Mastering the RDL
The hinge pattern and RDL variations can be some of the hardest movements to master in the weight room. It’s one of the most important skills to have for joint health, movement quality, and athletic performance. It’s also much more sports specific that many people realize.
Being able to disassociate your hips from the spine is crucial for back health in the gym and on the field. Nearly every motion an athlete makes (jumping, sprinting, throwing, swinging) is initiated from the hips. The inability to separate the hips from the spine limits power output, puts unnecessary stress on the low back, and increases injury risk.
For whatever reason, athletes are not being taught this movement at a young hinge and will instead move through their lumbar spine or turn the hinge into a squat.
Teaching the Hinge
Dowel on Spine
One of the best ways to groove a good hinge pattern is to have the athlete hold a dowel to their back. Their feet should be about shoulder width, knees slightly bent, and maintain a neutral spine throughout the movement.
As they push their hips back they must maintain 3 points of contact at their head, back, and butt, while keeping their shins vertical. If they move through their back they will lose contact with the dowel giving them direct feedback that they are performing the movement incorrectly.
1 Leg RDLs
This may go against conventional wisdom, since 1 leg RDLs are usually a more advanced variation, but in my experience athletes have had an easier time learning to separate the hips from the back on 1 leg. A few mistakes you’ll have to watch out for are the hips rotating outwards and the shoulders and back dumping forward. With a beginner, I like to use a cable 1 Leg RDL to Row to clean up these flaws.
I’ll cue the athlete to shift the hips and 1 leg back while the foot is pointed directly at the floor (this prevents the hips from opening up). I want them thinking about getting parallel with the floor before rowing the cable back while simultaneously extending the hips.
Make sure to set up the cable at about chest height. This reinforces the athlete to keep their chest up and shoulders back while moving through the hips. A lower setting may cause an inexperienced lifter to loser their shoulders and round their back.
Split Stance RDLs
The split stance RDL can be used as a bridge between two leg and single leg variations. A split stance can be a much easier position for an athlete to control their core and keep a neutral spine. This allows you to load up the front leg while the back leg can provide some stability. I’ll start to use this one when an athlete has shown that they’re not going to lose their shoulders and round their back to create a false sense of depth.
By the time an athlete has become proficient in these exercises, and or similar regressions, they should feel pretty confident that they can safely perform a bilateral RDL. It's a huge bang for your buck exercise that essentially trains your entire posterior chain to build strength and power. The inability to perform this movement can prevent an athlete for reaching their full potential and lead to back issues as well.
To wrap up we want to make sure:
The Athlete shifts their hips back & forth (not just bending over)
Has a slight bend in the knees
Shoulders stay back and Spine stays neutral