The Romanian Deadlift. How to use it for pain, dysfunction and weakness.

romanian deadlift Feb 26, 2024
Romanian Deadlift

The Romanian deadlift has quite the reputation in the fitness and movement industry. For good reason!

It’s a powerhouse exercise that can improve strength, flexibility and overall movement function.

But as a wise man once said, give people the WHY and they’ll understand the WHAT and HOW.

We don’t want to just go through the motions with a demanding exercise like the Romanian Deadlift.

It’s better to understand why we are doing what we are doing.

This is especially true if you are loading the Romanian Deadlift with weight and/or using it to improve pain or movement problems.

Can the Romanian deadlift help with pain, function and weakness?

Yes, of course. But it’s important to become at least a little educated on what the purpose of this exercise is.

In this article, I’ll share everything you need to know to get the most out of the Romanian Deadlift. I’ll also demonstrate 3 of my favorite RDL variations.

Romanian Deadlift v. Deadlift

The best way to introduce the Romanian Deadlift is by comparing it to its close relative - the traditional deadlift.

Most people are familiar with a traditional deadlift where weight is picked up from the ground and lifted directly up.

The goal with the deadlift is to brace and compress the whole body at the bottom position so that the weight can be dynamically lifted.

The body then fully extends to a standing position.

The way in which the RDL differs is that the weight is never placed on the ground.

Instead, the exercise begins in a standing position and the weight is then lowered as the hips hinge backwards.

The hinge is the main movement in both traditional and Romanian deadlifts, but in the Romanian version, the weight never touches the ground.

This key difference in the RDL is where its value comes from.

When we load our posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, calves, low back) in this lengthened mid-air position, we build strength in a way that is not accessible in many other exercises, including the traditional deadlift.

This lowering movement is also called the eccentric phase.

The eccentric phase of the exercise is when muscles are elongated or stretched. It’s also where muscles build the most strength and flexibility.

The eccentric phase is incredibly valuable and the RDL forces us to exaggerate this part of the movement.

The traditional deadlift also has an eccentric phase. All movements do. But because of the momentum going to the floor, it's not as pronounced. 

The beauty of the RDL is that you can’t escape the eccentric. You have to embrace it and when you do, all of those muscles in your posterior chain will thank you.

Muscles Worked in Romanian Deadlift

The posterior chain, which is loaded eccentrically in the Romanian Deadlift gets worked the most in the exercise.

But because the RDL is a full-body movement, many other areas of the body also get worked.

This is why it’s always preferable to do full-body movements when working out - you get more bang for your time.

Let’s first list the main muscles loaded in the RDL:

  • Hamstrings (semimembranosus, semitendinosus, bicep femoris - long head)
  • Glutes (gluteus maximus)
  • Back (erector spinae, spinalis thoracis, quadratus lumborum, longissimus thoracis, iliocostalis)

Secondary muscles that are worked include other areas in the posterior chain that are loaded like the calves and adductors as well as the muscles responsible for flexing the body like the abs and hip flexors.

Romanian Deadlift Form

Form will depend on the type of weight used and how it’s loaded on the body.

You can use a barbell, dumbbells, kettlebell or just your bodyweight when starting out.

There are also different ways to load the weight on your body.

For example, a barbell can be held in the hands or placed on the upper back (which would resemble more of a "good morning" but despite the name, the exercises are quite similar).

For the purpose of demonstrating form, I’ll use the standard bent-leg RDL with an unloaded barbell.

(1) Stand in a neutral standing position while holding the weight in front of you.

(2) Inhale and start the movement by hinging (bringing) the hips back.

(3) Bend the knees to avoid getting too much of a stretch in the hamstrings right away.

(4) Keep hinging back with the knees bent until you feel a slight stretch in the hamstrings or when your torso is parallel to the floor (whichever comes first).

(5) Hold for 1 second.

(6) Exhale and contract the hamstrings/glutes by pushing your feet into the ground to start coming up.

(6) Keep the tension in the posterior chain until you reach the standing position.

*As a word of caution, if you’re first starting out, I recommend practicing the movement unloaded first. 

Variations of Romanian Deadlifts

Barbell Romanian Deadlift

The barbell version of the RDL is my favorite since it’s easy to progressively overload and you don’t need much isolated joint movement.

Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift

The dumbbell version of the RDL is a great place to start if you’re still learning the movement.

The barbell is already 45 pounds and that’s already quite a bit load for those who don’t have much experience with strength training.

And of course, not everyone has access to a barbell!

If all you have access to are dumbbells then this is a great version but progressive overload can get challenging as you’ll need a lot of dumbbells.

Single Leg Romanian Deadlift

The single leg variation of the RDL is a great way to work on side-to-side strength imbalances.

It’s also a great way to highlight and isolate movement limitations on one side that might not show up in the bilateral versions.

For example, maybe it is much more difficult to maintain balance on the left leg as opposed to the right leg.

This is valuable information and provides insight on why you might be moving and feeling a certain way.

I recommend doing this version with dumbbells as it makes it easier to maintain your center of gravity.

Closing Thoughts 

How do you know if you should integrate the RDL into your workouts? I recommend reflecting on the following two questions: 

(1) What is your main goal right now?

(2) How difficult is the RDL for you to execute properly? 

If your main goal is developing strength and flexibility in the posterior chain - mainly the hamstrings, glutes and low back then including the RDL is a wise choice.

This is especially true if you've never programmed it before since new exercises always hit muscles in novel ways. 

As for #2 above, this is a strategy I always utilize myself. If I am incredibly weak, shaky or uncomfortable in an exercise then I know I need that exercise. 

For example, when I was recording the single leg deadlift variation for this blog post, I noticed my left leg was MUCH weaker than my right.

That makes sense because I haven't focused on single leg hinging in a long time.

Now I'm strongly considering programming it for my next training phase.  

Keep it simple. Does the exercise help you reach your goal? Does the exercise still challenge you?

If yes to both, then start light and progress for months until you get stronger and the exercise becomes easier.