What if we told you that you could build legs of steel, bulletproof your back, and protect yourself from injury all with one exercise?
You’d probably think we’re crazy.
Well, you’d be wrong. You can get all of these benefits, and more, with this one exercise, and it isn’t the traditional back squat, deadlift, or one of those newer, trendier functional training exercises like sledgehammer swings or prowler pushes.
Nothing is inherently wrong with any of these exercises. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. They’re all exceptional. It’s just that they’re not the exercise we’re talking about.
The exercise we’re referring to is the Romanian deadlift (RDL) and if you haven’t been making this exercise a staple of your training program you’re making a big mistake.
Ahead, we’ve got the ultimate guide to this effective leg builder including all the what, why, when, and how the Romanian deadlift is utterly awesome.
For starters…What is the Romanian Deadlift?
The Romanian deadlift is similar to the conventional barbell deadlift, but it focuses more on your hips, hamstrings, and glutes than your back. Make no mistake though, the Romanian deadlift targets your entire posterior chain, including:
You’ll notice a few big differences between the Romanian and conventional deadlift:
1. Your legs are pretty straight, allowing for a slight bend to lower the bar and drive your hips back
2. The bar begins in the air, rather than on the ground, the way a conventional deadlift begins
3. The bar is lowered to just below the knee, but does not go all the way to the ground
There are also several other variations of Romanian deadlifts that you can do, which we’ll get to a bit later in this guide.
Perhaps the best trait of the Romanian deadlift is that it’s considerably easier to learn and progressively overload compared to the conventional deadlift. Not to mention it’s also safer for most new lifters.So, how did the Romanian deadlift come to be?
History of the Romanian Deadlift
Given that the movement is called the Romanian deadlift, you probably think some exercise scientists did some kind of study on the freakishly large hamstring muscles of a bunch of Romanian bodybuilders and learned they were performing a variation of the deadlift, and thus dubbed it the Romanian deadlift.
That’s not quite how the Romanian deadlift came to be.
So how did it enter the exercise lexicon?
Well, the story of how the Romanian deadlift came to be goes back almost 30 years. A Romanian weightlifter and Olympic medalist named Nicu Vlad was demonstrating an exercise that looked like a cross between a conventional deadlift and a stiff-leg deadlift in San Francisco sometime in 1990.
A member of the audience asked the Hall of Fame weightlifter what the exercise was called, and Nicu simply shrugged and said he didn’t have a name for it, but the reason he performed the exercise was to strengthen his back and hamstrings for explosive movements such as the clean.
Jim Schmitz, former Weightlifting Coach for Team USA, was in attendance and declared the unique exercise be dubbed ”The Romanian Deadlift” after Nicu, and the rest is history.Benefits of the Romanian Deadlift
•Muscle hypertrophy (leg gains)
•Translates to Olympic lifting
•Increases performance on the conventional deadlift
•Improves strength and power of hips, glutes, hamstrings, and low back
How to Perform the Romanian Deadlift
So, you’ve decided to start working the Romanian deadlift into your training program, and are ready to give it a go. You’ll be happy to know, your first successful Romanian deadlift is only four simple steps away:
Romanian Deadlift Step #1
Begin with the bar either in the rack (about mid-thigh height) or on the floor, either is acceptable. Approach the bar and grip it similar to how you set up for the clean, snatch, or conventional deadlift.
Note: Setting up in the rack makes it easier to load the bar and reduces wasted energy required to pull the bar off the ground to start each working set.
For the initial liftoff, the bar should be over your midfoot, with feet about hip-to-shoulder width apart. Grip the bar, take a deep breath, puff out your chest, and contract your lats (imagine crushing an orange under each armpit). Press into the ground and bring the bar up to its starting position with arms extended, bar roughly at mid-thigh level.Romanian Deadlift Step #2
Take a baby step back (if you set up in the rack) and slightly bend your knees. Lock your eyes on a spot a few feet in front of you, and begin lowering the bar while driving your hips back.
Lower the bar down the front of your legs, not scrapping them necessarily, but close enough so that the bar isn’t drifting forward, thus straining your low back. Keep your knees at the same angle during the descent, and once you feel a stretch in your hamstrings (right below your knees), your knees may bend a little more.
