The Romanian Deadlift is an exercise that can be used to develop proper hip health and joint actions, muscle growth (hypertrophy), strength, and muscular endurance specific to strength and power sports, athletics, and general health and fitness. It’s a movement used by weightlifters, powerlifters, and other athletes to develop strength and mass in the posterior chain.
The Romanian Deadlift — also referred to as the RDL — is most often seen as an accessory lift with sub-maximal loads, but it’s a movement that has flexible applications in many programs and for many strength-based goals.
In this Romanian deadlift exercise guide we will discuss:
- Romanian Deadlift Form and Technique (Barbell and Dumbbell Romanian Deadlifts)
- Benefits of the Romanian Deadlift
- Muscles Worked by Romanian Deadlifts
- Romanian Deadlift Sets, Reps, and Weight Recommendations
- Romanian Deadlift Variations and Alternatives
- and more…
How To Romanian Deadlift: Form and Technique
This Romanian deadlift technique breakdown can be used to teach beginner lifters and athletes alike how to properly perform a Romanian deadlift. Note that the first two steps of the how-to-guide discuss having a lifter pick the barbell up from the floor to start the lift (the Romanian deadlift starts from the top of the lift, and moves downwards towards the floor). If a lifter has issues lifting a load from the floor due to poor postural control or weakness, it may be best to have them grab the barrel from a rack height a few feet off the floor to minimize back injury and simplify the movement.
Step 1: Load a barbell and stand with your feet shoulder width apart, toes forwards, and the barbell running over your shoelaces (from the aerial view).
In this position, it is important that the torso is upright, arms are straight , and the shoulder blades are dropped downwards towards the rear. This will allow you to “lock” the back and minimize strain in the neck.
Step 2: Bend down and grab the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder width grip and only slight bend to the knees
Keep your back flat and shoulders over the barbell. Once you have stood up, reset in the above vertical torso positioning.
Step 3: Push the hips back while maintaining a flat back.
This will result in you feeling tension develop in the hamstrings and across the back (lower and middle, especially around the shoulder blades), with the torso moving towards being parallel to the floor.
Step 4: Use glutes and hamstrings to stand upwards, keeping the barbell close to the body.
If you’re having trouble keeping the barbell close, think of engaging your lats (without pulling through the arms).
Step 5: At the top of the movement, contract the upper back, core, and glutes by flexing from the middle of the back to the buttocks (glutes).
While most athletes will be standing up straight at the top of the movement, avoid overextending and leaning further back than necessary.
Step 6: Lower barbell the same way and repeat for repetitions.
Lower in a slow and controlled fashion for best results.
What Is a Romanian Deadlift?
The Romanian Deadlift is a deadlift-variation that can be used to increase posterior chain development (hamstrings, glutes, and back), pulling strength, and athletic performance in sports such as weightlifting, powerlifting, athletics, CrossFit, and more. In the Romanian deadlift, the lifter keeps the knees slightly bent throughout the movement (rather than fully extended) to increase hamstring and glute engagement, build muscle mass, and increase injury prevention in these powerful and explosive muscles (hamstrings, glutes, and back). In the below sections we will discuss everything you need to know about the Romanian deadlift and how you can start to integrate them into your current training routine.
Romanian Deadlift/RDL – Muscles Worked
The Romanian deadlift targets many of the same muscles a conventional deadlift develops, however places a greater emphasis on the hamstrings and glutes. Below is a full breakdown (in order of specificity) of the primary muscle groups worked when performing Romanian deadlifts for strength, hypertrophy, and muscular endurance training.
The Romanian deadlift specifically targets the hamstrings primarily due to the flexed knee angle throughout this movement. As discussed in the video above, the knees remain slightly unlocked yet fixed (minimal flexion and extension throughout the movement) forcing the hamstring to promote the muscle force necessary to move the load (added knee extension would come from quadriceps involvement). The key to this exercise is to be sure to feel the hamstrings being loaded during the eccentric aspect (lowering) of the lift to ensure proper mechanics and muscular development.
