In a previous article, I discussed the hand supported split squat (HSSS) and the back squat to train lower body pushing patterns neurologically and structurally. To create a training trifecta and round out our program, I also use the Romanian deadlift (RDL). Our training model emphasizes intensive stimuli and movements to challenge multiple contractile properties, and the RDL is an essential component.
The True Value of Pulling for Athletes
Pulling from the floor is a fundamental activity that most athletes should master early in their career, but it’s not without its limitations. When technical maturity is low, the sole aim of pulling off the floor can become getting the weight up by any means, which obviously is risky.
During athlete development, we often reach a point where continued improvement with absolute load lessens improvements and enhances risk. Another concern is that these movements are largely concentric only. We also see a lack of deadlifting in seemingly high-level athletic programs. Nordics and hip thrusts have been at the center of posterior chain training for some time, as has unilateral vertical pulling.
Bilateral vertical pulling is often the domain of Olympic lifting coaches. These movements have high output, but the wellspring of development in eccentric and isometric qualities are not particularly challenged with these lifts. Standing single leg posterior chain variants aim to bring a sports-specific facet to posterior chain movements. While these are challenging, they often lack substantive loading and are limited by instability; the opportunity is missed to load the system with an intensive vertical pulling exercise.
Teaching the Hinge Movement by Training the RDL
Posterior chain strength is essential, however, and its potential for load tolerance is enormous. We’ve searched for variations that allow us to achieve enough stimulus to produce adaptation but allow athletes to do what is most important, their sports training. The neurological blowback is too great when athletes take inordinate amounts of time to recover compared to the potential benefits. This is probably why we don’t see much 80%+ conventional deadlift work in many high-level athletic preparation programs.Top-down #hingepatterns load the posterior with less neurological hangover, says @WSWayland. Click To Tweet
Top-down hinge patterns present an opportunity to load the posterior with less neurological hangover. The RDL and the hinge family of good mornings, Zercher good mornings, snatch grip RDLs, trap bar RDLs, and sumo RDLs, to name a few, are a separate class of exercises where the weight isn’t deloaded on the floor. These are novel because they’re as much a lowering exercise as they are a pulling exercise.
The powerful stretch reflex in a heavily loaded hinge is part of the movement’s benefit. It has the same thinking behind it as the very heavy kettlebell swing, but with more careful emphasis on the lowering of the weight. This lowering allows the athlete to organize the hinge motor pattern and brace effectively.
In one movement we can improve posture, hammer the posterior chain, and challenge both the hamstring with eccentric loading and grip strength. More systemic than Nordics or glute bridge variations, RDLs allow intensive posterior chain loading. Carl Valle covered the RDL’s history and current research in a great post here. One thing that the research is lacking is closely studied interventions using heavy RDLs.
Video 1. Every athlete will have a unique pattern based on how much stretch they receive in the hamstrings, but the RDL also has some gluteal recruitment. Coaches should manipulate the lift’s range, load, and tempo using a pattern that hinges at the hip.
The RDL is a pet lift of mine, and I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the exercise personally and with my athletes. I like that I can apply effective intensive isometric, eccentric, and oscillatory means to the RDL–it’s difficult and risky to do this to the conventional deadlift. Mark Rippetoe, who still has one of the best videos on the web about the RDL, argues, “It offers a completely different way of strengthening the posterior chain than you would find with any other pulling exercise. It’s its own exercise, not DL variation.”
Much like the front squat, I find the RDL can be restorative when applied well because it’s a truer hip hinge than the conventional deadlift. Because it is a top-down lift, once athletes are practiced, they can set themselves better which leads to better execution.
The RDL requires entire posterior chain organization. As a lowering exercise that offers no respite between reps, the entire system must stay organized to avoid failing the lift or breaking spinal position. The movement involves posterior delt, trap, and rhomboids to a greater degree than you would expect.
Famed powerlifting coach Boris Sheiko often uses rack and RDL variants exclusively as back exercises, excluding direct back work entirely. The snatch grip variant emphasizes the need for upper back tension and further bracing. I often use this movement with rank beginners because it forces extension while hinging which beginners can find troublesome.
