Romanian Deadlift (RDL)

Posted on 20 Oct 2009 16:14

By Eric Troy, Ground Up Strength

What Does RDL Stand For?

RDL stands for 'Romanian Deadlift.'

What is the RDL Exercise?

The Romanian deadlift is a deadlift variation that is begun from the hang position rather than from the floor. This exercise was originally used by weightlifters1 to improve performance in the competitive lifts but the RDL is not really as similar to any phase of the clean or the snatch as many believe.

It is, however, useful as a cross-training movement to develop specific musculature and specific movement schema. Just don't think of it as "mimicking" any part of a clean or a conventional deadlift. With that in mind, it is an excellent movement and even if you are not interested in maximum strength or power, you can use the RDL as a part of your resistance training for training the posterior chain (and to help get a great butt and hamstrings).

You may have seen a few articles on the Romanian Deadlift with differing instructions (if only slightly different) and so you are wondering what is the "correct" way to do this exercise. Well, the problems is, given the statements made above, that correct is largely a matter of opinion. Since the exact purpose of the movement is sometimes in doubt coaches and trainers must assign a purpose or choose the purpose that best suits their needs or philosophy. Therefore their ideas about the technical performance of the exercise can be dependent on that purpose.

Overall, however, the RDL is simply viewed as a great posterior chain movement. It trains the hip extensors, the glutes and hamstrings, as primary movers, while the torso and back muscles are used to support the spine. So in general, the exercise is a good cross-training movement for any pull. It train the hips to extend powerfully and it trains the torso for endurance to stabilize the spine during pulling movements. So experienced lifters can use the RDL with this in mind.

For beginning lifters, however, the RDL can be used to help learn hip extension, differentiate hip extension from lumbar extension and to develop the supporting musculature needed for heavier deadlifting.

Although Romanians can be tricky for beginners to pick up they are actually easier to learn than conventional deadlifts and the skills learned can be used to great affect when perfecting conventional deadlifts.

I will give two slightly different versions of the exercise in this overview. Remember that 'correct' depends on not only sound and healthy body mechanics but also on the intended purpose. The first version should be the version used by beginners and the primary version used by more experienced lifters in general (in other words use this first version most of the time for reasons that will be explained).

Before we get into the instructions, however, the question is bound to come up: What's the difference between the Romanian deadlift and the stiff-legged deadlift? They are often confused and even used interchangeably. Some who quibble about the name of the exercise like to call RDL's "semi-stiff legged" deadlifts since the knees are not locked out like they are during stiff-legged deadlifts. This has led to many confusing them as the same exercise except with the knees straight or not straight.

Adding to this confusion is the fact that many trainers call stiff-legged deadlifts semi stiff-legged deadlifts because they believe (correctly) that it is bad to train a deadlift movement with the legs completely extended. The point is, however, that the Romanian deadlift is a completely different movement than the stiff-legged deadlift. For more discussion about that see Romanian versus Stiff-Legged Deads. And let's stick to calling these Romanians so we don't get them mixed up! Now on to the instructions…

The first method

This one should be used for beginners and should be the version used the most for any trainee.

Note that the RDL does not start with the barbell on the floor. It actually "starts" with the barbell in the hang position which is a standing position with the barbell at the waist in a clean grip (regular pronated grip slightly wider than shoulder width) so you can place the barbell in a rack at just under waist height for convenience. If you don't have a rack and you have to pick the barbell off the floor make sure to do it with a proper deadlift. If you are new to lifting…then do it carefully. Don't bend over at the lumbar and just grab the thing. Use common sense.

Just because you're not using maximal weights doesn't mean you shouldn't respect the weight. Most injuries do not happen when lifters are dong maximal lifts. They happen when a lifter makes stupid mistakes and a surprising amount of the time (or perhaps not) it's with lighter weights.

Setup

1. With the feet shoulder width stance or a little less. stand with the barbell in the hang position with a clean grip. The hang position is the same as the top position of a conventional deadlift and a clean grip is a regular pronated grip just wider than shoulder width. Feet should be in the same position as you use for a conventional deadlift, which for most is hip-width (close) or just slightly wider.

