Dumbbell RDL vs Barbell RDL (Is One Better For Strength?)


In this article, we will be comparing two popular RDL variations: the Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift (RDL) and the Barbell Romanian Deadlift. Both exercises are extremely effective in strengthening the posterior chain – the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back muscles.

However, is one better than the other? Should only do one or the other, or both? If you only have dumbbells to work with are you going to be missing out on not being able to do Barbell RDLs or visa versa?

In just a few minutes you’ll have the answers to all of those questions. I’m going to explain how to do each movement, what their benefits are and then compare them side by side so you’ll have a better understanding of how to incorporate these RDL variations into your training.


Dumbbell RDL


Dumbbell RDL

Equipment Needed

  • Dumbbells (Kettlebells can also be used in place of dumbbells)

Step-by-Step Instruction

  • With the two dumbbells or kettlebells at your feet, you should hinge at the waist and bend at the knee, keeping a nice flat back, and lift the dumbbells off the ground.
  • Standing nice and tall, squeeze the shoulder blades back and create tension in the abdomen.
  • Keeping a neutral spine, fixing the eyes forward (DO NOT CRANE THE NECK BACK).
  • Initiate the movement by pushing the hips back, hinging at the waist, and keeping a slight bend in the knee.
  • The eccentric movement will continue until the dumbbells are about 3/4 down your shins.
  • Once the dumbbells are about 3/4 of the way down your shins, start to extend the hips, keeping tension in the abdomen and keeping the upper back nice and tight, straightening the knees until you return to standing in the starting position.

Coaching Points

It is important for the lifter to maintain a neutral spine, maintaining tension in the abdomen and upper back. Remember to breathe in and hold the breath during eccentric (lowering the weight) and breathe out as you perform the concentric movement (bringing the weight back up).

Benefits

The Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift (RDL) is a great exercise for improving strength, power, and overall functional movement.

Some benefits of the Dumbbell RDL include:

  1. Improved muscle balance: The Dumbbell RDL helps to strengthen and develop the muscles of the posterior chain, which can help to improve muscle balance and reduce the risk of injury.
  2. Increased lower body strength: The RDL targets the muscles of the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back, which can help to improve overall lower body strength and power.
  3. Improved functional movement: The RDL requires you to hinge at the hips and maintain a neutral spine, which can help not only improve athletic performance but can also improve your ability to perform everyday movements, such as picking up heavy objects.
  4. Increased muscle mass: The RDL can help to increase muscle mass in the lower body, particularly in the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back.

Romanian Deadlift aka Barbell RDL


Romanian Deadlift (RDL)

Equipment Needed

  • Barbell
  • Weight Plates (Bumper or Iron)

Muscles Worked

  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Erectors (Low Back)

How To

  • Address the bar with feet shoulder-width apart, and toes straight ahead.
  • Use a pronated grip about a thumb length from the start of the knurling.
  • Now, with a good flat back, pick the bar up to a standing position.
  • From here, put a slight bend in the knees and ‘set the back’ by squeezing the shoulder blades and engaging the lats.
  • Brace the core and hinge forward by pushing the hips back.
  • The bar should almost drag right down the legs, across the knees and straight down the shins. The whole foot should stay flat on the ground, but the weight should be on the mid-foot to heel.
  • Maintain the neutral spine position throughout the descent and once you feel a good stretch in the hamstrings, drive the hips forward (hip extension) and return to the starting position.

Coaching Points

The ‘depth’ that each person gets doing Romanian Deadlifts will be different and absolutely solely dependent upon hamstring flexibility.

Do NOT try to ‘reach’ the barbell toward the ground because you believe the plates should touch the floor. If you have tight hamstrings you may be doing well to get the bar to mid-shin.

Trying to reach the bar to the floor will result in the lifter losing their neutral spine and rounding their back… which leads me right into common RDL mistakes.

Common RDL Form Mistakes

Easily the most common mistake (and easily identifiable) that I see with athletes for a Romanian deadlift is rounding the back. This is usually due to either poor technique or simply using too much weight.

Use less weight if necessary and work on being able to keep the back engaged and the spine in a neutral position throughout the entire exercise.

Rounding the back puts a lot of stress on the spine and can be very dangerous if not corrected. This absolutely has to be a main point of emphasis.

Another common RDL mistake is excessive bending of the knee.

Try to maintain a slight knee bend with all of the movement coming from the hip hinge. More bend in the knees basically turns the movement more into a conventional deadlift rather than an RDL.

Benefits of the RDL

The RDL, also referred to as a stiff leg deadlift, is a great exercise to work the posterior chain muscles, specifically the hamstrings, glutes and erector spinae of the low back.

Many of the movements that I utilize with athletes demand a very strong posterior chain (as does many sports movements as well). Olympic lifts, Back Squat and Front Squats are all great exercises for building strong, explosive athletes and all three demand a strong posterior chain.

Romanian deadlift works as a terrific accessory lift to aid in the development of those bigger compound lifts.

Finally, the Romanian deadlift, as part of a holistic approach to strengthening the hamstrings and exposing the hamstrings to high-speed running can lower the risk of hamstring injuries.

Dumbbell RDL vs Barbell RDL: Which is Better?

Now, let’s take a side-by-side look at the two exercises and see if one is better than the other for some common lifting goals.

Better For Developing Size and Strength: Barbell RDL

Let me start off by saying that both variations are excellent for building muscle mass and improving strength.

However, the time will come in most lifters’ journeys when having access to heavy enough dumbbells will become a limiting factor to continue increasing strength.

Most of the experienced athletes I work with will RDL with anywhere from 185 pounds to 315 pounds. That would mean needing 100-plus pound dumbbells which is something that a lot of us simply don’t have available to us.

So, if you have heavy enough dumbbells that can challenge you for sets of 6 to 10 reps, then dumbbell or barbell rdls will work great. Once you’ve progressed past the dumbbells available to you, you’ll need to stick primarily to Barbell RDLs.

Better For Range of Motion: Tie

I know many lifters that prefer using dumbbells because they can provide more range of motion.

And, while it’s true that you can get lower to the ground with a pair of dumbbells vs a barbell with 45s on each side – there is a simple fix for this. Stand on a box or a pair of plates.

Standing on something sturdy like a lifting box or weight plates can elevate you off the ground enough to be able to achieve the same (or more) range of motion.

Better For Beginners: Dumbbell RDL

When it comes to learning how to do RDLs as a beginner, the issue isn’t normally with whether you’re holding a barbell or dumbbells. The most important parts of the lift are learning how to brace, how to hinge and how to maintain proper body position.

So, why do I give the edge to Dumbbell RDLs?

If you’re a true beginner and/or a young athlete then dumbbells can allow you to work with lighter weight while you learn the technique. Training barbells, ones lighter than 45 pounds, are pretty rare. However, it’s easy to find 5 or 10-pound dumbbells that can be much safer to learn proper technique with.

Final Thoughts

I’ve just spent the last section of this article comparing which is better – Barbell RDLs vs Dumbbell RDLs. However, the truth is, there is no reason you shouldn’t have both exercises in your strength training program.

Both are excellent exercises for developing lower body strength and muscle mass. Incorporating both exercises into your training program can also add variety and keep your workouts from getting stale.

So, my suggestion would be instead of trying to decide between the two exercises, figure out how you can utilize both Barbell Romanian Deadlifts and Dumbbell Romanian Deadlifts in your training plan.

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Ryan Horton

Horton Barbell was created by Ryan Horton who has served as a Sports Performance Coach for almost 20 years. My mission is to create a training resource to help as many coaches and athletes as possible maximize athletic potential.

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