Like most hinging movements, the Romanian deadlift targets the glutes (buttocks and hips) through hip extension. The glutes, which are involved in nearly every athletic movement, squatting, deadlifting, and human locomotion (running, jumping, sprinting, etc) are forceful muscles that can be highly targeted by the Romanian deadlift. It is key to contract the glutes at the top of the movement to maximize overall muscle engagement, strength, and development.
Erector Spinae (Lower Back)
The erectors (also known as the lower back muscles) are muscle groups that are targeted during the Romanian deadlift. Often, new lifters will mistake soreness in the lower back as a technique problem (which, may actually be the case…so be sure to watch the above how-to video), however it may be due to increased muscle damage to the lower back muscles. This muscular damage, when done in a systematic and safe manner, is the process necessary for increasing lower back strength and performance for activities like lifting, walking, running, and postural control.
Note, that the lower back should not be the sole muscles one feels when performing these. Rather, it should be felt less than the hamstrings and glutes. If you find you are feeling your lower back muscles too much (more than you feel your hamstrings, and glutes), it may be best to review the exercise how-to video to review correct form and technique.
Middle and Upper Back
The Romanian deadlift develops general back strength simply for the fact that the lifter must maintain a rigid torso and flat back throughout the entire range of motion. As a lifter lowers the weight, the back must work harder to resist spinal flexion and anterior rounding or the shoulders (shoulder and upper back rounding forwards). This is beneficial for injury prevention for the lower back, increasing overall back strength, and improving postural control for other movements like squats, conventional and sumo deadlifts, snatch, cleans, and bent over rows.
The trapezius muscles (traps) are used to keep the torso and shoulder from rounding forwards in the lift. Much like heavy carries and deadlifts, the traps assist the lifter in assuming a correct back positioning throughout the lift.
Deadlifts target the forearms simply due to the athlete needing to grasp a loaded weight for long periods of time (or with heavier loads for shorter times). Simply performing Romanian deadlifts can improve grip strength and muscle endurance necessary for other strength and power-based movements (carries, conventional and sumo deadlifts, snatches, cleans, and even pull-ups).
Five Benefits of the Romanian Deadlift
Below are five benefits of the Romanian deadlift to aid coaches, trainers, and lifters in understanding why Romanian deadlifts are a key exercise for all lifters to include within strength training programs.
Greater Hamstring Hypertrophy
The Romanian deadlift targets the hamstrings (discussed above in the muscles worked section), which can be beneficial when looking to increase muscle mass (hypertrophy). Increased hamstring hypertrophy can lead to increased muscle size, strength, power application, and sports performance.
Increased Pulling Strength
Increase pulling strength is one benefit of performing Romanian deadlifts. Many strength and power athletes will perform heavier Romanian deadlifts in place of conventional deadlifts to increase glute, back, and hamstring strength while not limiting loading on the lower back (due to less loading potentials and increase hamstring and glute isolation).
Application to Weightlifting Movements
Olympic weightlifters (and CrossFit/Competitive fitness athletes) can integrate the Romanian deadlift into their workouts to increase back and hamstring strength specific to heavy snatches and cleans. By increasing positional strength and muscle hypertrophy of the back and hamstrings, weightlifters can better maintain their technique during near maximal and maximal lifts.
Improved Athletic Performance
Increased athletic performance can occur through the training of the Romanian deadlift. The Romanian deadlift targets the posterior chain, which is key for increased power application, running performance, overall leg strength.
The hamstrings are often subject to injury during explosive movements like running, sprinting, and powerful/ballistic movements in sport/lifting. Romanian deadlifts can be used to increase hamstring strength, control, and eccentric loading capacities (typically injuries occur in the eccentric phases or hamstring loading), which can improve an athlete’s injury resilience and longevity.
Who Should Do Romanian Deadlifts?
