How To Do Romanian Deadlifts (RDL)The Romanian deadlift is a supplemental lift for the deadlift, using much of the same muscle mass but placing the emphasis on your hip extensors. Compared to the full deadlift, it involves much less knee extension, changing the mechanics of the lift and how we should us it in our strength programs.
The Romanian Deadlift (RDL)
The RDL is one of the most versatile deadlift supplemental exercises. It’s a great exercise for building hypertrophy in the hamstrings, glutes and hip extensors without adding a tremendous amount of stress. It’s also an instructive form corrector—it helps teach a lifter how to set their back in normal anatomical extension and keep it there throughout a loaded “hip hinge” movement pattern.
The RDL is also useful for both injury prevention and rehab. Proper Romanian deadlift form keeps the lower back stable while working the posterior chain of muscles through their normal function and range of motion.
Romanian Deadlift vs Conventional Deadlift
A conventional deadlift starts from a dead stop (that’s how it gets its name) from the floor. The Romanian deadlift starts from the rack at about the height of your mid-thigh. Use the normal grip width you would for deadlifts, and use straps so grip strength isn’t a distraction. Flatten your back, take the bar out of the rack and take a step back. Stand with your feet in a normal deadlift stance. Stand up tall with your shoulder blades down. Keeping your knees as straight as possible, slide the bar down your legs by pushing your hips backwards. Your shoulders will come out over the bar to stay in balance. How far down an individual goes will depend on the lifter’s ability to maintain a rigid back without bending the knees. At some point, the hamstrings reach their full extension. Going farther down will require either bending the knees or flexing the lower back, neither of which should be allowed with proper RDL form. Once this bottom limit is reached, the lifter will slide the bar back up the legs and return to the starting position. At no point during the RDL does the lifter set the bar down on the ground, since maintaining tension in the muscles of the posterior chain is a major feature of this deadlift variation.
How to Perform the Romanian Deadlift
Start with the Setup
- Start from the rack: set the bar between the top of your knee and midthigh.
- Make sure the space around the rack is clear.
- Take a standard deadlift grip.
- Instead of a hook grip or mixed grip, use straps for the Romanian deadlift.
- Take a deadlift stance, set your back, and lift the bar out of the rack.
- Take two steps backward to clear the rack and assume a deadlift stance: feet directly under your hips, toes pointed slightly outward.
Throughout the movement, it will be your goal to maintain good posture and only a slight knee bend.
- Turn your body into a column: stand with your chest up, abs tight, and shoulder blades down.
- Unlock your knees slightly (similar to a stiff leg deadlift).
How to Lift
- Pushing your hips back, slide the bar down your legs.
- Think “hinge” at the hips while maintaining the slight knee bend and without unlocking your back or rounding your shoulders.
- When your hamstrings are fully stretched, squeeze your glutes and fire back up to the starting position.
- Freeze your knees as you slide the bar down your legs.
- Stick your butt out and actively squeeze your lower back.
- Maintain lower back extension by pointing your belly button at your heels.
- Keep your chest up like you are trying to aim it at the wall in front of you.
Common Errors for the Romanian Deadlift
The two most common errors in RDL form are (1) bending your knees during the descent and (2) unlocking or rounding your back. Both of these errors come from the lifter’s attempt to force a bigger range of motion than the hamstrings are keen to allow.
The bottom of the RDL is extremely tight for the hamstrings. Some people believe that they should reach a certain point on their shin or close to the ground. The RDL is different from, say, the squat, which has a clearly defined range of motion to be considered valid. The range of motion for the RDL is defined by hamstring extensibility.
Your knees should be unlocked at the top but not by much. Think of a “soft bend” in your knees. Once slightly unlocked, your knees should not move until you are ready to re-rack the bar. If, as you descend, you bend your knees, you will be able to reach farther down, but you will be taking the focus off your hip extensors, which is the point of the lift.
Similarly, as you reach the bottom of the lift, assuming your knees aren’t bending, your hamstrings and back should be very tight. If you continue to descend, and you suddenly feel relief in those areas, then you have unlocked your back and relaxed your spinal erectors. Both of these errors can be difficult to identify while you are lifting. So use your camera and film your lifts to watch for bending knees and a rounding back. And remember that tightness trumps range of motion for this lift.
Not a form error, but often a mistake, is the failure to use straps on this lift. Having to unrack the bar, walk it out of the rack, perform an entire set, and walk it back into the rack can only be done at relatively light loads without straps. Sets of RDLs will punish your thumbs if you hook grip and these should not be performed with a mixed grip either. Use straps to get the most out of the lift, so relatively heavy weights can be used to get the most out of this deadlift variation.
Programming the RDL
Once the conventional deadlift is contributing to a fair amount of training stress in your program—usually past the intermediate or entering advanced stages of programming, the RDL is a great supplemental deadlift exercise. The most common cases for programming the Romanian deadlift are:
- As a supplemental deadlift exercise.
- A less stressful pulling alternative in your program.
- When you need high-volume and low-intensity in your usual deadlift slot.
- As a deadlift or squat alternative—often when working around an injury or limitation.
Read more on a Four-Day Split training program, which can utilize Romanian deadlifts in pulling slots.
Read our RDL Field Guide for more in-depth form tips.
Fighting Back Against Back Pain?
Learning how to train for strength, safely and effectively, can help you fight back against back pain. The formula is simple: find out what you can do today and do a little bit more tomorrow. The key ingredients are learning how to move correctly and a plan for progress. Below is a short guide to help you get started with strength training for a stronger, healthier back:
- Strength is the foundation of health, function, and fitness.
- A simple, hard, and effective approach. (Easy doesn’t work!)
- Video tutorials and a sample program to help you get started.