How to Romanian Deadlift Correctly
The deadlift is a great movement for brute strength, whether your focus is on building or testing. When trained long enough, however, it can be all but guaranteed that progress will plateau in the face of developing weaknesses. It is vital to intelligently rotate main deadlift variations and accessory exercises over time in order to maintain a well rounded base and stay injury free.
One of the most valuable (and under-used) deadlift supplementary exercises is the Romanian deadlift. By prioritizing posture and hip extension, the Romanian Deadlift (or RDL) is able to condition rock solid spinal positioning under a load, develop superior hip mobility, and emphasize development of the glutes and hamstrings (all common weaknesses in the intermediate deadlifter).
With roots leading back to Olympic Weightlifting, the Romanian deadlift offered many of the same benefits of conventional deadlifting without the consistent use of heavy loads. Whether you suffer from cat-back syndrome at the start of the pull or have hamstrings that are too tight to get to the bar effectively, the Romanian deadlift will build suppleness and stability unseen by any other power movement.
Proper RDL Position
The two most vital points of executing Romanian Deadlift form correctly are a.) spinal position and b.) hip position. The movement begins at the standing position where posture can be effectively set and the knees can start slightly bent. This is what Oly lifters call the ‘power position’ (the position before maximum force is produced on the bar during a clean or snatch) and is one of the differences between a Romanian Deadlift and Stiff-Leg Deadlift, where the knees start locked.
When considering correct RDL form, posture is king. This exercise was initially discovered when Romanian lifter Vlad Nicu was seen doing them because it, "made his back strong for the clean". Olympic weightlifting is one of the most technical sports there is, especially in the realm of strength sports, and the majority of work done is to reinforce perfect positioning. You will never see an Olympic lifter initiate a pull with any break in their posture. This makes it a golden exercise for any lifter who is having trouble maintaining a neutral spine during a conventional deadlift. A benefit of Romanian Deadlifts is that the movement begins in the standing position so that posture can be effectively set. Standing with the bar, pull the shoulders back and brace the midsection, as if you were about to take a punch. Begin the descent with the glutes tight and a neutral pelvic tilt.
Correct hip position in the Romanian Deadlift is initiated by pushing the hips directly back as the shoulders begin to drop. It is important that the hips go back and only back, not back and down as in a squat. As the hips track further back towards the end of the RDL, the lifter will feel tension build in the hamstrings. This stretch is a sign that the hamstrings are being loaded, which is an indication that hip position and posture are both on the right track. If tension is not felt in the hamstrings, it is likely because the knees are being bent further rather than simply maintaining the same position through the descent. Make absolutely sure that the shins end up vertical in the bottom of the RDL, not bent with the knees moving over the toes.
There will be a point where, in order to continue to the ground, the back must round or the knees must bend and come forward. This point is where the descent is over and the bar path is reversed to the starting position. Initiate standing up with the bar by forcefully squeezing the glutes and pushing the hips forward. Remember not to lock the knees at the top: they always remain slightly bent in an RDL.
The RDL is fundamental example of a hip hinge, which is a vital movement pattern in all of sports. Essentially, a hip hinge is when movement is isolated in the hip while the knee and spine remain rigid. Most people, without thinking, will fold over at the waist every time they bend over to pick something up. This conditions the hip and spine to move and bend together, which leads to movement dysfunction. If every athlete who had to produce high forces via a violent hip extension (i.e. fighters, sprinters, football players, lifters) flexed at the spine every time they moved at the hip, the rate of lower back injuries would be exponentially higher, not to mention performance would suffer.
The point about pelvic tilt is a subtle, yet important one. Many lifters suffer from an anterior pelvic tilt where the hips are positioned down and forward, overarching the lower back. While this may seem in line with keeping the spine arched throughout the lift, the point is to keep a neutral arch, which should follow the normal curve of the spine. Overarching the lumbar spine by keeping the hips anteriorly tilted will pre-stretch the glutes, hamstrings and abs, putting them in a weaker position at the start and limiting the potential range of motion.
Because of specifity, those who deadlift with an anterior pelvic tilt will feel eventually feel stronger in this position, but will lack the abdominal strength and mobility over time to stabilize heavy loads with a neutral spine, making proper RDL technique almost impossible to maintain through a full range of motion. Before initiating the movement, squeeze the glutes and tense the abs, rolling the hips forward into place. Make sure that this action leaves the lower back in a neutral curve, and not rounded forward.
To practice this universal movement pattern, exercises are typically employed that require movement at the hips while the spine is braced into position. KB Swings, Pull Throughs, Extensions on the GHD, Good Mornings and of course, Romanian Deadlifts are all common hip hinge exercises. Once the lifter is able to track the hips back through a reasonable range of motion while maintaining a neutral spine and pelvis position, they are ready to begin adding weight.
What Muscles Do Romanian Deadlifts Work?
The muscles worked by the Romanian Deadlift are essentially the same as it's conventional counterpart. The primary difference is that the quads are not brought in to play because the knee does not extend, but stays at a fixed bend. This requires the hip extensors to go through a more pronounced range of motion to pick up the slack, the glutes and hamstrings, specifically. This makes RDLs great for any physique competitor or bodybuilder who needs to bring to bring up stubborn hammies or lagging glutes.
