Romanian deadlifts (RDLs) are a popular and effective posterior chain exercise. Bodybuilders use them to beef up their glutes and hamstrings and powerlifters use RDs to increase deadlift performance. The RDL should be high on your list of must-do exercises!
Legend has it that the RDL earned its name when American Olympic weightlifting coaches saw Romanian athletes doing this barbell exercise. At the time, Romania was a dominating force in the sport, and the Americans thought they’d discovered the reason why!
Whether that’s true or not, the name helps differentiate the RDL from the stiff leg deadlift, which is a slightly different exercise.
In this article, we reveal why and how to do RDLs, as well as the best alternatives to this powerful posterior chain exercise.
RDLs – Muscles Worked
RDLs are a compound exercise. That means it involves multiple joints and muscles working together. RDLs work so many muscle groups that they’re virtually a full-body exercise. That said, the main muscles trained during RDLs are:
Hamstrings – your hamstrings (biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus) are a biarticular muscle which means they cross two joints; the hips and the knees. Located on the back of your thighs, the hamstrings extend your hips and also flex your knees. However, in RDLs, the hamstrings mainly work as hip extenders.
Gluteus maximus – known as your glutes for short, this is the largest muscle in the human body. Its primary function is hip extension, although it also plays a part in hip abduction and rotation.
Erector spinae – this is the collective term for the three muscles (spinalis, longissimus, and iliocostalis) that run up either side of your spine. Their main function is the extension of your spine. But, during RDLs, they contract isometrically or statically to prevent unwanted lumbar flexion.
Core – core is the collective term for the muscles of your midsection, including rectus abdominis, obliques, and transverse abdominis. These muscles contract inward to create intra-abdominal pressure and stabilize your spine during RDLs. A lack of core strength could mean your lumbar spine rounds during RDLs, which is a leading cause of lower back injury. Brace your core to avoid this issue.
Trapezius and rhomboids – located across your upper back and between your shoulder blades, the trapezius and rhomboids contract to pull your shoulders down and back to stabilize your shoulder girdle.
Forearms – RDLs require a strong grip, especially if you’re training with heavy weights. As such, as well as your posterior chain and core, doing RDLs will strengthen your forearms and increase hand strength.
How to Do RDLs
Get more from RDLs while keeping your risk of injury to a minimum by following these guidelines:
- Hold your barbell with a shoulder-width, overhand or mixed grip. If using heavy weights, it may be necessary to use lifting straps so your grip doesn’t fail prematurely.
- Stand with your feet about hip-width apart. Pull your shoulders down and back, brace your core, and bend your knees slightly.
- Without bending your legs any further, push your butt backward and lean forward from your hips, taking care not to round your lower back. Lower the bar down the front of your legs.
- Keep your neck aligned with the rest of your spine as you lean over.
- Descend as far as your flexibility allows. The weight should not touch the floor.
- Drive your hips forward again and stand up straight.
- Do not lean back at the top of the movement.
- Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.
Romanian Deadlift (RDL) Benefits and Drawbacks
Not sure if RDLs deserve to be part of your workout? Consider these benefits:
RDLs are one of the best posterior chain exercises – if you want stronger, more muscular glutes, hamstrings, and spinal erectors, the RDL is one of the best exercises around. These muscles play a crucial part in your appearance and are critical for better athletic performance. If you want to beef up your posterior chain, RDLs are an excellent choice.
You don’t need a special bar to do them – any old barbell will do for RDLs. Because each rep starts from the top of the movement, the size of your weight plates doesn’t matter, either. As such, for most lifters, RDLs are a very accessible exercise.
Learn how to hip hinge – the hip hinge is a vital functional movement and an integral part of many exercises. RDLs help develop this skill in a relatively low-risk environment. Beginners can do RDLs with an empty bar/light weights to master the hip hinge before moving on to exercises like conventional deadlifts, power cleans, and kettlebell swings.
A good accessory exercise for conventional deadlifts – if, during conventional deadlifts, you’re strong off the floor but then the bar stalls at about knee height, RDLs could help. RDLs target the top half of the movement of conventional deadlifts. Because of this, they’re an excellent accessory exercise for anyone training to deadlift heavier weights.