DO NOT try to extend all the way to the ground.
Doing so, reduces tension on the hamstrings and may cause you to round your low back, increasing your chance of injury.
Now it’s time to complete your first repetition by reversing the motion!
Romanian Deadlift Step #3
Once you’ve placed maximum tension on your hamstrings, begin the ascent by contracting your glutes and hamstrings and driving your hips forward, all while pulling the bar straight up along the same path you followed on the descent.
You’ve just completed your very first Romanian deadlift!
Now, let’s see how to program this effective mass builder into your workout routine.
How to Program the Romanian Deadlift
The beauty of the Romanian deadlift is that it can benefit lifters of ALL experience, strength, and size levels. It’s not only great as an entry to conventional deadlifts for newbies to the gym it’s also a muscle and strength builder for world-class bodybuilders, powerlifters, Olympic lifters, and even CrossFitters!
Romanian deadlifts can be performed for high reps with light weights or low reps with heavy weights. Regardless of how heavy you load the Romanian deadlift or how many reps you perform in a given set, it’s essential to maintain proper technique and spinal alignment to work the intended muscle groups and not expose yourself to injury.
Quite frequently, those looking to build muscle and increase mass will use this anywhere from the second exercise in their routine (squats being first) to the last. Obviously the later in your workout you place the Romanian deadlift, the more fatigued you’ll be and the lighter you will have to load it.
Sample Leg Workout with Romanian Deadlifts
•Squats — 4 sets of 6-8 reps
•Romanian deadlifts – 4 sets of 8-10 reps
•Lunges — 3 sets 10-12 reps per leg
•Leg Curl — 3 sets of 12-15 reps
•Calf Raises — 3 sets of 10-15 reps
Common Mistakes with Romanian Deadlifts
Romanian Deadlift Mistake #1: Incorrect Knee Position
Oftentimes, lifters new to the Romanian deadlift misinterpret and overemphasize the position of the knee. First and foremost, your legs should never be locked out, or hyper extended. The spine should be locked and rigid, but never the knees.
On the flip side, other athletes will excessively bend or flex their knees, mimicking a squat, or have their knees extend past their toes. This opens up the door to not getting the most out of the exercise, or worse, injuring the low back.Finally, you also need to make sure you don’t commit another common sin of leg exercises — letting your knees cave in. This can be due to using too heavy of a weight, having weak hips and glutes, or taking too wide of a stance.
Keep your knees pointed straight ahead and focus on driving them “out” during the lift.
Romanian Deadlift Mistake #2: Not Using a Full Range of Motion
Frequently, lifters will use immediately stop their descent the moment the bar reaches knee height or just below. While you’ll still get a stretch of some kind on your hamstrings, you’re really not getting the most bang for your buck on the exercise.
When performing the Romanian deadlift, continue to lower the bar past your knees until you achieve maximum stretch on the hamstrings WITHOUT lowering it back to the ground. You’ll get work your backside considerably more, meaning more gains!
Romanian Deadlift Mistake #3: Going Too Light
Because the Romanian deadlift isn’t a traditional powerlifting move or “one of the Big 3”, it’s often given the backseat in training programs, or left out completely. Don’t make the same mistake countless other lifters have by going overly light on the Romanian deadlift.
Your posterior chain is full of powerful, fast-twitch muscle fibers that respond exceptionally well to heavy loads. It’s not uncommon to see advanced lifters performing the Romanian deadlift using 80-90% of their 1 rep max for sets of 3-4 reps.Sure, the Romanian deadlift can be performed with higher reps, and it should be, but don’t be afraid to place it early in your routine and really pack on the weight.
Romanian Deadlift Mistake #4: Hip Drift
As you descend, it’s possible to let your hips drift to either side as a result of either weakness in one of your hips/thighs or excessive stiffness in one of your posterior hip capsule. If you find this happening to you, focus on pushing back into the opposite (“weak side”) hip. This will prevent any drift and keep your hips going straight back, preventing greater imbalances from developing.
