The Romanian deadlift (RDL) is one of the most effective ways to slap meat onto your hammies and build serious posterior chain strength.
The only problem? A lot of lifters mess it up. Here are the biggest mistakes to avoid and what to do instead.
1 – Reaching Forward
Lifters will often initiate the RDL by reaching forward with their arms instead of pushing back with their hips. But during hinging exercises like the RDL, the further away the weight is from your body, the more stress you’re putting on your spine. Not good.
Push your hips back and reach down.
You’ve probably heard coaches say “keep the bar close” when deadlifting, which is great advice. By keeping the bar close to your center of mass, your strength potential increases while your risk of injury drops drastically.
The RDL is a hip-dominant lift with your hips traveling on a horizontal (back and forth) plane. So by pushing your hips back first, you’ll naturally reach down towards your ankles as opposed to forward past your feet. This will allow you to use your glutes and hamstrings more effectively while keeping your spine in a healthy, stable position.
2 – Keeping Your Legs Straight
Keeping your legs completely locked during a hinging movement can put a lot of unwanted force on your knees. It also greatly reduces the support from the hamstrings, which act as stabilizers of the knee. Not good.
Keep a slight knee bend.
Strive to “break” at the knees with a slight bend while pushing your hips back.
Don’t get the RDL confused with a “stiff leg” deadlift. Keeping the legs locked can be beneficial for strengthening the lower back while minimizing hamstring assistance, so it has its place. But during RDLs, keeping your legs straight can cause you to round the lower back and excessively reach forward with your arms when hinging.
3 – Using Too Much Knee Bend
It’s possible to bend the knees a little TOO much, treating the RDL like a conventional deadlift or even a squat. This isn’t necessarily bad; you’re just emphasizing the quads instead of hinging at the hips and targeting the hamstrings/posterior chain.
Pull your hips up to the ceiling.
Your hips travel in a horizontal plane (back and forth) during deadlifts, and a vertical plane (up and down) during squats. Rather than thinking “up and down” during the RDL, think “back and forward.”
Check out these useful cues from Dr. Joel Seedman and Tony Gentilcore:
- Picture a string attached to your hip, pulling it back and up to the ceiling.
- Picture another string attached to your chest, pulling it down to the floor.
- Think of pushing a car door shut with your butt.
4 – Rounding Your Upper Back and Shoulders
Your spine has a natural curvature to it, so a slight rounding towards the upper back isn’t actually as bad as people make it out to be. The real problem is when the lower back rounds, your core and/or glutes are no longer supporting your spine, and your pelvis has an excessively posterior tilt.
But there can also be excessive internal rotation (rounding) in the shoulders and thoracic spine (upper back). This is usually a result of the first mistake of reaching forward past the feet instead of straight down between the ankles.
You want to maintain upper-back engagement and full-body tension throughout the entire range of motion during any deadlift. Period. The moment you’re relaxed is the moment you lose spinal integrity.
Squeeze your armpits together (and use a resistance band).
Imagine squeezing an orange underneath each armpit to keep your upper back engaged and minimize rounding. Tony Gentilcore has a drill for this:
If the band loses tension, it means your lats have lost tension as well. Try to keep tension in the band throughout your set while squeezing your armpits together to keep those big ol’ lats engaged.
Bonus Tip: Improve Your Weight Distribution
This isn’t really a mistake; it’s more of a consideration for hamstring and glute recruitment.
Compound lifts like RDLs recruit multiple muscles at once. You can tweak them slightly to emphasize particular muscle groups over others. For the RDL, you can make one small adjustment to emphasize the glutes or hamstrings. Just pay attention to how you distribute your weight on your feet.
By pushing your weight back predominantly onto the heels, you’ll engage your glutes a little more and use them to extend your hips forward through the concentric (up) phase.
By distributing your weight forward towards the front/center of your feet, you’ll feel more hamstring recruitment as you extend your hips forward. Also, think of dragging your feet back without actually moving them as you extend your hips.