The RDL, or Romanian deadlift, is a lower body exercise that predominantly focuses on the posterior chain.
Romanian deadlifts are often referred to as a stiff legged deadlift because they are very similar to a conventional deadlift just with minimal knee flexion.
The Barbell RDL, along with Single Leg RDLs are two of my favorite hamstring movements for athletes. They’re also great for building low back strength which proves very beneficial when squatting heavy weight.
In this article, I’m going to go through how to do an RDL, the movements benefits, muscles worked and a couple of variations that you can incorporate into your training.
Table of Contents
How To RDL
Address the bar with feet shoulder width apart, 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 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.
The ‘depth’ that each person gets 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 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 demands a very strong posterior chain (as does many sport 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 deadlifts work 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.
RDL Muscles Worked
RDLs work the entire posterior chain, primarily the erector spinae, glutes and hamstrings. The upper back also gets worked by having to stabilize the back (both mid and upper back) throughout the lift.
Romanian deadlifts specifically work the eccentric phase of the hamstrings as the weight is lowered toward the floor.
There are a few common variations to the Romanian Deadlift and I’m going to go over three of them here. All three still utilize the same movement pattern and same muscles worked, just with variations in either equipment, grip or in the case of single leg RDLs – using one leg instead of two.
The first variation is the DB RDL. This one is pretty self-explanatory – the movement itself stays exactly the same. The only difference is using dumbbells in place of the bar.
Single Leg RDL
The Single Leg Romanian Deadlift is a slightly more advanced progression of the regular RDL.
In this single leg version, the concepts of the RDL remain the same – flat back, slight knee flexion, hip hinge – but on one leg instead of two.
The opposite leg swings behind the body as the torso hinges forward, similar to a teeter totter. At the bottom of the lift, the back leg, hip joint and shoulders should all be in a relatively straight horizontal line.
Single Leg RDLs can be done either with a barbell or with a dumbbell (usually held in the opposite hand of the foot on the ground).
When doing a Single Leg RDL, most athletes tend to want to rotate and open their hips on the hinge. Try to still keep shoulders and hips square just like you would on a regular RDL.
Snatch Grip Romanian Deadlift
In the snatch grip version of the RDL, everything stays the same as the original – just with a modification to the grip.
The wider grip puts more emphasis on the upper back to maintain the neutral spine during the hip hinge.
The two closest alternatives to a Romanian Deadlift are Hyperextensions and Good Mornings.
Hyperextensions are done with the help of a Glute Ham Machine. If something is hindering you from being able to grip and hold a barbell, hypers are a great alternative.
On the downside, if you’re working out of your home gym – many of us don’t have a glute ham machine due to their cost and size. In that case you can incline a bench, figure out a way to wedge your feet and hinge off the front edge of the bench.
Good mornings are the other exercise that closely mimics an RDL.
With a good morning, the lifter holds the bar on their back similar to a low bar back squat instead of holding it in their hands.
The hinge is the same and the stress is still placed on the entire posterior chain in the same way as a Romanian deadlift.
However, because a mistake in form can be more dangerous when performing good mornings as opposed to RDL, I tend to stay away from them when working with athletes.
Final Thoughts on the RDL
The RDL is a great exercise for strengthening the hamstrings, glutes and low back, but like with many compound lower body exercises (and Olympic lifts like Power Clean), technique is critical.
Make sure to maintain a braced core, neutral spine and never sacrifice technique in an attempt to move heavy weight.