The Best Deadlift Variation without a Barbell

Try this move if you don’t have access to a heavy barbell or if your lower back doesn’t tolerate a lot of load.

Let me present to you: The Single-leg Romanian Deadlift (SLDL).

I love to deadlift. Whenever I have access to a heavy barbell, I feel the urge to pull some heavy weights off the floor.

But I work out from home now. An apartment in the city on the 5th floor does not qualify for dropping heavy-ass barbells on the ground. What to do?

As I explained in detail here, a well-rounded routine consists of pushing, pulling, squatting and hinging.

hinge is a maximal bend at the hip while minimally bending at the knees. A classic deadlift is a perfect example of this movement pattern.

Hinging is most conveniently trained with some weight. It trains one of the most common movements of everyday life: picking stuff up from the floor. It also helps if you can “wedge” yourself against some weight to create tension.

But deadlifting can be trained without weight. The bodyweight SLDL is a superb exercise.

  • It trains hamstrings and glutes
  • The single-legged nature of it teaches stability and motor control
  • Strength as well as flexibility will improve
  • If loaded, you can progress to some really serious weight without stressing the lower back or central nervous system

Beginner Drills

Stick Deadlift Drill

If you are completely new to deadlifting in general, start with the stick deadlift drill. With one hand, hold a broomstick against your back. It should touch your butt, your thoracic spine and your head. These three points should never lose contact with the stick throughout the movement.

Now comes the hinging. The goal is to get the upper body to be roughly parallel to the ground. If you have flexibility limitations, that’s ok. Go as low as you can without losing contact with the stick.

We achieve this by bending at the hips and preventing excessive bending at the knees. The shins should stay vertical. Think about having “soft” knees and reaching your butt back as if you were trying to close a car door with it.

Assisted SLDL

Use something to hold on to with one hand. Something like a broomstick works nicely. Now perform an SLDL.

From the side, it should look exactly like the two-legged version you practiced during the stick deadlift drill. The only difference: You support your weight with only one leg, while the other forms a straight line with your upper body. Squeeze the glute of the passive leg. Try to “lead” the movement with your rear leg while keeping it straight.

With a little assistance, we can concentrate on proper body alignment while eliminating the balancing part.

The crucial part is to hammer down this movement pattern. Take a video of yourself while doing the drill. The position of the rear leg can be elusive. You probably won’t notice it getting out of alignment without looking at it from the “outside”.

Another thing to look out for: Your hips should stay horizontally aligned. The hip of the passive side has a tendency to go up. This negates all the positive effects I listed above.

One way to fight this is to guide your body with your hands. I like to reach out to the side with the arm of the active side. The arm of the passive side should either point down towards your active foot or (as I prefer it) flexed and pointed to the active side.

Always practice on both legs.

Banded SLDL

To further ingrain proper body alignment, loop a band around your passive leg and the opposite shoulder. The band should run across your body.

Perform the SLDL either with assistance or without, if you feel comfortable. Push against the band with the rear foot to keep it fully stretched. The thicker the band, the clearer the feedback will be.

Single-leg RDL Progressions

Bodyweight SLDL

After hammering away at the drills above, you are ready to practice the free bodyweight SLDL for reps. 10 slow, controlled and clean reps on each side is a good challenge. Keep the hips aligned, the rear leg in line with your upper body and try to put most of your weight on your heel.

Yoga Bodyweight SLDL

This is the same movement pattern as the bodyweight SLDL, but you grab the rear foot with one hand. Keep the thigh in line with your upper body.

This is my favorite for bodyweight-only workouts. It makes the balancing part slightly harder and also increases the stretch in your hip flexor. This movement is excellent for creating strength and stability together with hip disassociation. Same as with hover lunges – being strong in a “runner’s pose” is useful for the real world outside the gym.

Be aware of not over-extending at your lower back and keeping the hips horizontally aligned. Again, shoot a video of yourself.

Weighted SLDL

When you are comfortable with bodyweight SLDLs, feel free to add some weight.

Try to lower the weight with control (3 seconds down) and get it up with a snap. With a weight, it makes sense to plant the passive foot briefly on the ground at lockout. This gives you an opportunity to reset and you don’t loose too much energy from just balancing on one leg. That way, you’ll be able to do more reps with more weight – and who doesn’t like that?

I find that the balancing part is a bit easier with a weight in your hand. Putting the weight on the side of the rear leg gives your core an extra anti-rotational challenge.

Putting the weight on the active side might allow you to use more weight. This is different for each individual. You’ll notice that putting the weight on one side is harder than the other. Train the one that feels harder.

You can perform this with dumbbells, kettlebells or barbells. You can use two weights on both sides. A heavier weight on one side and a lighter weight on the other side is a nice way to add more weight while keeping the anti-rotation work.

Most people will find that – after training this movement for a while – they can use more than half of the weight they would be able to deadlift two-legged. For example, if you can deadlift 160kg with two legs, your 1RM (1 rep maximum) for SLDLs is probably well above 80kg.

The neat thing about this is that you can still train the muscles of your posterior chain (glutes and hammies) really heavy while sparing your central nervous system (CNS). Conventional, heavy deadlifts drain your CNS, i.e. you feel as if you’ve been hit by a bus. This won’t be just muscle soreness – you will feel tired, have less strength and you sleep quality suffers. With SLDLs, that’s not really an issue.

From now on, you have no excuses not to deadlift. Happy hinging!

Move freely