The Romanian deadlift is an exercise that offers every athlete, fitness goer, and coach alike a wide array of benefits. The muscles worked by the Romanian deadlift have a wide application to strength, power, fitness, and formal sports, while also increasing the hip function and muscular development for entry-level lifters. In the below sections, we will discuss the exact groups/types of individuals who would benefit from including the Romanian deadlift within their training programs.
Romanian Deadlift for Powerlifters
The Romanian deadlift is a great accessory movement for powerlifters looking to increase back and hip strength necessary for heavy deadlifts, low bar back squats, and greater isolation of the hamstrings and glutes. In the sport of powerlifting, an athlete is tested on their overall strength in the deadlift (sumo or conventional deadlift), back squat (typically, the low bar back squat), and bench press. The Romanian deadlift is often seen in powerlifting programs to increase overall pulling strength, isolate positional and muscle weaknesses (hamstrings and lower back), and help to build serious muscle mass necessary for more advanced training.
Romanian Deadlift for Strongman Athletes
Much like powerlifters, strongman athletes must use their hips, hamstrings, and lower backs on a continual basis to deadlift, lift stones, push and pull trucks, and more. The Romanian deadlift (and the below variations) can be used to enhance strength, unilateral balance and coordination, isolate muscular weaknesses (limited hamstring, glute, or erector development), and better protect from injury during high-intensity loading in training and competition.
Romanian Deadlift for Weightlifters
The Romanian deadlift was named after Romanian Olympic Weightlifter Nicu Vlad, which should indicate why it is such a vital lift for Olympic weightlifters (read more about the history of the Romanian deadlift below). The Romanian deadlift can be used to increase hamstring and back strength necessary for snatches (snatch grip Romanian deadlifts) and heavier clean and jerks. In addition, increasing strength and muscle mass via the Romanian deadlift can improve back strength in heavy back squats, which are one of the most important strength lifts (like the back squat) a weightlifter does in their training.
Romanian Deadlift for CrossFit/Competitive Fitness Athletes
CrossFit and competitive fitness athletes rely heavily on the barbell strength and power movements (deadlifts, squats, snatches, and cleans) for overall development of sport specific strength and skill. Similar to powerlifters, strongman athletes, and weightlifters, CrossFit/competitive fitness athletes can benefit from including Romanian deadlifts and its variations within strength and accessory programs. Increased hamstring and back strength, posterior chain engagement, and enhanced hip patterning are just a few benefits one can expect.
Romanian Deadlift for Formal Sports Athletes
Formal or more traditional team sports like football, baseball, softball, soccer, basketball, and the like all place high dependency on posterior chain performance. As a collegiate strength coach, I use Romanian deadlifts (barbells, dumbbells, unilateral Romanian deadlifts, and other variations) to increase hamstring and back strength to aid in human locomotion and movement (running, sprinting, jumping, etc.). Additionally, increasing hamstring and glute engagement (in addition to proper hip flexion and extension patterning) can aid in injury prevention to the lower back, hips, and hamstrings.
Romanian Deadlift for General Fitness
As one can see, the Romanian deadlift can offer a wide variety of benefits for athletes with numerous training goals. For those concerned with general fitness and health, the Romanian deadlift should be included within training programs for many of the above reasons. Increasing hamstring and lower back strength, muscle function, and developing proper hip flexion and extension mechanics can, (1) increase resistance to lower back injury (such as not picking up something correctly), (2) add large amounts of muscle mass, and (3) set a foundation for more advanced fitness programs involving running, jumping, and strength based movements (deadlifts, lunges, and bent over rows).
Romanian Deadlift Sets, Reps, and Weight Recommendations
The Romanian deadlift can be used by various athletes and programmed for a variety of training goals. In the below section we will review the programming recommendations from our “Romanian Deadlift Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations Guide” to assist coaches in programming for athletes, teams, and clients.
