Weight training: The Romanian deadlift

A safer alternative for back strengthening

At a glance

Often strength athletes overemphasise ‘quad dominant’ exercises such as squats, leg presses and step ups, neglecting posterior chain exercises that work the lower back and hamstrings. Chris Mallac looks at a safe and effective way of redressing this balance – the Romanian deadlift.

The Romanian deadlift (RDL) is not a true deadlift, because the weight is not lifted from the floor and therefore is not a dead weight. The weight moves from knees to hips, not from floor to hips. Legend has it that the exercise is not even very Romanian: a solitary Romanian powerlifter performed this type of lift many decades ago at a competitive meet and the American competitors liked what they saw, so they ‘borrowed’ the idea and started training with this exercise. It has since become a boutique exercise used by strength athletes, but it is in fact a much safer version of regular deadlifts.

Training aim

The basic goal of the RDL is to lower a weight from the hips down to the knees and back again to the hips. This is achieved by bending from the hips (and slightly from the knees) while holding the bar with elbows in full extension and shoulder blades retracted in the initial set position. The force for the lift comes from:

  • the powerful hip extensor muscles, such as the gluteal muscles of the buttocks and hamstrings
  • the lumbar and thoracic extensors.

Main training uses

In contrast to the traditional deadlift, which uses multiple joints and therefore falls into the category of ‘compound’ exercise, the RDL is an isolation exercise that only really uses movement at the hips. However, along with traditional deadlifts, the RDL is grouped under the ‘hip dominant’ or ‘posterior chain’ list of exercises. The regular deadlift also involves knee bending and is therefore less ‘perfect’ than the RDL as a hip-dominant exercise.
Too often strength athletes only perform ‘quad dominant’ exercises such as squats, leg presses and step ups. In these exercises the quads take a large portion of the stress of the movement and receive a disproportionate level of training stimulus. If the ‘quad dominant’ movements were all an athlete ever performed, they would develop an imbalance between the quads and hip extensors. The injury manifestations of this can be as simple as strained hamstrings to something complex like chronic discogenic (disc) back pain. Hence the importance of hip dominant or posterior chain exercises.
For the average gym-goer or non-strength athlete, the RDL probably represents a better and safer alternative to deadlifts for training the posterior chain muscles, mainly due to the different types of muscle contraction involved in executing the two lifts.

Because the RDL starts from the hips and the bar is lowered to the knees, tension is gradually built through the first part of the downward phase. This is an eccentric contraction, in which the muscles are assisted by passive tension as they elongate. The tension in the hamstrings and erector spinae is thus shared between the active and passive tension components, so the muscles are in effect not contracting as hard as they would in a deadlift, and there is less compressive load on the lumbar spine. The upward (concentric) phase is then completed on the back of a lot of stored elastic/passive tension in the hamstrings and erectors.

In the regular deadlift the initial contraction is isometric (where force is produced without movement), as the lifter exerts some upward pressure on the bar, progressing to a predominantly concentric muscle contraction. Because the lift is not preceded by an eccentric contraction, no passive tension has been generated in the muscles, and the resulting compressive load on the spine from the concentric muscle contraction is massive. Coupled with this, the initial ‘dead’ weight of the bar represents a significant amount of inertia, which must be counteracted with a greater initial muscle force. Once the bar is moving and the body is straightening, the regular deadlift gets easier in terms of the metabolic cost to the muscle.

Technique: how to get it right

I have spent many hours trying to teach injured patients and athletes RDLs over the years; it can be frustrating. Some bodies find it very difficult to dissociate (separate out) hip, knee and back movements.

In my experience, to perform an adequate RDL the most fundamental skill you need to grasp is how to pelvic tilt. Failure to initiate the exercise with an anterior pelvic tilt almost always leads to poor performance of the lift.

Pelvic tilt with Swiss Ball

Step 1: Teach anterior and posterior pelvic tilt

Pelvic tilt technique can be shown on the Swiss ball to start with (see Fig 1 above) and then progressed into standing. The cues for anterior tilt are:

  • stick your bottom out
  • increase the arch in your lower back.

Cues for posterior tilt are:

  • tuck your bottom under try to flatten your lower back.

See box 1 for a detailed biomechanical explanation of the pelvic tilt.

Pelvic Tilt

Step 2: The waiter’s bow

Perform the movement by initiating an anterior pelvic tilt and bending forwards from the hips, while keeping the lumbar spine in neutral (straight or even slightly extended). I find it best to keep one hand on the stomach and the other on the lower back (see Fig 2).

Step 3: Broomstick RDLs

The next stage is to hold a very light bar or broomstick in the hands and attempt the movement. Again, use an anterior pelvic tilt to initiate the exercise. The key technique points are:

  • stand up tall at the start, with chest out and shoulders retracted
  • look directly forward
  • initiate movement with an anterior tilt. Knees should be slightly bent (up to 5°), as locking out the knees causes the trunk to start to flex and the weight ends up being much too far in front of the body
  • slide the bar down in front of the thighs (without touching them) towards the knee
  • look forward and keep the chest out. Take care to avoid any hyperextension of the neck and lower back
  • bend the knees slightly as the lift progresses (no more than 10°, depending on the lifter’s height)
  • at the bottom of the movement (Fig 3) the lifter should feel a stretch sensation in the hamstrings.

