The Romanian Deadlift (RDL) is an exercise that often gets swept under the rug as an accessory movement that shouldn’t be considered a main lift. I believe it’s treated this way for a couple of reasons.
First, because of the word “Romanian” that precedes it, it immediately is categorized as a variation of a staple. Mentally people make a switch that associates the deadlift with other assistance exercises like chest flyes, French press, or reverse lunges. Second, Romanian deadlifts don’t allow you to lift as much weight as conventional deadlifts since the quads are less active. Not your heaviest movement? Not a major lift.
But RDLs should be viewed on par with the big dogs. When done correctly, they’re a great way to torch your hamstrings and glutes for a solid posterior chain workout. The problem is that most people do them wrong. I’m here to go over some simple and complex issues that will help you make the most of this lift.
The RDL is not a Stiff Legged Deadlift!
A stiff legged deadlift and an RDL are two different movements. They’re often confused, but a stiff legged deadlift requires stiff, locked out knees. In my experience, a stiff legged deadlift provides no added benefit compared to the RDL, and I believe it exposes inflexibility to a higher degree, which limits the safety and efficacy of the lift. To add to this, using stiff knees deactivates the quads from doing work to drive the leg straight from the knee joint (in synergy with the hip extensors). You’re better off using the RDL.
Executing a Romanian Deadlift
Once again, as the legs stay slightly bent in the RDL, there is a major difference when compared to the conventional deadlift. The lowered quad activation will place more emphasis on the posterior chain. Here’s a checklist to make sure your form is on point.
- The back must remain neutral throughout the lift. Keep the glutes active to help drive through at the top.
- Remember to keep the bar close to the body - the same way it stays during a conventional deadlift.
- Avoid looking up too high. Extension in the cervical vertebrae can lead to injury and is a bad habit to develop.
- On the way down, "drag" the bar down the thighs, keeping it close. With your butt, aim for the top corner of the wall behind you. This will encourage the right geometry and pull the hamstrings tight.
Common RDL Mistakes
We already discussed the act of using stiff legs for the RDL. I don’t consider this a “mistake," but rather a completely different exercise that I don't personally recommend.
Overarching the Back
The glutes are a posterior tilter of the pelvis and the hip flexors are an anterior tilter of the pelvis. When you create a pronounced arch in the back, it makes it difficult to correct as you go along. The hips are put in their shortest position and can inhibit the glutes from doing their job on the opposing side. This can cause forward momentum to the pelvis, resulting in a low-back dominant deadlift.
In the video below, I’m demonstrating a bad conventional deadlift where I finish the lift with a pronounced overarch. Though the deadlift variation is different, the message is the same.
To fix this problem, make sure to encourage a neutral spine rather than an overextended spine. Get out of the thinking that your back always needs to be arched to ensure good form. Instead, think of avoiding a rounded spine.
Wearing Lifting Shoes
If you’re not a competitive Olympic lifter with a coach who has a specific purpose in making this decision, I simply can’t see the point of wearing Olympic lifting shoes when performing RDLs. Lifting shoes have heel elevations to varying degrees, to ensure an upright torso during movements like cleans and squats. Depending on the make of the shoe, these heights can be moderate to steep.
The problem is, when applying heel lifts to deadlifts, your geometry and angles are thrown off significantly – even a difference of a couple of centimeters will totally skew your center of gravity and change the physics of the lift. It’s the reason inflexible lifters can squat deeper when they wear Olympic lifting shoes or slide 5lb plates under their heels.
The lower back region is one I don’t like to mess around with, and for that reason I like to go down to socks or very minimalistic shoes (Chuck Taylors or Vibrams work well) when performing deadlifts of any kind.
Using Incomplete Range of Motion
This is my most important point. 9 out of 10 times I see someone performing the RDL, they’re cutting their range as soon as the bar reaches around knee level. There are a few things going on when this happens.
First of all, practicing a partial range deadlift may involve the hamstrings, but only through a certain range of motion. That could create susceptibility to injury at a more stretched (and therefore compromised) position. It can also encourage overuse of the stretch reflex, since the elasticity of the muscles is being exercised given there’s no “end point” (in this case, the floor) for the lift.
Lifters often reason that they can’t achieve the same range of motion in the RDL due to the fact that the straighter legs disallow the maintenance of a flat spine, which would be compromised by descending any lower in the rep. This is valid, but it primarily depends on the starting setup – if the lifter overarches at the beginning and end of the deadlift rep, then, as mentioned earlier, it will be difficult to achieve full ranges of motion and optimal start and finish positions.
Secondly, the lifter isn’t taking advantage of the added degrees of motion he can achieve by exploiting the loaded stretch to the hamstrings an RDL can produce. Letting the weight “pull” your hamstrings into a deeper stretch can make the hamstrings lengthen and keep the back much flatter for a much greater range.
To illustrate, try setting up in a dumbbell bench press with 3 pound dumbbells. Bring the weight down as low as you can by the chest. Then do the same thing with 25’s. Then do the same thing again with 50’s. I’m sure that even if you reached the same place with each pair of dumbbells, as the weight got heavier, it was easier to get down there (and maybe even beyond). This point rings especially true to lifters who are intermediate or advanced and may carry significant muscle mass. The video below is a much needed visual cue for you to consider and apply:
I’ve found sets of 6-10 reps the most effective rep range for the RDL. Going any higher promotes a form breakdown. I’ve also increasingly enjoyed taking them out of a program as a supplementary exercise, and instead making them start a second deadlift day of a given program as a main lift.
If you want muscles to grow, you've got to learn to use them right. Applying these technical cues to Romanian deadlifts is the first step to making your lower body stand out and work well. Too often we get preoccupied with the important big lifts to an unnecessary extreme and end up training like powerlifters. It takes an open mind and good discernment when development is the name of the game. Build your training smarts the right way - from the ground up!