The best exercises check several boxes at once: They work a ton of muscle groups, improve balance, hone coordination, and promote athleticism. All of this is true of the single-leg deadlift, a classic multi-tasker that can challenge newbies and gym rats alike.
“I love the versatility of single-leg deadlifts,” says Jolie Kobrinsky, RKC, TRX, owner of Prime Fitness in Monterey, California. “They integrate your upper and lower body while activating the posterior chain — muscles that extend from the heels to the upper back, essential for standing, sitting, walking, and running.”
Here’s how to get the most out of them.
Single-Leg Deadlift: Step-by-Step Instructions
Found in: Job 1 – Week 2 Start Strong: Chest, Core, Legs
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell by your ride side at arm’s length, palms facing your body.
- Shift your weight onto your left foot, and lift your right foot several inches off of the floor behind you. This is the starting position.
- Keeping your left leg slightly bent, your back flat, and your core engaged, push your hips back into a hinge and lower the weight until your torso is nearly parallel to the floor, raising your right leg behind you. Keep the weight close to your body throughout the move.
- Pause, and then lower your right leg to return to the standing position. Perform equal reps on both sides.
Common Mistakes When Performing the Single-Leg Deadlift
Struggling for balance: Dial in your balance by fixing your gaze toward a point on the floor several feet in front of you. Also, breathe deeply into your abdomen as you perform each rep.
Opening your hips: Make sure to keep your hips square and your trailing foot pointing toward the floor as you perform each rep.
Rounding your back: Keep your back extended and long throughout the move, and don’t lower your torso any further than you can while keeping your lower back in its natural arch. You can maintain a flat back by drawing your shoulder blades together.
Variations on the Single-Leg Deadlift
Make the one-legged deadlift easier with one of the following variations:
1. Bodyweight single-leg deadlift
Perform the move without additional weight.
2. Supported single-leg deadlift
Grab the back of a chair, a rail, or other sturdy object with the hand that’s on the same side as your standing leg.
3. Kickstand deadlift
Instead of raising your nonworking leg behind you, step it back 8 to 10 inches, plant the ball of that foot on the floor, and keep it there as you perform the move, being sure to keep your lower back flat. The knee of your working leg should be unlocked but not significantly bent.
Make the move more challenging with one or both of the following options:
4. Walking single-leg deadlift
After each rep, swing your trailing leg forward one large step, and perform the move on the other side. Continue alternating sides. This is particularly useful when performing the single-leg deadlift as a warm-up.
5. Two-arm single-leg deadlift
Hold just one, heavier dumbbell in both hands to further challenge your stability.
What Muscles Does the Single-Leg Deadlift Work?
As noted earlier, the one-legged deadlift is a balance-and-coordination builder as much as it is a muscle builder.
That means you’re likely to feel many muscles — from your feet to your neck — activating throughout the move as you work to keep yourself upright and aligned.
But the prime movers — the muscles doing the bulk of the work in the single-leg deadlift — are as follows:
The gluteus maximus of your standing leg works to extend (straighten) your hip as you return to the starting position.
Two smaller butt muscles, the gluteus minimus and gluteus medius, help to stabilize you as you perform the move.
These muscles on the backs of your thighs aid in hip extension throughout the move. They also get a deep stretch at the bottom of the movement (which you may feel the next day!).
Flanking your spinal column, these muscles work hard to keep your torso extended and your back flat as you descend into the hinged position.
The gastrocnemius and soleus (upper and lower calf, respectively) also contract isometrically to help you maintain balance throughout the exercise.