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The Definitive Guide to the Romanian Deadlift (and the Best Variations!)

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If you want to know what the Romanian deadlift is, which muscles it works, and how to do it properly, then you want to read this article.

Key Takeaways

  1. The Romanian deadlift is one of the single best exercises you can do for developing your posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, and back). It’s easy to learn, load, and program, and when it’s performed correctly, it’s also perfectly safe.
  2. It differs from the conventional and stiff-leg deadlift in several key ways.
  3. If you can’t do the traditional Romanian deadlift for whatever reason, you can always choose from one of a number of variations.

At first glance, the Romanian deadlift (RDL) looks like a lazy or downright dangerous version of the regular deadlift.

Ironically, it’s not a one-way ticket to snap city, but one of the single best exercises you can do for developing your hamstrings, glutes, spinal erectors, lats, and even your forearms.

It’s also easy to learn, load, and program, and when it’s performed correctly, it’s also perfectly safe.

And in this article, you’re going to learn all about it. Specifically, you’re going to learn…

  • What the Romanian deadlift is (and how it got its name)
  • Why it’s such an effective lower body exercise
  • How it differs from other kinds of deadlifts
  • How to Romanian deadlift in 3 simple steps
  • 5 ways to improve your Romanian deadlift
  • And more…

And last but not least, you’re also going to get a simple, effective, and challenging Romanian deadlift workout that you can start using today.

Let’s get to it.

What Is the Romanian Deadlift?

The Romanian deadlift is similar to the conventional barbell deadlift, but it targets your hamstrings and glutes more than your back.

Here’s what it looks like:

As you can see, the main differences between the Romanian and conventional deadlift are…

  1. You can start with the bar in a power rack instead of on the floor (but don’t have to).
  2. Your legs remain pretty straight, bending only slightly at the knees to lower the bar.
  3. You lower the bar to just below your knees or when your lower back starts to round, and no further.

There are also several other variations of Romanian deadlifts that you can do, including the single-leg Romanian deadlift, the dumbbell Romanian deadlift, and the trap-bar romanian deadlift.

We’ll go over each of them in more detail in a few minutes, but they all follow the same general movement pattern.

You may also be wondering why it’s called the Romanian deadlift.

Well, the story goes that in 1990, a Romanian Olympic weightlifter named Nicu Vlad was in San Francisco demonstrating an exercise that looked like a cross between a stiff-leg and  conventional deadlift.

Someone in the audience asked what it was called. He shrugged and said it was just something he did to strengthen his back. The U.S. Olympic weightlifting coach was there and suggested they call it the Romanian deadlift, and the rest is history. 🙂

Romanian Deadlift vs. Stiff-Leg Deadlift

The Romanian deadlift is often confused with another type of deadlift called the stiff-leg deadlift.

Here’s why:

That’s a stiff-leg deadlift, and as you can see, it looks a lot like a Romanian deadlift.

That said, the key difference is the stiff-leg deadlift involves a greater range of motion and tends to put even more stress on the hamstrings and lower back.

Notice how the knees stay nearly locked through the full range of motion, and the bar nearly touches the ground. Some people can even lower the bar all the way to the ground, but most (including myself) can only get it about an inch from the ground.

The stiff-leg deadlift is a great exercise, but the downsides are it requires a lot of flexibility to do properly, it can bother some people’s knees and back, and it can be hard to safely progressively overload.

This is why I prefer the Romanian deadlift, but both are great options for developing the hamstrings, glutes, and back.

Use this workout and flexible dieting program to lose up to 10 pounds of fat and build muscle in just 30 days…without starving yourself or living in the gym.

What Muscles Does the Romanian Deadlift Work?

The Romanian deadlift targets the posterior chain, which is the group of muscles on the back of the body, including the…

Like all good compound exercises, the Romanian deadlift also targets smaller “accessory” muscles like the rhomboids, teres major and minor, and serratus posterior.

Here’s what these muscles look like on your body:

romanian deadlift muscles

To a lesser extent, the Romanian deadlift also works the biceps, calves, and quads, making it one of the best exercises you can do for training all the major muscle groups in your body.

Who Should do the Romanian Deadlift?

The main reason people do the Romanian deadlift is to train their hamstrings, glutes, and back without beating themselves up with too much conventional deadlifting.

The conventional deadlift is still single the best exercise for developing and strengthening the posterior chain, but it’s also extremely difficult, which is why even advanced powerlifters rarely deadlift more than once per week and only do a few sets in each workout.

Thus, the Romanian deadlift lets you train many of the same muscles without risking symptoms related to overtraining or injury.

This is why I included the Romanian deadlift in my weightlifting programs for both men and women.

Now, if you’re new to weightlifting and haven’t put much time into the “Big Four—the conventional deadlift, squat, bench press, and overhead press—then you don’t need to include the Romanian deadlift in your routine just yet.

Focus on conventional pulling first, and then once you’ve built a considerable amount of strength on it, consider working “accessory deadlifts” like the Romanian deadlift into your workout routine.

How to Romanian Deadlift in 3 Simple Steps

Big compound movements like the Romanian deadlift are double-edged swords.