The depth of the movement is subject to debate. I’ve seen suggestions ranging from mid-shin to just off the floor to just below the knee. The athlete’s flexibility and ability to maintain lumbar-pelvic positions are the largest determinant of depth. I’ve seen coaches like Robert Palka use RDL’s to just below the knee, similar to Fred Hatfield’s keystone deadlift employed famously with Evander Holyfield. Conversely, I’ve seen coaches employ RDL’s from a deficit–almost taking the bar to the feet.
Specific Strength Applications with the RDL
The RDL is first and foremost an accessory strength exercise that works best when loaded generously. The posterior chain is highly stress-tolerant and, as we’ve seen with hip thrust hype, can really be pushed. With consistency, athletes can move impressive numbers compared to bodyweight.
As a lowering exercise, the RDL shines with aggressive eccentric loading. I’m always impressed by most athletes’ capacity for work in this particular realm. Eccentric tempo RDL’s, however, induce much soreness and neurological stress. This is probably why coaches apply such anemic loading to this exercise. Eccentric loading will contribute to hamstring length, stretch reflex, and injury prevention that’s worth the price of some initial soreness.Eccentric #RDL loading contributes to hamstring length, stretch reflex, and injury prevention, says @WSWayland. Click To Tweet
The energetic cost of eccentric RDL’s is enormous, so we often perform clustered reps of doubles or triples to allow for some alactic recovery. We usually place this as far away as possible from any upcoming competitive event. The key in the eccentric movement is not chasing depth as much as chasing position; athletes often have different limitations on where their sweet spot for depth lies.
Loading strategies vary with the RDL. We don’t measure maximums in any meaningful sense because we see corruption in form. I’ve seen suggestions that loading should be a percentage of your back squat, but I don’t find that useful. I have several athletes who can RDL their back squat for reps.
Isometric variations generally challenge thoracic spine, shoulder stability, and crucially lumbar spine stability and brace as athletes must counter bar drift. Isometric hold position sits best at the top portion of the shin so as not to allow the low back to move out of position. I try to cue athletes to descend and ascend into the RDL as quickly as possible–no mean feat with high loads.
Video 2. This video shows a female MMA fighter integrating the isometric RDL into an entire session of isometric-focused work.
Straps are a necessity with heavy loads since most athletes cannot hang on to such absolute loads at high intensities. The movement also lets you add accommodating resistance which leads to more glute involvement, according to athlete self-reports.
RDL Variants for Speed and Power Applications
While the RDL isn’t useful at very high velocities–so it’s not great for power and speed– I have seen it used as a high-force, high-velocity bridging movement. I’ve toyed with the keystone deadlift used by Fred Hatfield, doing a partial RDL to just below the knee with a more exaggerated arch. This places an enormous stretch on the hamstrings without the need for the depth we see with a conventional RDL. It allows for greater loading and impressive velocities since the hip is positioned advantageously. And we still get a stretch reflex we wouldn’t find in a rack pull from a similar position.
Essential Oscillatory RDL Options
We can also use the RDL to train tension and range of motion to improve contraction and relaxation rates in less favorable (disadvantaged) and favorable (advantaged) positions, depending on training focus. A disadvantaged position is at a stretch–for instance, the bottom of the RDL just below the knee; an advantaged position with the RDL is at or above the knee. Oscillatory, or the Dimel, deadlifts are ideal for this. I classify these as RDL variants. In the video below, the athlete performs an oscillatory RDL for a timed set.
Video 3. Working extensively with combat athletes, I often employ disadvantaged oscillatory movements because these athletes often work from disadvantaged positions. Athletes who occupy more advantaged positions can choose accordingly.
Paraphrasing Matt Van Dyke: “Oscillatory (RDL) can be completed in training to create high forces, intensities, and volume in the weakest position of the exercise to improve strength. Even with light loads, we create an amplification of intensity either in a disadvantaged or advantaged position by using oscillatory exercises.”
