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November 19, 2021
When it comes to leg strengthening, most people think of the front of their legs...exercises like squats and lunges. While these are certainly valuable movements to incorporate into your training program, you need to treat the posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, and low back) with equal importance. That’s where the Romanian deadlift, aka RDL, comes into play. It's one of the best hamstring, glute and low back strengthening exercises and muscle builders there is.
In this article, we will cover the following:
...and then some frequently asked questions about the exercise in general.
Let’s dive in, starting with what a Romanian deadlift exactly is!
The Romanian deadlift (otherwise known as an RDL) is a traditional weightlifting movement that involves a lifter lowering a barbell or dumbbells down to about shin level (where the hamstrings are at a maximal stretch) with a slight bend in the knee yet not squatting down and while also maintaining a straight spine, and then coming back up to a standing neutral hip position.
The RDL is a prominent barbell exercise in most workout programs, both for bodybuilding and strength training alike. Not only does this movement aid in strengthening the posterior chain – mainly the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back – but it also helps to improve the functional movement needed in order to complete hip flexion and extension.
The Romanian deadlift is typically performed with a barbell or dumbbells (although it can also be done successfully with a hex bar or resistance band), and is a great exercise for building up hamstring size and strength as well as helping those needing to learn how to lift and move correctly from the hip joint, as opposed to lifting with the lower back. Since lifting something off of the ground – essentially, performing a hip hinge – is a functional movement, learning how to do it correctly can aid in lifting heavier and safer (i.e. with conventional Deadlifts).
The Romanian deadlift is most often done with a barbell, although incorporating dumbbells is also common, or even a resistance band or PVC pipe if the movement is utilized as part of a dynamic warmup before conventional deadlifts.
For the purpose of these instructions, we will discuss how to perform a Romanian deadlift using a barbell.
To begin, approach the barbell, placing feet just slightly wider than the shoulders. From here, grip the barbell while keep palms facing down toward the ground (in a pronated grip), about shoulder width apart. With head in line with the spine and shoulder blades down and back, keep the knees soft as you engage the core and squeeze the glutes to bring the barbell up to rest on the front of the thighs, with hips fully extended and the upper body in an upright position, gaze forward.
Now that the barbell is off of the floor, it’s time to perform the Romanian deadlift.
To start, keep the knees soft and core engaged, while hinging at the hips and allowing the weight to travel close to the body, along the thighs and down close to the shins. Tension should be felt within the glutes and hamstrings, especially as the barbell reaches the level of the kneecaps (although you might be able to bring the barbell to shin level before feeling tension in the posterior chain, depending upon the level of mobility and flexibility that you have). Gaze should now be toward the floor, head in line with the spine, with shoulder blades down and back.
From here, pause at the bottom of the movement for a moment – a one or two count is perfect – and then press through your heels while squeezing the glutes to return to a full hip extension at the top of the deadlift.
During extension, the barbell should stay close to the body, while the spine stays straight on the return. Knees remain soft throughout the completion of the deadlift, as the barbell comes back to mid-thigh positioning and shoulder blades stay retracted. Repeat for the desired programming repetitions.
Form and technique are key with the Romanian deadlift, especially with the hinging motion that is present; it can be often done incorrectly, leading to excess weight and pressure placed upon the lower back. Here are some tips for maintaining proper form throughout the movement:
There are several common mistakes that can be made with a Romanian deadlift (and just deadlifts in general, regardless of the particular style being done). One of the biggest factors to keep in mind in regards to the Romanian style deadlift is that the legs will essentially be kept straight, albeit with soft knees, as opposed to bending at the knee with a traditional deadlift. Because of this fact, you will not be able to lift as much weight as you might think you can – and that is perfectly fine!
Let’s just say that you are usually able to deadlift 250 pounds; during a Romanian deadlift, you might notice that even half of that typical weight feels extremely heavy – and that’s due to the fact that the focus is now on the hamstrings and glutes, as opposed to having the quads also play a part in lifting the weight off of the floor...
Moreover, you will be using a pronated grip, unlike a conventional deadlift where you can take a mixed grip for better grip control.
...and that’s where our first common mistake comes into play…. lifting WAY too much weight. If your hamstrings are not used to being activated like they will be in a Romanian deadlift, then you will almost immediately notice the engagement once you begin a hinge with straight legs. Because of this, starting light (and even in some cases, just with an empty barbell) can be beneficial – especially if you are working on form and technique. There is nothing wrong with easing up on the weight for Romanian deadlifts, and everything to gain from ensuring the proper muscle groups are doing the work, as well as making sure the upper and lower back are in the proper positions.