While RDLs are a mostly beneficial exercise, there are also a few drawbacks to consider:
Tight hamstrings will limit your range of motion – keeping your legs semi-straight means that you may not be able to lean very far forward without rounding your lower back. A shorter range of motion could make this exercise less effective. Ideally, you should be able to lower the bar to at least below your knees.
Risk of lower back injury – leading on from the point above, some lifters with tight hamstrings may try to increase their range of motion by rounding their lower back. Or, they may round their backs because they don’t know any better or are unaware they’re doing it.
Regardless of the reason, a rounded lower back is a weak lower back. When the lumbar spine is rounded, the stress that was on the erector spinae muscles is directed onto the intervertebral disks and spinous ligaments. These structures are easily injured and slow to heal. Avoid lower back pain by not rounding your lumbar spine during RDLs, even if that means not leaning over as far.
9 RDL Variations and Alternatives
RDLs are a highly effective posterior chain exercise, but that doesn’t mean you need to do it all the time. There are several variations and alternatives you can use to keep your workouts productive and interesting:
1. RDLs with dumbbells
No barbell? No problem! You can get all the benefits of barbell RDLs using a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells. Some lifters find this variation more comfortable and low back-friendly than the barbell variation. Using dumbbells means you can keep the weights closer to your legs, reducing the distance between the weight and your fulcrum, i.e., your hips.
How to do it:
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand by your sides. Stand with your feet about hip-width apart, knees slightly bent. Brace your core and pull your shoulders down and back. Look straight ahead.
- Without bending your knees further, push your hips back and hinge forward, lowering the weights down the outside of your legs. Descend as far as you can without rounding your lower back.
- Drive your hips forward, stand up straight, and repeat.
2. Rack RDLs
Where regular RDLs start from the top, rack RDLs begin in the bottom position with the barbell resting on the safety bars of a power rack or on blocks. This has several effects, including:
- Breaking the eccentric/concentric stretch cycle so starting each rep is harder
- Providing a brief rest for your grip between reps so you can go heavier
- Providing an opportunity to re-brace your core between reps
Starting RDLs from a dead stop also forces you to begin each rep more explosively, which means this variation is an effective power exercise.
Initially, use less weight than you would for regular RDLs. Starting each rep from a dead stop makes this exercise considerably harder. However, as you adjust to this new technique, it won’t be long before you’re back up to using just as much weight as you could with regular RDLs.
How to do it:
- Set the pins in your power rack at the bottom of your usual RDL range of motion. In this position, you should be able to keep your lower back slightly arched and not rounded.
- Stand behind the bar with your feet about hip-width apart. Bend your knees slightly and hinge forward to hold the bar. Use an overhand or mixed grip as preferred.
- Pull your shoulders down and back, brace your abs, and get tight by taking the slack out of the bar.
- Drive your hips forward and, with most of the movement coming from your hips, stand up straight.
- Under control, lower the bar back to the pins, allow the bar to settle for a second or two, and then repeat. No bouncing!
3. Single-Leg RDLs
Single leg RDLs allow you to reveal and fix any lift to right strength discrepancies and improve your balance. In addition, balancing on one leg really fires up your glutes, especially minimus and medius, which have to work extra hard to stabilize your hip.
Single leg RDLs are usually done using one or two dumbbells or kettlebells. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do this unilateral exercise with a barbell.
How to do it:
- Hold your barbell in front of your thighs with your arms straight and using an overhand, shoulder-width grip.
- Shift your weight over onto one leg, moving your non-weight-bearing foot slightly backward.
- Bend your supporting knee slightly for balance. Brace your abs and pull your shoulders down and back.
- Hinge forward from your hips and lower the bar down the front of your supporting leg. Extend your opposite leg out behind you for balance. Do not round your lower back.
- Stand back up and repeat.
- On completion, rest a moment, swap legs, and do the same number of reps on each side.
- You can also do this exercise with one or two dumbbells or kettlebells.
4. Split Stance RDLs
If you’ve ever lost your balance during single-leg RDLs, you’ll probably appreciate the benefits offered by this variation. It’s basically a semi-single leg exercise. So, while you’re focusing most of your attention on one leg, you use the other for added balance and support. This is a good compromise between regular RDLs and the “real” single-legged variation.
