As compound exercises go, the deadlift is easily one of the best. Not only does it look and feel cool to slam the bar down when you finish, but it also works a lot of different muscles. In fact, deadlifts work the entire back of your body, from the muscles of the back all the way down to the calves.
There are all kinds of different variations on the classic deadlift, which speaks to the effectiveness of the exercise. If it didn’t work well, people probably wouldn’t take the time to invent so many variations. So, let’s look at one of our favorite deadlifts, that being the Romanian deadlift.
Why Do They Call It A Romanian Deadlift?
This exercise is referred to as the Romanian deadlift because it was first made famous by a Romanian bodybuilder named Nicu Vlad, so we might just as easily call it the Vlad deadlift.
Exercises that were invented by weightlifting champions may not always be superior, but they certainly make a better case for their superiority. It’s hard to argue with the kind of success that Nicu Vlad enjoyed over the course of his long career.
One interesting thing about this technique is that it originally had no name. Fans of Mr. Vlad were confused when they saw him do something that looked like a cross between a conventional deadlift and a stiff-leg deadlift. When asked, Vlad said that it had no name, so everyone just called it “the Romanian deadlift” in honor of its inventor.
What Makes The Romanian Deadlift Different?
With so many different types of deadlifts out there, it’s fair to ask this question. Also, the Romanian deadlift is a somewhat subtle technique that not everyone can comprehend at first glance. Upon seeing a Romanian deadlift for the first time, many people will have a hard time distinguishing it from other forms of the deadlift. Of course, they would be wrong, and we will now explain why.
The Romanian deadlift is a specialized exercise which is meant to target the hamstrings and glutes. When you consider the highly compound nature of the classic deadlift, this makes the Romanian deadlift (RDL for short) a much different animal. Instead of spreading out the force of the exercise on many different muscles, the RDL puts most of the strain on just one area: the back of your upper legs.
For those who want to develop explosive power in their legs, those glutes and hamstrings are very important. For competitive powerlifters who mostly lift with their legs, such muscles can mean the difference between success and catastrophic failure. Runners have also found the RDL to be very useful in developing the strong and explosive leg power that wins competitions.
Another important difference is the use of an eccentric motion. Normally, the deadlift does not offer much exertion on the downstroke. That is why most people just drop the bar. Since you aren’t trying for an eccentric motion, you might as well slam it down like a boss. With the RDL, it’s a whole different story. Eccentric motion is actually the most important part of this exercise, so you would never want to drop the bar as you would normally do.
Another important difference is the fact that deadlifts are normally done from the floor. Romanian deadlifts, on the other hand, are usually done from a squat rack so that the barbell never touches the ground until the exercise is complete.
If you want some proof of this exercise’s effectiveness (other than the career of Nicu Vlad), consider this study. By using a method called electromyography, researchers can measure the exact degree of muscle activation in a specific muscle group. In the study cited above, a wide variety of hamstring exercises were tested. The Romanian deadlift was found to be the best in its category.
We should also mention another small difference between the RDL and its more standard counterpart. The RDL uses a motion that is a little more difficult. In order to achieve the hamstring/glute isolation that you want, it is necessary to master some very specific and somewhat subtle movements. Many trainers consider this one to be an advanced exercise.
How To Perform The Romanian Deadlift
We will now teach you the proper form and technique for the Romanian deadlift. Here is the entire process in a step-by-step format:
Phase One: The Setup
Load up your barbell and stand in front of the rack. Assume a perfectly straight-backed posture, making sure that your chin is up and your eyes are forward. Feet should be about shoulder-width apart, and you should be standing so that the barbell is in front of you. Take a deep breath and get ready to grab the bar.
Take the bar from the rack and hold it with an overhand grip (palms down). Bend your knees slightly, so that most of the weight is absorbed by the legs. Now lower the barbell while keeping your back perfectly straight. Keep going until your arms are fully extended downward. As you stand there, make sure that your shoulders are thrown back slightly, which will tend to push the chest forward.
Phase Two: The Eccentric Motion
Now, keep lowering the bar until it reaches the lowest extension point. Where is the lowest extension point? The answer to that question depends on your body type. However, there is an easy way to figure things out. As you stand there with the bar in your hand, make sure that your spine remains straight. Now bend at the waist, almost as if you were bowing. Your back should not arch or bow at any point. Bend at the waist, and only at the waist. Your arms should be more or less locked straight at this point, and your knees should still be slightly bent. The hips should thrust backward as you bend, and should never thrust downward.
