The Romanian Deadlift is a fantastic deadlift variation that every level fitness enthusiast can benefit from. In strength sports, it’s a movement used by weightlifters, powerlifters, and other athletes to develop strength and mass in the posterior chain, improve hip hinge mechanics, and to isolate the glutes, hamstrings, and back musculature.
The Romanian Deadlift — also referred to as the RDL — is typically used as an accessory lift with sub-maximal loads, but it’s a movement that has flexible applications in all programs and for every strength and performance based goal. We’ll cover the following topics in this article:
For the visual learners out there, check out our in-depth Romanian Deadlift Guide video below!
This Romanian deadlift can be used to teach beginner lifters and athletes how to properly perform a 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 a few feet off the floor to minimize back injury and simplify the movement.
1.Master the Setup
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.
2.Hinge and Grab the Bar
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.
3.Set the Back
Push the hips back while maintaining a set 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.
4.Initiate With the Glutes and Hamstrings
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).
5.Contract and Lower
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.
Lower barbell the same way and repeat for repetitions.
The main difference between the Romanian Deadlift and the Deadlift include how they’re performed. The RDL mainly focuses on the eccentric, so the lowering portion of the movement. Whereas the conventional deadlift can be loaded heavier and focuses on the full deadlift from the floor, and has a heavier emphasis on the concentric.
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.
- Erector Spinae (Lower Back)
- Middle and Upper Back
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.
1. 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.
2. 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).
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. Injury Prevention
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.
- Romanian Deadlift Variations
1. Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
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.
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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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
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.
- Romanian Deadlift Alternatives
1. Good Mornings
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.
2. Reverse Hyperextensions
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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
Who invented the Romanian Deadlift?
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.”
Is the Romanian Deadlift safe for the back?
Yes! The Romanian Deadlift is safe for the back. It’s a hip dominant movement, so when it’s performed correctly direct loading on the back is pretty minimal.
If you’re uncertain about your form, then it’s worth seeking out a coach.