Think about your last leg workout—how many quad-dominant exercises did you do? How many hip-extensor-dominant exercises did you do? Was there a balance between the two? Do you even know the difference?
Most leg exercises fall under the quad-dominant category. Squats, deadlifts, leg presses, and the like are all quad-dominant exercises. While the hip extensor muscle groups (hamstrings and glutes) are activated during these movements, the quads take most of the training stress. Therefore, the quads receive the largest training response. If you do not make a conscious effort to balance your quad and hip extensor training, you will eventually develop a strength imbalance between the two muscle groups.
This imbalance can lead to several less than desirable conditions, with both physical (frequently pulled hamstrings) and cosmetic (less than perky backside) manifestations. Because hip extensor training can have such a wide range of benefits, it makes sense for everyone to include it in their training program. It’s valuable for everyone from general health and fitness clients looking for some improved “assets,” to athletes looking for improved performance and injury prevention.
The hip extensors are the muscle groups that act to extend the hip, primarily the hamstrings and glutes. When most people hear the word “hamstrings” attached to the hip extensor definition, they automatically start to think “leg curls.” And why not? Leg curl variations are the most common and popular hamstring exercises in the history of the iron game.
But guess what? Leg curls are not hip dominant exercises. To qualify as one, there must be movement at the hip joint. Leg curls simply do not do this, making them a poor choice for balancing the strength levels between the two main sections of the upper leg.
So, considering that the only exercise most people associate with hamstring training is woefully inadequate for our ultimate purposes, what should you be doing as a hip dominant exercise? One of the most effective, overlooked, and poorly executed exercises for this purpose is the Romanian deadlift (RDL).
First, let’s establish what proper form is for the Romanian deadlift (also called the stiff legged deadlift or straight leg deadlift). Then we’ll get into why it’s one of the best hip extensor exercises available and how you should integrate it into your training program.
Set the racks in a power rack to about knee level (there is no need for safety rods – if you lose control during a lift, simply drop the weight). Set a standard Olympic bar on the rack. Walk up, squat down slightly while maintaining a small curve in the lower back, grasp the bar, and stand back up. You want your hands to be shoulder-width apart, slightly wider if you find it to be more comfortable.
Take a few steps back and set yourself for the exercise. Being set includes making sure your feet are shoulder-width apart, your chest is up, your lower back has a slight curve in it, and your knees have a slight bend (not locked). Once set, you’re ready to start the exercise.
Tighten your core musculature (abs and lower back) to ensure a secure spine. Keep the bar close to your body (it should always maintain slight contact with the body), start to bend at the hips.
Take care that the lower back does not move. It may take a few sessions of practice to make this distinction. Your lower back should not lose its natural curvature at any time during the movement. Losing this curve and bending or even straitening the lower back will put your lower back in a potentially injurious position. Practice with a light weight until you can bend over at the hips without bending the lower back as well.
As you descend, your butt should move back ever so slightly, and you should feel a stretch in your hamstrings. In fact, it may be easier to learn this exercise if you visualize it as a hamstring stretch with no lower back movement. Most people will find that they can safely bring the bar down to around knee level before their lower back begins to straighten.
Stop right before you reach the limit of your hamstring range of motion, then reverse the movement. Keep the bar close and maintain a safe (slightly curved) lower back position. Toward the top of the movement, force the hips through by squeezing the glutes.
Repeat for the prescribed number of repetitions, walk the bar in over the racks, squat down slightly and return the bar to the rack.
The biggest mistake most people will make in the execution of this exercise is not maintaining the position of their lower back. Some will even go so far as to bend over till the weight touches the ground. This is a huge no-no and reflects the misunderstanding of this exercise and its purposes by most fitness instructors. It is not meant simply as a hamstring stretch as some would claim, nor is it meant to directly work the lower back, although the lower back will get stronger from performing this exercise.
To properly stress the hip extensor muscle groups, you must use intensity levels that are much too high for the lower back to handle in a prime mover or synergistic role. To derive maximum benefits from the RDL, you must keep the lower back from moving and let it play a much safer role as a stabilizer.
In fact, if done properly, you can safely manage heavy weights on this movement with little to no danger to your lower back.
Two words—intensity and functionality. First, the RDL allows a much higher intensity level (more weight can be used) than a leg curl. Fast twitch muscle fibers primarily make up the hamstrings. Those muscle fibers train best with higher intensity levels. So, the RDL is one of the most effective hamstrings exercises you can do.
Second, the RDL is also far more functional than leg curls. Although it may seem like knee flexion is a big part of your everyday activities like running and walking, a look at the true biomechanics of these activities shows that it is, in fact, hip extension that plays the key role in these activities.
Your knee simply flexes to reset the leg and start the locomotion movement again. Even there, the momentum generated from the hip extension helps swing the lower leg back. Hip extension plays a huge role in several everyday activities like running, walking, jumping, and biking. In addition, when you learn to bend over with a heavy weight in the gym while protecting your lower back, you have learned better body mechanics for use outside the gym as well.
Tight hamstrings? Check out this ISSA blog to learn how to stretch and strengthen your hamstring muscles.
There is one last thing that makes the RDL special—it is great at targeting the glutes. The RDL focuses on the upper origin of the hamstrings, but also the glutes when you squeeze them at the top of the movement. Since the hamstrings support the glutes on the posterior chain, this exercise is critical.
Remember, bending at the hips should be accompanied by a neutral spine. This results in a hinge. Optimal hip hinge movement occurs only through the hips and not by flexing the lower back. When a client's lumbar spine begins to round or flex, they are not moving through the hips.
When you add the RDL (or any other hip extensor exercise) into your program, your best bet is to split your leg work up over two different days. Day one, use a quadriceps intensive exercise; day two, use a hip extensor intensive exercise. Allow at least two days between your two leg workouts so as not to overly stress any of the stabilizers and synergists that assist in lower body movements.
Day 1 – Leg Workout #1 (Quad Dominant)
Day 2 – Chest/Biceps
Day 3 – Rest
Day 4 – Leg Workout #2 (Hip Extensor Dominant)/ Back/ Triceps
Day 5 – Shoulders/ Abs/ Rotator Cuff
Day 6 – Rest
Day 7 – Rest
Look at your training log (you do keep one, don’t you?) and peek at your last dozen or so leg workouts. Odds they used mostly quad-dominant exercises with perhaps some leg curls thrown in, a recipe for muscle imbalance. Isn’t it about time you stopped working only half your upper leg musculature? Now that you know the benefits, it’d be silly not to start incorporating the RDL into your routine.
Whether you’re changing up the type of weight used or the exercise, here are a few other Romanian deadlifts to help you meet your fitness goals:
Single Leg Romanian deadlift
Dumbbell Romanian deadlift
Trap-bar Romanian deadlift
Interested in the conventional deadlift? Try these variations:
Hex or Trap Bar Deadlifts
Snatch Grip Deadlift
The Hack Lift
If you are looking to take your personal training career to the next level and help more people, check out ISSA’s Glute Specialist Certification. Become the go-to expert for building glutes, hamstrings, and the whole posterior chain.
The ISSA Glute Training Specialist Course teaches trainers the science behind building better glutes and how to focus on these muscle groups to give clients the best results. You'll learn how to unlock the hips, create better programming, and deliver envious results. You'll master the art of developing a superior posterior and be the go-to glute expert!