The Romanian Deadlift Guide
The Romanian deadlift, also known as the RDL or stiff-leg deadlift, is a deadlift variation that’s used in hypertrophy training to pack muscle onto the hips and hamstrings. So, what is it, how do we do it, how does it compare against the conventional deadlift, and why is it so popular among beginners, bodybuilders, athletes, bikini models, and powerlifters?
- What is a Romanian Deadlift?
- Muscles Worked by the Romanian Deadlift
- How to do the Romanian Deadlift
- The Romanian Deadlift for Beginners
- The Romanian vs the Conventional Deadlift
- The Romanian vs the Stiff-Leg Deadlift
- The Stiff-Leg vs the Straight-Leg Deadlift
- The Romanian Deadlift for Building Bigger Hips & Glutes
- The 1-Legged Romanian Deadlift
- The Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
- Should You Use Lifting Straps?
- Ideal Rep Range
What is a Romanian Deadlift?
The Romanian deadlift is a hip hinge movement where we bend at the hips and then lift the weight back up using our hips and hamstrings, like so:
The Romanian deadlift is like the conventional deadlift, except that instead of starting from the floor, you start from a standing position. And instead of lowering the barbell all the way down to the floor, you lower it until your hamstrings are fully stretched. And instead of bending your knees at the bottom, you keep them fairly straight. This changes the lift in a few ways. Because we aren’t setting the weight down, we need to support it with our muscles throughout the entire set. And because we aren’t bending very much at the knees, we aren’t taking any tension off of the hamstrings. This makes the Romanian deadlift absolutely amazing for stimulating muscle growth in the hips and hamstrings.
What makes the Romanian deadlift even more special is that it’s much easier to learn and much easier on the lower back than the conventional deadlift, making it amazing for beginners. It’s also a great lift for helping more advanced lifters emphasize hip and glute growth, making it popular with women. And because it causes less lower-back fatigue, it’s a good lift for people with cranky backs. In fact, even for serious bodybuilders and powerlifters, the Romanian deadlift makes a great assistance lift for the conventional deadlift, allowing them to gain more muscle size and strength while accruing less overall fatigue.
Overall, the Romanian deadlift is a simple lift that helps us stimulate muscle growth in our hips and hamstrings without accruing much overall fatigue.
Muscles Worked by the Romanian Deadlift
At a glance, the Romanian deadlift works the same muscles as the conventional deadlift. The hips and hamstrings are the prime movers, but we also need to hold the barbell in our hands, stabilize it with our spinal erectors and traps, and pull it in close with our lats and rear delts. As a result, the Romanian deadlift appears to be one of the biggest compound lifts:
However, the conventional deadlift tends to be a fair bit heavier than the Romanian deadlift. With the conventional deadlift, we bring our hips close to the bar, improving our leverage, and we bend our knees at the bottom, allowing our quads to help push the weight up. That means more weight in our hands, more weight supported by our spinal erectors and traps, and more weight to pull with our lats and rear delts.
So although the Romanian deadlift does, technically, work the same muscles as the conventional deadlift, it puts quite a bit more emphasis on the hips, glutes, and hamstrings than it does on the upper back.
How to do the Romanian Deadlift
The Romanian deadlift starts in a standing position. From there, you drive your hips back, letting your knees bend as much as needed, but keeping them fairly stiff. When you feel a maximal stretch on your hamstrings—probably when the barbell is just below your knees—thrust your hips forward to drive the weight back up. It looks like this:
Here’s Marco Walker-Ng, BHSC, PTS, teaching the lift:
The easiest way to learn how to do the Romanian deadlift is to watch the tutorial video. It’s not a complicated lift. It might feel a bit awkward at first, but you’ll have it down in no time.
Here are some extra pointers to keep in mind:
- Set up with your feet about hip width apart, toes pointing more or less straight ahead. This position should feel sturdy and athletic, similar to the position that you’d jump from, so go a little wider or narrower if you prefer.
- Lift the barbell into position, either by deadlifting it from the floor or picking it up from a rack. The Romanian deadlift starts from a standing position.
