Optimizing The SL Hinge Pattern: How, Why, and Progressions

Updated: May 14

The single-leg hinge has quickly become an absolute staple in my training repertoire. Pretty much irrespective of background or training goals, I’ll have my athletes perform an array of hinging patterns, for a myriad of reasons, and in a multitude of ways. Make no mistake about it, the term “functional movement” has been nothing short of utterly bastardized and misconstrued over the recent years. That being said, you’d be hard-pressed to find an exercise or movement that has more genuine carryover to both athletic and/or “life” practicality.


Speaking of things that have been bastardized, the hinge itself is unequivocally one of the most butchered exercises on the planet. My assumption on this is similar to other commonly butchered exercises (i.e. plank/push-up, KB swing, bear crawl)- they appear simple, at face value, so the coach/athlete doesn’t feel the need to concentrate much attention on executing the movement. Nobody looks at a power clean for the first time and thinks to themselves “oh shit, well this seems simple”. So, there’s always concerted thought before performing something like a clean. With movements such as the hinge, especially a bodyweight variation, they don’t assume risk, thus, there is little-to-no thinking about executing the pattern properly. But I digress…


In this article, I’d like to cover a few different points regarding the SL hinge pattern:

-How to perform a hinge correctly

-Common mistakes and how to correct

-Why this is a movement you should sample frequently in your training

-Progression/regression patterns


Let’s get to it.

~Proper Mechanics of a SL Hinge~

I’ll break this into three points of focus: Stance leg, swing leg, and upper-body posture.


On the stance leg, we start by looking at the foot. What we want to see is the athlete create an arch by gripping the toes down to the ground, and then “screwing” the foot outward. This creates torque for the stance leg and gives us a more stable base to work from. The cue of “think like you’re opening a pickle jar” seems to be helpful to coach this. At the knee (more on this in a minute) we want to avoid a locked joint, so I use the cue of “soft knee” to get the athlete to maintain a soft degree of flexion. For the hip, the glute of the stance leg starts as our main driver for creating stability. The glute should be fully contracted when in the starting stance.


For the swing leg, we start in what I refer to as the stork position. Meaning, we want to see 90° of flexion at the ankle, knee, and hip. As we go into the hinge, we want to ACTIVELY PUSH the heel back towards the wall behind us, keeping the toe of the swing leg pointed towards the ground and maintaining a dorsiflexed ankle. As we get into the end-range of the hinge, the swing leg glute becomes our main driver for creating stability.


As for upper-body posture, we start by looking at the head. As with most exercises, I will coach the athlete to maintain a neutral head position by “making a double chin”. This is also cued as “packing the neck”. Next, we want to pull the shoulders (scapulae, really) down and back, which will help facilitate lat engagement. This is our means for stabilizing the spine. Finally, we want to maintain active ab contraction to help keep the pelvis in a neutral position.


~Common Mistakes on SL Hinging~

Beginning with the stance leg, by far the most common mistake I see athletes make is hyperextending (or “locking out”) the knee of the stance leg. Regardless of the exercise at hand, this is a top 5 pet peeve for me personally, and something I have to correct with just about anyone I work with. The hyperextended knee position does a few things, which collectively take away from the benefits the exercise has to offer. When you lock your knee out, especially on any single-leg movement, what you’re doing is manufacturing stability by locking the joint, rather than allowing the requisite musculature to do so. Clearly, this is a disadvantageous way to create stability, namely because if we do so in a “real world” setting, this is a premiere way to tear a ligament. Moreover, when you lock your knees out, we create hyperextension in the low back, which then causes the pelvis to dump forward into anterior pelvic tilt. This, cumulatively, puts us in a position that is biomechanically far from favorable. Take a look at the image below, and take particular notice of my knee position (hyperextended), and hip/foot position on swing leg (pointing towards the wall).


Additionally, by locking the knee(s) out, we are putting unwanted stress on the distal (lower) part of the hamstrings. Recall that the hamstrings insert below the knee, attaching to the lateral surface of the fibula, so by locking the joint we don’t get the full or proper contraction of the hamstrings that we want. We are also minimizing the ability of the glutes to fully contract by stacking the knee, which again is what we don’t want when performing single-leg exercises.


