12 Cues To Master Your Hip Hinge & RDL

12 Cues To Master Your Hip Hinge and RDL

Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D. 

Proper hip function is essential for performance, strength, and daily living. Knowing how to hinge from the hips rather than bending at the spine is something any human being should be capable of. Not only does this save the spine but it allows more efficient movement as the hips are involved in nearly all physical activities including both lower and upper body dominant exercises.  In addition, correct hip hinge mechanics and hip function are imperative for proper spinal positioning and postural alignment.  A person who is unable to hip hinge correctly inevitably ages their spine and ultimately their whole body.

Furthermore, the hip hinge is one of the most effective movements for producing functional strength and hypertrophy throughout the entire backside including the glutes, and hamstrings as well as the lower, middle, and upper back.   The key to reaping these various benefits of the hip hinge is performing the movement correctly. 

Here are the 12 basic principles and instructional cues I use to teach a proper hip hinge along with video examples to help illustrate each cue.

1. Bend At The Hips

Rather than bending over at the spine, think about bending from the hip joint by setting the hips back posteriorly as far and as naturally as possible.  Essentially this is the definition of a hip hinge in a nutshell. 

2. Keep The Hips Tall Throughout

One of the most important cues during a hip hinge is to focus on keeping the hips tall.  A highly effective cue that I use with my athletes and clients is telling them to imagine 2 strings with one attached to their hips/butt and the other attached to the chest.  One string is pulling the chest down towards the ground to create a forward torso lean (a critical component of a hip hinge), while the other string is puling the butt/hips up in the air, keeping them tall.  This “double string” pointer does wonders for teaching foundational elements of the hip hinge particularly the “tall hips” cue.

This tall hip position is the main cue that differentiates the hip hinge from the squat.  Although the squat and hip hinge are actually quite similar in that both involve setting the hips back by flexing at the hip joint the key underlying difference is that the squat involves dropping the hips with ample knee flexion while the hip hinge pattern involves keeping the hips tall with only a small amount of knee flexion. However, both are critical when it comes to mastering human movement and both variations should be treated as their own individual movement pattern.  Unfortunately most individuals either squat too much when attempting to perform a hinge or they keep their legs overly straight turning it into the highly dangerous stiff leg deadlift. This leads to the next point.

3. Maintain a Soft Knee Position

One of the most common mistakes I see during RDL’s is using an overly straight leg position. Rather than attempting to keep the legs straight or overly stiff, the knees need to maintain a  slight bend or “soft knee” position (15-20 degrees of knee bend) while keeping the hips tall. When the knees are overly straight (similar to the dangerous stiff leg deadlift position), this places undue stress on the lower hamstring insertion and tendon making the lifter vulnerable to tears and hamstring injuries as well as sciatic issues.  It also places undue strain on the vertebral column.

In addition it minimizes the degree of activation to the larger glute muscles.  Keeping a soft knee position allows the larger muscles of both the glutes and the hamstrings to be targeted maximally.  It’s also the biomechanically safest and strongest position, representing the ideal biomechanics for optimizing movement and muscle function.  A straight or straighter-leg position may look visually pleasing to the eye but it’s highly dysfunctional and unnatural.

4. Don’t Use An Excessively Large Range Of Motion 

This goes hand in hand with the above points regarding a straight leg position.  Rather than aiming for maximal range of motion and excessive stretch in the posterior chain, the goal should be optimal range of motion with the torso slightly above parallel to the floor and a hip joint angle that’s close to 90 degrees.  Going significantly lower than this promotes hamstring tears and pulls, low back issues, and decreased force production. 

Similar to the other points, no properly trained athlete would ever jump or land or perform any functional activity with a hinge position that involves excessive stretch or a hip joint angle that’s significantly greater than 90 degrees.  Training the hip hinge with an extreme range of motion only reinforces faulty movement patterns into your central nervous system that can degrade natural body mechanics and athletic performance. 

In essence, the lifter should focus on producing a natural stretch in the glutes and hamstrings not excessive.  Performing these too stiff-legged will not only compromise the benefits associated with this movement but will also ingrain a faulty hinge pattern. Remember a hinge is a natural, functional movement strategy not a contorted manipulation of your body’s ideal mechanics. In addition it decreases stress to the working muscles thereby negating the strength and hypertrophy stimulus of the exercise.

5. Maintain A Rigid and Neutral Spine

Keeping the spine neutral is imperative on all movements particularly axial loaded movements such as the hip hinge.  This point also goes hand in hand with the topic of avoiding exaggerated range of motion.  In fact when the spine is set into the proper position it’s nearly impossible to collapse and go excessively deep.  In contrast when the spine is not rigid, an overly large ROM will inevitably follow as the body structure and function is compromised both biomechanically (leverage is not optimized) and neurophysiologically (there will be short-circuiting of neural signals). 

