In this 3 part mini-series, we are going to take a deep dive from a beginner’s point of view into one of the best exercises for building the glutes, hamstrings and back muscles: the Romanian Deadlift. Although this series is geared toward the beginner, experienced lifters will still find value in some sections as it offers a detailed analysis of the movement and when to program it in your training.
Specifically, in part 1, we will focus on talking about the anatomy, physiology and biomechanics of the Romanian deadlift, including the muscles involved, how they work together to perform this movement and why it is so important to include some form in your training. We will also discuss how to set up the exercise correctly and when it should be used in your training plan.
The Romanian deadlift, or RDL for short, comes from the “hinge” family of movement patterns. A hinge movement pattern is characterized by primarily flexing and extending the hips (moving the hips forward and back, respectively) while limiting movement in the knee.
In particular, the deadlift and its variations are a member of this group and can be broken down into the sumo deadlift, stiff leg deadlift, conventional deadlift, trap bar deadlift, and the Romanian deadlift. Due to its ability to develop total body strength and size, the deadlift is known to be one of the “big three” along with the squat and bench press. Therefore, it is important to learn how to perform them correctly for optimal training (Lee et al., 2018).
Due to its ability to develop total body strength and size, the deadlift is known to be one of the “big three” along with the squat and bench press and, therefore, is of particular importance to learn how how to perform them correctly for optimal training (Lee et al., 2018).
The primary muscles involved in the Romanian deadlift are the glutes and hamstrings because the emphasis is placed on the hips to produce a large range of motion with minimal movement in the knee.
Several studies have shown that the Romanian and stiff leg deadlift activates the hamstring to the most significant degree out of all deadlift variations. However, the conventional deadlift activates the lower body to a greater extent as the knee, hip and ankle angles are greater than the Romanian deadlift. Because of this, the hamstrings act more as a stabilizer of the knee than a major muscle in the conventional deadlift.
The Romanian deadlift places a greater emphasis on the hamstrings vs. the conventional deadlift.
Why the RDL
The question is why, when and how I should train the Romanian deadlift!
Firstly, I start my clients with a Romanian deadlift because you start with the weight at the top of the range of motion for the hips. This is important because it’s easier to flex or squeeze a muscle when it’s flexed rather than fully extended, such as at the bottom of the conventional deadlift.
Adding to this, we can control the weight better when lowering it than we can by bringing it back up from the ground. This is why I recommend that beginners start with the Romanian deadlift and progress to other variations once mastered.
The Romanian deadlift is excellent for beginners to learn vs. other deadlift variations because it’s easier to control the weight from the top down rather than from the ground up.
When to include it
In addition to being a great beginner exercise, the Romanian deadlift’s “risk to reward ratio” is more favourable, and it has the advantage of targetting the hamstrings to a greater extent. Therefore, I would focus on the Romanian deadlift if the goal is muscle growth and development in the hamstrings, hips and back while limiting the occurrence of low back injuries, which can happen more frequently when lifting from the ground.
Now that we have established a general understanding of the movement, how do we set it up?
Setting it up
Firstly, I recommend setting it up in a squat rack where the safety bars are moved to a position where you can pick up the weight with the legs by bending the knees slightly and staying close to the bar when lifting it from the platform. You don’t want to
come on your tiptoes to lift the weight off the platform, or
lift the weight with your back.
You can adjust the safety bars by moving the handles up and out and then reversing the process when placing them at the desired height, as shown in the video. If you don’t have access to a squat rack, you start from the ground using a conventional deadlift to safely lift the weight up and then begin performing the Romanian deadlift.
Use the end of a squat rack and make sure the weight is positioned so you can pick it up with the legs without having to go on your tiptoes.
I hope you got a lot out of part one! Be sure to watch the video at the top of this post for some additional information, and look out for part 2 next week.
Lee, S., Schultz, J., Timgren, J., Staelgraeve, K., Miller, M., & Liu, Y. (2018). An electromyographic and kinetic comparison of conventional and Romanian deadlifts. Journal of Exercise Science & Fitness, 16(3), 87-93. (Lee et. al, 2018)
Interested in learning more? Discover Shift to Strength's online personal training options with certified trainers like Luke at shifttostrength.com/online today!
You can also find all our blog posts at shifttostrength.com/blog, or by clicking the button below.