One Legged Deadlift? What Does it Do for your Strength Training?

Posted on 06 Apr 2012 19:52

I am seeing enough one legged deadlifts or "single leg deadlifts" that I am compelled to make a point about how something becomes a deadlift. For something to become a deadlift, you must lift if from a "dead stop" off the floor. Why off the floor? Because if you only say "dead stop" as a way of categorizing a lift you end up in a goofy world where exercises in which the bar "stops" can be called a deadlift. A deadlift is not a category of lifts…it is simply one lift with some variations that are similar but not technically "deadlifts."

If there is one thing that irritates me it is when experts say and do things just because they think it seems smart and sophisticated. Complicated reasons are deemed more worthy than simple, down-to-Earth ones. It may surprise some to know, however, that there is nothing scientific in seeking complicated rationales when simple ones will do.

The deadlift has always been about one thing. Lifting heavy weights off the floor or ground. Now it's been morphed into one more of those 'functional' or 'corrective' things. And there is nothing more functional than doing things on one leg, according to the current trend. I wrote about this in a newsletter where I used the term "medicalization." I invite you to read that letter here on the site, even if you're not a subscriber: The Medicalization of Strength Training and Why You CAN do Maximal Lifts.

Mike Boyle recently wrote an article where he talks about how he's decided that everything should be done on one leg. Didn't the Fonz jump the shark on one leg as well? Anyway, that's another example of a deadlift not being a deadlift since he shows a Youtube video of some kind of awkward attempt at a one legged squat with the non-working leg trailing and a little weight being thrust out in front. But it's not a squat, it's a deadlift, he explains, because of the "torso angle".

So, once again, a deadlift is a lift in which a weight is lifted from a dead stop off the floor. Used to be it was called a "dead weight lift".

Then we have the one-legged Romanian deadlift. Lots of those being done. That is fine. But again, it's NOT a deadlift. It is a one legged Romanian deadlift. Have I mentioned that the Romanian deadlift is not really a deadlift? You know why. It's a deadlift assistance exercise but strictly speaking, NOT a deadlift because the weight never even touches the floor. Bringing that up in isolation, I agree, would be nitpicking and semantics, but since versions of a one leg deadlift are being demonstrated that are not deadlifts, but Romanian deadlift variants, I think it is important to bring up. Again, it is okay to do a Romanian on one leg, but don't remove the Romanian part from the name. Because an actual one leg deadlift and a one leg Romanian deadlift are two different things.

When you actually do a one leg deadlift, you will simply be picking up the weight using one leg and the non-working leg trailing behind. Remember, the weight must start on the floor. If it starts from the hang position, it's a Romanian. I read recently someone spouting off how the non-working leg must be perfectly straight and at such and such a precise angle. About the only real rule besides the simple rule that it's the same as a deadlift only done on one leg is that you must strive to keep the torso parallel and not allow the weight to rotate you to one side or to twist your hips. Other than that, I don't care what the non-working leg does…it's not ballet dancing, it's weight lifting.

You can do this with two dumbbells/one leg so that you will be evenly loaded on both sides but the challenge will be balancing on one leg and being offset with no base of support on one side. I do want to be clear about this though. Which side you hold the weight on, the working or "ipsilateral" side, the nonworking, or "contralateral" side, or both sides, has nothing to do with whether the exercise is a one leg deadlift. I am aware that Gray Cook has questioned the "functionality" of doing the exercise ipsilaterally. Nothing like a useless plastic word being used to define the usefulness of an exercise. One would have a hard time proving the usefulness of doing a deadlift on one leg in any precise terms. Seriously, who goes around picking up stuff on one leg? Oh, but it's about "athlete's training." Yes, that covers such a huge segment of the population what with the tiny minority or actual athletes and the huge majority of those who call themselves athletes. No, I think functional for most people is a hard day's work around the house. So, again, what is functional about picking things up on one leg?

It's silly enough to use the word functional but then to complain about the weight being in the wrong hand? I don't know how a person could fundamentally prove that balancing on one leg while picking up a weight is functional…but only if the weight is in the opposite hand! Yeah, right. Oh, I know what they say…it oughta be so it is! Coulda, shoulda, woulda science is not science I subscribe to. Doing a deadlift on one leg is hard and it will help you tease out contralateral difficulties, and help you with hip and torso stability to some extent. To what extent? It will add an instant 20lbs to your regular deadlift! Just kidding. I don't write those kinds of articles.

Anyway, you have a choice of an ipsilateral one leg deadlift, which will be a one arm/one leg deadlift with the weight being on the same side as the working leg. Ipsilateral means "same side". That will be basically something like a suitcase deadlift except on one leg.

Then you can do an offset one leg deadlift which is a contralateral version. Here you still use one arm but the weight is on the opposite side from the working leg. Tough one. Can't go very heavy on that. Then, of course, you could hold a weight in both hands.

Silly One Leg Deadlifts

There are some pretty silly versions of this so-called deadlift on the internet. One of the most popular is still kind of like a Romanian. In some versions, the weight is allowed to come down to the floor and in others it is not. But what distinguishes this version is that the back leg is used a bit like the Tyrannosaurus Rex was supposed to have used his tail. It looks kind of like an extreme yoga windmill exercise where the back leg stays extended straight and the body pivots up and down at the hips.

Basically, once the weights get heavier than your back leg can overcome you will be done with that one. Not that there is a point to it at all. Now that we have all that out of the way, I can get to the meat of this post: What are some good reasons to do a deadlift on one leg for a maximal strength trainee? That is, a person training to lift heavy weights and not training for so-called functional strength (except the function of being strong) for sports?

  • To tease out contralateral strength differences
  • To challenge the core against rotation

There is not really much more. The real question is how do you know that all this single leg work really 'works'? Yes, I know that you have read that it will do such and such a specific thing and add x many pounds to your deadlift or some such nonsense. The honest answer is, however, that you only really know you are getting better at the one-legged deadlift. This is the kind of cross-training we do on "faith". That also means it is not something you get married to in your training. Unless you notice an immediate and tangible deficiency, which the one-legged squat helps tease out and fix, you will not notice an immediate and tangible benefit to your bilateral deadlift.

The one-legged squat actually has a more noticeable benefit in that it tangibly increases leg strength. I know people talk about stability but stability and strength are intertwined. Stability just sounds fancier in articles. The difference is that you won't notice, necessarily, feeling stronger on the deadlift because you do a cycle of one-legged deadlifts but you just might notice, and probably will notice, feeling stronger on squats after developing your pistol squat. It just takes a lot more strength to bring yourself to a stand from a squat on one leg.

This page created 06 Apr 2012 19:52
Last updated 21 Mar 2018 03:27

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