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Romanian deadlifts differ from conventional deadlifts in subtle but important ways. While the deadlift focuses on the quads, this style of deadlift engages the posterior chain, strengthening the hamstrings, glutes, lower back, and more.
It’s a great move to add to your or your client’s workouts. Romanian deadlifts improve lower body and core strength, improve functional movements, help eliminate muscle imbalances, and reduce injury risk. To get these benefits, though, good form is key. Start small and get it right before adding weight.
A Romanian deadlift, or RDL, is a strength training exercise done with a barbell or free weights. It involves hinging at the hips, and it works the core, glutes, and hamstrings.
An RDL is a compound exercise, which means it recruits several different muscles. This makes it an efficient and effective strength training move compared to those that isolate one muscle at a time.
The name for this important strength exercise comes from Romanian weightlifter Nicu Vlad, an Olympian and hall of famer from Romania.
Also known as just the deadlift, a conventional or traditional deadlift is a little different from the Romanian variety. The main difference is that a traditional deadlift begins with the weight on the floor. The Romanian deadlift begins with the weight in your hands, held at hip level.
This means that when you do a deadlift, you begin with the upward, concentric motion. When you do an RDL, you start with the lowering and eccentric movement. There are several small form differences, but a major one is that a deadlift requires more bending at the knees than the RDL, which focuses primarily on the hip hinge.
A deadlift focuses more on the anterior chain. It’s quad-heavy. The Romanian deadlift engages the posterior chain more fully. There is more emphasis on the hamstrings and glutes, although both exercises use these muscles.
If you do want to work your quads more, check out this guide to mastering the front squat.
The RDL is an efficient, effective exercise that should be in everyone’s repertoire. These are some of the benefits you’ll get by adding them to your routine.
A compound movement is one that works more than one muscle and often multiple muscle groups. The muscles worked by the Romanian deadlift include:
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 hamstring 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.
As compared to a conventional deadlift, RDLs put more emphasis on the glutes and hamstrings. Both moves are excellent compound exercises, but choose the RDL when you want to build these posterior muscles. 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.
Lower back pain is a very common complaint. When done correctly, a Romanian deadlift is great form for lifting and hinging at the hips in a way that doesn’t stress the lower back.
If you can master the form needed to do this exercise correctly, you’ll strengthen muscles that support the lower back. Additionally, you’ll have the right form for functional movements outside of the gym that will help prevent back pain.
The hip hinge movement used during an RDL is a great functional movement that supports all other kinds of movements. Many people tend to bend at the spine—this contributes to lower back pain—rather than at the hip. Mobilizing the hip correctly helps you move more safely in everything you do.
Many weightlifting exercises on leg day are quad-focused. By adding in RDLs, you give more attention to the posterior chain. They’ll help you strengthen those muscles to bring better balance with the anterior muscles, like the quads.
Muscle imbalances can be a problem because they impact how you move in everything you do. Imbalances can lead to poor form in all kinds of athletic and functional movements that can ultimately cause injuries.
All of these great benefits of RDLs rely on good form. Do the movement incorrectly, and you can do more harm than good. When introducing this to clients, start with no weights or just a bar until they perfect the form.
Stand holding the barbell or dumbbells (or no weight) with an overhand grip, arms straight.
Roll your shoulders back to engage the upper back. Don’t let them round at any point during the exercise.
Tip forward as you press your hips back. This is the most essential part of the movement. Do not bend at the waist. Focus on hinging at the hips.
Continue to hinge as the weights lower. Keep them close to your legs. If the weights move too far forward, make sure your shoulders are back and your upper back is engaged.
The knees should be soft but not overly bent.
When you feel your hamstrings stretch, it’s time to hinge back up. Don’t expect the weight to hit the floor. How far you descend depends on your flexibility.
Push the hips forward as you raise up, focusing on using your hamstrings and glutes to power the movement.
Let’s dig deeper into proper form and execution:
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.
At best, poor form makes a Romanian deadlift inefficient. At worst, it can actually cause injuries. These are some of the most common mistakes people make when doing an RDL incorrectly.
Proper form for this move includes good posture throughout. This means pulling your shoulders back and keeping the upper back engaged. If your shoulders round during an RDL the weights are pulling you forward too far and this can stress your back.
Pay attention to your shoulders, looking in a mirror if necessary to make sure you keep them back. Shoulder rounding often results from using weights that are too heavy. If you struggle to keep your shoulders back, use less weight.
Don’t turn an RDL into a squat by bending too much at the knees. Many people instinctively start to squat as they hinge at the hips. Your knees should be soft and bend just slightly during this movement. Don’t let them lock up either. A stiff-leg deadlift can stress your back.
Your entire spine should remain aligned during a deadlift, which means that at some point you’ll be looking at the floor. People tend to look up at this point, which strains the neck. Keep your spine straight and neutral throughout.
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.
Once you or your client has mastered the Romanian deadlift, you can try variations and make it more challenging. Adding more weight is the most obvious way to progress, but you can also vary the movement a little.
Perform the movement on one leg at a time to get a more intense workout for your glutes and hamstrings. The single leg RDL variation also increases the challenge to your core and builds balance.
The wider snatch grip on a barbell provides a greater challenge for the upper back. Once you have mastered the ability to keep your shoulders from rounding, try this hand positioning to work the upper back even more.
To challenge your balance even more, try the move with weight in just one hand. Use a dumbbell or kettlebell in the same hand as the standing leg to push your glutes and core hard to keep you upright.
Interested in the conventional deadlift? Try these deadlift variations:
Hex or Trap Bar Deadlifts
Snatch Grip Deadlift
Incorporate Romanian deadlifts into your and your client’s training sessions for an efficient muscle-building move. Get the form right to stay safe, and you’ll get massive benefits from this exercise.
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