As you lower the bar past your knees, you will eventually reach a point you cannot go any lower without arching your back. When you reach that stage, you will have reached the lowest extension point. For most people, this point will be reached when the bar is in the middle of the shins. Be careful not to knock your shins with the bar, as this could be very painful.
The position of the knees in relation to the arms is somewhat important at this point in the exercise. If the knees are behind the arms, it forces you to raise your rear into the air to keep from pushing against the backs of your arms. This results in a stance in which the hips are too high. If the knees are in front of the arms, you are likely to have the opposite problem, as your legs will tend to move forward too far. This results in a stance in which the hips are too low.
So what is the correct position? The knees should be between your arms, and the front of each knee should be even with both arms. By keeping everything flush, you help to ensure proper body alignment throughout the rep. Make sure that your shoulders are directly over the bar, and in line with its center. Both shins should be perfectly vertical, and both feet should point forward.
When the lowest point is reached, be sure to keep your shoulders from drooping. Since the shoulders are working harder than any other part of the arm right now, it will be very tempting to let them drop, but make sure you keep your arms nice and tight. This factor is very important because slouching shoulders often lead to an arched back.
If you want to get the most out of this exercise, make sure that you do not cheat by allowing gravity to help you. As we said earlier, the eccentric motion is very important for the proper performance of this exercise. Thus, you should lower the barbell slowly, getting as much muscle flexion out of the process as possible.
Phase Three: The Return
From here, all you have to do is raise yourself back to the original position as you flex your glutes and hamstrings as hard as you can. It is very important to time the flexing of those muscles correctly. When you reach the bottom of the motion, you will feel a certain amount of burn in the backs of your legs. Instead of fighting that burn, embrace it by flexing those muscles as hard as you can. This flexion should be engaged at the moment you begin to lift upward.
The idea is to prolong the period of muscle activation for maximal gain. If you feel the burn in your lower back, you have done something wrong. You should also make sure that the bar remains in light contact with your legs as you return to the starting position. This is meant to ensure as perfect of a vertical lift as possible. When you get back to the original position, take a moment to go through a mental checklist of posture points (already covered above) and repeat the exercise until you have reached your target number of reps.
If you want a few more tips regarding the correct practice of this exercise, you might want to consult this manual from the National Strength And Conditioning Association (NSCA). It contains a very specific and very compact outline of the RDL. We recommend that you copy it down (it’s on page 52, by the way), and use it as your quick-reference guide to the Romanian deadlift.
Here are a couple of the most common questions that we have received on this subject:
Is it true that the RDL presents a lowered risk of injury?
Although the evidence is not conclusive, it seems that there is some basis for the belief that a Romanian deadlift presents less risk of injury than a standard deadlift or a stiff-leg deadlift. For instance, this study found that the Romanian deadlift did not produce a particularly high amount of torque on the lumbar region of the back. Common sense tells us that this exercise will be less likely to injure the lower back since the back is kept straight and the legs do most of the serious work.
I saw someone do an RDL from the ground. Is that acceptable?
Not really. That person should consult this study, as they probably were not taught properly. Although some individuals will commonly do this exercise from the ground, the use of a rack is considered to be correct here. That being said, it probably won’t make a huge difference in your workout to raise the bar from the ground. If you don’t have access to a squat rack, you can consider that method as an option. However, once you raise the barbell from the ground, you are no longer performing a correct Romanian deadlift.
Although it is a highly specialized exercise, the Romanian deadlift deserves a place in most weightlifting workouts. At the very least, it is worth considering this technique as a “secret weapon” to put in your arsenal for a rainy day. If you ever need to improve your jumps in a hurry, this might be just the thing. If you missed leg day and need to make up for it, this might also be a good exercise.
Like every other weapon in the fight against weakness, the Romanian deadlift must be used correctly. The subtle motions of this exercise make it even more important to master those little points of form that you might normally ignore. We hope that we have given you all the knowledge that you need, but it’s never a bad idea to do a little more research to supplement what you have already learned. Please feel free to follow us on Facebook for more great content like this.