Personally, I’m a huge advocate of emphasizing posterior chain exercises in a strength training program, especially when it comes to the hip-hinge – both the bilateral and its unilateral counterpart. The hip-hinge is a vital human movement skill that teaches how to load the hips (important for power production), manage posture under loading (necessary to protect the spine), and is an essential part of many other movements/exercises.
The unilateral variation of the hip-hinge, the Single-Leg RDL, is another great movement, especially since it takes the already impactful RDL and adds hip separation to the equation.
Although there is certainly a place and a time for the Single-Leg RDL in the majority of progressive resistance training programs, there is never a place or a time for an improperly or unsafely performed exercise in any program. And unfortunately, the Single-Leg RDL often gets butchered enough to be considered of the latter description – unsafe and improperly used – whether it be by the coach’s or player’s error.
The mistakes made, though, are generally common, and can certainly be rectified so that the Single-Leg RDL (SLRDL) fits appropriately in your training program. Here are three of the most common mistakes seen when implementing the SLRDL and some tips on avoiding or correcting them:
1. Prescribing the SLRDL for an Athlete That Is Not Ready
The most important concept to take into consideration when attempting to determine the placement of the SLRDL in your programming is the readiness of your athlete for the exercise. Simply put, the SLRDL is an advanced progression of the hip-hinge. In fact, the bilateral RDL itself is a very difficult movement for a person to learn, let alone master.
Thus, taking an already difficult movement pattern, and then eliminating a base of support, while also challenging the joints with multi-planar stress can certainly make for a sketchy situation with an athlete that isn’t quite ready for it.
A general rule of thumb: if you have never seen an athlete hip-hinge before (or hip-hinge competently for that matter) the SLRDL should not be utilized just yet. And, until the athlete has shown that they can effectively perform the RDL, they are not ready just yet for the SLRDL.
2. Utilizing the SLRDL Improperly in a Warm-Up
Quite often we find ourselves implementing exercises in our warm-up that mimic movements that we might encounter on the field or in the weight room. We believe that, in a more controlled, stable, and unloaded environment, if we take our joints through the same ranges of motion and similar patterns, that we are better equipping ours athletes for performance of the proceeding skill. But, this just isn’t necessarily the case – especially when it comes to improperly coached or performed movements.
The warm-up is one of the best times to introduce, teach, and reinforce movement skills, since it generally does take place in a relatively controlled situation with minimal loading, while also providing many repetitions. But, these same reasons make the warm-up a double-edged sword. Teach and perform the exercises with precision and attention to detail, and we can see the skills/qualities improve. Teach and perform the exercises hastily and unfocused, and we may see the skills/qualities disintegrate.
For this reason it is important to progress – or in the very least, regress – your warm-ups, especially when you’re dealing with many athletes. As noted above, the SLRDL is an advanced progression of the hip-hinge, even when it is unloaded. Just think about some of the ways SLRDL technique can be derailed:
- The athlete has yet to be thoroughly taught the SLRDL
- The athlete has yet to acquire adequate SLRDL skill
- The SLRDL is not positioned at the appropriate part of the warm-up
- The athlete is unfocused or unmotivated to warm-up
- The athlete warms up slowly – physically and mentally
- The warm-up/team is moving so quickly that the athlete rushes through the movements to keep up
If any of these are true for your athlete(s), and you hammer the SLRDL every single day during, say, pre-practice team stretch, we will most likely see any combination of rounded/flexed spines, locked-out knees, squatty-knees, lumbar hyperextension, loss of balance, etc. We’ve all seen this before…
Now, take that unloaded (poor) SLRDL technique and watch it manifest itself in the weight room, where competitiveness tends to drive athletes toward adding significant loads. Not only will the SLRDL now be ineffective, it will also be highly unsafe.
A general rule of thumb: if your athlete(s) have not been taught the SLRDL prior to the warm-up, do not implement it. I promise that there is no point yelling cues they’ve never heard before, for an exercise that is difficult to perform correctly, as they will their way through a warm-up that they probably aren’t all that interested in doing anyway. This might seem like a cynical outlook, but it is the reality oftentimes.
3. Placing Too Much Emphasis on Load or Depth
Not a day generally goes by without an athlete, upon encountering a newly introduced or reintroduced exercise, asking their strength coach, “How much weight should I use?” In the case of the SLRDL, you might also hear, “In which hand should I hold the weight?”
If the answer is automatically a certain number or loading pattern (e.g. “45 lbs.” or “opposite hand”) chances are you are only making your job more difficult, since you will inevitably have to instruct the athlete to put the weight down so you teach the exercise. So, an emphasis on load early on is simply counterproductive to the teaching process, as it will exacerbate any movement deficiencies.
Of these movement deficiencies (e.g. a flexed spine or hip rotation), most of them can be eradicated by simply forgetting about the depth of the movement. Generally, when the athlete is thinking about touching the floor with their hand or the weight, things tend to go awry. This is because when extreme range-of-motion or depth is used in the SLRDL (and the bilateral hip hinge as well) the athlete usually gets a lot of that depth from more than just hip flexion on the down leg.
Something that usually works is stopping the athlete and having them shift their focus from “lowering themselves to the floor” to these three specific cues*:
- “Big chest”
- “Reach out to touch me with your back leg”
- “Stop when you feel a stretch in the hamstring”
*You can certainly use other verbiage or cues, but I find these get consistently positive results and are easily reproducible and understandable for athletes that may speak limited English (plus they are easiest for me to translate) so I use them often in conjunction with my hands (as a means to physically stop them from going too far down).
These three cues usually do the trick when it comes to preserving spinal neutral (or “neutral” as they currently know it) and creating a sufficient counterbalance with the back leg – in other words, it helps restore the actual hinging process.
While a flexed spine and hinging are only half the battle (there is still hip rotation, actual spinal neutral [avoiding lumbar hyper-extension], and more), the seemingly simple process of shifting an athlete’s thoughts away from depth and toward the sensation of a proper hip hinge (comfortable on the back, with a stretch on the hamstring) goes a long way toward making the exercise safe.
A general rule of thumb: the athlete should not grab a weight if they have not performed the SLRDL previously. The athlete(s) should also be instructed that “touching the floor” or “reaching for the floor” is not the goal of this exercise whatsoever. Find a way to best express to your athlete that they should: keep the back flat, reach the back leg, and stop when they get a good hamstring stretch.
Ultimately, the appropriate utilization of the Single-Leg RDL depends on a coach’s ability to determine the readiness of the athlete for the unilateral hip-hinge, the coach’s intuitive wherewithal to recognize if it should be utilized in a warm-up, and the coach’s ability to orient the athlete’s focus on the right aspects of the movement. Not only does effective performance of this advanced progression depend on these three keys, but so too does your athletes’ safety and well-being.