Step 4: Weighted RDLs

Once the lifter has mastered the broomstick RDL, they can move on to a weighted bar. Start with an Olympic size bar at about 20kg, and progress upwards from there as strength and proficiency allow. It is not uncommon for very strong athletes to perform RDLs with 150+kg.

Technique fault 1:

Too much knee bend (see Fig 4, above)

The most common technique fault is to bend the knees too much and slide the bar down the thighs to the knees. Although not particularly damaging to the lumbar spine, this position represents an inefficient technique that resembles something halfway between a deadlift and an RDL. Mixed techniques lead to mixed results, so it’s best to correct this fault early on.

The fault is usually down to poor motor control and patterning. The body cannot dissociate hip from knee from pelvis. To correct this, try the following:

Tape the front of the knee to prevent any more than 10° knee flexion constantly alternate between a weighted RDL and the waiter’s bow. The repeated reinforcement will ‘groove’ the correct motor pattern stand sideways in front of the client and demonstrate the movement as they perform it
keep on reinforcing the ‘chest out’ and ‘head forward’ cues.

Technique fault 2 :

Failure to maintain anterior pelvic tilt

By not initiating the movement every time with anterior tilt, the risk of the lifter falling into posterior tilt is greatly increased. The danger here is that the lumbar spine will assume some segmental flexion, placing the disc under increased pressure. This can be very dangerous to lumbar spine discs.

Technique fault 3: Knees too straight (see Fig 5)

This is possibly the most dangerous fault. With the knees locked out, the hamstrings are immediately placed under stretch by the knee extension component. When the lifter begins to lower the weight, the hamstrings reach their stretch limit very early and the pelvis is thrown into posterior tilt. This slackens off the hamstrings a bit to enable the downward movement to continue. But, as already explained above, the shift into excessive posterior pelvic tilt and lumbar flexion places the lumbar spine discs in a position of extreme vulnerability to injury.

Lifting tips for coach use

To encourage a chest-out, scapular-retracted position, ask the athlete to rotate the clavicles (collarbones) upwards.

Tell the athlete to pick a spot on the wall directly in front of their eyes and look at it throughout the lift.

When sliding the bar down, encourage the lifter to aim for a spot just above the knee cap. This cue is normally enough for them to understand that the bar moves directly downwards, not sliding down the thigh itself – as that would prompt too much knee bend.

If the athlete is struggling to limit their knee bend, you can either tape the knees to stop them bending or hold them to guide the right level of bend.

The injury risk

The primary musculoskeletal area susceptible to injury from incorrect lifting technique is the lumbar spine.

An inability to hold the pelvis in a neutral or slightly anterior tilt leads to the lumbar spine moving into relative flexion during the exercise. Because of the way the extensor muscles are organised, that slightly flexed spinal posture significantly affects their ability to produce force.

The thoracic components of longissimus and iliocostalis attach to thoracic vertebrae and ribs (see Fig 6). They have short fibres with long tendons to the sacrum and iliac crests. The fact that the tendons are superficial (run near the surface) gives these muscles a significant leverage or pulling advantage, enhanced by the composition of the fibres being 75% slow twitch. These are, therefore, the most efficient extensors of the spine.

Back Muscles

By contrast, the lumbar components of longissimus and iliocostalis attach to transverse processes of lumbar vertebrae and insert onto the sacrum and iliac crests. When the trunk is flexed from the hips and the spine stays in its neutral lordosis, these fibres prevent anterior shear (forward slippage) of the vertebrae in forward bending. If the spine loses its neutrality and goes into flexion, these fibres lose their line of action and can no longer work against the anterior shear force.

Alternative exercises

Other exercises that prioritise the posterior chain/hip dominant muscles include:

Hyperextension

The hyperextension is normally performed on a ‘Roman chair’; the horizontally aligned and prone (face-down) body moves into flexion and then back into extension while pivoting around the hips. The spine is ideally kept straight, with all the movement taking place at the hips by recruiting the gluteals and hamstrings. The erector spinae work isometrically to hold the spine in neutral.

Reverse hyperextension

The reverse hyper is performed lying face-down on a high bench with the upper body supported and the legs hanging free. The legs are raised to horizontal, again using the hamstrings and gluteals, with a significant contribution from the pelvis to anteriorly tilt and counteract the tendency of the spine to flex as the legs are raised.

One-legged bench bridge

The client lies supine on the floor, with the heel of the working leg placed up on a bench and the other leg bent with foot suspended off the ground. They then slowly lift the body upwards until the heel, knee, hip and shoulder are diagonally aligned. This recruits the gluteals and hamstrings heavily.

Rehab uses for the RDL

The RDL is a fantastic exercise for athletes with lower back pain to commence learning, once they are out of the acute stage of their injury and pain has resolved. Not only does it strengthen the important extensors of the lumbar spine, but in functional terms it is a much better way for back pain patients to lift from knee level (as you would if you were picking up boxes off a pallet). Learning good RDL technique trains back-pain patients how to protect their spines when lifting.

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