If you want to strengthen nearly the entirety of your body’s posterior kinetic chain—that’s fitness-speak for the backside of your body, including your butt, hamstrings, lower back, and back muscles—the deadlift is one exercise that pretty much reigns supreme.
Not only is a strong posterior chain important for a whole host of other movements, like lunging, running, and even walking, but training the back of your body also helps cut down on quad dominance, an overreliance on your front-of-the-leg muscles and an underdevelopment of the back ones, which can lead to knee issues down the line, explains Dane Miklaus, C.S.C.S., CEO and owner of Work training studio in Irvine, California.
Problem is, lots of people may find the traditional deadlift intimidating, especially if they see fellow gymgoers loading up a barbell to crank out some superheavy reps, Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S., founder of Core in Brookline, Massachusetts, tells SELF. That’s one reason the single-leg deadlift may be a welcome alternative: You lift lighter loads—and challenge your body in a different way.
“Once you stand on one leg, you take away a base of support,” Gentilcore explains. “You have to keep your hips level.” In order to do that, your hip and core muscles need to fire on overdrive to stabilize you and stop you from stumbling.
Even though you’ll be lifting lighter weight, that doesn’t mean that the single-leg deadlift is an easy exercise. Many people (myself included) tend to struggle with the balance aspect of it, ending up tipping over well before their prescribed reps are done. It’s that fear of face-planting that leaves many people wary of trying out the move—especially at a public gym—and forgoing the legs, core, back, and butt benefits the exercise has to offer.
But there are some things you can do to become steadier on your feet so you can start crushing the single-leg deadlift too. Here’s your literal step-by-step guide to mastering the weighted single-leg deadlift.
First, master the two-leg deadlift.
“A one-leg deadlift is a pretty advanced movement,” says Gentilcore. “It’s not an exercise a beginner is going to do right out of the gate.”
That means, before you can think about jumping to the one-leg version, you have to nail the traditional, bilateral stiff-leg deadlift first.
Think about the deadlift in its simplest movement pattern: the hip hinge. With your feet hip-width apart and a soft bend in your knees, hinge forward at your hips, keeping your back flat. Imagine pushing your butt back to the wall behind you, says Gentilcore. Work on this movement using just your bodyweight until you feel comfortable with it.
Then you can start adding some weight, says Miklaus, starting with a light bar or dumbbells. Stick to a modified range of motion at first, bringing the weights down only to your knees as you get the movement down. When you can do the move with proper form—no rounding of the back or hunching of the shoulders—you can increase the weight to what feels challenging to you, and bring the weight down to a full range of motion, which is midshin for most people, he says.
Quick tip: When you start to add weight to the move, you don’t want to think of lowering the weights down with your arms, say Gentilcore. Doing so can cause your shoulders to round. “The only way the weight gets down is because you are hinging your hips back,” he says.
Try this balance drill first.
A simple balance drill can help you become more comfortable with not only the movement pattern but also the unstable feeling of standing on one leg, says Miklaus.
Stand about two feet from a gym bench (or a similar object that’s roughly 18 or 19 inches high). With your weight on your left leg, lift your right leg up off the ground behind you, and hinge forward at your hips to tap the bench in front of you. Repeat for a few reps to get the feel down, and then switch to the other side, he says.
Once you can complete that without staggering, you’ll move farther away from the bench. When that starts to get easy, you’ll swap the bench out for an object that’s a little lower—say, a dumbbell standing up, and then after that, maybe a traffic cone.
“As we get further away, you have to hinge further forward, and your torso has to lower further,” Miklaus explains. This leaning and tapping progression works on increasing the range of motion you’ll need for the single-leg deadlift, and it will also help fine-tune your balance.
Choose your equipment intentionally.
You can use nearly any kind of weight to perform a single-leg deadlift, from a barbell to a kettlebell to a dumbbell (or a pair of them, if you choose to go the kettlebell or dumbbell route). It all comes down to personal preference, but some may be better than others if you struggle with balance.
For me, performing the exercise holding only one dumbbell is a sure way to make me keel over, fast. And there’s a reason for that—holding one weight puts a different challenge on your balance.
