Mastering the Single Leg Hip Hinge
Mastering the single leg hip hinge is something I consider pivotal for maximizing athletic performance, muscle function, and movement mechanics. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most butchered movement patterns there are many trainers, athletes and coaches perform it incorrectly.
1. Go barefoot or use minimalist shoes. As you’ll notice in the video most of the athletes aren’t wearing shoes. Besides targeting the glutes and hamstrings, one of the most underrated benefits of the single leg RDL is the impact it has on foot and ankle strength. In fact, the single leg RDL is as much of a balance and stabilization drill as it is a hip strengthening exercise. Wearing shoes blunts this response as most traditional footwear acts as a crutch, by providing excessive support which allows the muscles of the feet and ankles to relax.
Once you eliminate the shoes not only will you eventually find the single leg RDL much easier to control, the increased activation of the feet and ankles will enhance neural drive and motor unit recruitment all the way up the kinetic chain. As a result, you’ll experience greater engagement of your entire posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings) as well as your core musculature and spinal stabilizers.
Don’t be surprised however, if the single leg RDL is more difficult in barefoot conditions your first several times through as most individuals are accustomed to having their bulky footwear assist them. As your feet and ankles get stronger and more stable from functioning in barefoot conditions, balance will markedly improve and the single leg RDL will become much more locked in. If you really want to challenge your ankles as well as your upper back try throwing several rows during each eccentric isometric RDL as I explain in this video.
2. Maintain a soft knee position on the support leg. One of the most common mistakes I see during single leg RDL’s is using an overly straight leg position on the support leg (the leg that’s in contact with the ground). As with any RDL or hip hinge, the support leg needs to maintain a slight knee bend or “soft knee” position (10-20 degrees of knee bend). When the support leg is overly straight (similar to a stiff leg deadlift position), this places undue stress on the lower hamstring insertion and tendon making the lifter vulnerable to tears and hamstring injuries as well as sciatic issues.
In addition it minimizes the degree of activation to the larger glute muscles. Keeping a soft knee position allows the larger muscles of both the glutes and the hamstrings to be targeted maximally. It’s also the biomechanically safest and strongest position, representing the ideal position for optimizing movement mechanics and muscle function. Just ask any athlete to perform a single leg jump or hop, and watch the similar degree of knee bend. A straight leg position may look cool but it’s highly dysfunctional and unnatural
3. Bend the elevated leg to approximately 90 degrees. Another topic of controversy related to the single leg hip hinge is the position of the back knee/elevated leg. Rather than keeping the back leg relatively straight, as most coaches would suggest, the athlete should maintain a 90-degree bend throughout the movement. If you’ve ever trained athletes and instructed them on how to jump and land on one leg you’ll immediately see the necessity and importance of this.
When performing the single leg hip hinge the movement needs to promote optimal movement mechanics and functional activation patterns. Keeping the elevated leg bent to approximately 90 degrees does just that. Here’s why:
When performing the eccentric phase of the movement, the elevated leg needs to have heightened levels of glute and hamstring activation. This promotes increased elongation and stretching of that hip flexor and contralateral shortening/contraction of the hip flexor of the opposite/support leg. Keeping the elevated leg overly straight does not allow optimal elongation of the hip flexor in that leg thereby minimizing the stretch in that hip flexor and co-contraction of the hip flexor and glute in the opposite support leg. In addition the 90 degree bent leg cue helps to promote a softer knee position on the support leg, which as previously described is critical during the single leg RDL not only for injury prevention but for activation and force production/absorption.
4. Don’t use an excessively large range of motion. This goes hand in hand with the above points regarding a straight leg position. Rather than aiming for maximal range of motion and excessive stretch, the goal should be optimal range of motion with the torso just slightly above parallel to the floor. Going significantly lower than this promotes hamstring tears and pulls, low back issues, and decreased force production.
Similar to the other points, no properly trained athlete would ever jump or land or perform any functional activity with a torso position below the parallel position. Training the single leg RDL with an extreme range of motion only reinforces faulty movement patterns into your central nervous system that can degrade natural body mechanics and athletic performance. In addition it decreases stress to the working muscles thereby negating the strength and hypertrophy stimulus of the exercise.
5. Keep a rigid spine by engaging your lats and pinning the shoulders back. This goes hand in hand with the topic of avoiding exaggerated range of motion. In fact when the spine is set into the proper position by maintaining a natural arch (not an excessive arch), with a tight core, and tall head, it’s nearly impossible to collapse and go excessively deep. In contrast when the spine is not rigid, an overly large ROM will almost always inevitably follow as the body structure and function is compromised both biomechanically (leverage is not optimized) and neurophysiologically (there will be short-circuiting of neural signals).
6. Don’t let the elevated leg or the weights touch the floor throughout the set. Most individuals perform single leg RDL’s by allowing either the weight or their elevated leg to touch the floor each repetition as a means of providing support and balance. This greatly reduces the activation of the stabilizers in the lower body and feet and negates many of the benefits associated with the single leg hip hinge. Although this can occasionally be remedied by a simple coaching/ cuing fix (telling the athlete to not touch the floor), it’s often an indication that the athlete lacks the balance and stability to perform the movement unsupported.