Posted by: pointlenana | March 8, 2016

Exercise of the Month – Mar 2016: Single Leg Romanian Deadlift

I’m not a PT – I just play one on the internet – but I think that all runners should do Single-leg Romanian Deadlifts.  Benefits of SLRDL include:

  • This is a great hamstring workout, for the muscles themselves and the connective tissues that can get abused over time and then fail badly.
  • Any weight you are holding goes twice as far, e.g. lifting 75 lbs using a single leg is like lifting 150lbs with a standard 2-leg deadlift. This is great if you have limited upper body strength (as runners often do, like me) and struggle to hang on to heavy weights.
  • The exercise is more functional for runners – you are never called upon to do a 2-legged deadlift while running, but the running stride includes elements from the SLRDL.
  • It has a balance component that 2-legged deadlifts do not.  Working on balance is good for runners, who spend most of their running time balancing one leg.
  • It’s relatively safe – because you are working with less weight it’s not too likely to cause back issues like some of the classic heavy lifts.
  • It works your glutes too.  Most runners should work on their glutes.

I’ve done this exercise on-and-off for a few years, but had to start doing it seriously about 15 months ago when I did something bad to one of my hamstring tendons (minor tear maybe?).  If you search for High Hamstring Tendinopathy, or have ever had pain high up where your hamstring meets your butt, you’ll find that you don’t want that injury – it takes a long time to recover from.  SLRDLs are the key rehab exercise for HHT, at least for many practitioners).  But why wait until there’s an injury?  By doing this exercise when healthy, maybe you can avoid hamstring problems to begin with.  Prehab is better than rehab.

This video shows the basic movement:

But… there are a lot of ways to cheat/do this exercise badly and miss out on the benefits.  When I do the SLRDL, I work up to it through a sequence of movements (which the awesome PT’s at RealRehab taught me) to help me practice doing things the right way.  If you are good at this exercise you probably don’t need to do that.  (But if you are good at this exercise, you probably aren’t reading this anyway.)

Typical problems/cheats:

Rounding the back.  Flexibility/strength/balance may limit you and make it difficult to get to a full perpendicular position where your leg is down and your back/leg are  parallel to the floor.  It’s easy to round the back so it seems like you are getting further.  But this makes the movement a little easier on the glute/hamstring so it’s counterproductive.  You want to keep a straight back.  A good exercise to practice straight back is the double-legged hip hinge using a dowel/straight stick behind your back to make sure everything is lined up.  The dowel should touch your hips, between your shoulder blades, and your head, like this:

Bending the knee too much.  You do not want to lock the knee out.  But you also don’t want to bend it too much.  The more the knee is bent, the more the quads engage which again means the hamstrings/glutes don’t have to work as hard.  I try to keep my knee almost straight.  A way to work on this (sorry, I couldn’t find a video) is to bend over into the SLRDL position (without weights) and then flex/extend your knee a few times.  Stand up, and then repeat.  Tight hamstrings will make it hard to get the knee straight but over time you’ll get more flexible and have more range of movement.  Balance can be a problem in this exercise so it’s ok to stabilize yourself with a hand on a table or against the wall – just don’t use it as a crutch to take weight off.

Lifting the unweighted hip up during the movement.  Another way the body will compensate for tight hips/hamstrings is by rolling/opening up the hip during the movement.  Yet again, this reduces the stress on the hamstring/glute you are trying to work.  One mental cue that helps here is to think about rolling the raised toes inward at the top of the movement.  But another way to practice is similar to the knee exercise above: go down onto the SLRDL position (again, it’s ok to use a hand against a wall for balance) and then roll your hip open and closed like this:

So, with all those cheats and corrective exercises in mind, this is how I do SLRDLs (and it assumes I’ve warmed up somehow, e.g. after running or with some other activity for a few minutes):

  • I gently stretch my hamstrings and hips.  I’ll address stretching in a future month but for now Pigeon Stretch is good for hips and this hamstring stretch will do.  The exercise itself will stretch these things, but by stretching a little first you’ll start the exercise with a little more range of movement.
  • Do some unweighted hip hinge exercises with a dowel to practice keeping a straight back (and remind myself how this feels).  I often don’t do this step anymore because I think I’ve solved that problem.  But it only takes 30 seconds.
  • Do a set of 10-20 2 legged hip hinges with the weight I’ll be using for the SLRDLs, to warm things up and get the hamstrings ready to handle the same weight with half the muscles.
  • Do a set of 5-10 reps of the remedial straight knee exercise – get into SLRDL postion, flex/straighten the knee ~5 times, straighten up, repeat 5-10 times.  Repeat on the other leg.
  • Do a set of 5-10 reps of the hip opening exercise.  Repeat on the other leg.
  • Finally, do the SLRDL.  I do 2 sets of 10-15 reps on each leg.

This takes me about 15 minutes to work through, even though you can imagine cranking out 2 sets of the basic exercise on each leg in just a few minutes.  For me the full sequence has been worth it though – over the course of almost a year now, my flexibility, balance, and strength have all increased noticeably.  And most important, I never get the ache in my butt that that I had big-time after I injured myself and which lingered on until a couple months ago.

I started doing these with just bodyweight – not holding weights in my hand.  That was plenty hard and caused me to be sore for a day or two afterward.  Over the course of almost a year I gradually added weight and now I’m up to 100 lbs (50 in each hand).  I’d recommend adding 5 lbs of weight every week or two, backing off a little every few weeks to recover, and progressing slowly over time in a way that’s sustainable.

If you are injured, even bodyweight may be too much.  In that case you probably should be talking to a PT and getting real non-internet advice.

For a long time fixing the injury was my priority.  I was still running and racing – including some things I really cared about – but I wanted to do the work to get stronger and get better permanently.  During that time I did the exercise 3x each week, usually with 15 reps per set, and gradually increased the weight.  There was a fairly fine line between getting sore from the exercises and being able to run, so I backed off at times, sometimes for a few weeks, to let things rest/calm down.  At some point I felt pretty healed, and wanted to focus on run training instead.  At that point my PT recommended that I cut the volume in half – 2x a week with 10 reps per set – and increase the weight rarely if at all.  That change made a huge difference in how I felt – way less tired, doing the exercise better when I did it, and still slowly getting stronger.  If you are currently training for a race, I’d recommend starting with 2 workouts per week and find a non-training time to work harder on this.

With a lot of weight, this is a hard exercise and it still makes my butt sore at times.  I try to do it the same day I do my hard running workouts (I run first and then do exercises).  This way my hard days are hard and I can keep the easy days easy.

Lastly, people will do a 1-arm/1-leg variation, where they only hold weight in one hand (opposite from the weighted leg, e.g left hand while standing on the right leg).  This is great for balance.  In my case, I was (and still am) focused on healing the one leg – I’m trying to strengthen everything, so more weight helps me with that.  By holding weights in both hands I get some balance work and a lot of strength work.  A single weight means more balance but less strength.  Anyway, here’s that variation:

Good luck!




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