They deliver the maximum muscle- and strength-building bang for your buck, but they also require good technique or they can become dangerous.

So let’s break down how to Romanian deadlift step-by-step.

First, watch this to see what we’re aiming for:

And now let’s go through the three steps of proper Romanian deadlift form.

Step 1

Setup

There are two ways to set up for the Romanian deadlift:

  • From the rack
  • From the floor

If you start from the rack, you’ll want the bar to be just below where you’ll hold it at the top of the movement, or about mid-thigh:

romanian deadlift setup

If you start from the floor, then all you have to do is load the bar the same way you would when setting up for the conventional deadlift:

romanian deadlift

Both starting positions are fine, but most people prefer starting from the rack because it makes it easier to load the bar and doesn’t force you to waste energy pulling the bar off the floor at the beginning of each set.

Walk up to the bar so that it’s over your mid foot, position your feet about shoulder-width apart, and grip the bar.

I recommend you use a double overhand grip (both palms facing down) for the Romanian deadlift, as it’s usually more comfortable than the alternate (mixed) grip.

Take a deep breath of air, raise your chest, and press your upper arms into your sides as if you were trying to crush oranges in your armpits. You should look like this:

how to romanian deadlift

Step 2

Descend

Lift the bar off the rack (or floor), take a baby step back, and bend your knees slightly. Fix your gaze on a spot about 10 feet in front of you, and lower the bar down the front of your legs, allowing your butt to move backward as the bar descends.

Keep your knees at more or less the same angle as when you started. Once you start to feel a stretch in your hamstrings, you can allow slightly more bend in your knees.

At this point, the bar should be at knee height or just below, like this:

romanian deadlift form

Don’t try to lower the bar to the ground.

Doing so forces you to bend your knees, which reduces tension on the hamstrings and defeats the purpose of the exercise.

Once you can’t go any lower without rounding your lower back or further bending your knees, it’s time for the ascent.

Step 3

Ascend

Keeping your back tight, chest up, and knees slightly bent, drive your hips forward while pulling the bar straight up..

Here’s how the whole movement looks:

That’s all there is to the classic Romanian deadlift, but there are a few variations of this exercise you should also know about.

Romanian Deadlift Variations You Should Know

The traditional Romanian deadlift is always performed with a barbell and two feet on the ground, but there are three other variations that are worth considering:

  • The dumbbell Romanian deadlift
  • The single-leg Romanian deadlift
  • The trap-bar Romanian deadlift

Let’s look at each.

Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift

The dumbbell Romanian deadlift is exactly the same as the regular Romanian deadlift, except you use a pair of dumbbells instead of a barbell.

Here’s how it looks:

If your gym doesn’t have a power rack or you can’t or don’t want to do the traditional Romanian deadlift for whatever reason, then you can use dumbbells instead.

Some people also prefer the dumbbell variation because it allows your shoulders to be in a more natural position, but the downsides are most people can’t lift as much weight with dumbbells and struggle to keep them from wandering around as they move.

Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift

The single-leg Romanian deadlift is a more challenging variation in which during the descent, you balance on one leg.

Here’s what it looks like:

This exercise works well for people who have good balance and want to squeeze a bit more range of motion out of each rep. It also prevents you from favoring one leg more than the other, which can happen when deadlifting, making it beneficial for preventing and fixing muscle imbalances.

The downside, though, is that you can’t use nearly as much weight as the regular Romanian deadlift, and balancing becomes harder as you get stronger.

This is why I recommend you use the single-leg variant if you don’t have a barbell or heavy dumbbells (as when traveling), or as an accessory exercise to prevent muscle imbalances.

Trap-Bar Romanian Deadlift

The trap bar—or hex bar—Romanian deadlift is a great way to learn the exercise because it doesn’t require as much hip and ankle mobility to get to the bar, and it puts less shearing stress on the spine.

Here’s how to do it:

The downsides to this variation are that it doesn’t challenge your hamstrings quite as much, and you have to start the exercise from the floor, which means you may not be able to use as much weight.

That said, if you don’t have the lower body mobility to do the barbell Romanian deadlift, then this is a fine alternative.

5 Ways to Romanian Deadlift Better

No matter how good your technique is, you’re going to hit plateaus on your big compound exercises.

These five strategies will help you get unstuck on the Romanian deadlift if you find yourself in the doldrums.

Lift Heavy Ass Weight

Professor Ronnie Coleman said it best:

There’s a never-ending debate as to the “ideal” rep range for building muscle, but there’s little argument about the fact that heavy lifting is best for getting stronger.

How heavy is “heavy,” though?

Well, the “strength” spectrum of the rep range usually starts around 80 to 85% of your one-rep max, or the 4 to 6 rep range, and goes up in terms of 1RM from there.

If you’re currently doing the majority of your Romanian (and conventional) deadlifting with lighter weights—the 10 to 12 rep range, for example—you’re going to benefit greatly by emphasizing heavier lifting instead. You don’t have to stop the 10- to 12-rep work, but don’t neglect the lower rep ranges.

I’ll give you an example of what this looks like in terms of programming at the end of this article.

