How to Do the Romanian Deadlift for Lower-Body Size and Strength

Brush up on your form to improve your strength and performance.

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. 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 submaximal loads. Still, it’s a movement that has flexible applications in many programs and for many strength-based goals. Below, we’ll go over the exercise’s benefits, applications, and variations, and alternatives for you to try.

Romanian Deadlift Video Guide

The below Romanian deadlift how-to video and technique breakdown can teach beginner lifters and athletes how to perform a Romanian deadlift properly. 

How to Do the Romanian Deadlift

Here’s an in-depth, step-by-step breakdown of how to do the Romanian deadlift optimally. 

Step 1 — Get Set Up

RDL set up

Load a barbell and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and toes forwards. Position the barbell so that it’s over your shoelaces when you look straight down. 

Form Tip: In this position, the torso must be upright, the 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 Lift the Bar

RDL

Bend down and grab the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip, be sure to keep your back flat and shoulders over the barbell. Once you have stood up, be sure to brace.

Form Tip: Treat this as a repetition, making sure to keep your back flat and use proper technique. Most injuries happen during the first and last few reps of a set.

Step 3 — Control the Eccentric Phase

RDL Control

Once you have set the back, brace the core and push the hips back while maintaining a flat back. Keep the knees positioned over the ankles. 

Form Tip: When done correctly, you should feel tension developing in the hamstrings and across the back (lower and middle, especially around the shoulder blades).

Step 4 — Lift with the Hips and Hamstrings

Once you have assumed a position in which the hamstrings are contracted, the back is flat, and the barbell is a few inches below the knee, stand up, keeping the barbell close to your body. 

Form Tip: Be patient and keep your weight back in your heels while simultaneously pushing through the toes.

Step 5 — Achieve Full Hip Extension 

RDL Lockout

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.

Form Tip: As you reach full extension of the hips, flex the glutes and keep your ribcage down to stabilize the lumbar spine.

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.

More Hamstring Mass

The Romanian deadlift targets the hamstrings (discussed above in the muscles worked section), which can help increase muscle mass (hypertrophy). Increased hamstring hypertrophy can lead to increased muscle size, strength, power application, and sports performance.

Increased Pulling Strength

Increased 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 athletes) can integrate the Romanian deadlifts into their workouts to increase back strength 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.

Muscles Worked by the Romanian Deadlift 

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.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Hamstrings

The Romanian deadlift specifically targets the hamstrings primarily due to the flexed knee angle throughout this movement. The knees remain slightly unlocked yet fixed throughout the movement, which better recruits the hamstring muscle. 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.

Glutes

Like most hinging movements, the Romanian deadlift targets the glutes (buttocks and hips) through hip extension. The glutes are involved in nearly every athletic movement such as squatting, deadlifting, human locomotion (running, jumping, sprinting, etc). These 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 targeted during the Romanian deadlift. Often, new lifters will mistake soreness in the lower back as a technique problem. However, it may be due to increased muscle damage to the lower back muscles. Note, that the lower back should not be the sole muscles one feels when performing Romanian deadlifts. 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 the correct form and technique.

man flexing back muscles
Improvisor/Shutterstock

Middle and Upper Back 

The Romanian deadlift develops general back strength simply because 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 rounding of the shoulders. 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, and cleans.

Trapezius

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 help the lifter assume a correct back positioning throughout the lift.

Forearms

Deadlifts target the forearms simply because the athlete needs 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).

Who Should Do the Romanian Deadlift

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.

Strength and Power Athletes

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. 

  • Powerlifting: In the sport of powerlifting, an athlete is tested on their overall strength in the deadlift (sumo or conventional deadlift), back squat, and bench press. The Romanian deadlift is often seen in powerlifting programs to increase overall pulling strength, isolate positional and muscle weaknesses (mainly in the hamstrings and lower back), and build more muscle mass.
  • Strongman: Much like powerlifters, Strongman athletes often use their hips, hamstrings, and lower backs to deadlift, lift stones, push and pull trucks, and clean logs to overhead. The Romanian deadlift (and the below variations) can 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.
  • Olympic Weightlifting: The Romanian deadlift was named after Romanian Olympic Weightlifter, Nicu Vlad, indicating why it is such a vital lift for Olympic weightlifters. The Romanian deadlift can increase hamstring and back strength necessary for snatches (snatch grip Romanian deadlifts) and heavier clean and jerks. Also, increasing strength and muscle mass via the Romanian deadlift can improve back strength in heavy back squats, one of the most important strength lifts a weightlifter does in their training.

Functional Fitness Athletes

CrossFit and competitive fitness athletes rely heavily on barbell strength and power movements (deadlifts, squats, snatches, and cleans) for overall development of sport-specific strength and skill. Like 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.

Sport Athletes

Formal sports like football, baseball, softball, soccer, basketball, and the like all place high dependency on posterior chain performance. As a collegiate strength coach, we 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 help injury prevention to the lower back, hips, and hamstrings.

General Lifters

 For those concerned with general fitness and health, the Romanian deadlift should be included within training programs for many reasons. For one, it can increase resistance to a lower back injury (such as not picking up something correctly). You’ll also add more muscle mass, and set a foundation for more advanced fitness programs involving running, jumping, and strength-based movements (deadlifts, lunges, and barbell rows).

Romanian Deadlift Sets, Reps, and Weight Recommendations

Whether you want to get stronger, build more muscle, or increase your muscular endurance, here are the steps we suggest taking. 

To Build Muscle

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 use the below recommendations to increase muscle growth and build a stronger foundation for more advanced Romanian deadlift training. Do three to five sets of six to 10 repetitions with a moderate to heavy weight. Or, do two to four sets of 12 to 15 reps with a moderate weight to near-failure. Rest for 45 to 90 seconds between sets. 

To Gain Strength

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 receive a lot of assistance from strong muscle groups like the quadriceps (which assist in 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. Do three to five sets of three to five reps using a heavy load. Rest for about two minutes.

To Increase Muscle Endurance

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. Do two to four sets of 12-20 reps with a light to moderate load, resting for 30 to 45 seconds. 

Romanian Deadlift Variations 

When performing a standard Romanian deadlift either with a barbell or dumbbells, some times may not be exactly what is needed for training goals or muscle adaptation. Below, you will find four 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.

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 dumbbell Romanian deadlift’s versatility 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.

Kettlebell Romanian Deadlift

Kettlebells are a great tool 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 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, enhancing 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.

Romanian Deadlift Alternatives

If 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, you can try these Romanian deadlift alternatives

Barbell Good Morning

Good mornings can 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 Hyperextension

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 Raise

The glute-ham raise can 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 Curl

The Nordic hamstring curl is a great bodyweight exercise to target the hamstrings and develop isometric, concentric, and eccentric strength and control. This exercise is extremely challenging and if typically done with bodyweight only.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who invented 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.”

Is the Romanian Deadlift (RDL) 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.

Who should perform Romanian Deadlifts (RDL)?

The Romanian Deadlift is a fantastic exercise for every fitness enthusiast to employ. This exercise teaches and reinforces good hip hinge mechanics, which is needed for a variety of daily movements. In addition, the RDL is great for targeting the posterior chain with its many variations.

What muscles does the Romanian Deadlift (RDL) work?

The Romanian Deadlift mostly works the posterior chain muscles.

The prime mover muscles for the RDL include:

  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes

 

1 thought on “How to Do the Romanian Deadlift for Lower-Body Size and Strength”

  1. Hey Barbend,
    Does the RDL really work the glutes all that much? I’m wondering because I’ve read that even squats don’t work the glutes that much so I’m wondering if it’s the same for RDL’s.

    Thank you

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