This proper neutral spinal position includes a very slight natural arch (not an excessive arch), a tightly braced core, stomach pulled in, chest out, shoulders pinned back, rib cage pulled down and in, scapula pulled down, head tall and packed, and neck elongated - not cocked back or forward.

Another more subtle yet also fairly common mistake advanced lifters tend to make is they’ll set their spine and perform a proper RDL but once they reach the bottom position, rather than pausing and driving back to the top, they’ll allow their spine to lose a slight amount of structural rigidity for the sake of getting several more inches of stretch and range of motion.  Rather than attempting to go any further the lifter should feel exactly where the natural stopping point is, lock it in with maximal tension and optimal spinal rigidity, then drive back to the starting position.

6. Keep The Core Tight

A common point of debate pertains to how much of an arch a lifter should maintain in their spine whenever performing axial loaded movements such as the hip hinge.  The answer lies in the core.  Essentially the lifter should focus on keeping the core as tight and braced as possible while keeping the stomach pulled in and rib cage pulled down.  This should be done while simultaneously trying to keep the chest out, shoulders pulled down and back and maintaining a slight natural arch predominately at the t-spine/upper back not the lumbar spine. 

In addition, the spine will assume slightly different levels of extension from beginning to end of the movement. From a visual standpoint the spine will have a slight arch in the top half of the movement but at the bottom half of the hinge the spine should be relatively flat.  In essence most of the obvious and visual spinal extension elements should be eliminated at the bottom (as the back will be almost perfectly flat) even though the lifter will still be aggressively firing the lats and spinal erectors in conjunction with the core.

Lastly, when the lifter has to sacrifice additional core tension to create more of an arch then you know you’ve gone too far and created excessive arch with too much extension.

7. Push the Knees Out Laterally But Not Excessively

When it comes to squats, most competent coaches and trainers will instruct their athletes to push their knees and ankles out laterally and place more of their weight on the outside of their feet.  Although it’s slightly more subtle, the same general concepts should be applied to the hip hinge.  In fact, this is one of the most important yet underrated training cues there is for the hip hinge.  I’ve seen this be a complete game changer for many athletes acting as the final piece of the puzzle that helps their hinge technique come together. 

I’ve also seen a strong correlation between lack of lateral knee spread and hamstring strains, glute tweaks, sciatic issues, and low back pain.  Pushing the knees and ankles out and placing more tension on the outside of the feet (while keeping the big toes pushed down) will eliminate most if not all of these issues particularly when combined with all other aforementioned cues.

8. Think Broad Jump

In terms of movement specificity, the hip hinge and broad jump position are one and the same as the mechanics for both particularly at the hip joint are identical.  Understanding this concept and keeping it in mind when performing any hip hinge can do wonders for your technique.  That’s because a broad jump requires setting the hips as far back as possible with maximal hip flexion in order to achieve maximal hip extension on the jumping/concentric phase.

For anyone who’s ever performed a broad jump this cue is truly the quick and dirty fix for improving hip hinge mechanics within seconds.  In fact, it’s one I frequently use with my athletes as nearly every time I mention it it’s as if the concept of what a hip hinge position is finally clicks for the first time.

9. Think About A Strong, Coiled Hip Position

On a similar note, rather than thinking of an RDL as a contorted overly-stretched yoga position with the goal of achieving as large a range of motion as possible, the goal should be to achieve a strong and coiled hip position.  The purpose of a hip hinge movement is to set the hips in a powerful position so they can drive with maximal power and create high torque on the extension phase.  This can only happen if the hips are coiled back like a loaded spring. 

Another way to imagine this is by using the slingshot analogy.  If we cock the hips back only partially then similar to a sling shot that’s only partially cocked back, we’ll only produce a fraction of the power at the release phase.  Similarly, when cocking the hips back there should be a point where the lifter feels the maximal tension and coil phase click into position just like cocking a sling shot or bow back to it’s maximally coiled position.   It’s at this phase that the lifter should feel (both internally and externally) like one incredibly potentiated and powerful unit that’s ready to unload with maximal force and torque at will.

10. Keep The Weight Close To The Body/Center Of Mass

Another common mistake frequently made on the hip hinge is to let the load get too far out in front of the center of mass.  The goal should be to keep the weight pulled as close to the center of mass and as near to the body as possible.  Besides helping to maximize motor control and precision of movement execution, this places significantly more tension on the glutes and hamstrings and far less strain on the spine.  That’s because every centimeter farther in front of the body that the load travels, produces exponentially more shear and compressive forces on the spine.  To minimize back stress, keep the weight pulled against the body throughout the lift.