“If you are standing on your left leg and holding a dumbbell in our right hand, that’s a rotary force that you have to fight against, so you need to stabilize your core a little more so you don’t tip over,” Gentilcore says. Some people also tend to hold dumbbells or barbells unevenly, says Miklaus, which can shift the weight around, displace your center of gravity, and throw you off balance.
The answer for me is a single kettlebell, which I grip by the handle with both hands letting the kettlebell lower in front of and past my knees as I hinge. The weight is unlikely to shift, which keeps me steady.
“Whatever you are holding on to, that keeps you the most centered, that keeps you the most level, that will be the one that works for you,” says Miklaus. As for how much weight you should use for a single-leg dead? Start with about a quarter to a third of how much you’re lifting with a two-leg deadlift, and build up over time as your comfort grows.
Incorporate some single-leg deadlift modifications.
The idea with modifications is that you’ll begin with a more stable position and gradually increase the instability as you become more confident with your balance, Gentilcore says. He likes to start his clients with a staggered-stance deadlift, also known as a kickstand deadlift or a B-stance deadlift.
With a staggered-stance deadlift, you will keep one foot slightly in front of the other, shifting the majority of your weight on that leg in front. Then, keeping your knees slightly bent, you’ll hinge forward at your hips to lower the weight down.
“That [back] leg is just going to be there for balance,” says Miklaus—it’ll be your front leg where you feel the brunt of the exercise.
After that, Gentilcore recommends the wall-press single-leg deadlift. With this modification, you’ll stand in front of a wall, close enough that you can bend your one leg and press your foot straight back into the wall. Then you’ll hinge forward.
“They get the sensation of doing the hip hinge on one leg, but they are still balanced,” he says.
Once you’ve mastered that, you can try a slider deadlift, whereby you put your back foot on a bench or chair, allowing your foot to move back and forth as you complete the move, says Gentilcore. Your back leg will still be supported, which will help with balance, but the movement pattern mimics the single-leg deadlift a little more closely than the wall press. After that, you can try a wall-supported single-leg deadlift, i.e., doing the move with your back leg off the ground but with a wall to your side so you can touch it lightly for balance. Then you should be ready to take on the single-leg deadlift.
Check your form from a few different angles.
Training your balance and progressing with modifications play the biggest part in getting your body ready to rep out those single-leg deadlifts. But if you still find yourself struggling, there are a few little tweaks you can make that can help.
One of these is the positioning of your back leg—the one that will be off the ground, says Gentilcore. Traditionally, with a single-leg deadlift, your back leg should extend straight behind you. But when you’re just getting started, that can be hard to control, and it can even cause you to rotate your hips out, which can also throw you off balance.
That’s why Gentilcore recommends keeping your back leg bent—that way “it’s a shorter lever that you have to control”—until you can complete the move with your hips straight and without tipping over. (When you are ready to extend your back leg straight, just make sure your toes are pointing to the ground, not outward, which can mean your hips are rotating.)
Another little thing to take into account is your gaze. “Find a spot on the floor that is 10 feet in front of you, and just keep your eyes fixed on that the whole time,” says Gentilcore.
Resist the urge to crank your neck up to check yourself out in the mirror: Not only can it be straining your neck muscles, but gazing upward can be disorientating, which messes with your balance.
Stick to what feels comfortable.
If you still find yourself toppling over despite your best troubleshooting efforts, remember this: “There is absolutely no golden rule that you have to do a single-leg deadlift without support,” says Gentilcore. “Yes, balance is important, but we also want to give progressive overload to the body.”
That means continuing to challenge the body by increasing weight or reps over time—something you can’t do safely if your balance is thrown off. In that case, a modification that makes you more stable, like the staggered-stance deadlift, may be the way to go.
Regardless of whether you want to get stronger or just want to increase your fitness, the best exercise you can do is one that you can perform safely and with good form. If the single-leg deadlift isn’t working for you, pick a modification that you feel comfortable with to keep in your routine. “You are still training the same muscles—we are just taking balance out of the equation,” Gentilcore says.