2. Retract the scapula and bring the shoulders back and chest out, with the neck in a neutral position with the chin slightly tucked. A neutral position of the neck is one in which the neck is pretty much in line with the torso. That means that the neck is not over-extended (you are not looking up with your head and neck) or over-flexed (you are not looking down with your head and neck).

4. Set the lower back in a tight natural arch. There is no need to exaggerate the anterior tilt of your pelvis a great deal but most will find it helpful to engage the glutes and consciously tilt the pelvis forward just a bit. The point is to make oneself aware of the lumbar lordosis (arch or 'extension') rather than to exaggerate it.

5. Take a deep breath and set the mid-section.

Execution

After setting up the execution is quite simple. All the positions of the shoulders, neck, and lower back will be maintained throughout:

1. From the hang position unlock the knees and flex them to around 15 degrees (between 10 and 20 at least) begin to lower the bar by simply bringing the butt back. Keep the natural arched spine you set at the beginning throughout. Keep the neck neutral and the chest up. Keep the knees in about the same flexed position. Do not allow the knees to keep bending more as they weight lowers.

2. Keep bringing the hips back so that the bar lowers very close to the body. Lower the bar as far as you can without flexing the knees a great deal more and without allowing the lower back to round.

3. When you feel that you have lowered as far as you can while keeping the lower back arched or when you feel a good stretch in the hamstrings (these should pretty much coincide) stop. The bar should not touch the floor. For most the lowest position will be around mid-shin or a little lower. If you can go lower then fine. If you can't, fine.2

If you have lowered the bar correctly the shoulders should be slightly in front of (anterior to) the bar.

4. Once you've gone as low as you can complete the rep by thrusting the hips forward while keeping the weight on the heels of the foot.

5. Finish by squeezing the glutes to make sure you get a good complete lockout of the hips.

The knees should be allowed to extend naturally here but there is no need to fully extend and lock them out at the top.

Training: Depends on your training level. To begin use moderate to high reps or weights that are around your 5 or 6 rep maximum or lighter. More advanced trainees can use this RDL for more maximal work, even as heavy as doubles. Specific programming, is of course, on an individual basis. If you want specific help then, as always, join GUS and ask for it.

The second method

This is only slightly different and may be more in line with the traditional way of doing RDL's.

Here, the only real difference is that the knees are always kept flexed to around 15 degrees and the hips are never fully locked out. This puts more emphasis on lumbar endurance for stability and also strength endurance of the hips and glutes.

Many may not believe that endurance comes in for someone primarily interested in bringing up their deadlifts. But that is because they do not believe that you can or should deadlift a lot to bring up your deadlifts and that the lift itself is something that is primarily done during competition and "trained around" the rest of the time.

It's best to leave competitors and their needs to themselves. Everyone has their own views. Not deadlifting in a way that prepares your body to deadlift MAXIMIZES your chance of injury rather than avoids it. If you are going to train that way you may as well not deadlift at all. There is no better way to prepare the body to deadlift than to deadlift, just as there is no better way to train a clean or a snatch than to clean or snatch.

In order to consolidate deadlift strength at different points during progression and be able to move on, higher volume and/or frequency of deadlifting will sometimes be used. Many people think of this as "extending the anaerobic threshold".

So this second version of the Romanian helps train for the endurance needed to deadlift at this level, including the specific musculature of the hips, lumbar, and upper back.

1. From the starting hang position, flex the knees to around 15 degrees and slightly flex the hips so that the torso is just slightly leaning forward. Maintain lumbar lordosis, keep the scapula retracted (pinched together), the chest up and the neck neutral just as above.

2. Lower the bar the same as in the first method.

3. When bringing the bar back up, don't allow the knees to extend and stop short of locking out the hips so that you end up in the same position as you started in on step one.

This method should be used for moderate to high reps. So at least 5 reps or higher and up to 12 or even 15 sometimes.

The reason that this version should not be used for beginners is because a beginner should not be constantly loading the lower back (as this will do) while trying to work on hip extension. And a beginner needs to be training the gluteals with a full range of motion and learning how to correctly lock out the deadlift.

Also, in general, it is a not a good idea to do any kind of pull that has you not fully locking out the hips. This can cause the hip flexors to become chronically shortened if done to excess which can set you up for injury. It is fine to do this as an alternative sometimes for endurance, though.