Lastly, there is a direct relationship between how close the load is toward the center of mass and hip hinge mechanics.   The closer the lifter pulls the load towards their body the more this has a direct impact on helping set the hips back and more posteriorly.  In other words the hips follow the weight and visa versa.

11. Flex the Lats Throughout

On a related note, keeping the bar close to the body not only helps maximize spinal safety and hip hinge mechanics but it also helps cue the lats to contract.  On the flip side, firing the lats also helps keep the bar close to the body.  In other words there is a direct relationship between lat activation and bar positioning. 

Keeping the lats activated and contracted throughout the hip hinge is one of the key factors for maintaining a neutral spine and avoiding excessive spinal flexion or shoulder rounding.  In fact, overall postural alignment throughout most movements including the hip hinge is predicated on upper back and lat activation.  A body that maintains aggressively activated lats while performing a hip hinge will be capable of handling far more load and tension than one in which lat activation is minimal. 

12. Don’t Contort The Spine Into Kyphotic Posture During The Top Extension Phase

Over the last decade the fitness industry has developed an obsession with the elimination of any and all traces of back extension even if that means the elimination of natural lordotic curvature.   As a result many coaches and trainers are erroneously over cuing posterior pelvic tilt with excessive shortening in the glutes especially during hip extension.  Unfortunately this has lead to a very common yet highly problematic form of dysfunctional movement and postural aberration at the top extended position of the hinge or deadlift movement where the individual loses all traces of postural neutrality and spinal rigidity.  

Essentially these individuals produce kyphotic posture, shoulder rounding, forward heat tilt, and significant spinal flexion, at the top of hinge and deadlift movements.  Although this is frequently performed with the goal of producing as much tension in the glutes as possible, such a dysfunctional position is highly undesirable and quite detrimental as this represents the same general postural alignment witnessed on elderly individuals. 

Ironically the hip hinge is one of the most beneficial movements there is for improving spinal mechanics and postural alignment provided it’s performed correctly.  Unfortunately when faulty postural alignment is assumed such as that described above, not only does the lifter lose many of the aforementioned benefits but the movement actually degrades and ages the spine rather than helping it. 

Simply put, if you want to age your spine and lose all elements of structural rigidity in the vertebral column, then keep moving into excessive kyphosis and spinal flexion when performing hip extension.  If the goal is healthy spinal mechanics, functional movement patterns, smooth coordinated muscular contractions, and maximal stimulation to the targeted musculature, then focus on keeping the spine tall and neutral during all phases of the movement including hip extension.

Foundational Hip Hinge Movements

Although there are literally hundreds of possible hip hinge drills you can perform, the key is to first master the basics.  The most fundamental hinge movements include the barbell RDL (Romanian Deadlift), dumbbell RDL, good morning, kettlebell swing, pull-through, and single leg RDL. 

It’s also worth highlighting that each of the various 12 cues previously discussed applies to all hinge variations as proper hip hinge mechanics stays almost identical from variation to variation regardless of whether you’re performing an RDL, a good morning, or a kettlebell swing. 

Bonus Quick Fix

If you find the previous 12 cues somewhat overwhelming to apply to your training, there's one particular exercise that I've found to be incredibly beneficial for instilling all of the aforementioned pointers.  

Simply use an ECCENTRIC ISOMETRIC RDL as shown by my awesome client Eric McIntyre.  Notice he uses reactive neuromuscular training component (RNT) in the form of horizontal band resistance similar to the barbell variations performed above. 

There are several reasons why this is so effective for mastering the hip hinge and RDL.

First a kettlebell RDL is one of the most simple and user friendly variations for mastering the hinge.  That’s because the weight naturally hangs between the legs allowing the lifter to keep the weigh pulled back and closer to their center of mass.  This is something I use to this day even for my own body whenever I’m looking to groove that perfect hip hinge position.

Secondly, the RNT component helps reinforce intense lat activation as anything less will cause the band tension to pull the kettlebell away from the lifter.  Understanding how to flex the lats and keep the load close to the body when performing hip hinge movements and RDL’s is absolutely critical. Without proper lat activation the weight will drift away form the torso placing exponentially greater stress on the low back and spine.

Third, utilizing RNT in the form of horizontal band resistance helps to insure that the lifter sits back to the heels and loads the glutes and hamstrings rather than leaning forward. If the lifter doesn’t sit back the intense band resistance will pull them out of position.

Lastly, the eccentric isometric protocol (slow eccentric followed by a several second pause in the stretched position), not only engages the targeted musculature to a greater degree but it helps the lifter fine-tune their body positioning and movement mechanics by maximizing proprioceptive feedback and kinesthetic awareness.  In other words eccentric isometrics help the lifter dial in their body mechanics and master their technique to another level. This is true not only of the hip hinge but of all movement patterns.