Although there are benefits and purposes for barbell deadlifts, most strength coaches recommend doing Romanian deadlifts instead of traditional deadlifts for most everyday athletes looking to get stronger and build muscle.
Romanian deadlifts, typically referred to as RDLs, are thought to be safer with a lower risk of injury due to the starting and ending position of the RDL vs conventional deadlifts, while still strengthening the hip extensors.
But, how do you do Romanian deadlifts? What are the benefits of RDL workouts? How can you modify Romanian deadlifts to target different deadlift muscles and for different fitness levels and goals?
In this RDLs workout guide, we will discuss how to do a Romanian deadlift, and how to do RDL workouts or variations of RDLs based on your fitness level and training goals.
We will look at:
- How To Do The Romanian Deadlift Exercise
- What Is The RDLS Workout and How Can You Vary It?
Let’s get started!
How To Do The Romanian Deadlift Exercise
Here are the steps for how to perform Romanian deadlifts with a barbell:
- Rack the barbell so that it is at mid-shin level and stand facing the bar so that it’s hovering over the middle of your foot.
- Brace your core as you sit your hips back to squat down and grasp the barbell with an overhand grip (palms facing down). Make sure to keep your chest up, shoulders down, and back straight (do not round your back).
- Carefully take a step back away from the squat rack so that you have space to move.
- Contract your glutes and hamstrings as you press through your heels to extend your hips and knees to stand upright, keeping your back straight.
- Allow the barbell to track up along the shins and once the barbell passes your knees, drive your hips forward, sliding the bar against your quads as you stand all the way up.
- Once you are standing fully upright, squeeze your glutes to achieve the full lockout position in hip extension.
- Slowly reverse the motion, bringing the bar back down towards your mid-shin/ankles as it tracks just in front of your quads and shins by sitting your hips back and allowing a gentle bend in your knees. Remember to keep your chest up, your core tight, and your back straight.
Note that bracing your core and locking your shoulders down will help stabilize your spine.
The reduced RDL range of motion vs conventional deadlift range of motion can potentially reduce the risk of injuries, particularly low back pain or excessive stress on the intervertebral discs and smaller ligaments in the lower back when performing RDL vs traditional deadlifts.
What Is The RDLS Workout and How Can You Vary It?
Here are some Romanian deadlift variations to target different RDL muscles worked:
#1: Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts
The single-leg Romanian deadlift is one of the best RDLs workout exercises because the unilateral nature helps better engage all of the glute muscles worked by Romanian deadlifts, including the gluteus medius and deeper hip rotators and abductors.
This is because when you are performing a straight-leg deadlift on one leg at a time, your base of support is significantly reduced so all of the smaller muscles in the hips and glutes have to work to provide stability to your pelvis.
To this end, you’ll have greater activation of the core muscles worked by RDLs when you perform the single-leg Romanian deadlift variation.The small muscles in the ankle also need to work harder to provide stability with the single-leg Romanian deadlift.
This type of balance work can translate well to trail running, hiking, stand-up paddleboarding, or other sports where you are on an uneven surface.
Additionally, your core muscles, including the deep transversus abdominis and deep spinal stabilizers like the multifidus have to contract throughout the duration of each rep to keep your spine in a neutral position despite the contralateral crossing over your body with the weight.
Here are the steps to perform this RDLs workout exercise variation:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, chest up, arms at your side, holding a dumbbell in your right hand.
- Bring your left arm out to the side for balance and engage your core.
- Lift your right leg off the ground and extend it behind as a counterbalance as you bend your left knee (the one on your standing/support leg) about 20 degrees to activate your glutes and hamstrings and hinge from your hips to bring your torso towards the floor.
- Reach your right hand with the weight down towards your left foot.
- Engage your core and glutes to stand back up, extending your hips until they are fully locked out. If you need to regain your balance, you can tap your right foot back down on the ground; otherwise, try to keep it lifted and move into your next rep.
- Complete all of your desired reps and then switch sides.