Movement Integrity – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations
While all Romanian deadlifts can build movement integrity and proper hip hinging mechanics, beginner lifters may need to use lighter loads relative to their strength potentials. This should take place for lifters early on in their development or even during warm-up sets to enhance movement coordination and muscle engagement necessary for heavier sets.
- 3-4 sets of 8-10 repetitions with light to moderate loads, at a controlled speed (focusing on proper eccentric/lowering of the weight), resting as needed
Muscle Hypertrophy – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations
Muscle hypertrophy can occur in response to increased training volume (sets x rep), time under tension, and/or metabolic disturbances within the muscle (due to shorter rest period and high volume). With that said, coaches and athletes can used the below recommendations to increase muscle growth and build a stronger foundation for more advanced training of the Romanian deadlift.
- 3-5 sets of 6-10 repetitions with moderate to heavy loads OR 2-4 sets of 12-15 repetitions with moderate loads to near failure, keeping rest periods 45-90 seconds
Strength – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations
When looking to increase hamstring strength in the Romanian deadlift, we want to be sure to not attack in the same fashion that we would a max effort conventional or sumo deadlift. Increased specificity of this movement means that the hamstrings are highly targeted and do not receiving a lot of assistance from strong muscle groups like the quadriceps (which assist in the both conventional and sumo deadlifts). That said, coaches and athletes should train with slightly higher rep ranges (and lighter loads) than standard deadlifting strength work.
- 3-5 sets of 3-5 repetitions with heavy loading, resting as needed
Muscle Endurance- Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations
Sports like running, CrossFit, and endurance events require an athlete to possess higher resistance to muscle fatigue). If the goal is muscular endurance, repetition ranges will be higher than maximal strength and hypertrophy schemes and use relatively lighter loads.
- 2-4 sets of 12-20 repetitions with light to moderate loads, keeping rest periods under 30-45 seconds
How to Do a Romanian Deadlift with Dumbbells
Romanian deadlifts can be performed with dumbbells in situations where a barbell may not be accessible and/or the coach is attempting to increase stabilization of the back and hips using other forms of loading. The versatility of the dumbbell Romanian deadlift can make it a good option for lifters who may not have a barbell accessible. Note, that the dumbbell Romanian deadlift does not allow a lifter to use heavy loads relative to the barbell Romanian deadlift, making it better for moderate to higher rep ranges to develop muscle hypertrophy and endurance.
Below you will find a step-by-step guide on how to perform the Romanian deadlift with dumbbells.
- Grab a pair of dumbbells (one in each arm) and place to the sides/in front of the body. It is important that the torso is upright, arms are straight, and the shoulder blades are dropped downwards towards the buttocks. This will increase back tension and minimize unwanted shoulder rounding towards the front of the body (also referred to as scapular depression with slight retraction).
- With the feet about shoulder width apart, slightly unlock the knees to allow for a smooth lowering of the weight (eccentric).
- To do this, push the hips back making sure to keep the back flat and the knees positioned over the ankles. This will result in you feeling tension develop in the hamstrings and across the back (lower and middle, especially around the shoulder blades).
- Once you have assumed a position in which the hamstrings are feeling the stretch, back is flat, and the dumbbells are either near the shins or towards the floor, use your glutes and hamstrings to stand upwards making sure that the dumbbells get lifted in a vertical path (as opposed to allowing them to swing forward away from the body).
- At the top of the movement, contract the upper back, core, and glutes by flexing from the middle of the back to the buttocks (glutes).
- Repeat for repetitions.
Romanian Deadlift Variations
There are times when performing a standard Romanian deadlift either with a barbell or dumbbells may not be exactly what is needed for training goal or muscles adaptation. Below, you will find several Romanian deadlift variations that can be integrated into training and workout programs to increase muscle mass, enhance muscle activation, and improve sport-specific movement patterning necessary for performance.
Romanian Deadlift with Kettlebells
Kettlebells area great tool to have for home gyms, fitness facilities, and sports performance centers due to their wide application of functional fitness, power application, and movement training.
