift — endurance athletes, strength athletes and everyday exercisers who want to focus on maintaining a healthy lifestyle for longevity. However, how you incorporate the movement into your routine will need to vary based on your goals.
Physiologically speaking, you're never going to be able to lift nearly as much weight doing the unilateral version of any exercise as you can doing the bilateral (two-legged) version. So, if you're trying to increase your overall muscle mass, you shouldn't replace your entire pulling regimen with this one move.
But Wickham does recommend strength-seekers use this deadlift variation to warm up for any bilateral deadlift variations in their programming. If you have a weaker side (most people do), warming up with the movement will remind your less-strong side that it needs to work during the lifts that come after, he says. Even unweighted, this movement is a great warm-up for future lifts, he says.
If your fitness focus is on building lower-body strength endurance, Wickham recommends incorporating 4 sets of 12 or more reps of this movement into your routine once or twice a week. Exactly how much weight you use will depend on your current fitness level, but pick a weight you can move well even under fatigue.
Finally, if you're a runner, consider adding this exercise into your pre-run warm-up routine. Doing so will help bring blood flow to your hamstrings, core and glutes, three muscle groups you use while you run, he explains.