The single leg Romanian deadlift is one of my absolute favorite exercises. It’s a whole body, complete, functional exercise that can be used for rehabilitation, as well as strength and conditioning purposes alike. While not utilized as commonly in strength and conditioning realms, it’s quite a popular exercise in the physical therapy world due to its ability to work the entire lower extremity posterior chain, while simultaneously challenging one’s balance.
1) Whole body functional movement
The Romanian deadlift should be a staple of any strength and conditioning program, and for good reason. If done correctly, the entire posterior chain (gluts, hamstrings, calves, back extensors, etc) can be hit with one functional movement. A normal deadlift is naturally a quad-dominant exercise, due in part to the fact that the movement pattern requires one to lower their knees to the bar and bring their hips forward. The primary difference in a Romanian deadlift is keeping your hips back, meaning more effective activation of the posterior chain. Additionally, the Romanian deadlift is one of the best ways to functionally target the hamstrings. While many might associate hamstring exercises with the leg curl machine (which definitely does target the hamstrings), the hamstrings also originate at the hip, meaning hip extension movements also target the hamstrings. Why is this significant? Because throughout normal everyday movements, it is actually hip extension, and not knee flexion, that plays a dominant role in movement and developing power in a host of activities, like walking, running, and biking.
Furthermore, functional exercises, like the single leg Romanian deadlift are easily transferrable to new situations and environments that closely simulate every day tasks, like picking objects off the floor while protecting your lower back. In summary, the deadlift (or any variation of it) is an absolute killer compound exercise that can be adjusted accordingly to fit your personal goals.
2) Challenges your body’s 3 primary balance systems (proprioception, vestibular, and visual systems)
Unlike a normal deadlift, the single leg Romanian deadlift adds a component of balance to the exercise. Simply by standing on one leg, you are challenging your static balance, which is comprised of 3 separate sensory systems, including vision, somatosensory (proprioception, touch, pressure, vibration, muscle stretch), and vestibular (equilibrium). By incorporating the Romanian deadlift movement on one leg, you are now additionally challenging your dynamic balance. Exercises that challenge your dynamic balance are more functional and, for the most part, recommended over static balance exercises. It’s your dynamic balance that is relied upon in sports and fall prevention alike! However, take caution when progressing to a single leg Romanian deadlift from a normal double leg Romanian dead lift. Make sure you have adequate static single leg balance and can properly perform a double leg Romanian dead lift with good form first.
3) Strengthens the foot intrinsics and calf muscles
Dynamic balance exercises, like the single leg Romanian deadlift, not only challenge your vision, somatosensory, and vestibular systems but also challenge your foot strength. While your sensory systems are responsible for detecting changes in balance, it’s actually your muscles that are responsible for carrying out and controlling the proper corrections! In particular, the muscles in your calf and foot are largely responsible for making the small, postural foot changes that allow you to maintain your balance. These muscles include the posterior tibialis, peroneus longus, triceps surae muscle group, and the small foot intrinsics. These muscles are commonly weak in individuals with foot and ankle pain, like plantar fasciitis. The single leg Romanian deadlift is a great exercise to strengthen these muscles as they are heavily relied upon for maintaining balance during this particular movement. If done correctly, you will feel a good burn in your foot and ankle, meaning you’re using the right muscles!
Now that you’ve decided to add the single leg Romanian deadlift to your strength and conditioning or rehabilitation program, here are some tips and tricks to master the single leg Romanian deadlift.
1) Tempered progression
Tempered progressions, as with any exercise, are the best way to not only ‘change it up’ in the gym, but to do so in a safe manner. First, start off with double leg Romanian deadlifts. Once you have mastered the movement (in particular keeping your hips back and the hip hinge), move on to the single leg Romanian deadlift.
2) No weight –> Barbell –> Dumbells
With my clients, I always like to start off learning the movement with no weight. Once you are ready to add weight, start off with a barbell. It’s much easier to maintain your balance with a single external load (barbell) than two separate external loads (dumbbells). Only after you can maintain your balance consistently with a barbell should you progress to using individual dumbbells.
3) Use a Mirror
In addition to tempered progressions, there are a host of small tricks you can use to help maintain your balance when performing the single leg Romanian dead lift. First off, use a mirror! Using a mirror gives you visual feedback to adjust your body positioning, which will help your balance.
4) Keep Your Hips Level
Keep your hips and pelvis level on a horizontal plane. It’s extremely common to turn out the hips during this movement, which can be a sign of intrinsic hip external rotator weakness. This ultimately tilts your pelvis and center of balance, actually making the movement harder than it needs to be. A quick fix to this is to ensure that you keep your back foot pointed down. This will help maintain a neutral hip and pelvis alignment.