The Romanian Deadlift, also known as RDL or stiff leg deadlift, is a powerful accessory exercise that works and benefits the entirety of the posterior chain most especially. This includes the key muscle groups like glutes, hamstrings, and lower back.
Though not a fast-paced movement, it’s a great fat burner for increased metabolism. It also assists in performing big lifts (boulder lift), explosive movements (sprints, jumps), and submaximal loads.
As it incorporates focused hip hinges, it has great potential of unlocking faulty movement patterns, especially when done in a unilateral fashion. Aside from its general help in strengthening the back, it greatly improves one’s grip strength.
On the flip side, it’s also one of the most misunderstood movements that have lots of novice mistakes in its stash. Thus, this article is written to help you out and everyone else struggling with this movement.
By the end of this article, you will have learned the proper technique and tips on performing the Romanian Deadlift, common mistakes to avoid, and variations and alternatives to try.
How To Do Romanian Deadlift
What You’ll Need:
- Barbell (empty or with plates) – The Romanian deadlift is best done with a Barbell to achieve balance on both sides of the body. Note: always wear a Deadlift Shin Guard for safer weightlifting. If you are experiencing wrist injuries or wrist pain, a Wrist Wrap will provide you with the wrist protection you need for lifting.
- Dumbbell – Use one dumbbell for unilateral Romanian deadlifts and two for bilateral movement
- Kettlebell – Use one kettlebell for each arm or one with heavier weight while holding it in the middle for balance
Step 1: Set up your barbell and position
Stand with the feet shoulder-width apart and the toes pointing forward. Position your feet just underneath the barbell where the bar should be parallel to your shoelaces. Keep this stance throughout the whole movement.
Step 2: Hinge forward and lift the bar
Focus on the hip hinge movement as you lift the barbell, kettlebell, or dumbbell from the floor. To avoid bending your knees forward, imagine your shins aligned with a bench – it should be straight throughout. Once you’re standing straight, take this as your starting position.
Step 3: Manage the eccentric phase
Keep your back straight by keeping the bar close to your body. As you hinge your hips, keep your neck stiff and control the movement. Don’t aim to reach the floor but aim for a slight bend to feel the stretch across your hamstrings and glutes. The weight preferably lands in between the knees and the middle of the shins.
Step 4: Tighten your core, glutes, and hamstrings
Brace your core and keep your shoulders locked in. Your arms should be tight and not swaying. Keep your neck aligned with your spine to avoid rounding your back or spraining your neck as you perform the movement. As you do these small adjustments, you should feel the majority of the contraction on your hamstrings.
Step 5: Reach full hip extension
Drive your feet to the ground as you stand upright. Keep the barbell as close to your body as possible. Keep your shoulders strong and locked the entire time. As you ascend, the weight or bar should land just right by your upper thighs. Avoid overextending your hips or pushing your hips forward exacerbated.
Step 6: Lower the weight and repeat
Repeat Step 3 to hip hinge with a slight bend on the knee for the second repetition. Complete the recommended number of repetitions per set based on your program.
Romanian Deadlift Benefits
The Romanian deadlift is popular for working the dynamic trio of your glutes, back, and hamstring. This accessory movement also improves one’s endurance for physical activities, be it for sports or leisure.
In sports, this improves technique for maximal lifts or high-intensity training, leg strength, and power application. It can also be applied to more dynamic movements like snatches and cleans. Runners also benefit from Romanian deadlifts by gaining stability, strength, and flexibility on the hips.
Improves Pulling Strength
With the combination of hip hinge movement and the act of lifting the barbell from the floor, your pulling strength would significantly improve. This can then help you do daily tasks with ease or improve your overall sports performance. Romanian deadlifts incorporate lots of joint actions which can help you maintain long-term fitness and health.
Aside from physical comfort, performance, and joint mobility, Romanian deadlifts contribute to hypertrophy or muscle mass. This affects muscle size, strength, application, and performance altogether. To sum up, you not only move well, but you also look good doing it.
Common Romanian Deadlift Mistakes to Avoid
- Rounded back: This mistake occurs when you bend too forward or hold the barbell inches away from your body. One technique to keep your back strong and parallel to the floor is by imagining your pants pockets touching a wall.
- Unneutral spine: This compromises your entire form and tends to take the contraction from your posterior chain and moves it solely to your back, which causes a painful sensation. To remedy this, incorporate a stick neck alongside your stiff legs to align your whole spine.
- Load is distant from the body: This wrong form easily targets your back and compensates by rounding it, which passes the whole load from the entire posterior chain to only your lower back. Keeping the load as close to your body as possible not only fixes your form and targets your hamstrings better but also activates your lat muscles.
- Overly extended torso: You’d want to adopt a more stacked ribcage rather than an extended torso, the latter which only takes away potential contraction and growth from the correct muscles.
- Bringing the barbell all the way to the floor: Unlike a traditional deadlift, the Romanian deadlift focuses on activating the hamstring muscles. Bringing the load all the way down compromises the form and hurts the back. Instead, the load should stop right between your knees and the middle of your shins, where you can feel the right amount of contraction.
Romanian Deadlift Muscles Worked
- Hamstrings: The hamstrings take the majority of the load when performing a Romanian deadlift. You know you’re executing it properly when your knees are slightly unlocked but fixed in place, which puts more tension on your hamstrings.
- Glutes: The gluteus maximus is mainly targeted through the hip hinges incorporated in the Romanian deadlift. A technique you could try is by contracting your glutes at the top of the movement or right when you’re reaching full hip extension.
