By Carl Valle
The Romanian deadlift (RDL) is an exercise backed by very little research and is surrounded by much controversy within coaching circles. Some consider it an assistance exercise, some believe it’s the Holy Grail for hamstrings, and others like me feel it’s a great piece of a comprehensive program. The RDL teaches the body how to hinge with load and develops motor control skill. It also prepares the back for positioning rather than just strengthening. Unfortunately, the RDL has a bad reputation with some practitioners because many athletes do them wrong; the exercise looks deceptively simple.
The RDL, like the Nordic hamstring exercise (according to soon to be published research), provides more than structural changes. My investigation into these two hamstring assistance exercises shows they not only reduce injuries but also contribute to acceleration development. I don’t claim the exercises are interchangeable, but they are similar enough to merit consideration about whether the absence of one will make any difference in a good holistic program.
I’ve read dozens of articles, some very useful, but none asked or answered questions relevant to the information coaches need. After this article, coaches using RDLs will know they’ve made the right choice. Coaches who’ve omitted RDLs are likely to add them to their program to round out hamstring development and movement patterns. Instead of just rehashing research, we did some RDL research of our own. I’m sharing our findings here.
History of the Romanian Deadlift
The history of the RDL reads like a superhero origin story, complete with freaks of nature and a fuzzy history that seems to grow in mythical significance every decade. Based on one reference, the story goes that Dragomir Cioroslan and Nicu Vlad came to the US a few decades ago and demonstrated their training techniques. Remember, this was when the Eastern bloc countries were shrouded in mystery, pre-internet, and word of mouth was still how information was passed around among coaches. In the past, stiff legged deadlifts were done with rounded backs, but Dragomir’s and Nicu’s version called for a straight back, apparently to prepare for jerking.RDL history reads like a superhero origin story with freaks of nature and a fuzzy mythical history. Click To Tweet
Many coaches currently use RDLs for hamstrings. With the popularity of the Nordic hamstring exercise, however, some are wondering if we should move away from deadlifting altogether.
The RDL is not a competitive exercise in strength sports, and it’s not a super popular exercise for monitoring training. RDLs are technical enough to merit coaching but not useful for demonstrating fatigue, unlike countermovement jumps and similar exercises. Based on recorded history, RDLs come from the barbell age of the 20th century, so we have little knowledge about it. Do a scientific search on the exercise, and only a few good studies show up. But enough information exists that is relevant to coaching.
The interest in the RDL as a single leg exercise is now growing. This is fine, but most of the time I don’t see it performed by athletes as well as the coaches who endorse it. Athletes who are coached by the proponents, when left on their own, show a marked decay in technique.
I’m fine with both barbell double leg and single leg options, but only if they’re done correctly and if they connect to other needs outside their intrinsic value. To be fair, I explored research on both exercise variations to reach a conclusion, and I repeated the studies with research instruments and biochemical analysis.
Romanian Deadlift Technique
Gregor Winter posted a great article featuring Mark Rippetoe about the details of RDL technique. In addition to the YouTube video with Mark instructing how to perform the exercise properly, the author added some bullet points with written directions that are copied below. I highly recommend watching the YouTube clip a few times and polishing the exercise before moving to single leg options.
“Start the set with the barbell racked. Each rep starts at the top, not from the floor, and ends at the top before you put the barbell back in the rack.
Main focus is to keep that lumbar spine arched. That is what makes it such a great exercise for the lower back.
- Chest up, (barely) unlock knees to get tension off the hamstrings. Stiff knees would restrict the ROM.
- Lower bar down your thighs.
- To keep bar in contact with thighs, when going down, consciously use the lats to push the bar back.
- Hips, bar, and knees go back. Only thing going forward are your shoulders.
- The bar never leaves contact with the legs.
- Remember, the lumbar spine must stay in perfect extension.
- When you feel the back starting to unlock, that is your max depth.
- Go back up, rebounding off the bottom with use of the stretch reflex and remember to keep your lumbar spine completely locked.
- Depth is not the key here. As you do a couple of reps, your depth will increase bit by bit.”
The author concludes by suggesting three options for grip. Athletes can use the traditional double overhand grip, the hook grip if going heavy, or straps if necessary.
Video 1. Coach Davenport performs the RDL. Range of motion, movement tempo, and loads are all easy to manipulate with the RDL. Coach Davenport, my friend and colleague, is with Exceed Sports Performance and Fitness.
I have two issues with single leg RDLs. First, they’re usually not good for beginners. Second, their simple benefits, like teaching a gross hip hinge pattern and how to grip a barbell, are now dying.Single leg Romanian deadlifts are not appropriate for beginners. Click To Tweet
Ian McKeown suggested single leg options as a way to discriminate talent, but an earlier paper of his didn’t include the movement, and I find this notable. I believe that the movement is fundamental, but using it as part of on-the-field training is better for developing coordination. The weight room is sacred ground for progressive overload, not a place to get hung up on instruction methods. I do believe in developing complete athletes, but a time and place exist for developing athleticism and training muscular strength.