- Drive your butt back, hinging at the hips, and don’t think of bending your knees. Your knees can bend as they need to, but don’t bend them on purpose. Remember that this is a stiff-leg deadlift.
- Let the barbell drift down your body, keeping it close. In fact, you may wish to activate your lats by pulling the barbell towards your body.
- Keep your shins vertical. If they drift forward, the barbell will need to move around them, and you’ll know you need to keep them more vertical next time.
- Lower the weight slowly and under control. The barbell will glide down your thighs and past your knees.
- When your hamstrings are maximally stretched, drive the weight back up. As you lower the weight down, think about loading your hamstrings like you’d stretch an elastic. Then, once your hamstrings are fully stretched, think about thrusting your hips forward, lifting the weight with your glutes and hamstrings.
- Then lower the weight back down for your next rep.
You don’t need to keep all of this in mind every time you practice the Romanian deadlift. Oftentimes, it’s better to watch the tutorial video and then give it a try, letting your instinct guide you. Then check back afterwards and see if there’s anything you can improve upon.
The Romanian Deadlift for Beginners
The deadlift is a movement pattern called a “hip hinge,” where we bend at the hips while bracing our cores, keeping our spines locked in a neutral position. It’s a simple enough lift in theory, but when most beginners try it for the first time, it comes out looking something like this:
What’s happening here is that beginners often have a hard time bending at the hips without bending in the lower back, so when they’re asked to bend down and pick up a barbell, they bend in both places, like a slinky instead of a nut cracker. Even when coached to hold their chests up and keep their spine in a neutral position, it can be really hard to flex the glutes and hamstrings while keeping the spinal erectors neutral.
Plus, a lot of beginners have weaker spinal erectors, meaning that even if their coordination is good, they might not have the back strength to maintain a good back position as they lift the weight up. Worse, because rounding the back shortens the moment arm for our hips, making us stronger, like so:
That means that when a beginner gets close to his limit, even if his spinal erectors aren’t his limiting factor, his lower back will often still bend.
Now, why is it a problem to lift with a rounded back? The problem is that the further our spine bends, the more shear stress we inflict upon it. According to the research of the leading spinal health expert, Dr Stuart McGill’s, deadlifting with a rounded back puts around 950% as much shear stress on our spines. Some people get away with it, but if we want to keep our risk of injury low, it’s better to learn how to deadlift with a neutral spine.
Finally, the deadlift requires quite a lot of hip mobility. Many beginners can’t bend deep enough at the hips to get into the starting position without needing to round their lower backs. Some advanced lifters can’t even do it.
That’s where the Romanian deadlift comes in. It simplifies the movement, removing the knee bend and focusing just on the hip hinge. It also starts in a standing position, where it’s easier to set up with a strong posture. Most beginners find it easier to feel their glutes and hamstrings stretching out as they lower the weight, then contracting as they lift it. And the range of motion is determined by how flexible you are, not by the floor.
The Romanian deadlift is also lighter, which can make it easier to hold onto the barbell without dropping it. And there’s also less stress on the lower back, making it less likely that beginners will be limited by the strength of their spinal erectors, and less likely that they’ll accrue so much muscle damage in their spinal erectors that they have a hard time doing their other exercises (such as squats).
Overall, the Romanian deadlift is one of the best beginner deadlift variations. It’s easier to learn, easier on the lower back, quite a bit less fatiguing, and just as good at stimulating muscle growth in the hips and hamstrings. Then, as a beginner becomes more advanced, they might want to switch to a conventional deadlift to engage more of their upper body muscles.
The Romanian vs the Conventional Deadlift
The Romanian deadlift and the conventional deadlift are more similar than they are different, and they can often serve as good alternatives for one another, depending on the situation.
There are a few differences between the Romanian deadlift and the conventional deadlift:
- The Romanian deadlift is easier to learn. The Romanian deadlift starts from a standing position, which can make it easier to maintain proper posture when performing the lift.
