Master the Romanian Deadlift: RDL Workout Tips and Tricks

RDL Workout Routine: Benefits, Proper Form, and Variations

Deadlifts are a highly effective exercise for increasing functional strength across the major muscle groups of the mid-to-lower posterior chain. Deadlifts are also an essential movement pattern that can help protect your back from pain or injury, stabilize your spine to perform other lifting techniques and provide a strong foundation to make everyday activities easier.

Among the different deadlift variations you can explore, the Romanian deadlift is a staple for many strength-based training programs.

Read on as we explore the benefits of Romanian deadlifts, how to perform the deadlift safely, and how it compares to other variations including the traditional deadlift, sumo deadlift, and so many more.

What is the Romanian Deadlift?

The Romanian deadlift, better known as the RDL, is a traditional barbell lift that is used to develop strength in the posterior chain including the back and lower body muscles. In its simplest form, the Romanian deadlift is a fundamental exercise where a loaded barbell is held in front of the hips and is slowly lowered and raised using hip flexion and extension movements [1]. 

With correct form, the Romanian deadlift exercise is one of the most effective for strengthening the core and hamstrings, improving spinal stability, and helping reduce pain in the low back, hips, and knees. 

Romanian Deadlift: Muscles Worked

As a compound exercise, RDLs activate multiple muscle groups simultaneously to help coordinate and execute a concise movement pattern. The primary muscle groups activated during this lift include the hamstrings, gluteus maximus, and erector spinae muscles [2]. 

Additionally, RDLs also require support from secondary or stabilizing muscle groups including the upper back muscles (i.e. traps, lats, levator scapulae, and rhomboids), shoulder muscles (i.e. posterior and medial deltoids), hip flexors, abductors, and abdominal muscles (i.e. rectus abdominis and obliques). 

For the purpose of lifting heavy weights, RDLs encourage you to use all of your power in your strongest hip and leg muscles. Compared to the conventional deadlift, the Romanian deadlift technique uses less range of motion to help generate more power through the hamstring muscles [3].

Benefits of Romanian Deadlifts

The Romanian deadlift is a versatile exercise that can be geared to benefit nearly any strength, power, fitness, or sport athlete out there. From Olympic weightlifting to everyday gym-goers, the RDL is a powerful strengthening movement with a wide range of benefits. 

With consistent practice and proper form, you can achieve the following impressive benefits from the Romanian deadlift.  

1. Muscle gains 

For many lifters, muscular hypertrophy is an important quality of an exercise program. Not only is it helpful to improve physique and enhance muscle definition, but building muscle mass is essential for improving force, power, and overall sports performance [4]. 

Though the force production is lesser than that of conventional deadlifts, RDLs target muscle groups in the posterior chain with less volume.  As a result, RDLs help build lower body muscle mass in the hamstrings, glutes, and lower body, which is necessary to produce more force during other deadlift variations (i.e. sumo deadlift, trap bar deadlift, etc.).

2. lifting mechanics

Another important benefit of the Romanian deadlift is that it helps you learn fundamental lifting mechanics. Looking at the movement pattern of this lift, RDLs emphasize strong hip hinge mechanics which is a fundamental component of squats, kettlebell swings, barbell cleans, and good mornings.

Without understanding proper RDL lifting mechanics, you may be at risk of injuring your lower back due to overcompensation and uneven weight transfer. Practicing the RDL can not only teach you to lift heavier weights but can also help you take on everyday tasks without straining your body. 

3. Muscle balance

So many of us spend our days sitting. Whether at work, in school, or lounging around on the couch, sitting can contribute to significant muscle weakness and imbalance throughout the entire body. 

When we sit, we are causing our posterior chain muscles to “turn off” for hours at a time. As a result, our glute muscles become longer and weaker while our hip flexors become shorter and tighter. Many of these muscle imbalances tend to wreak havoc on our lower back [5]. 

RDLs help to address these imbalances by activating all of the major muscles that have been turned off while seated (in the posterior chain) and stretching the muscles that are tight (in the anterior chain). Doing so can not only protect our back health, but can also improve our posture, increase balance, and minimize muscle fatigue.

4. Deadlift performance 

Deadlifting is a dynamic exercise that can be accomplished using different techniques, starting positions, and levels of muscle recruitment. 

Having the capacity to perform multiple deadlift variations allows for more versatility in your training program and helps you target and strengthen specific muscle groups. RDLs are a fundamental exercise that builds your functional strength to help improve your deadlift performance. This exercise is also integral for building grip strength to help improve your pull strength with each rep.

5. Injury prevention

As mentioned earlier, weak muscles can be a common factor that contributes to injury. As a result of weak muscles, you’re more likely to experience low lumbar control, reduced mobility, lack of hamstring or glute strength, and excessive spine instability. 

RDLs help to address these weaknesses and improve proper hip and low back functioning. With correct mechanics, this lifting technique can build positional awareness, strength, and flexibility which all play a part in reducing the risk of pain or injury.

How to Perform an RDL

Back pain or weakness does not have to be an inevitable outcome of aging. Whether you’re working through a past injury or have experienced more and more back pain through the years, the best way to overcome or avoid these challenging is by practicing proper deadlift mechanics. 