Will the Romanian Deadlift Reduce Hamstring Injury Risk?
I’ve had a few athletes come to me with hamstring injuries. Those who could perform RDLs with more than their bodyweight didn’t complain of tightness or soreness as much as those who had avoided the weight room and gravitated to suspension training and other iron free options. I’m sharing this empirical tidbit because research should support the thought process, and not just serve as a resource for evidence of what works.
For the record, RDLs are not silver bullets for reducing hamstring injuries. I believe Anthony Shield’s model for hamstring health in sport is great for structural length and eccentric strength. But I have seen ways to get there other than the Nordic hamstring exercise.
Hamstring injuries have plagued athletes for years, and we see these problems on the field mostly because the muscles are short and weak, rather than long and strong. Hamstring length and strength is the cornerstone to reducing injury risks, but specifics on the best way to achieve this are still up in the air. The current trend is to find movement tests that can highlight risk to specific muscles and then improve performance of the exercise tests.Romanian deadlifts can help develop hamstring length and strength, keys to reducing risk of injury. Click To Tweet
One problem with this approach is that the hamstring is a group of muscles which includes two heads for the biceps femoris, the most common muscle injury we see in speed sports. The Nordic hamstring exercise, favored by many soccer fitness coaches now, does help increase the length and strength of the posterior thigh. Other options, including sprinting, can help with general hamstring strength. But it’s difficult to determine what improves muscle length because there is not much research available that explores max velocity sprinting and muscle architecture. So can RDLs help the hamstring group?
No isolated random controlled trials exist where heavy RDLs are used as a training intervention with hamstring injuries. As an alternative, we can compare the great work by David Opar and his colleagues and see if a replication model can replace many of the Nordic exercise’s benefits with RDL and other exercises.
For example, Americans tend to love the glute/ham raise exercise and don’t favor the Nordic hamstring exercise even though they are very similar. Also, many coaches see back extensions as back exercises while research shows that they very effectively target the hamstring group when performed properly.
A study by McAllister compared the RDL to leg curls, glute ham raises, and a dying exercise called the good morning. The results showed that the RDL and the glute ham similarly recruited the biceps femoris; this doesn’t exactly match other studies.
What I like about the McAllister study is that the load, 85% of 1RM, and the subjects had an average max in the 175-kilogram range, nearly twice their bodyweight. Although the study design was not perfect, it gave me something I could finally relate to since other studies used no weight or 12-repetition loads. When researchers study workouts that look like elderly wellness activities, the research will always be limited in application.
Based on this evidence, it’s safe to say RDLs can help hamstring development. I would, however, still audit an entire lifting and training program with Nordics to directly compare the scientific evidence. I will share alternatives to the NordBord in a later article; the device is a simple, straightforward, and no-nonsense option, and I recommend it.
Are Romanian Deadlifts Safe for the Lumbar Spine?
Mention the word deadlift, and some medical professionals get spooked, and the general population gets scared. One of the reasons I love the RDL, as mentioned earlier, is that it teaches the body how to hinge with load. Adddding weight, with coaching, amplifies the signal.
Another RDL study indicated the exercise was a poor option for back health because it doesn’t increase lumbar extension torque after weeks of training. I agree the conclusions were accurate based on the study, but the value of the exercise is to teach how to coordinate spinal movement. My athletes get enough back development, and sometimes I inherit athletes with overdeveloped backs. The motion’s benefit is the motor control skill, which is very useful, as determined by McKeown and colleagues.Romanian deadlifts teach how to coordinate spinal movement and motor control skill. Click To Tweet
The RDL also prepares the back for positioning rather than only strengthening. Athletes will gain some incidental strength, but the goal of the exercise is to improving bracing for cleans and snatches from the hang and other options.
Partial RDLs (reduced range of motion variants), such as rack pulls and bottom rack versions, are excellent ways to increase hamstring recruitment and are easier to learn. Athletes who are tall, those with restricted ankle joints, and athletes with poor training histories can load and learn rapidly with modified versions of the RDL.
Single leg RDLs are often considered options to reduce back injuries because the weight used is roughly half of bilateral options, but the slightly asymmetrical loading offsets this theory. Single leg options also require double the amount of training time as grip tends to fail and fatigue sets in from performing more total sets. A common problem in modern sport is that time for training is decreasing, so every minute counts.Romanian deadlifts are likely to reduce injury in both the weight room and in sport. Click To Tweet
In my experience, the RDL is safe and perhaps a required motor skill for athletes who are growing up less competent in their gross coordination from their lack of play and exposure to qualified physical education. Teaching and training the single leg version of the exercise isn’t going to risk injury. In fact, by teaching athletes how to address spinal action with load, RDLs are likely to reduce injury in both the weight room and in sport. Also, the core ability to dissociate the hips from the trunk is a motor control that matters, but we need to add load to increase the neuromuscular signals and the structural adaptations.
