Looking for a stronger butt and core? Right this way...

By Tiffany Ayuda
March 02, 2020
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Whether you’re a runner or a powerlifter, anyone can benefit from incorporating Romanian deadlifts into a regular workout routine. The strength exercise—also known as RDLs or stiff-leg deadlifts—helps to build muscle along the posterior chain, or the back of the body, which includes the hamstrings and glutes. "By strengthening the muscles in your posterior chain, explosive movements, such as sprints and jumps, benefit from the Romanian deadlift by maximizing hip extension," Sherry Ward, a NSCA-certified personal trainer and CrossFit Level 1 coach at Brick New York, tells Health.

But the Romanian deadlift can do much more than just help build muscle: "[It] can improve mobility and flexibility [of the hips] as well as unlock faulty movement patterns, which will decrease the risk of injury," says Ward. She adds that the exercise can also help prevent and minimize low-back pain, a common cause of discomfort that can pop up due to muscle imbalances, like a weak back, which can ultimate lead to poor core stability and hip strength.

Benefits of the Romanian deadlift:

The Romanian deadlift is particularly helpful for improving posture because it “un-hunches” the shoulders by anchoring your lats (a large muscle down the back of your body) down and back, says Ward. People who have a hard time engaging their core when lifting heavy will also find that the Romanian deadlift forces them to brace their abs to prevent arching or rounding the low back, which is why it's such a great core stabilizing move, too.

Unlike the conventional deadlift, you perform the Romanian deadlift with only a slight bend in the knees. “The stiffer leg position in the Romanian deadlift puts more emphasis on the hamstrings than the conventional deadlift,” says Roxie Jones, a NASM-certified personal trainer and certified strength and conditioning coach.

Because the Romanian deadlift relies heavily on movement from the hips with a neutral spine, it also helps you build a stronger connection between your upper- and lower-body. “Romanian deadlifts increase strength, power, and range of motion of the hips and strength of the core,” says Ward. "By keeping your core engaged, you're able to maintain alignment of your hips and shoulders as you ascend and descend through the exercise."

How to do a Romanian deadlift:

Mastering the Romanian deadlift takes some practice, so Ward recommends beginners focus on nailing down the hip hinge—and it's exactly what it sounds like: bending at the hips to send your butt back, with your spine straight.

“I would practice hinging of the hips using a PVC pipe [or a light, long bar] against the spine to make sure the neck and back are aligned in a straight position,” says Jones. It’s also helpful to work on touching your toes and stretching the hamstrings, she adds. Ward also suggests practicing the hinge with good mornings using a light barbell or dumbbell and doing single-leg Romanian deadlifts with no weights or light weights to strengthen both sides of the body before incorporating the Romanian deadlift with a heavy barbell.

Once you've mastered the hip hinge movement pattern, it’s time to add Romanian deadlifts to your workout routine—here's how:

  1. Stand with your feet hip-distance apart with a slight bend in your knees, a barbell placed in front of you.
  2. Hinge forward at the hips, keeping your spine long and straight as your torso reaches toward the floor. Grip the barbell with both hands at shoulder-distance apart, plugging your shoulders back and down to secure your spine and brace your core. Look down and slightly forward to align your neck with the rest of your back and avoid hyperextension.
  3. Tighten your glutes, hamstrings and core and drive your feet into the ground to stand up straight, lifting the weight to about your upper thighs. Squeeze your glutes and lock out your hips at the top.
  4. Repeat the movement by lowering the weight somewhere between your knees and toes (depending on your flexibility), torso parallel to the ground while maintaining a flat back, slight bend in the knees, and core engaged.

3 Romanian deadlift mistakes to watch out for:

1. Not keeping your back flat.

Be careful not to over-hinge at the hips (or bend too far forward): “Don’t go past 90 degrees. Stop the movement at a flat back, with your torso parallel to the floor,” says Jones. Over-hinging at the hips can lead to rounding of the back and bending at the knees. “My favorite cue I use with clients and in group classes is to feel your pant pockets reach the other side of the room as you bend at the hips,” says Ward.