Romanian Deadlift Mistake #5: Bar Path
Perhaps the biggest mistake made during the Romanian deadlift is that many lifters allow the bar to drift away from their legs the further they descend during the exercise. Allowing the bar to drift forward reduces the amount of weight you can use and places unneeded stress on your low back.
DO NOT DO THIS!
As you descend, the bar should remain close to the body, touching your thighs but not glued to them. If you do find the bar drifting forward as you descend, focus on contracting your lats and “pulling” the bar into your thighs.
Romanian Deadlift vs. Stiff-Leg Deadlift
No doubt the Romanian deadlift is reminiscent of the stiff-leg deadlift, and you might wonder what the exact difference is.
Well, the most obvious difference between the two variations is that there is a bend in the knee in the Romanian deadlift, but not stiff-leg deadlifts, which are essentially locked out. Now, what implications does this change in leg position have?For starters, the stiff-leg deadlift will have a greater range of motion than the Romanian deadlift, and it places more stress on the hamstrings and lower back. Some incredibly flexible lifters performing the stiff-leg deadlift can even lower the bar all the way to the ground!
The extended range of motion definitely provides some advantages to the stiff-leg deadlift compared to the Romanian deadlift, but there are a couple drawbacks as well.
Namely, the stiff-leg deadlift can bother lifters’ knees and back. The stiff-leg deadlift also requires more flexibility than the Romanian deadlift, and is a bit more precarious for overloading than its Romanian cousin.
Both variations of the deadlift are great for developing the posterior chain, but the Romanian deadlift gets the nod for is reduced strain on the low back and knees, plus its ability to be more safely overloaded.
Romanian Deadlift Variations
Like the other great compound exercises, there isn’t just one way to perform the Romanian deadlift. Here are several variations on the Romanian deadlift theme:
Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
The dumbbell Romanian deadlift is identical in movement pattern to the regular Romanian deadlift, except you use a pair of dumbbells rather than a barbell. Weights can go if front of your leg as in a conventional Romanian deadlift or along the sides of your legs, whichever is more comfortable.Additionally, placing the weights in front or on the sides emphasizes certain portions of your hamstring muscles more than the others. Play with the different angles, and see which one allows you to target your posterior chain most effectively.
Note, grip strength is often a limiting factor when performing the dumbbell Romanian deadlift, just as it is the standard version, so here, lifting straps may be beneficial.
Single Arm, Single Leg Romanian Deadlift
This Romanian deadlift variation is a great way to develop overall athleticism for competitive sports athletes as it works balance, proprioception, and of course your entire posterior chain. You’ll also get some extra foot and calf work due to the single-leg strength required to perform this exercise.Other benefits of the single arm, single leg Romanian deadlift is that it helps address and prevent any imbalances between your two legs, as can happen with bilateral deadlifting. And, it is also less taxing on the low back due to the lighter weight being used.
The drawback here is that you need to use a lighter weight, and for those with poor balance, you may be limited by that rather than your hamstring strength.
Double Arm, Single Leg Romanian Deadlift
This Romanian deadlift variation is essentially the same as the single arm variation we just discussed, but this time you’ll be holding the weight with two hands. The single leg, double arm Romanian deadlift can be performed with dumbbells, kettle bells, barbells, or sandbags. Pick your poison and bang out your sets accordingly.
Trap Bar Romanian Deadlift
Performing Romanian deadlifts with a trap bar (hex bar) is a great variation for those with limited ankle and hip mobility. Plus, the trap bar Romanian deadlift also places less shear stress on your spine.The drawback to this Romanian deadlift variation is that it doesn’t challenge your hamstrings to the same extent as the original exercise or any of the variations discussed above.
Wrapping up the Romanian Deadlift
The Romanian deadlift is an awesome exercise, and provides one of the best means for developing all of the muscles of the posterior chain (hips, hamstrings, glutes, lats, and spinal erectors).
It’s incredibly easy to learn and perform, not to mention it’s incredibly versatile, and can be placed anywhere in your training routine and performed with any number of training apparatuses.
The Romanian deadlift benefits lifters of all walks of life and experience levels. Use it to increase mass and strength and to enhance your performance in the deadlift as well as overall athleticism.
Start adding the Romanian deadlift to your leg day training today and watch your leg growth explode!