How to do it:
- Use dumbbells or a barbell as preferred. Hold the weight(s) in front of your thighs. Pull your shoulders down and back and brace your core.
- Step back and into a split stance, so your rearmost heel is raised. Bend your front leg slightly, and then keep it rigid for the duration of your set.
- Without rounding your lower back, hinge forward from your hips and lower the weight(s) down the front of your leg as far as your flexibility allows.
- Stand up straight and repeat.
- On completion, rest a moment and then swap legs.
You can also do a walking variation of this exercise, alternating legs rep by rep.
5. Zercher RDLs
The term Zercher refers to holding your barbell in the crook of your elbows. You can use the Zercher grip for squats, lunges, weighted carries, and RDLs.
Zercher RDLs increase upper back and biceps activation while giving your grip a welcome grip. However, as you progress to heavier weights, you may find it necessary to cushion the bar to avoid elbow pain. Use a squat pad or slip on a pair of elbow sleeves.
How to do it:
- Put a barbell in a squat rack set to about waist height. Hook your elbows under the bar, clasp your hands together in front of your chest, and unrack the bar.
- Stand with your feet about hip-width apart, knees slightly bent.
- Push your hips back and lean forward as far as your flexibility allows. Do not round your lower back.
- Stand back up and repeat.
6. Good Mornings
RDLs and good mornings involve a very similar movement pattern. However, because the weight is on your shoulders rather than in your hands, the longer lever means your lower back has to work harder during good mornings. Good mornings get their name because, when you do them, it looks like you are performing a polite bow. But, don’t let this genteel-sounding name fool you; good mornings can still be brutal!
How to do it:
- Place a barbell in a squat or power rack set to just below shoulder height. Duck under the bar and rest it on your upper traps. Grip the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip. Pull the bar down into your back to make sure it won’t move.
- Unrack the barbell and take 1-2 steps back, so you have room to lean forward. Stand with your feet hip to shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees slightly and brace your core.
- Hinging from your hips, push your butt back and lean forward as far as your hamstring flexibility allows. Do NOT round your lower back.
- Drive your hips forward and stand back up.
7. Cable Pull-Throughs
RDLs are a very effective posterior chain exercise, but they can be hard on your lower back. Holding a heavy barbell in your hands compresses your spine, which could actually make you shorter, albeit temporarily.
Cable pull-throughs are basically RDLs done using a cable machine or resistance band. This makes them much more lower back-friendly. As an added benefit, pull throughs keep constant tension on the target muscles, making them potentially better for hypertrophy and conditioning.
8. Kettlebell Swings
The kettlebell swing and the RDL are very similar. The main difference is velocity, as swings are done much more explosively. This makes them better for improving muscle power, which is your ability to generate force quickly.
However, that speed is a double-edged sword. Moving faster tends to amplify any technical faults, such as rounding your lumbar spine. Only do swings if you have mastered a slow and controlled hip hinge.
How to do it:
- Hold your kettlebell in front of your hips using an overhand grip. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart, toes turned slightly outward. Brace your core and pull your shoulders down and back.
- Bend your knees slightly, hinge forward from your hips, push your butt back, and lower the kettlebell down between your knees.
- Drive your hips forward and swing the kettlebell up to shoulder level. Keep your arms straight.
- Using your abs and lats, swing the kettlebell back down and hinge at your hips again.
- Transition immediately into another rep.
You can also start a set of kettlebell swings with the weight resting on the floor in front of your feet. Take hold of the handle, brace your abs, and then “hike” it back between your legs like a football. Try both methods to see which one works best for you.
Hyperextensions, also known as back extensions, might not look a whole lot like RDLs but, if you take a moment to analyze the movement, you’ll soon see they’re very similar. You can do hyperextensions with or without weight, and, done correctly, they’re a very spine-friendly posterior exercise.
RDLs – Wrapping Up
There are very few lower body movements that don’t involve your posterior chain. Athletes think of this muscle group as their “engine room” as it’s vital for generating power for running, jumping, kicking, and throwing.
Whether you want to improve your performance or look your best, you need to work on your posterior chain – period!
There are plenty of exercises that work your glutes, hamstrings, and lower back, but the RDL is arguably one of the best. Use the RDL and the variations and alternatives in this article to build the strongest, most muscular posterior chain possible!