Programming the Romanian Deadlift for Speed and Power Athletes
It’s easy to skip assistance exercises and just hope an athlete will have the capacity to re-engage later. Some coaches try to build a lot of maximal strength in the offseason and use a slow leak approach with lifting and try to finish last with the “race to the bottom.” Common sports training mistakes will show up with RDLs since they are not primary lifts, but they are important enough to include weekly. When including the RDL in a training program, think acute readiness, monthly exposure, and long-term improvement.
Some of the great, but also biased and narrow, research on the Nordic hamstring exercise provides a shrewd framework to follow for RDL training progression. Without getting into minimum effective dose and maximum safe dose debates, the RDL should be done twice a week for no less than three work sets to see viable changes. The Nordic hamstring curl, even if done with random program design, will get athletes better if they aren’t touching weights at all.
For a performance benefit, single leg RDLs require nearly the same load as the athlete’s body weight. RDLs need to progress from a percentage of one’s body mass to a multiplier of one’s body mass.
Lighter loads are good for some muscle changes and activation, but the amount of torque at the mid-thigh from Nordics is roughly 80% of an athlete’s body mass. Doing more reps will not help as the law of diminishing returns applies to Nordics.
Coaches should only do RDLs with their athletes before recovery days or days off, not before games or heavy practices. RDLs are not potentiation exercises, as far as we know, and eccentric work tends to stiffen up athletes and spook them. The delayed onset soreness from RDL work will resolve as the athlete becomes more familiar with the exercise.
Getting eight sessions a month for ten months means eighty sessions of hamstring attention. Other exercises can be interchanged and sequenced as replacements or as end goals. Many athletes have migrated to glute ham raises and Nordics after a season of RDL exposure, and many Nordic lovers maintain their scores with heavy snatches and RDLs.
Using RDLs as a hamstring panacea is foolish and not recommended. We’ve seen overzealous obsession regarding other exercises. No matter how beneficial the movement, if one exercise could change the world, we would see near superhuman performances daily and entire leagues free of muscle strains.
Progressive overload with a barbell and 10-kilo plates per side can “slow drip” an athlete to 100 kilos in less than a year by micro-dosing the reps up by one rep or 5-kilo increments, if consistent. Linear progressive overload is often considered too rudimentary or ineffective. Most athletes who show talent early don’t train as much because competition is cherished, and training is considered either as a punishment or as an activity only for less gifted athletes.
Analyzing the Romanian Deadlift for Transfer and Impact
A big RDL isn’t going to mean record speeds or bulletproof hamstrings, but good record keeping, even using the GymAware, can add a lot of insight into the process. The RDL must be heavier than hang snatch loads by at least 40%, as the lift is an option for slow strength, not a power exercise.The Romanian deadlift is not a power exercise. It targets range of motion and tension. Click To Tweet
Most VBT tools are about peak velocity, but RDLs are about range of motion and tension. An athlete doing the exercise too fast lets gravity do the work and sometimes over-recruits the erector spinae. Doing an exercise that looks correct visually may not mean the appropriate muscles are contributing in the way that best exploits the exercise. Peak and mean EMG are not golden metrics, but the slow speed of RDLs do allow for decent analysis of superficial hamstring activity. The RDLs require a slow constant tension, or we’ll see more mechanical contribution from the spinal extensors.
Slow speed and time under tension are not exact mechanisms that lead to hamstring adaptation, or any muscle adaptation, but tempo does keep athletes honest with precision exercises like the RDL. Range of motion and slow velocities are only possible with the GymAware. The RDL algorithm on the Push Band can’t handle super slow motions, and the Bar Sensei doesn’t support slow movements because accelerometers are unable to gauge speed and direction effectively with nearly isometric lifts. Some athletes bounce out of the bottom, but this practice ruins the purpose of the RDL for sport.
Bar path has some value, but video is a good secondary option for coaches using a qualitative rating that does not need a lot of interpretation.
Key Landmarks for RDLs:
- The position of the hip relative to the knee to anchor the hamstrings
- The barbell needs to trace the thigh over the knee and be very close to the shin
- The end range should be very tight, and feeling a limit signals that back tension is maintaining neutral
I recommend athletes wear thick spandex. Bloody shins are cool and macho, but with staph infections, any open wound is just a risk without any reward. Using a clean grip and smooth deadlifting bar should reduce friction issues on the legs.
Athletes will not polish RDLs overnight, so reinforce the consistency of the movement and keep the athlete motivated by having them buy into the feeling of the exercise, not just getting their numbers up.
Spread the Word
The RDL will not make a plow horse into a thoroughbred, but it is a sound option to stretch the hamstrings. Some athletes will not respond well to the exercise while others will experience dramatic changes, so it’s important to follow up with each athlete’s progress. Bilateral and single leg options have similar benefits and unique qualities that coaches need to program with careful thought. When teaching RDLs, it’s important to have an alert and focused attention to detail. The RDL is a great exercise and a valuable part of an athlete’s training inventory, so I urge you to teach and share this great exercise.