Here's what you need to know...
- The Romanian deadlift hits the low back, glutes, and hamstrings. It's a hip-hinge movement.
- The RDL is a great strength and muscle builder. You can also use it as an ancillary movement to complement the deadlift, snatch, and clean pull.
- Other popular exercises are actually variations of the RDL. Rack pulls, hang jump shrugs, and heavy kettlebell swings mimic the same movement. Use them to build power and strength.
- Use all three rep ranges. Do high reps, medium reps, and low reps in an undulating set/rep strategy.
The Romanian deadlift (RDL) works the muscles in the arch of the back, glutes, and hamstrings. (Its emphasis on the hams is slightly muted because the knees remain bent throughout the movement.) It's a great strength and muscle builder on its own, but also a great ancillary movement to complement the deadlift, snatch, and clean pull. There are many ways to do it, but regardless of which variation you use, the hip hinge is crucial to the movement.
Standard RDL Form
- Pick up a barbell with a pronated (palms down), shoulder-width grip and stand fully erect. The bar should be resting against the thighs.
- Inhale as you lower the bar by allowing the hips to sit back and the torso to drop down. The knees will bend slightly but the shins should remain vertical. Maintain a slight arch in the low back. Keep the chest up and shoulders back.
- When the bar reaches just below the knees, exhale as you reverse the motion using a hip hinge.
- Bring the torso to a full erect position and repeat for the prescribed number of reps. Remember to keep the back arched and the knees slightly bent at all times.
Best Variations for Low Rep Ranges: 1-5 Reps
The RDL variations differ depending on whether the focus is on strength or explosiveness. Sets in low (1-5) rep ranges train both ends of the force-velocity curve. So training in the low rep range comes in two forms: a strength focus, which involves using heavy loads lifted at slower speeds, or a power focus, which involves using lighter loads and moving as explosively as possible.
Rack Pulls – Strength Emphasis
The rack pull is basically a short range RDL, which enables you to lift even heavier loads with less risk of injury. For lifters who are less experienced with using rack pulls, start with the barbell positioned just above the kneecaps. Those who are more experienced should start with the bar positioned just below the kneecaps, which offers a greater range of motion (ROM).
Hang Jump Shrug – Power Emphasis
The hang jump shrug can be performed with a barbell or with dumbbells. It's basically an explosive RDL with a small jump and shrug at the top of each rep. Lower the weight to just above the kneecaps and explode upward as fast as possible. Remember, the emphasis here is on explosiveness.
Heavy Kettlebell Swings – Power Emphasis
The kettlebell swing is essentially an explosive RDL-type movement. Since the kettlebell swing is fast in nature, it's a perfect fit. Keep in mind we're talking about power training here and not power-endurance training, so the idea is to grab the heaviest kettlebell you can handle, or the two heaviest kettlebells that you're capable of swinging up, while also displaying good control on the way down.
Best Variations for Medium Rep Ranges: 6-12 Reps
Basic Barbell RDL
Although there's no reason you can't do basic RDLs for sets of 3-5 reps, it's better to do them in the middle rep range due to the fact this exercise demands a great deal of spinal control over a large range of motion, which can easily go to pot if you're going too heavy. Remember: One great month of training can't make you, but it only takes one bad rep to break you!
One Leg, One Arm Dumbbell RDL
The cross-body style – standing on the left leg with the dumbbell in your right hand or vice versa – creates a nice complement to more traditional RDLs and variations. That said, this exercise works best when used at or above the medium rep range because the level of load required in the low rep range seems to throw off the motion.
There's a point at which you're still capable of carrying the weight, but the load is heavy enough to force you to lean so far in the opposite direction to counter-balance the uneven load that it defeats the purpose of the exercise, which is controlled motion. There's a loading sweet spot when using unilateral (cross-body) loading exercises, and that sweet spot usually occurs with loads that fit at or above the medium rep-range.
Best Variations for High Rep Ranges: 13-12 Reps
One Leg, One Arm Dumbbell RDL
Doing this movement with high reps forces you to move through a larger range of motion while controlling your body over a reduced base of support. That gets increasingly more challenging as you progress through each high-rep set and accumulate fatigue. Keep in mind that single-leg training and double-leg training aren't mutually exclusive. Each has its own set of unique benefits and limitations, so they're complementary training components that should be used together to make your training more comprehensive and effective.
High-rep dumbbell RDLs allow you to go through a larger ROM than what occurs when using the barbell with plates. Sure, you can increase the ROM when using a barbell by either using smaller weight plates or by standing on top of a small platform. However, when extending the ROM while using a barbell, people tend to go deeper than they can control because they've been taught to target the floor.
In other words, they're more focused on how close they get to the floor than they are on maintaining their alignment. This association seems to go out the window when performing RDLs with dumbbells and the natural focus switches to maintaining alignment throughout the extended ROM.
Powerlifters often attach bands on each side of the barbell because as the bar rises, the load tension continues to increase (because the band is stretching out) as the lifter continues to gain a mechanical advantage. This is called accommodating resistance. With this in mind, the superband RDL works very well in the high-rep range, in this case, usually sets of 20-40 reps. It's very easy to set up:
- Step your left foot inside one end of the band and step your right foot on top of the band with your feet just outside of shoulder width.
- Grab the other end of the band that's on the outside of your right foot, pull it over your right foot and loop the end around your left foot in the same manner as you did in step one.
- Grab the middle of the band with your hands roughly shoulder width apart and begin performing RDLs in a fairly fast manner while demonstrating spinal control throughout.
How to Program RDLs
Try using a three-cycle undulating set/rep strategy. Work a medium rep range on the first workout, a low-rep range on the second workout, and a high-rep range on the third workout.
Repeat the cycle 4-6 more times using the same exercises while progressively increasing the load demand each week. After 4-6 cycles through the same exercises, new exercises can be programmed and used in this same framework.
Below are three different versions of the same undulating framework, along with sample RDL exercise suggestions for each rep range. How frequently you decide to incorporate some type of RDL exercises (once per week, twice per week or three times per week) is up to you based on your goals, training split, and personal preferences. Just pick a version and rotate through it at your own pace.
In this version, the low rep range portion of the cycle has a strength focus.
- RDL Workout 1: Medium Rep Range – Barbell RDL, 3 x 7-9
- RDL Workout 2: Low Rep Range (Strength Focus) – Rack Pull, 4 x 4-5
- RDL Workout 3: High Rep Range – Superband RDL, 2 x 25-30
In this version the low rep range portion of the cycle has a power focus.
- RDL Workout 1: Medium Rep Range – One-Leg/One-Arm Dumbbell RDL, 3 x 7-9
- RDL Workout 2: Low Rep Range (Power Focus) – Hang Jump Shrug, 4 x 4-5
- RDL Workout 3: High Rep Range – Dumbbell RDL, 2 x 15-20
In this version, the contrast training paired-set in the low rep range portion of the cycle gives you the best of both the strength and power worlds.
- RDL Workout 1: Medium Rep Range – Barbell RDL, 3 x 7-9
- RDL Workout 2: Low Rep Range (Strength + Power Contrast Set) – Rack Pull Contrast with Heavy Kettlebell Swing, 4 x 4-5 (of each)
- RDL Workout 3: High Rep Range – One-Leg/One-Arm Dumbbell RDL, 2 x 13-15
Note: For the contrast set, start with a set of heavy lift (3-5 reps), take a short 40-second rest period, and then follow it with an unloaded, explosive exercise using the same movement pattern and the same reps.