Here’s how to correctly perform a Romanian deadlift: 

  • Step towards the barbell so that the front of your ankle is just touching the bar

  • Standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, bend over to grab hold of the bar using a double overhand grip (palms facing down) in a position that is slightly wider than your legs 

  • Tuck your chin into your neck, lift your chest up and pull your shoulder blades back and down to help extend and stabilize your spine

  • Brace your core muscles by taking a deep breath into your lower belly and flexing your abdominal muscles and lower back 

  • With straight arms, pull the bar up towards your upper thighs to get into the starting position 

  • Keeping your knees slightly bent, push your hips backward as you lower the bar slowly towards the floor, following the path closest to your legs 

  • Once you reach the maximum stretch of your hamstrings, pull the bar back up to a standing position by pushing your hips forward 

  • At the top, remember to squeeze your glutes as you perform a full hip extension 

Common RDL Mistakes

Before diving head first into your first set of RDL sets, it’s important to consider some of the most common mistakes and how to avoid them. 

Mistake #1: Rounding the lower back

The first and most common mistake seen when lifters perform an RDL is allowing their spine to bend and round. Oftentimes, this happens when a lifter is either using too much weight without having spacial awareness of their body and/or they are attempting to lower the bar past the point where their hamstring mobility will allow. 

Keep in mind that this RDL mistake can be incredibly dangerous for your safety and can cause significant injury to the low-back muscles. 

The best way to correct this is by dropping the heavy weights and practicing semi-bodyweight Romanian deadlifts instead. With an unloaded barbell, begin at the starting position and pull your shoulder blades back to help extend your spine. Next, practice a slow and controlled downward movement by hinging at the hips and focusing solely on maintaining a neutral spine throughout the lift. 

Mistake #2: The bar drifts away from the body

During an RDL, the bar will move along the body in a vertical pathway from the top of your thighs to the mid/upper aspect of your shins. When using the correct form, the bar should be moving in a straight line as you hinge your hips. 

When we are first practicing this movement, it’s common for lifters to let the drift away from their body. Fortunately, this can be corrected using a mental cue to "brace your back". While you’re in the upright position and begin to lower down into your first rep, make sure to activate your major upper back muscles (i.e lats and traps) to help keep the bar close to your body throughout the lift.

Mistake #3: Too much knee flexion

The third most common mistake involves too much knee flexion. Unlike a squat, the RDL requires only a slight bend in the knees with all the emphasis on hip flexion. Having too much knee flexion is often caused by tightness through the glutes and hamstrings which can limit hip mobility.

The best way to overcome this is by improving hamstring mobility and practicing lightweight RDL lifts with a shorter movement pattern, such as stopping at the knees rather than below the knees on the down phase.

RDL vs. Deadlift Variations 

rdl form

Even though every deadlift is performed in a hip-hinging fashion, there are plenty of differences regarding muscle activation, form, and movement mechanics that separate each deadlift variation.

Here are some of the most popular variations of deadlifts and how they compare to the RDL technique.  

RDL vs. Conventional Deadlift

When you think of a deadlift exercise, chances are you’re probably thinking of the conventional deadlift. Using a similar double overhand grip, the conventional deadlift is quite comparable to the RDL at first glance. Also known as the traditional or standard deadlift, this exercise even recruits many of the same muscles as the RDL.

However, unlike the RDL, conventional-style deadlifts require a full range of motion starting from the floor rather than in a standing position. As a result, conventional deadlifts rely on both hip and knee hinging to achieve a full range of motion. At the bottom of the movement, the brief touchdown of the weights can help boost momentum, allowing the lifter to pull heavier weights during a conventional deadlift [6].

The conventional deadlift can be modified slightly into a deficit deadlift variation by performing the lift on a raised surface. You can do this by standing on weight plates or blocks to increase the difficulty of the lift [7]. 

RDL vs. Sumo Deadlift

The sumo deadlift is quite similar to the traditional deadlift, only with a shorter and more limited range of motion [8].

The key difference here is the starting position. Unlike the RDL, the sumo deadlift begins in a wide-leg stance with the toes pointed slightly out. For those who struggle to mobilize their hamstrings during an RDL or have long legs with a shorter torso, the sumo deadlift may be just what you need. 

Sumo deadlifts are very helpful for isolating weak muscles, such as the glutes or lower back, as well as building muscle mass and strength through the posterior chain. Using more knee flexion during the lift, the sumo deadlift can also help target the quad muscles as well.

RDL vs. Trap Bar Deadlift

Trap bar deadlifts are a popular technique that is performed with a hex-weight bar rather than a barbell. This deadlift variation is used to activate many of the same muscle groups as the conventional deadlift and RDL only with far less stress on the lumbar spine [9].

By using a neutral grip by your sides rather than the standard overhand grip or mixed grip in front of your body, the trap bar deadlift allows you to pull the weight of the bar through the knee and hip joints without having to bend forward excessively to lift the bar. As a result, trap bar deadlifts can help maximize glute, hamstring, quad, and back gains and require less technical proficiency compared to barbell deadlifts.

RDL vs. Rack Pull Deadlift

Lastly, we have the rack pull deadlift. This deadlift variation combines both the RDL and conventional deadlift by having a power rack to support the bottom end of the movement. In other words, this lift has a similar range of motion to the RDL while still giving you the opportunity to power up from a supportive beam just below the knees. 

The rack pull deadlift is a safe and effective exercise for building back muscles as well as learning the proper mechanics for any other deadlifting variation. This is especially beneficial for lifters who may be experiencing back pain during other deadlift techniques.

Key Takeaways

Mastering the Romanian deadlift is an excellent way to help gain functional strength through the posterior chain, especially in the hamstrings. With proper form, RDLs can help you reduce muscle imbalances, boost lifting mechanics, reduce injury risk, and can help provide the foundation for optimal deadlifting performance.

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