So, whether you’re having your athletes performing a SL hinge, or any SL movement for that matter, be very aware of this. This is, in my opinion, by far the most crucial part of performing SL work correctly. To cue this, I’ll use the term “soft knees”, or “unlock the knee”. Usually after enough repetition, most athletes will clean this habit up. Below is a picture of what we want to see in our starting position.


Another common mistake to address is the issue of torso and spinal position. It’s rather common for athletes to round the upper back when performing hinge patterns. Typically, this is just an exacerbation of what is already poor posture statically. By adding motion and complexity into the mix we take what is already not good and make it worse. Before putting athletes into a SL position, be sure that this issue, especially, is addressed in a bilateral stance first. Rounding the back or an inability to create spinal stabilization is something that will carry over into just about any exercise you can drum up. Thus, it’s important to catch this early, and clean it up before progressing into exercises under load or more complex variations.


When performing the SL hinge, or again, any hinge, we want to maintain a rigid spine whereby the head, upper back, and top of the ass are all in alignment. To achieve this, we want to start by drawing the scapulae down and back to recruit lat engagement, and then tighten the abs to maintain a neutral pelvis. A common way to go about correcting this by grabbing a PVC pipe and placing it down the spinal column. The athlete should be able to make contact in all three areas and maintain this as they move throughout the hinge.


Finally, the last major common mistake I’d like to address is the desire to rotate as the athlete descends into the hinge pattern.

Taking a look at the video above, what you’ll notice is as I go into the hinge, I begin to open the swing leg hip (crest of the hip starts to point to my right), which also causes the toe of the swing leg to follow suite. My assumption is that {most of the time} this is indicative of a tight or locked glute that is pulling the leg outward because we’ve removed the base for support (i.e. the ground). In either case, whether mechanical or neuromuscular, we don’t want to see this in our SL hinge patterns. Please note, that if it is a mechanical flaw, such as a tight glute or blockage in the hip, the pattern will not clean itself up right away. However, more often than not, the athlete should be able to correct the position from simply cueing. For this, I’ll use “toe down” or “close the hip” and place my hand under their hip for them to make contact with. We want to have both hips and shoulders square to the ground throughout the entire movement pattern.


A few additional points of consideration:

-Be sure ankle on swing leg stays dorsiflexed (toe pulled up to shin)

-Depending on who your population is, and what the goal for the individual athlete is, the swing leg should finish somewhere between slight flexion at the knee (~45°) to full extension.

-Don’t concern yourself with how far the athlete can hinge. Remember, Path of Motion First, Range of Motion Second. Once they feel the stretch in the stance leg, they can change direction from there, at least initially.

-Maintain a neutral head (make a double chin)

-Perform without shoes as often as possible.


~Why You Should Incorporate the SL Hinge~

First and foremost, let’s talk about practicality and versatility. In my earlier years as a strength coach, the only time I would really utilize a hinge pattern was when I would have athletes do SL RDL’s. Frankly, I never thought about it much beyond that. When I first got to VHP and was learning the ropes on how they do things, one of the first things I noticed was this was put into every single athlete’s warm-up protocol. At the time my thinking was “well, if they have every athlete do it, it’s probably pretty damn important.” Today, I use a shit ton of hinge variations, for an array of reasons, and throughout various points of my sessions.


Warm-Up: Every single athlete I coach will have some kind of hinge pattern in their warm-up, and the reason is pretty simple- efficiency. When we perform a SL hinge, here is a short-list of what we’re getting:

-Balance

-Stability

-Mobility

-Flexibility

-Rhythmic coordination (aka “motor control”)

-Neural activation

-Intramuscular and intermuscular coordination

*Damn near every muscle in the body is involved (when performed correctly)


The warm-up is almost inherently everyone’s least favorite thing to do, but equally the most important part of the workout. My rule of thumb on warm-ups is no more than 10% and no less than 5% of the total time you have with your athletes. Therefore, selecting movements that are time efficient is key, and the SL hinge certainly meets this criterion.


Intra-Set: For the intra-set work, let’s say our primary lift for the day is back squat, what I will do is program a non-fatiguing hinge variation to be paired with the back squat. What this does is help the athlete by continuing to get the hips moving and turning muscles on, and more importantly- doing so without taking away from our back squat. All of the qualities we want present in our back squat (i.e. spinal stabilization, active feet, uninhibited hips) are trained directly during the SL hinge.