Increase Your Grip Strength

One of the main reasons people stall in their progression on the deadlift is grip weakness.

You can develop a posterior chain that can pull hundreds of pounds, but if your grip doesn’t keep up, you’ll never actually get there.

Grip weakness doesn’t just make the bar harder to hold, it makes the entire lift feel significantly harder. And if you don’t ensure your grip is continually improving, your deadlifts will stall.

Fortunately, improving grip strength is very easy when you go about it correctly. Check out my article on how to increase grip strength to learn more:

The Best Forearm Workouts to Increase Grip Strength

Use Straps

During the Romanian deadlift, your hands don’t get a break between reps like they do with conventional deadlifts.

Improving your grip strength can help with this to a point, but eventually grip strength is probably going to become a limiting factor.

That’s why I recommend you try straps.

When used properly, straps allow you to safely pull more weight (making the Romanian deadlift harder on the rest of your body) without any of the downsides of other grip styles.

You can try to eek out a few more reps by using a mixed grip, but over time that could lead to muscle imbalances and shoulder or elbow pain.

Instead, I recommend you stick to the double overhand grip with straps. Here’s what it looks like:

romanian deadlift grip

If you want to learn more about your deadlift grip options and what straps to use, check out this article:

How to Find the Best Deadlift Grip For You

Wear the Right Shoes

Believe it or not, the wrong shoes can make Romanian deadlifting significantly harder.

A good weightlifting shoe does a few things:

  • It provides a stable surface to help us balance and support heavy loads. This is particularly important with exercises like the deadlift, squat, and overhead press.
  • It fits your feet snugly and leaves no wiggle room. You don’t want your feet moving around in your shoes as you train.
  • It provides good traction so your feet don’t slip or shift during a lift.

The right weightlifting shoes not only improve your performance on important lifts like the deadlift and squat, but can reduce the risk of injury as well.

Check out this article to see my weightlifting shoe recommendations:

The Minimalist’s Guide to the Best Shoes for Weightlifting

Improve Your Hip Mobility

While many people don’t realize how important proper form is on the Romanian deadlift, many of them couldn’t do it properly even if they wanted to. They simply lack the flexibility and mobility.

The most common problems are tight hip and hamstring muscles. Fortunately, you can do a series of simple exercises to limber them up.

As an added bonus, these mobility exercises are also going to make squatting, lunging, and conventional deadlifting much more comfortable, too.

To learn more about this, check out this article:

How to Improve Flexibility and Mobility for Squatting

A Simple and Effective Romanian Deadlift Workout

You now know how to Romanian deadlift properly.

You also know all of the important variations.

And you know the 5 most effective things you can do to avoid and break through plateaus.

Now it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to work.

As I mentioned earlier, I like to use the Romanian deadlift as a hamstring and back accessory exercise on my lower body days. Since a good leg workout always starts with some type of squat, the Romanian deadlift always comes second in my workouts.

Here’s a simple and effective lower body workout that incorporates the Romanian deadlift.

Squat

Warm-up

3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 80 to 85% of 1RM

Romanian Deadlift

3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 80 to 85% of 1RM

Single Leg Squat or Lunge

3 sets of 6 to 8 reps at 75 to 80% of 1RM

Hamstring Curls

2 sets of 6 to 8 reps at 75 to 80% of 1RM

(Optional) Seated Calf Raises

2 sets of 8 to 12 reps at 70 to 80% of 1RM

And a few odds and ends on how to do this workout:

You shouldn’t go to absolute muscle failure every set.

Muscle failure is the point where you can no longer keep the weight moving and have to end the set.

We should take most of our sets to a point close to failure (one or two reps shy), and we should rarely take sets to the point of absolute failure.

Personally, I never train to failure for more than two to three sets per workout, and never on the squat, deadlift, bench press, or military press, as it can be dangerous.

Instead, I reserve my failure sets for isolation exercises like hamstring curls, leg extensions, calf raises and the like, and it’s usually a natural consequence of pushing for progressive overload as opposed to deliberate programming.

Rest 3 to 4 minutes in between each set.

This will give your muscles enough time to fully recoup their strength so you can give maximum effort each set.

Once you hit the top of your rep range for one set, you move up in weight.

For instance, if you pull 6 reps on your first set, you add 5 pounds to each side of the bar for your next set and work with that weight until you can pull it for 6 reps, and so forth.

The Bottom Line on the Romanian Deadlift

The Romanian deadlift is one of the single best exercises you can do for developing your posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, and back).

It’s easy to learn, load, and program, and when it’s performed correctly, it’s also perfectly safe.

The Romanian deadlift is like the conventional deadlift, but your legs remain fairly straight, bending only slightly at the knees to lower the bar, and the bar goes just below your knees or to the point where your lower back starts to round, and no further.

It can also be performed with a barbell, dumbbells, or trap-bar, and which you should use depends on your circumstances.

If you have access to a power rack and sufficient lower body mobility, go with the traditional barbell version. If you don’t, however, try the dumbbell and trap-bar variations and see which feels best for you.

Happy deadlifting!

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