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

Key Takeaways

  1. The Romanian deadlift is one of the single best exercises for developing your posterior chain (including your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back).
  2. Romanian deadlifts are easy to load and program, and if you perform them correctly, they’re also perfectly safe (which you’ll learn how to do in this article).
  3. Keep reading to learn how to Romanian deadlift with proper form, get a free lower-body workout featuring Romanian deadlifts, and more!

At first blush, 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. 🙂

Summary: The Romanian deadlift is similar to the conventional barbell deadlift, but it targets your hamstrings and glutes more than your back. There are several variations of the Romanian deadlift, like the single-leg, dumbbell, and trap-bar Romanian deadlift.

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, which tends to put a little more stress on the lower back, and helps some people to feel their hamstrings working more. 

Read: The 6 Best Hamstring Exercises You Need to Do 

Notice how the knees stay almost 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 implement progressive overload.

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

Summary: The key difference between the Romanian deadlift and the stiff-leg deadlift is the stiff-leg deadlift involves a greater range of motion, which tends to put a little more stress on the lower back, and helps some people to feel their hamstrings working more

What Muscles Does the Romanian Deadlift Train?

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 anterior.

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

Romanian deadlift with dumbbells

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.

Summary: The Romanian deadlift effectively trains almost all the muscles of the posterior chain, and to a lesser extent, the biceps, calves, and quads.

Why 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.

Research shows the conventional deadlift is still the single best exercise for developing and strengthening all the major muscles in the posterior chain. 

The problem is, it’s also extremely taxing on the body, which is why even advanced powerlifters rarely deadlift more than once per week and only do a few sets in each workout.

Read: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Powerlifting (With a Free Training Plan!) 

Thus, the Romanian deadlift lets you train many of the same muscles without risking symptoms related to overtraining or injury, which is why many experienced weightlifters program it into their workout routines in addition to conventional deadlifting. 

This is also 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 deadlift, squat, bench press, and overhead press—then you don’t need to include the Romanian deadlift in your routine just yet.

Focus on getting strong on one of the main deadlift variations first, whether that be the conventional deadlift, sumo deadlift, or trap-bar deadlift, before you consider working “accessory deadlifts” like the Romanian deadlift into your workout routine.

Summary: The Romanian deadlift allows you to train your hamstrings, glutes, and back without beating up your joints with too much conventional deadlifting. 

How to Romanian Deadlift with Proper Form

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.

Romanian Deadlift Form Step 1: The 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 exercise, or about mid-thigh:

Romanian deadlift muscles

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 vs 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 midfoot, position your feet about shoulder-width apart, and grip the bar.

I recommend you use a double overhand grip (both palms facing toward your body) 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:

Romanian deadlift benefits

Read: The Complete Guide to the Valsalva Maneuver 

Romanian Deadlift Form Step 2: The Descent

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 benefits

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.

Romanian Deadlift Form Step 3: The Ascent

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:

single leg romanian deadlift

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

A Simple, Effective, and Challenging Romanian Deadlift Workout

You now know how to Romanian deadlift properly.

You also know all of the important variations.

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.

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

Warm up before each workout.

When you warm up for a lower-body workout (or any other workout), here’s the protocol you want to follow:

  • Estimate roughly what weight you’re going to use for the three sets of your first exercise (in this case, the squat). This is your “hard set” weight.
  • Do 10 reps with about 50% of your hard set weight, and rest for a minute or two.
  • Do 10 reps with the same weight at a slightly faster pace, and rest for a minute or two.
  • Do 4 reps with about 70% of your hard set weight, and rest for a minute or two.

Then, do three sets with your hard set weight.

After your warm-up and hard sets for your first lower-body exercise, you don’t need to warm up for the rest of the exercises in this workout—your muscles will be plenty warm already. 

Using the workout shared in this article as an example, once you’ve finished squatting, there’s no need to warm-up for your Romanian deadlifts—your back, glutes, hamstrings (and really, just about every muscle group) will be warmed up and ready to go.  

If you want to learn more about the importance of a proper warm-up and how to warm up for different workouts, check out this article:

The Best Way to Warm Up For Your Workouts

Use Reps In Reserve (RIR) to control workout intensity.

Reps in Reserve (RIR) is a method of controlling your workout intensity, and it works like this: 

1 RIR = 1 rep shy of failure

2 RIR = 2 reps shy of failure

3 RIR = 3 reps shy of failure

. . . and so on. 

For all of the exercises in this workout, I recommend you use an intensity of 1 to 2 RIR, which means you want to do as many reps as you can within the prescribed rep range until you feel you can only do 1 or 2 reps more and then stop.

For example, if you’re doing 3 sets of 4 to 6 reps of Romanian deadlifts, you want to pick a weight that allows you to finish each of your sets feeling like you could have pulled 1 or 2 more reps if you absolutely had to, while completing at least 4 reps and not more than 6.

Check out this article if you want to learn more about how to use Reps in Reserve to improve the effectiveness of your workouts: 

This Is the Best Guide to the RPE Scale on the Internet

Once you hit the top of your rep range for one set, add weight.

For instance, if you Romanian deadlift 225 pounds for 6 reps on your first set, you then add 5 pounds to each side of the bar for your next set.

If, on the next set, you can get at least 4 reps with 235 pounds, that’s the new weight you work with until you can pull it for 6 reps, move up, and so forth.

If you get 3 or fewer reps, though, reduce the weight added by 5 pounds (230 pounds) and see how the next set goes. If you still get 3 reps or fewer, reduce the weight to the original 6-rep load (225 pounds) and work with that until you can do two 6-rep sets with it, and then increase the weight on the bar.

This method is known as double progression, which you can learn about in this podcast:

How to Use Double Progression to Get More From Your Workouts

Don’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.

Research shows taking sets to failure isn’t any more beneficial for muscle growth than taking sets one to two reps shy of failure, and it can increase the risk of injury or burnout. This is particularly true on compound exercises like the squat, deadlift, bench press, or overhead press.

Thus, this is why I recommend you take all of your sets one to two reps shy of failure (1 to 2 RIR), but not all the way to failure (0 RIR). 

You can learn more about how to take sets close (but not to) failure in this article:

This Is the Best Guide to the RPE Scale on the Internet

Rest 3 to 4 minutes in between each set.

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

If you want to learn more about how long you should rest between sets, check out this article:

How Long Should You Rest Between Sets to Gain Muscle and Strength?

3 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 quickly 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. 

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, but otherwise stick to the traditional Romanian deadlift.

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.

The Bottom Line on the Romanian Deadlift

The Romanian deadlift is one of the single best exercises you can do for developing all the muscles of your posterior chain, including the hamstrings, glutes, erector spinae, lats, and traps.

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 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. 

Romanian deadlifts are normally performed with a barbell, preferably with the assistance of a power rack. 

If you don’t have access to a barbell or power rack, or you lack the lower-body mobility to perform RDLs properly, try the dumbbell and trap-bar variations and see which feels best for you.

Happy deadlifting!

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