Another common mistake made is bending the knees too much. Yes, soft knees are key, and this can mean they are just not locked for the duration of the Romanian deadlift. However, if you are used to performing traditional deadlifts, then the tendency can be to bend at the knee as the hip hinges and the barbell gets lower to the floor. This will decrease the engagement within the hamstrings, and remove the effectiveness of the exercise. On the flip side, you do not need to lock your knees out, either. This puts you in prime position for a straight leg deadlift, which will be a different movement.
Lastly, a common mistake made with Romanian deadlifts is the back rounding or arching. Even with no weight on the barbell, the spine can be put into a detrimental position if proper form and technique aren’t followed; with that being said, you really need to ensure that the core is engaged, and that the forward hinge comes from the hip joint rather than any point along the back. This is where beginning with a light weight can come in handy as well, so that you can learn what muscles should be engaged before adding extra resistance (and possibly making the back go out of alignment if not ready for added weight).
As stated above, locking the knees out will turn your Romanian deadlift into a stiff legged deadlift, aka a straight leg deadlift. It can be confusing to know the difference between the two exercises, although the full knee extension is just one piece of the puzzle. Both the Romanian deadlift and stiff legged deadlift activate the hamstrings and glutes, but the amount of knee flexion definitely sets the two movements apart.
If you have attempted the Romanian deadlift, then you might notice that the slight knee bend allows for a bit more range of motion throughout the movement, particularly during hip flexion. In a stiff legged deadlift, the knees are fully extended – and in which case, placing a lot more intensity on the lower back and hamstrings. The foot placement on the floor is typically different between the two movements as well, with stiff legged deadlifts usually having a slightly narrower distance between the feet before beginning.
When it comes to resistance levels, the loading for a stiff legged deadlift is often similar to a Romanian deadlift, so there’s no need to try and attempt the same weight that would be done for a traditional deadlift with either one of these movements.
What's the difference between deadlift and RDL?
One of the biggest differences between the deadlift and the Romanian deadlift is the initial start of the movement. The deadlift starts from the ground. With each rep, you are bringing it to a dead stop on the ground, whereas the weight never touches the ground during a set of RDLs. What's more, the Romanian deadlift has the hip hinge with hardly any flexion at the knee joint, whereas the traditional deadlift includes knee flexion in order to pick up the barbell and begin the movement (the first phase of the movement). Between the hip hinge and the knee flexion, you will be able to pick up more weight with a traditional deadlift than with a Romanian deadlift, due to the engagement of the quads during the movement. Lastly, a Romanian deadlift will always use an overhand grip, whereas a traditional deadlift can use a mixed grip (underhand/overhand) to allow for better grip strength with a heavy load).
Is the traditional deadlift or RDL better?
One movement isn’t necessarily better than the other; realistically, it totally depends on your fitness goals and overall training routine. If you are wanting to work on isolating the hamstrings and really focus on engaging the posterior chain, then Romanian deadlifts are perfect to work into an exercise program. Likewise, if you are wanting to strengthen your back and build muscle within the lower body, traditional deadlifts can have you lifting heavier weights and achieve those goals.
Is the RDL harder than a traditional deadlift?
Typically, Romanian deadlifts are considered to be more difficult than traditional deadlifts because the back must work harder to resist spinal flexion and rounding of the shoulders due to minimal knee flexion. In a Romanian deadlift, the barbell will not return to the ground in between reps (the motion going from mid-thigh to mid-shin and back up). Because of this, you won’t be able to rest the barbell on the ground, which can be a challenge. All that said, traditional deadlifts can involve much heavier loads, which can be a lot more taxing on the body as a whole. So, if comparing heavy deadlifts with average RDLs, the heavy deadlift is going to be much more challenging. But movement mechanics wise, you may find the deadlift to be easier.
Is the RDL Safer Than a Deadlift?
The Romanian deadlift can certainly be safer than a traditional deadlift, yes! Although there is risk of injury from either movement, the Romanian deadlift could be considered “safer” in a sense that the barbell is lighter, and is not resting all the way back on the ground in between reps. This exercise also engages the deep core stabilizers, which can be helpful when moving on to exercises like the traditional deadlift – hopefully, the engagement from those deep stabilizers is already present, and you already know how to turn the proper muscle groups “on” in order to do the movement correctly and safely.
Can I do Romanian deadlifts and traditional deadlifts on the same day?