2. Not keeping a neutral spine.

An important form tip to keep in mind when doing the Romanian deadlift: Focus your gaze about two feet in front of you throughout the entire movement. “Since the Romanian deadlift is called a stiff-leg deadlift, think stiff neck as well,” says Ward. “Lead with a proud chest as the torso and shoulders lower, and rise at the same time with the barbell to prevent the shoulders from rounding forward.”

3. Keeping the barbell too far away from your body

During the lift, engage your glutes and core as tight as you can. “A lot of times, I see people letting go of their back or abs, meaning the back starts to round out,” says Jones. Ward adds that positioning the barbell close to the body will help to prevent that rounding. “Chances are the farther away the barbell is from the body, the more you risk rounding your back during the lift, but keeping the barbell closer to you will activate the lats,” says Ward.

3 Romanian deadlift variations to try:

The Romanian deadlift is a pretty advanced move, so doing different variations of the exercise will help you build the mobility, coordination, and strength to master it. By using different grips and isolating specific muscles, the following Romanian deadlift exercises strengthen the back of the body in new ways.

1. Sumo deadlift 

The sumo deadlift uses a wider stance, which means you may be able to lift heavier, says Ward. “This particular lift is back-friendly especially for those who are returning from an injury or starting fresh with a strength training program.”

How to Do a Sumo Deadlift: Stand with your feet wider than hip-width apart, toes pointed slightly outward. Hinge your torso forward at the hips, keeping your spine long. With a barbell in front of you on the floor, grip it with both hands shoulder-distance apart (arms inside legs), plugging your shoulders back and down to secure your spine and brace your core. Be sure to align your neck with the rest of your back to avoid hyperextension. Then, tighten your glutes, hamstrings and core and push through your feet to stand back up. Squeeze your glutes and lock out your hips at the top. Then, lower the weight between your knees and toes, maintaining a flat back and repeat.

2. Single-leg Romanian deadlift

This exercise challenges the core and isolates one side of the body with a heavy load, which can help strengthen body alignment while addressing any imbalances between your left and right side.

How to Do a Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift: Stand with your weight on your right leg and hold onto a kettlebell (or dumbbell) with your left hand. Pull your shoulders back and down to brace your core and keep your chest proud. Pressing your right foot firmly on the ground and maintaining a slight bend in the right knee, hinge your torso forward at the hip as you lift your extended left leg behind you. You should maintain a straight line from shoulders to left heel. Squeeze your glutes and your core to help you maintain your balance and stop when your body is parallel to the floor. Press through your right foot and send your hips forward to stand back up. Repeat, then switch sides.

3. Wide (or snatch) grip Romanian deadlift

With this Romanian deadlift variation, you’re using the same hip hinge mechanics, but you're holding the barbell with a wider grip. This requires more lat and core activation, says Ward.

How to do a wide grip Romanian deadlift: Stand with your feet hip-distance apart with a slight bend in your knees. Hinge your torso forward at the hips, keeping your spine long. With a barbell in front of you, grip it with both hands wider than shoulder-distance apart plugging your shoulders back and down to secure your spine and brace your core. Be sure to align your neck with the rest of your back to avoid hyperextension. Then, tighten your glutes, hamstrings and core and push through your feet to stand back up, pulling the weight up to about your upper thighs. Squeeze your glutes and lock out your hips. Then, lower the weight between your knees and toes, maintaining a flat back and repeat.

How to incorporate the Romanian deadlift into your workouts:

Leg day, anyone? Both Ward and Jones recommend adding the Romanian deadlift to your workouts whenever you want to strengthen your glutes, hamstrings, and core. "I’d use this as a main lift to strengthen the hamstrings, and I would do it at the beginning of a routine,” says Jones. Because the Romanian deadlift is a serious lift, it can be incredibly taxing on the body, which is why Jones says it's best to do it toward the start of your workout. Jones also suggests super-setting it (aka, alternating it) with another hamstring exercise like hamstring curls to max out the muscles.

As for how heavy you can go, Ward says there's no formula to calculate a starting barbell or dumbell weight, but to err on the side of caution and start lighter. "Lifting too heavy can compromise form and increase the risk of injury,” she says. Keep the weight challenging, but not so much that it causes you to lose your core stability or forces your back to round or arch. “I would rather have you scale back the weight to properly activate the right muscle groups and move better,” she says. Remember: It's more important to keep your form strong than to lift heavy.

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