Oscillatory training methods involve a rapid push-pull motion to maximize an athlete’s ability to reverse the muscle action phases effectively at high velocities. Bands can be used to accelerate the eccentric portion of the movement to challenge the athlete further. Bands also work well to cue end-range hip extension. To the uninitiated, Oscillatory exercises can appear unusual, frenetic, and gimmicky.
Staggered RDL with Barbells and Kettlebells
Heavy staggered RDL’s are a quasi-unilateral option that reduces some of the problems of the often-challenging single leg RDL. Much like single leg squatting, the single leg RDL is limited by the athlete’s ability to maintain stability, which is tricky with the contralateral brace required and bar’s movement. To overcome this problem, I started using the staggered RDL. Take a small step into a staggered stance, with both knees unlocked, and use the rear leg to stabilize–either on the ball of the foot or with the foot flat on the floor.
Video 4. With the heavy staggered RDL, the target of the movement will be the lead leg which has the greatest stretch. This movement can be loaded substantially. It’s not an HSSS for the posterior chain, but it comes close.
Staggered and split stance variations are also options for speed and power variations. By staggering the stance, we can train sports-specific actions while getting a somewhat contralateral training effect–all at high velocities. Using accommodating resistance bands or chains allows us to challenge advantaged portions of the hinge movement.
Video 5. Traditional RDL movement with a kettlebell is a great option for nearly any athlete looking to learn the pattern. Loading will become necessary as the athlete progresses.
I select these depending on athlete needs. For example, with a grappling athlete, I’ll implement Zercher and other arm-braced anterior-loaded variations, often for timed sets or potentiation clusters. We’ll use heel elevated and flat variations also.
Video 6. Staggering the RDL with kettlebells and employing an isometric stimulus is a very safe exercise that reinforces both the hinge movement and the bracing skills of the lifter.
Trap Bar and RDL Rows
Using the trap bar for RDL’s is a particularly useful, novel variation for athletes who are tall or who insist on forward knee movement; holding a neutral position allows the athlete to punch toward the floor with a neutral grip. In fact, I encourage straight arm punching toward the floor as a cue. Since the bar is not anterior to or against the legs, the knees don’t get in the way of the bar’s path, and the athlete can focus on migrating the hips backward. While athletes can perform this action with kettlebells or preferably dumbbells, these can crash against the legs and don’t allow for the type of loading we can get from a trap bar.
Video 7. The trap bar, or hex bar, is often misused with athletes when they bounce out of the deadlift, but RDLs are a different story. RDL training with the trap bar is a great option for athletes.
RDLs are also commonly used in a combined exercise with a row. This makes sense because the RDL set-up position is very similar to the bent over row set up. Combining both challenges the position of the posterior chain and spine. Obviously the RDL loading is limited by the amount of load one can row.
Sequencing RDL to Peak When it Counts
When sequencing in traditional block fashion, we move from a high-force, low-velocity phase. We start the sequence with eccentrics and increase movement velocity as the competition period closes. The more mature the athlete, the less time we spend in intensively-loaded blocks and the more time we spend time using sub-80% loading.
For athletes who run regular competition schedules, we place neurologically demanding variants as soon as we can after the competition. Assessing readiness, we’ll get the athlete under the bar as soon as possible. For some athletes, primarily golfers, I have them lift the evening after an event if possible.
Upgrade the Posterior Chain with the Right RDL
Heavy RDL and its variations are not a single exercise panacea, and it pays when we put a lot of thought and justification into the exercises we choose. Effective posterior chain training is often vaunted as the key to athletic development. This is understandable given the capacity for the posterior chain to produce force far greater than any amount of force we can produce with the anterior chain or a squat pattern.
The mid-thigh pull is a prominent test of athleticism for a reason. So let’s give the posterior chain the stimulus it needs. RDL is one option among many. I use heavy RDL’s in combination with the HSSS to apply intensive systemic stress plus eccentric and isometric stimulus to athletes that few other movements can.