- The Romanian deadlift requires less hip mobility. The Romanian deadlift is done to whatever depth you can manage, giving a good stretch on the hips and hamstrings. The conventional deadlift has an arbitrary depth—the floor—which may or may not line up with your mobility.
- The Romanian deadlift demands less of our upper bodies. When doing a Romanian deadlift, we drive our hips back, allowing us to emphasize glute and hamstring growth without as much upper-body strain. When doing a conventional deadlift, we keep our hips as close to the bar as possible, improving our leverage and allowing us to lift more weight, demanding more of our spinal erectors, upper backs, and forearms. This makes the conventional deadlift the better upper-body lift.
- The Romanian deadlift doesn’t work the quads. With the conventional deadlift, we bend our knees at the bottom of the lift, allowing us to engage our quads at the expense of our hamstrings. This means that the conventional deadlift engages more overall muscle mass in the legs, but the Romanian deadlift is better for isolating the hamstrings.
- The Romanian deadlift is easier on our lower backs. With the Romanian deadlift, only the very bottom of the range of motion has us with our backs in a more horizontal position, making it easier on our lower backs. With the conventional deadlift, the entire bottom half of the range of motion loads our lower backs fairly maximally, making it better for building a thicker back.
- The Romanian deadlift is done with a bodybuilding lifting tempo. With the Romanian deadlift, most people lower the weight down slowly and under control. With the conventional deadlift, it’s more popular to drop the weight back down after lifting it. But if you’re deadlifting for muscle growth, it’s better to lower it back down slowly whichever variation you’re doing.
- The Romanian deadlift keeps constant tension on the hips and hamstrings. When doing the Romanian deadlift, most people keep constant tension on their hips and hamstrings throughout the set, whereas with the conventional deadlift, they’ll often pause and reset between reps. But if you’re deadlifting for muscle growth, it’s better to keep constant tension on your muscles whichever deadlift variation you’re using.
Overall, the Romanian deadlift is easier on the lower back, less fatiguing, arguably better for bulking up the hips and hamstrings, but not quite as good for developing upper-body size and strength.
The Romanian vs the Stiff-Leg Deadlift
The Romanian deadlift (RDL) is well-known for starting in the top position, whereas the stiff-leg deadlift is a bit more ambiguous. Most strength coaches agree that the Romanian deadlift and the stiff-leg deadlift are two different names for the same lift. They may have different origins, and may have been performed differently in the past, but in modern usage, both the stiff-leg deadlift and the Romanian deadlift tend to refer to the same lift.
You can call the lift by whichever name you prefer. However, if you decide to call it the stiff-leg deadlift, keep in mind that some people might not know whether the barbell is starting on the floor or not. If you call it the Romanian deadlift, though, you’re unlikely to confuse anybody.
The Stiff-Leg vs the Straight-Leg Deadlift
The Romanian/stiff-leg deadlift starts from a standing position, the hips are driven back until the hamstrings are under a full stretch, and then the weight is lifted back up. It’s a great lift for stimulating muscle growth in the hips without tiring out the lower back.
There’s some ambiguity about what a straight-leg deadlift is, but according to most strength coaches, it starts from the floor. This makes it a sort of high-hipped conventional deadlift, where the legs are intentionally kept straighter, helping to keep the tension on the hips and hamstrings all throughout the lift.
The side-effect of starting a straight-legged deadlift on the floor is that we wind up with a much steeper back angle, requiring much greater hip mobility, and also putting a ton of strain on the lower back. Now, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to stress the lower back. After all, that’s how we make it bigger, stronger, and tougher. But the conventional deadlift does a great job of strengthening the lower back while also stimulating a ton of overall muscle mass, which tends to make it the better deadlift variation.
The Romanian deadlift tends to be the better lift for emphasizing hip growth, whereas the conventional deadlift tends to be better for developing overall muscle size and strength. We don’t normally program the straight-leg deadlift because it’s needlessly hard on the lower back.
