How to Do a Romanian Deadlift

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Man doing deadlifts

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Also Known As: RDL

Targets: Glutes, hamstrings, core

Equipment Needed: Barbell

Level: Intermediate

The Romanian deadlift, or RDL for short, is a free weight exercise that targets the glutes, hamstrings, and core. Done correctly, it's an excellent move to add to a lower-body strength training routine as it hits just about everything on the backside of your body (your posterior chain). But, as a complex movement that engages multiple joints and muscle groups, it's easy to do the exercise with incorrect form, which increases the likelihood you could end up injured.

Generally speaking, if you're new to the movement, it's a good idea to work with a trainer or coach to make sure you're executing the RDL with good form.

Benefits

The first benefit of the Romanian deadlift is how many muscle groups it targets at one time. This type of compound exercise is considered a functional movement that translates to other areas of life because when you move around in day-to-day life, you're not using a single muscle—you're using a combination of muscle groups to walk, run, bend, lift, and so forth.

The RDL, specifically, engages the hamstrings, glutes, core, and even your upper back, shoulders, and forearms. By developing strength through these areas, activities of daily life, like walking and picking up items from the floor, become easier to perform.

Also, unlike other common lower-body compound exercises, like the squat and lunge, the RDL focuses primarily on the hamstrings, rather than the quadriceps. For individuals who do a lot of squats and lunges, the Romanian deadlift can help "balance out" any imbalances that may start to develop between the strength of the anterior and posterior sides of your body.

Finally, as you develop greater strength and power in your hamstrings and glutes, you'll find these strength gains translate to other exercises, too. You'll be able to lift more, more comfortably, when going through your traditional strength training routine.

Step-by-Step Instructions

All you need to get started is a barbell.

  1. Stand tall with your feet roughly hip-distance apart. Hold a barbell in both hands directly in front of your thighs with your hands shoulder-distance apart (slightly wider than your thighs).
  2. Start with a very slight bend in your knees. Roll your shoulders back, drawing your shoulder blades toward your spine to engage your upper back. Your shoulders should remain pulled back like this throughout the exercise.
  3. Inhale and press your hips back. Continue pressing them back (like your hips are hinging), as your torso naturally begins to lean forward toward the floor. It's important to realize you're not tipping forward at the waist. The movement of your torso only happens as a result of your hips hinging, not because you're actively leaning forward. Check to make sure you still have perfect posture and your shoulders and back aren't rounding forward.
  4. Keep the barbell close to your thighs (almost grazing the front of them) as you hinge forward from the hips. If there are several inches between your body and the barbell, roll your shoulders back and pull the barbell closer to your body. Your arms should hang naturally down (elbows extended), but they should remain engaged to keep the barbell close to you.
  1. Stop hinging at your hips when you feel a stretch through your hamstrings. The barbell does not have to reach the floor—in fact, it's perfectly fine if you stop the movement when the barbell reaches roughly knee-height, depending on your personal flexibility.
  2. Exhale and use your hamstrings and glutes to "pull" your torso back to standing as you actively press your hips forward. You should not use your back or core to pull yourself back to standing.
  3. Complete your set and replace the barbell carefully on the rack.

Common Mistakes

The important thing to remember when performing the Romanian deadlift is that the movement is initiated from the hips. As you press your hips back, your knees shouldn't simultaneously begin to bend—this isn't a squat. In fact, your knees should remain relatively static throughout the exercise.

Likewise, remember to keep your shoulders back and your core engaged so your torso maintains perfect posture as your hips hinge.

Rounding Your Shoulders

When performing the Romanian deadlift, you should maintain perfect posture through your torso throughout the entire exercise. It's very common for people to forget that their upper body needs to remain engaged. But if your shoulders round forward, your upper back will collapse toward the floor, and your torso will start to form a lowercase "n" shape.