Auxiliary: Like most, I operate predominantly off of a block training set-up. Meaning, I place my primary lifts in the first block, compound auxiliaries (i.e. RDL, RFE split squats, step-ups) in the second block, and my isolated auxiliaries in the third block. I’ll typically place SL hinges into the third block, as they fall under the isolated category. The added advantage to using the SL hinge here is that we are now performing the hinge pattern under fatigue. Being proficient in the movement while fresh is one thing, to be able to execute under fatigue is an entirely different animal. Depending on the athlete’s ability, this is also where I’ll start to utilize some more complex hinging variations (more on that to follow).


Designated Core/Mobility: I have an extremely fortunate set-up with the athletes I work with, where training frequency isn’t much of an issue. I’m normally able to program two designated core/mobility sessions each week, and this is where I really like to get my wheels turning and come up with some different shit. As I’ve discussed in my Core Training article, when I say “core” I am thinking everything between mid-thigh up to the shoulder girdle. And by that definition, SL hinging is about as core-centric as you can get. For most athlete’s I see, this will actually be the first exercise I do with them on these core/mobility days. I don’t have any tangible figures or data to confirm this, but anecdotally I can say that this addition has helped my athletes immensely. From minimizing or even absolving back pain and increasing lower-body flexibility, to improving overall balance and coordination the hinge has worked wonders for my athletes.


~Progressing and Regressing the Hinge~

As mentioned above, it is imperative that the athlete is proficient in a bilateral hinge before moving to the SL variation. Once we’ve crossed that bridge, here is how I progress the SL hinge at a beginner/novice stage:


1.) Band Assist SL Hinge


2.) PVC SL Hinge


3.) SL Hinge w/ Mini-Band Arch (credit to Vern on this one)


4.) DB/KB SL RDL

**I'll then progress the SL RDL to contralateral (1 arm/1 leg- opposite limbs) and ipsilateral (1 arm/1 leg- same side limbs) variations thereafter.

Once we’re proficient in these, I’ll go to another progression model, essentially just using a barbell instead of KB/DB's:

-BB SL RDL

-BB SL Goodmorning

  • Apply tempos to these two movements (i.e. eccentric, isometric, and dynamic focus)

  • Unbalanced variations (RDL or Goodmorning with uneven load… a 25 lbs. plate on one side, and a 10 lbs. plate on the other)

  • Plyometric variations (i.e. incorporating a jump or bound)

Finally, I’ll introduce the sexier variations where we add in rotation or “unorthodox” loading:


1.) SL Airplanes


2.) Static SL Hinge w/ KB Distraction


3.) Landmine Switch


4.) SL Hinge w/ Vertical Band Chop


5.) Long-Lever Hinge


The caveat to this group is that these aren’t necessarily variations that should be exclusively reserved for an advanced population. In fact, I’d actually argue that most athletes would be capable of performing these. These types of options are really the ones I designate for those core/mobility days I was mentioning.


My goal with these more “unorthodox” variations really quite simple- how can I load/increase demand on a hinge pattern without compromising technique? What I’ve come up with is honestly just challenging different vectors by including some rotational components, changing the levers/angles of the hinge, and changing at what points we’re loading the hinge. The hinge, much like a lunge, plank, or push-up is extremely easy to play around with and come up with new variations for. It’s a phenomenal exercise, and very interesting to explore with.


~Summary~

-Perfect your bilateral hinge mechanics

  • Soft knees

  • Rigid spine

  • Push hips away

-Start adding SL Hinging into your warm-up; become very proficient with SL mechanics

  • Grip the foot to the ground, create torque

  • Soft knee, hips and shoulders square to the ground

  • Don’t focus on how far you can go, but rather how far you can control

-Use as intra-set or “filler” option on lower-body days

-When doing core and/or mobility work, seek out some new, more challenging hinge variations

-Don’t be timid about adding rotational and dynamic hinge patterns


I hope this was helpful and I was able to shed some light on the SL hinge for you. I know at face value this looks like a rather simple exercise, but the more I see the more strongly I feel that we need to be quite thorough in not only optimizing but mastering these fundamental patterns. There is a tremendous amount of value for just about any athlete by utilizing the SL hinge, don’t overlook what works!!

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