The emphasis on perfect posture through a deep range of motion also requires a big effort from the abs, obliques, spinal erectors and upper back muscles. Plenty of bodybuilders have used a pre-exhaust method on their lats by hitting heavy RDLs beforehand. And if you ever wondered why Elite Crossfit athletes have such Ninja Turtle-esque abs and bread-love erectors, it is because of the constant beltless bracing through countless sets of hip hinge-type activities.
Who Romanian Deadlifts Are For
Beginner lifters will have the hardest time with movements that require movement patterns not typically practiced in day to day life. The hip hinge seems intuitive, but it actually takes time to learn. The RDL benefits the new lifter by giving them ample opportunity to practice this setup with a slow cadence and lighter weight. Until the lifter is able to actively stabilize the spine while moving at the hip, the Romanian deadlift can be a perfect variation to teach this skill while still developing the glutes and hamstrings and avoiding potential injury from a heavier deadlift variation done with sub-standard form. Remember, success in the future is based off of learning proper movement patterns now.
More proficient deadlifters are likely to have gone through long phases of using deadlifts and only deadlifts as their primary movement. As the lift becomes more comfortable, intermediate lifters will revel in the wreckless abandon that comes with blanking out and going after a max effort pull. This can lead to devastating strength gains for a time, which is why so many fall in the trap of frequent heavy conventional deadlifts. But eventually, all good things must come to an end. Assuming burnout or overtraining are not an issue, diminished returns will still lead to heavy-as-possible deadlifting no longer contributing to progress. The RDL benefits stalled deadlifts by specifically addressing these issues, breathing new life into previously stagnate deadlift training.
Besides spurring new gains simply for the fact of being a novel training stimulus, RDLs can target common problems that plague more advanced deadlifters. For instance, a lifter whose hip horsepower has overtaken their ability to keep a neutral spine will find RDLs an effective way for drilling proper deadlift posture under a load.
Others will find years of heavy frequent deadlifting have left them with tight hips, sometimes too tight to get into a proper position without compromising form elsewhere. When the hamstrings are overly tight, getting to the bar without rounding the spine can be a chore. In quite a feat of hip mobility and upper back strength, Olympic Weightlifters are typically able to keep an entirely neutral back position as they sink past the plane of their feet with hundreds of pounds. Even light RDLs done as a warmup can loosen up the hamstrings and allow the hips to sink into a better deadlift setup.
Quad dominance is a common issue for big squatters, especially those who stay upright through their squats. For those who squat substantially more weight than they deadlift, lagging hip extensors are likely the culprit, and few things bring the hamstrings and glutes up to par like a strict set of deep Romanian Deadlifts.
Romanian Deadlift Variations
This is where it all starts, and is a better choice for someone who has never done a Romanian Deadlift than simply jumping into a loaded barbell. The kettlebell variation allows the weight to sit back in between the legs, making the concept of the hip hinge more evident to a newer lifter. Drilling the kettlebell RDL is a stepping stone to a kettlebell swing, another great tool to teach the hip hinge while lighting up the glutes. Use light weights, brace the spine in a neutral position, and push the kettlebell back as far as you can while hinging the hips back.
A cable Romanian deadlift can be done facing either towards or away from a low pulley. A cable RDL done with the pulley behind you and the cable in between your legs is most commonly referred to as a pull through and is a great teacher of the hip hinge. The weight will typically be lighter as in a barbell RDL, but it is more than made up for with the change in leverages and peak contraction. Peak contraction occurs when the muscle is fully contracted and also acting directly opposite the load. This is the principle that makes leg extensions and concentration curls so miserable/effective. By having the external force directed more horizontally at lockout than vertically, the glutes are engaged much more at lockout.
Dumbbell movements reduce the stability of the movement, lowering efficiency and resulting in more fiber recruitment. When heavy barbell RDLs get stale, freshen them up by using a dumbbell RDL. Every movement cue is the same, just extra care must be taken to force the dumbbells through the proper plane. You will find that this subtle disadvantage is surprisingly taxing on the upper back and the hamstrings. As it turns out, it is also a great grip developer.
1 leg RDL
Hip hinges done on one leg is a staple in athletic training for other sports. It builds balance, in the form of coordination and well rounded musculature. By building stability through the lower body one leg at a time, the athlete is more effective at powerful single leg explosive efforts, such as running, jumping, and changes of direction. For the strength athlete, the 1 leg RDL can reveal and even out muscle imbalances that may be hindering performance or leading to an injury. The 1 leg RDL can also allow for a deeper range of motion, since you are loading into one stubborn hamstring instead of two. To improve basic athleticism and condition maximum hip stability, use dumbbells or a barbell with the 1 leg Romanian Deadlift. For simple hamstring annihilation, use a smith machine instead.
Putting It All Together
The Romanian Deadlift can be used as a primary variation to the conventional deadlift, being rotated in as the first or second compound movement in a deadlift workout, or as a secondary accessory movement with an emphasis on stretching, cadence, and hamstring isolation. Understand that position is primary, regardless of what threshold you are working in. The basic setup should not change, whether you are doing 5 sets of slow 12s or working up to 2 heavy sets of 3. As long as the lift is respected, range, stability, and horsepower will be improved quickly and safely.