It is not usually recommended to do both Romanian deadlifts and traditional deadlifts on the same day, although this will be completely dependent on goals, injury status, training program, etc. The idea of not doing both in the same day comes down to the fact that the traditional deadlifts (if performed as the exercise after Romanian deadlifts) might be short changed, since the hamstrings have already been purposefully targeted during the Romanian deadlifts. If you do RDLs after traditional deadlifts, then you may find that your low back is already exhausted and then you run the risk of injury. That said, you could do deadlifts first and then light RDLs to really hone in on the hamstrings. This is pretty common. You can also do Romanian deadlifts as part of a dynamic warmup, with bands, dumbbells or an empty barbell, as a preface to traditional deadlifts, which can certainly be a valuable part of programming.
Can Romanian deadlifts replace traditional deadlifts?
Some training programs might have Romanian deadlifts be the sole focus for the hamstrings and lower back (and in which case it’s a fabulous exercise to focus on those muscle groups); however, I would not personally remove traditional deadlifts from a training program unless there are other health and/or physical factors to consider. Romanian deadlifts can help improve overall hip extension, but since they don’t have the barbell going all the way to the floor like a traditional deadlift does, it can have an impact on the functional stance behind the deadlift itself (since you are using much less weight than you would be while performing a traditional deadlift). That being said, you want to ensure you can lift an object with weight off of the floor if needed, and the Romanian deadlift stops the barbell at mid-shin, removing the element of full functionality if that is the overall goal.
Related: Deadlift Exercise Guide
The Romanian deadlift is known as a compound movement, meaning that several different muscle groups are working together in order to execute the exercise. Let’s take a look at some of the main muscles worked in a Romanian deadlift!
Gluteus Maximus: The hip extension motion of the Romanian deadlift is the result of engaging and contracting the glute maximus, especially at the very top of the movement while in full extension.
Hamstrings: Including the biceps femoris, the semimembranosus and the semitendinosus, the hamstrings are targeted in the Romanian deadlift, and are activated while also being toned and strengthened.
Erector Spinae: Stabilizing the body during a Romanian deadlift, the erector spinae (in the lower back) helps support the torso during the lift.
Adductor Magnus: This muscle group is located on the inner thigh, and aids in hip extension, which is crucial at the top of the movement in a Romanian deadlift.
Gastrocnemius: Playing a large role in the biomechanics surrounding the knee joint, the gastrocnemius (otherwise known as the calf muscle) aids in flexing the knee when necessary.
Forearm Flexors: There are several flexors within the forearm, and these muscles help to grip the barbell during the Romanian deadlift.
The Romanian deadlift has several benefits, the top one being an improvement in the strength of the hamstrings, erector spinea, and gluteus maximus. Essentially, the core (both the abdominals and the lower back) is strengthened at the same time as muscles within the lower body, particularly those of the hamstrings and adductors.
The ability of the body to keep the spine and back stable and engaged while hinging forward from the hips is no easy task – and therefore is also one of the benefits of learning the proper technique of a Romanian deadlift.
Separating the movement from the hips and the spine: one of the unspoken benefits of Romanian deadlifts, the ability to distinguish movement that comes from the lower back versus movement that comes from a hip hinge is incredible to have; not only in helping to reduce injury, but to allow for functional movement with improved body awareness!
The flexors within the forearm are strengthened with a Romanian deadlift as well, which can therefore aid in improving overall grip strength. A strong grip is well-known to be a big indicator of overall health and longevity.
Finally, and with all of the above, the RDL is a great exercise to build injury resilience at the posterior chain.
Depending on the programming, your workouts might include Romanian deadlifts for different purposes; however, since they are often used as a supplementary exercise, the loading and volume will be somewhat different than those typically used for traditional deadlifts!
REP RANGE & LOAD: Remember that the rep scheme for Romanian deadlifts will be higher, while the load will be lighter; think in terms of 8-12 reps at a time, for no more than about 40% of what you would lift in a traditional deadlift (you may be able to lift more depending on how strong you are at a traditional deadlift, i.e., newbies may actually be able to lift more like 50-60% of their deadlift). The goal here is smart, efficient movement, with ultimate hamstring engagement, core stabilization, and full hip extension!
VOLUME/SETS: If you are doing Romanian deadlifts as part of a dynamic warmup or as accessory work in between other movements, then 2-4 sets are more than enough. The hamstrings will be fired up even after just the first set, so there’s no need to compound too many sets with other exercises included.
PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD: A huge key to keep in mind in regards to progressive overload with Romanian deadlifts is that they will not be beneficial if you begin to lose form and technique. This idea of progressive overload works when you essentially challenge yourself more over time, so this can be something as simple as moving from 2 sets of Romanian deadlifts to 3, or moving from light dumbbells, to an empty barbell, to a plate-loaded barbell in order to complete the movement. If you notice that form starts to falter when increasing the intensity, drop back down and lock in your technique before continuing.
Do Romanian deadlifts build muscle?
Absolutely, pending that they are done correctly! Romanian deadlifts are wonderful for building muscle within the posterior chain, specifically the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back, although the forearms, adductors, and calves also play a significant role.
Can I do a RDL with a dumbbell?
Thankfully, the Romanian deadlifts are pretty versatile – from a barbell and a dumbbell to resistance bands and PVC pipes, this movement is able to be performed with a plethora of different fitness accessories. Typically, you will see people using a dumbbell for this exercise, but with only one leg down on the floor. These are known as single leg Romanian deadlifts, and are just as effective, and can also aid in building more coordination and balance than a regular Romanian deadlift.
Where should I feel RDLs?
The majority of the work with a Romanian deadlift comes from the posterior chain. With that being said, you should feel most of the engagement and activation coming from your hamstrings and glutes. If you are feeling the movement more in your lower back, stopping and re-evaluating the exercise is crucial in order to prevent injury. The lower back is involved with the Romanian deadlift, but should not be the sole focus area of work as the exercise is performed.
Romanian deadlifts vs good mornings, which should I do?
These two exercises are often used within a training program, and can both be utilized as movements that fire the glutes and hamstrings and activate the deep core stabilizers. The hip flexion is the same, as is the position of the knees. However, the barbell is positioned at the upper back in a good morning, just like a back squat, while the Romanian deadlift has the weight in the front of the body. If you find that you are having issues maintaining a neutral spine with a Romanian deadlift, a good morning might be a better alternative as a starting point so you know what a neutral spine should feel like as you hinge over at the hips. If grip is a problem, good mornings might also be a better option, as it really isn’t an issue with the barbell across the upper back as much as it is for a Romanian deadlift.
Are Romanian deadlifts good for beginners?
Absolutely! This can also be pending any injuries or complications, so always speak to your PCP before starting a workout program that includes Romanian deadlifts. Likewise, you can speak with a personal trainer or fitness specialist to determine if Romanian deadlifts are right for you and your fitness goals. This is considered a form of functional movement though, so if you want to learn the correct movement pattern of a hip hinge, a bodyweight Romanian deadlift is a good place to start. This is also a good movement for targeting the posterior chain, which can be helpful as well, especially if there is weakness noted in the area.
Deadlifts can be considered an advanced movement, especially with all of the focus that needs to be on the lower back and ensuring proper positioning is obtained. Because of this, there are other functional movements that can be incorporated into a training program in order to help build the muscle strength and hip flexion needed in order to perform a deadlift correctly.
Here are a few movements that you can incorporate into a training routine to help improve hip mobility and posterior strength, before attempting a Romanian deadlift:
Glute bridges: A highly versatile exercise that allows you to use both legs or progress to a single leg version, a glute bridge is a perfect starting point for those looking to engage the glutes and hamstrings while in a supine position on the floor.
Hip thrusts: Another versatile movement, hip thrusts can be done with just bodyweight or can be made more challenging with a barbell or even something like a sandbag. With your upper back supported on a bench or a box, hip thrusts are another wonderful way to engage the glutes and work on hip extension.
Bodyweight Romanian Deadlifts: Try the RDL movement without a barbell. Instead, work on the actual hinge motion itself without any accessories, and really try and focus on your core engaging properly so that you can nail the hip flexion and extension before moving on to harder stages of the movement.
Resistance Band RDLs: Use a 41" loop resistance band (most gyms have these). Stand on it and grab the ends and perform the movement in the same way. Bands are safer yet they will still be very effective at engaging the muscle. This is a great way to prime your muscles and the movement mechanics.
These three motions work the motion of the hip hinge without any extra weight or implements, and can help increase activation within the glutes and hamstrings while also allowing you to focus on completing a full hip extension.
Deadlifts are one of the top exercises for improving lower body strength, as well as improving posture and overall core strength. Plus, deadlifts are a functional movement – after all, how often do you pick something up off of the floor? The key here (whether you are working on Romanian deadlifts, sumo deadlifts vs. traditional deadlifts, or even the stiff legged deadlifts) is to get the form and technique correct before increasing in weight. Have a personal trainer or fitness specialist observe and correct form if needed, and ensure that the proper muscle groups are being engaged before progressing to heavier resistance. In the end, you’ll notice that you have more power and strength through your posterior chain!
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