Unlike the Romanian deadlift with a barbell, using kettlebells (and dumbbells) can help to isolate unilateral limitations and increase the need for greater back stabilization (since the kettlebells move independently from one another). The Romanian deadlift with kettlebells can be a great kettlebell exercise to add to most kettlebell training programs in the accessory and/or hypertrophy training block.
Single Leg (Unilateral) Romanian Deadlift
The single leg Romanian deadlift is a unilateral exercise that can improve balance, coordination, and unilateral muscular development and strength.
When performing the Romanian deadlift with both feet on the ground (bilateral), we often can miss any movement asymmetries and/or muscular imbalances that may occur. By simply using one leg at a time, we can challenge each leg independently, which can enhance movement and target muscle imbalances that can lead to overuse and/or movement compensation injuries.
Snatch Grip Romanian Deadlift
One weightlifting specific variation of the barbell Romanian deadlift is the snatch grip Romanian deadlift. By simply increasing the width of the grip on the barbell (in this case, outwards to the snatch grip positioning) you drastically increase upper back and trap engagement.
This is a specific movement seen in Olympic weightlifting training, used to increase back and hip strength specific to the snatch lift and even enhance back strength and control necessary for heavy back squats.
Tempo Romanian Deadlifts
Tempo training can be done with most strength and hypertrophy movements (and even the Olympic lifts) to increase muscular development (via increased time under tension), address positional weaknesses, and enhance neuromuscular coordination. When performing tempo repetitions, a coach programs a specific “speed” at which a lifter must perform a repetition.
For example, a coach may want a lifter to lower (eccentric phase) the Romanian deadlift at a pace of three seconds, then immediately changing directions (concentric) and not stop in between each repetition, for a total of 8 repetitions. The workout would then read, Tempo (30X0) Romanian deadlift x 8 reps
The History Behind the Romanian Deadlift (RDL)
The Romanian deadlift was named after the Romanian weightlifter Nicu Vlad, an Olympic medalist in 1984, 1988, and 1996 who was elected to the International Weightlifting Federation Hall of Fame in 2006. According to Jim Schmitz, a former USA Weightlifting National Team Coach, Vlad had been performing these flat-backed deadlift-like exercises after his clean and jerk training, performing triples (three reps per set) of 250 kg/550 lbs. He was asked by a few other lifters what exactly the exercise he was doing was called, however Nicu and his coach, Dragomir Cioroslan, never named the movement. They simply stated that they did regularly because it made Nicu’s back strong for the clean. Therefore, the other athletes and coaches simply called it, ” The Romanian Deadlift.”
Romanian Deadlift Alternatives
In the event an athlete/coach does not want to perform Romanian deadlifts due to lower back soreness, fatigue, or a desire to add variety to training programs, the below exercises can be used, which are discussed in greater detail in this Romanian Deadlift Alternatives Exercise Guide.
Good mornings can be done to increase lower back and glute development while limiting the amount of hamstrings involved (there will still be some hamstring involvement, but less than Romanian deadlifts). This is most often done using a barbell and/or resistance band.
Reverse hyperextensions are a good exercise to target the glutes and spinal erectors (lower back) while sparing the hamstrings since the movement occurs at the hip joint (rather than at the knees and hips). This can be done with weight on a reverse hyperextension machine, with resistance bands, or bodyweight.
Glute Ham Raises
The glute ham raise can be done to specifically isolate the hamstrings while minimizing the loading placed upon the back. This could be beneficial for lifters looking to limit excessive strain on the back at times of higher training volumes or due to back injury. This exercise is often done with bodyweight or light loading held in front of the chest and performed for higher repetitions.
Nordic Hamstring Curls
The Nordic hamstring curl is a great bodyweight exercise to specifically target the hamstrings and develop isometric, concentric, and eccentric strength and control. This exercise is extremely challenging and if typically done with bodyweight only.