- Erector Spinae (lower back): Your lower back muscles are equally involved in this movement, especially during the downward motion. However, keep in mind that your lower back should feel contracted and not painful, as the latter foretells bad form.
- Middle and Upper Back: Similar to the traditional deadlift, your whole body should be stacked from the feet to knees to shoulders to hands or grip when performing Romanian deadlifts. It requires general back strength by keeping the back flat and the torso rigid (not overly extended).
- Trapezius: The traps primarily assist in keeping your shoulders strong and in place in the duration of your Romanian deadlift sets. They keep the shoulders tight, as well as the spine straight for proper body alignment.
- Forearms: Performing Romanian deadlift work religiously contributes to major grip strength over time. With a strong grip, this essentially increases muscle endurance which you could apply to a plethora of power-based movements.
Romanian Deadlift vs Deadlift
Every deadlift variation has its own focus, thus no type of deadlift is superior to the other. However, there are both distinct and subtle differences among them. In this case, let’s discuss Standard Deadlift versus its Romanian counterpart.
When it comes to traditional deadlift, the muscles worked are mainly the lower back and quadriceps. Due to this, one can lift up to 15 to 25% more load. The start and final positions are on the floor as the barbell touches the floor all the way. The knees are properly bent to achieve a full range of motion.
On the other hand, the Romanian deadlift activates the hamstrings and glutes more. It also incorporates hip mobility. The load is usually lighter compared with a standard or conventional deadlift as there’s no assistance from the quadriceps. The position starts and stops upright with the knees slightly bent during the eccentric phase, and the barbell not reaching the floor.
Our Trainer’s Suggested Sets and Programs
For Muscle Building
Hypertrophy can be achieved in Romanian deadlifts by increasing the training volume, performing TUT, or invoking metabolic disturbances such as shortening the recovery time plus training in high volume. The recommended program is doing 3 to 5 sets of 10 repetitions with moderate to heavyweight or 2 to 4 sets of 12 to 15 repetitions with moderate load.
For Strength Training
Romanian deadlifts are not ideally done with a 1RM volume unlike a conventional deadlift since the quadriceps have no assistance. Nevertheless, increased strength can be achieved by performing 3 to 5 sets of 3 to 5 reps with a heavy load.
For Improved Muscle Endurance
The key to muscle endurance is repetitive work. It’s not glamorous work, but it contributes greatly to muscle memory. Essentially, you can gain resistance to fatigue by performing 2 to 4 sets of 12 to 20 repetitions with light to moderate load.
Romanian Deadlift Variations
Albeit an accessory exercise, the Romanian deadlift comes with many variations on its own that can help you achieve symmetry, balance, coordination, and an overall proper form. Each variation can be performed according to your original Romanian deadlift program.
Kettlebell Romanian Deadlift
The kettlebell Romanian deadlift places significant challenges on your back’s stabilization capacity. Similar to how the Romanian deadlift starts, it requires a stance shoulder-width apart. Since kettlebells move and swing independently on their own, holding a kettlebell on each arm challenges your bilateral coordination further while giving you sufficient load to work with.
Sumo Romanian Deadlift
It’s noteworthy to remember that the wider the stance on the starting position, the heavier load you can carry compared with a standard Romanian deadlift. This is the aim of a Sumo RDL. It also activates the back muscles more by challenging your spine to be straight and stable all throughout the movement.
Wide Snatch Grip
Wider grip requires a more rigid upper back and a more engaged trapezius, as can be seen on a Wide Snatch Grip RDL. As you might have noticed, this movement imitates the starting phase of a snatch lift. When executed properly, it engages the hips, glutes, and hamstrings efficiently.
Unilateral Romanian Deadlift
The unilateral or single-leg Romanian deadlift is more than a simpler variation of the stiff leg deadlift. This promotes balance, coordination, and unilateral muscular development and strength. It also helps localize movement asymmetries and or muscular imbalances.
Romanian Deadlift Alternatives
These alternatives can help you target your preferred muscles tenfold while still incorporating the majority of the muscles that are involved with the stiff leg deadlift. We recommend these alternatives for their effectiveness in training the entire posterior chain.
This deadlift alternative primarily targets the lower back and glute development. This is a great alternative if you get fatigued or sore on the hamstring muscles easily. This could also be done as a training ground for the actual stiff-legged deadlifts and if you’re aiming for more back and trap engagement. Perform good mornings with a resistance band or a barbell.
This movement targets the glutes and the spinal erectors or lower back. It puts less strain on the hamstrings but nevertheless gives it just the right amount of contraction. Reverse hypertension can be done using a reverse hyperextension machine, resistance band, or with bodyweight (done on the floor).
Nordic Hamstring Curl
Compared with the first two alternatives, the Nordic Hamstring Curl puts great emphasis on the hamstring muscles, including the biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus. It’s also great for injury prevention and improved hip strength. The Nordic Hamstring Curl comes with its own variations for versatility but is usually performed with bodyweight only.
The posterior chain muscles receive the bulk of the benefits from Romanian deadlifts. When performed properly, this has great potential of achieving muscle hypertrophy, symmetry, balance, strength, and endurance.
There are many ways to go about it including dumbbell Romanian deadlift and single-leg RDL, which gives you complete freedom in choosing how to incorporate it into your program. So whether you’re working with a personal trainer or you prefer to exercise on your own with light weights, the stiff-legged deadlift should be on top of your accessory exercises to do.