Starting Weight

One of the most common questions with any new exercise is what weight to start with. Most trainees want to be given a percentage of their max deadlift for the Romanian deadlift starting weight. Likewise with other exercise variations they expect to be given a percentage of max of the corresponding movement. This is completely necessary.

The first few session with any new movement should be spend learning and getting the feel of the movement. Simply start with a comfortable weight that allows you to concentrate on the mechanics while being challenging enough to require decent form. Add weight when you are comfortable with it.

For programming start with a weight that allows you to do three sets of five or six reps just shy of failure. This will allow you room to progress by either adding reps, sets, or weight when needed. Later on when your Romanians are more advanced you can experiment with lower reps sets (sometime we use sets of 3 but rarely maximal sets of one or two). As always, when in doubt, ask.

Grip Issues

Since this is done for higher reps much of the time it may be difficult to use a pronated grip (double overhand) for some lifters. In that case switch to an alternating grip with one hand facing you and the other facing away (supinated).

Some will be tempted to use straps. If so you will be losing an opportunity to train your grip. There are a couple of reasons to use straps for a very few trainees:

1. You are saving your grip for something. If you know that training your grip to exhaustion today will hamper your performance on something important to you tomorrow or the next day..then use straps. I would think, however, that by the time you are aware of your needs to the point that you know when to save your grip, you wouldn't need me telling you this or giving you this tutorial…so most should not fall back on this excuse…we can see right through you!

2. Your grip is so weak and easily fatigued that you cannot learn or execute the movement properly because all your effort is going into holding on to the bar, even if using an alternated grip. Again, if out of 40 trainees 39 of them use this excuse it is about the same as "the dog ate my homework". Given the weight used your grip would have to be unusually weak and unusually fatiguing. More likely is that for higher reps and sets your grip doesn't hold up toward the end, in which case straps may be necessary.

Common Issues or Mistakes in the Romanian Deadlift

1. Bending the knees too much during the descent. The knees should be maintained at around 15 degrees of flexion throughout.

2. Not flexing the knees ENOUGH. If the knees are too straight you will not be able to lower the bar very far without stressing the lower spine.

3. Allowing the shoulders to round forward or sag and thus the scapula to protract. The chest must be UP at all times and the scapula pinched together.

4. Lowering the bar so far that the lower back is allowed to round forward (flex).

5. Not using the hips but instead using the lower back. In other words instead of flexing at the hips and bringing them back while keeping the lower back set, the lifter simply bends forward with the lower back so that it rounds and then the lift is completed using the lumbar muscles rather than the hip muscles.

Common Miss-Cues or Miss-Teachings

1. Bar should be lowered until the back is parallel to the floor. This is not correct. There is no rule that says that the back should be parallel to the floor at the lowest portion of the lift. A good many lifters, if they are already flexible or have gained flexibility by doing the lift, will end up with their back around parallel but that doesn't not mean that parallel is a "goal".

Stop lowering the bar when it can be lowered no further without the back rounding. Simply by doing the lift your flexibility will naturally increase as you go along. There is no need to have a specific goal in regards to torso angle at the bottom. Just stop when you have to stop and everything should work out fine.

2. You need to become more flexible so that you can do RDL's off of a platform and get a better stretch in the hammies.

NO. You don't. You don't need "a better stretch in the hammies". And you don't need to extend range of motion past where the bar is around mid shin or so. If you become more flexible than this or you are naturally more flexible than this then you may want to use some kind of platform so that the bar doesn't touch the floor.

I myself used to be too flexible to do the lift without a platform and in the past I got into the habit of simply lowering the bar to the floor (even though I wasn't at full ROM). I discovered that the exercise is not as effective done this way.3

3. Trying to go too low with tight hamstrings or getting all precious about your tight hamstrings.

If your hamstrings are too tight it simply means that you will not be able to lower the bar as far while doing all the other things correctly. I.E. your knees will have to flex or your back will have to round to get the bar lower, than say, your knees.

Don't start obsessively stretching your hamstrings in that case. The best way to get more flexible for the RDL, as I already explained, is to do the RDL. A little post workout hamstring stretching may be in order for those with very short hamstrings. But don't launch into some epic stretching quest.

4. Three is enough. Just how long can I make these tutorials anyway?


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