#2: Smith Machine Romanian Deadlifts
If you are doing your leg workout at the gym, there’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of the weight machines.
Oftentimes, weightlifters who try to do a straight-leg barbell deadlift too heavy (using weights that they cannot manage through the full range of motion) will not power all the way up with each rep to full hip extension.
Or, they may only lower the bar to mid-thigh or knee level for fear that they will not be able to get back up from a deeper deadlift range of motion with the heavy weight.
Shortchanging your range of motion will compromise the functional benefits of the RDL vs conventional deadlift and less time under tension will mean that the muscle-building hypertrophy stimulus and strengthening stimulus are reduced, compromising your gains from RDL workouts.
On the other hand, if you are trying to do max deadlifts on your own with the proper form and range of motion but the weight is too heavy, you may injure yourself.
This is where doing the Smith machine deadlift can actually maximize your gains and potentially improve safety.
The fixed path of motion allows you to safely lift more weight without needing to balance or stabilize your body.
The Smith machine is a great way to strengthen the posterior chain muscles worked by RDLs, particularly if you don’t have a spotter for heavy freeweight deadlifts.
Even if you often do barbell RDLs, adding Smith machine RDLs is a good way to push yourself when you want to try increasing your weights.
Here are the steps for performing the Romanian deadlift with the Smith machine:
- Set the bar so that it is at mid-shin height, with your feet hip-width apart. Keeping your back straight, hinge at your hips and grip the bar with your palms facing down.
- Unlatch the bar as you brace your core. Keeping your chest up and shoulders down, press through your heels, using your glutes and hamstrings to pull your body upright into a standing position.
- Keeping your core tight and back straight, hinge at the hips to lower the bar back down to mid-shin level.
#3: Toes-Elevated Dumbbell Romanian Deadlifts
Any Romanian deadlift is a great posterior chain exercise for your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back extensors.
Performing the RDL with your toes elevated up onto a weight plate or bumper plate so that you are sinking into your heels helps isolate your hamstrings.
Plus, because you are narrowing your base of support, this is a more challenging RDLs workout variation that requires greater activation from your core muscles, as well as the smaller stabilizing muscles in your ankles and hips.
For this reason, you might not be able to lift as much weight, particularly at first.
Moreover, because the hamstrings are generally weaker than the glutes and this is more of a hamstring isolation exercise relative to the normal Romanian deadlift, you should begin with a lighter weight than you normally deadlift.
Here are the steps for performing this RDLs workout exercise:
- Grab a 25-pound or 45-pound weight plate or bumper plate and set it on the floor.
- Prop the balls of your feet and toes up onto the edge of the weight plate so that you are weight-bearing with just your heels on the floor.
- Your feet should be much closer together than with a standard deadlift.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your arms down and your sides and your palms facing the wall behind you.
- Hinge from your hips, reaching the dumbbells down towards your feet, imagining the dumbbells tracking up and down a vertical line that is extending above your toes rather than tracking along your shins with a typical Romanian deadlift.
- Move as slowly as possible as you lower the way down, pausing at the bottom position.
- Think about contracting your hamstrings to stand back up to the starting position, hinging back up at the hips rather than rounding your spine.
#4: Walking Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts
This is a great Romanian deadlift variation to include in a dynamic warm-up:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, chest up and proud, and arms at your sides holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in each hand.
- Engage your core and glutes, and then take a step forward with your left leg.
- Load into that leg by bending your left knee (the one on the standing/support leg) about 20 degrees to activate your glutes while you lift your right leg off the ground.
- Hinge from your hips to tilt your torso towards the floor, keeping your gaze down to prevent hyperextending your neck. Simultaneously, reach your right hand with the weight down towards your left foot until you feel enough of a stretch in the hamstrings of your supporting leg. Your right leg should extend behind you as a counterbalance and your torso should be relatively parallel to the floor.
- Contract your glutes to stand back up as you take the next step forward.
For tips to maximize your muscle gains with RDLs workouts, check out our muscle-building guide here.