The posterior chain—you’ve undoubtedly heard people waxing prolific about this topic, particularly in response to sedentary lifestyles. It’s a great buzzword to make yourself sound smart while describing a very simple concept.
The posterior chain is the backside of your body—basically everything you don’t see when you stand in front of a mirror. Think back, butt, and hamstrings. These muscles are a big deal. For athletes, they are the foundation of power. For humans, they help keep you balanced, posturally aligned, and free from nagging pains.
In our sedentary, mirror muscle-focused world these posterior muscles tend to lie dormant most of the day. Everything from our screens to our meals pulls us forward, crunching in on ourselves. Thus, the posterior chain muscles are the most important to train and there is no greater exercise for posterior chain development than the single-leg Romanian deadlift (1-leg RDL).
It stands to reason that before you can do a 1-leg RDL, you should be pretty good at RDLing on two feet. It is critical to master the RDL and the deadlift, the RDL’s more popular big brother. Understanding these prerequisites allow for a good 1-leg RDL.
Even if you need to spend more time perfecting your RDL and your deadlift, you should begin doing drills to prepare you for the 1-leg RDL (specifically, the scales as below), the quad stretch 1-leg RDL, and the walking 1-leg RDL.
In fact, I have my athletes do these three drills every day, even before they are able to RDL. Once they’ve mastered these bodyweight drills they are ready for the kettlebell, dumbbell, and barbell versions of the 1-leg RDL.
- The Front Scale: Relax your shoulders, keep your back straight (don’t lean back), lock both legs, point the toes on one foot, and lift that leg as high as possible without leaning back. Your ribs should remain over your pelvis and you should feel your hip flexor on the leg you lifted. Then bring the foot back down to prepare for the back scale.
- The Back Scale: This is basically a 1-leg RDL without weight. Think about linking your body into one solid plank. With everything from your hands to the foot that you are about to elevate in a straight line, begin pushing your hips back. Do not think about trying to drop your chest lower. That only happens as a consequence of the hips pushing back. You are reaching your arms to the wall in front of you while driving your elevated heel to the back wall.
Reach and lengthen more intentionally and you should feel the back of your shoulders as well as your glute fire harder. Fight to keep both shoulders at the same height. Aim to do this slowly and under control.
Once you are parallel to the ground or your hips are as far back as they will go, push through the heel of the foot that is on the ground and extend your hips forward so that you are standing straight up again. Be careful not to do this by lifting your chest.
Repeat on the other side.
Quad Stretch 1-Leg RDL
Grab your right foot in your right hand and pull your heel to your butt in a traditional quad stretch. From this position begin doing the back scale while maintaining a straight line from your back knee to your shoulders.
Rather than pushing the right heel to the back wall, your right knee will drive towards the back wall. Like the scale, you come back to upright posture by pushing through the grounded heel and extending your hips.
Repeat on the other side.
Walking 1-Leg RDL
Do the back scale, but rather than finishing in place let the hip extension bring the elevated leg forward into a step. Thus, if you were pushing your right foot back, the right foot would then step forward and become the grounded foot, so that you could then repeat the pattern on your left side. I usually work this into 10-yard moving warm-ups.
Pack Your Shoulders
Before you can add weight to the 1-leg RDL, you need to make sure you pack your shoulders. This is explained in the RDL and deadlift videos linked above, but to review, the RDL is not a pull. The arms simply connect the body to the resistance.
The upper body works to stabilize the weight in place isometrically, but it is not pulling. If you are thinking of lowering your chest to the ground and then lifting your back up, you will shift the emphasis away from the most important muscles and risk injury.
To pack the shoulders you want to retract your shoulders back and pull them down into scapular depression—think shoulders down and back.
The 1-Leg RDL
Standing upright while holding a kettlebell or dumbbell, two kettlebells or dumbbells, or a barbell, pack your shoulders and do a back scale. Be sure to stay on the grounded heel and to come up by pushing through your heel and extending your hips forward.
If you have a kettlebell or dumbbell, the weight should track straight down outside your foot. If you have a barbell the bar should slide down your shin keeping contact with the body.