This is often a reason for the next common mistake—the barbell "floating" too far away from your thighs. All of these together shift the weight too far forward, placing more strain on your back while reducing the focus on your hamstrings. Roll your shoulders back, draw your shoulder blades in toward your spine, and engage your core before you start your hip hinge. Keep them engaged throughout the exercise, "locked in," just as you started.

Barbell Too Far From Your Thighs

When people perform the RDL, it's common as their hips hinge backward, that they allow the barbell to simply "hang" from their shoulders, so their arms are perpendicular to the floor. This positions the weight too far away from the body, pulling on the shoulders and upper back, removing the emphasis on the hamstrings and relocating it to the upper body.

With your shoulder blades pulled in toward your spine, the barbell should remain within an inch or so of your thighs throughout the movement. Think of the barbell as "grazing" the front of your thighs as you perform your hip hinge. At the lowest point of the RDL, your arms shouldn't be perpendicular to the floor, but at an angle drawn back toward your shins. Doing the exercise in front of a mirror can help you identify this mistake.

Bending at the Waist

People who aren't familiar with the "hip hinge" may struggle to differentiate between pressing their hips back—basically pushing your hips back so your butt continues to press behind you while you keep your torso completely straight—and bending forward at the waist.

If you perform the exercise in front of a mirror, so you can see your body from the side, you should see a clear and sharp angle begin to form between your torso and the tops of your thighs, with your tailbone as the crux of the angle. If you bend forward from the waist, you won't see the same sharp angle form—you're more likely to see a 90-degree angle at the waist, or even a curve forming at your low back as you begin to bend forward. This sets you up for a low-back strain.

Do the exercise in front of the mirror and check to make sure your core remains engaged, your shoulders back, your spine neutral, with the movement originating from your hips.

Bending Too Much at the Knees

People often make the mistake of turning the Romanian deadlift into more of a squat motion. After starting with a small hip hinge, they immediately bend their knees and start squatting down. Your knees actually shouldn't bend much at all throughout the exercise. The slight bend you create at the start of the exercise is pretty much the exact bend you should maintain as you complete the exercise.

Watch yourself in the mirror from the side—the entire movement should be performed with the hip hinge, not a bend of the knees. If you find your knees bending and your glutes dropping toward the floor as they would with a squat, reset and try again. Keep pressing your hips back farther and farther to hinge at the hips, rather than bending your knees.

Craning Your Neck Forward

You want your spine to remain neutral and aligned through the entirety of the RDL. Even people who have mastered keeping their spine aligned from their tailbone to the top of their back may make the mistake of looking up and straight ahead while moving through the deadlift.

You want your neck to remain aligned with your spine so your torso and head form a straight line from your tailbone to the top of your head throughout the exercise. As such, your eyes should actually look toward the floor at the bottom of the movement, rather than looking straight in front of you.

Modifications and Variations

Need a Modification?

Because the form for the Romanian deadlift is hard to master, it's perfectly acceptable to start with a PVC pipe or a broomstick instead of a weighted barbell when you're just getting started. You'll still target your hamstrings and glutes, and you'll have the opportunity to master your form and even work on your hamstring and hip flexibility before progressing to a weighted RDL.

Up for a Challenge?

Try the single-leg deadlift. This movement targets each hamstring and glute independently while also challenging your balance. Try it with a kettlebell or dumbbell rather than a barbell.

Safety and Precautions

Proper form is the key to performing the Romanian deadlift without injury. If you have a hamstring or low back injury, it's important to work with a coach to make absolutely sure you're getting the motion correct. You may also want to hold off on trying the move if you're actively treating an injury to either of these areas. Performing the exercise in front of a mirror so you can see your body from the side can also be helpful for catching form mistakes.

Remember—this exercise is intended to target your hamstrings and glutes—that's where you should feel the "pull" as you perform the exercise.

If you're feeling the exercise in your low back or your upper body, your form is probably incorrect.

Reset and try again, really making sure you're keeping the barbell close to your thighs as you hinge forward from the hips.

This movement takes practice to get correct, but working with a trainer or coach can help you master it more quickly and with fewer opportunities for injury.

Try It Out

Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

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