The Romanian Deadlift for Building Bigger Hips & Glutes
Of all the lifts out there, the Romanian deadlift is one of the very best for emphasizing growth in the hips and hamstrings. For powerlifters, that’s essential because it helps to improve strength on low-bar squat and deadlift. For bodybuilders, it’s a great lift for gaining muscle size. And for women who are looking to pack more muscle onto their hips and glutes, the Romanian deadlift is one of the very best ways to do that.
There are a few lifts that are great for emphasizing glute growth, all with their own pros and cons. The glute bridge and hip thrust are great for isolating the glutes, but it doesn’t load the glutes very heavy in a stretched position, and so it may not be quite ideal for stimulating muscle growth. The good morning is great for working the glutes, too, and it does load the glutes and hamstrings in a stretched position, but our strength can be limited by our lower back muscles. And then the Romanian deadlift also brings in our traps and grips, making it a better compound lift for gaining overall muscle mass and strength, but introducing even more muscles that can be a limiting factor.
If the goal is to use the hip hinge as a pure hip exercise, the good morning might be the better option. But if the goal is to gain overall size and strength with an emphasis on the hips, then the Romanian deadlift becomes the much better lift. If your grip is a limiting factor, though, you may wish to use lifting straps so that you can push your hips harder.
The Romanian deadlift is perfect the best big compound lift for growing the hips, glutes, and hamstrings.
The 1-Legged Romanian Deadlift
The one-legged Romanian deadlift is a good variation for putting more stress on our hamstrings, less on our lower backs. Because we’re holding less weight, it’s easier for our backs to hold the weight. But because we’re only working one leg at a time, our hamstrings are still fully loaded.
Your spinal erectors still get worked, of course, but with substantially lighter weights and for twice as many sets. This may even act as a form of active recovery, allowing them to heal and adapt more quickly. The same is true for our forearms. We’re holding much less weight but for twice as many sets, which seems to be great for managing fatigue and recovery.
The Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
As a dumbbell alternative to the Romanian deadlift, you can hold a dumbbell in one or both hands, like so:
If you hold a dumbbell in each hand, you’ll do a better job challenging your hips, hamstrings, and lower back. If you hold a dumbbell in just one hand, it will turn into more of an oblique exercise. Both variations can be useful, but as a default, it’s better to hold a dumbbell in each hand, keeping this a hip exercise.
The problem with dumbbell Romanian deadlifts is that unless you’re using lifting straps, your grip will often become your limiting factor, making it hard to challenge your hips and hamstrings. You can solve that by doing a single leg at a time and delving into higher rep ranges. Speaking of which…
Should You Use Lifting Straps?
As a general rule of thumb, beginners often benefit from avoiding lifting straps. But as we get stronger, our grip strength can become a limiting factor on some of the bigger compound lifts, such as barbell rows and Romanian deadlifts, turning them into little more than convoluted forearm exercises. If your grip strength is limiting you, then, it might be wise to buy some lifting straps. That way we keep the Romanian deadlift as a hip and hamstring exercise.
There are a few different types of lifting straps, and my favourite is a variation called lifting grips. They’re more comfortable, easier to use, and equally effective. We’ve got an article about how to buy lifting straps here.
Ideal Rep Range
The Romanian deadlift is a hypertrophy lift that works best in moderate rep ranges. 8–20 reps per set often works well. Going much heavier can make it harder to get into the starting position, harder to maintain good technique, and can start putting more strain on the lower back. Going much lighter can make the lift too taxing on our cardiovascular systems. A good default is to start with 12 reps per set.
The Romanian or stiff-leg deadlift is a great compound lift for working the entire posterior chain, but it excels at emphasizing glute, hip, and hamstring growth. Not only is it great for gaining muscle size and strength, but it’s also fairly easy to recover from, fairly easy on the lower back, and one of the very best assistance lifts for the deadlift.
If you want a customizable workout program (and full guide) that builds these principles in, check out our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program. Or, if you’re still skinny, try our Bony to Beastly (men’s) program or Bony to Bombshell (women’s) program. If you liked this article, I think you’d love our full programs.