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Barbell RDL: The Ultimate Guide

November 17, 2022

Barbell RDL Guide

Otherwise known as the Romanian Deadlift, the Barbell RDL is a great compound exercise that targets many muscles in the posterior chain – mainly the hamstrings and glutes.

Considered an accessory lift to the deadlift, the RDL is an effective exercise that can be used for strength training, hypertrophy training, injury prevention, and muscular endurance.

The use of submaximal loads means we can strengthen the lower back without excessively loading the spine. This will help spill over to other exercises such as the squat, deadlift, and hip thrust where lower back strength is vital.

This article aims to uncover everything you need to know about the RDL, including benefits, how to, exercise variations, and more…

 

Muscles involved in Barbell RDL (AKA Romanian Deadlifts)

The barbell RDL targets many of the same muscles the conventional deadlift does, with the main difference being the degree of quad involvement. A conventional deadlift targets the quads when the legs are used in the early portion of the movement to get the barbell off the ground, whereas the quads don’t have much to do in the barbell RDL.

Let’s look at each of the muscles and how they’re involved.

Hamstrings

The hamstrings are one of the main muscles involved during the Romanian deadlift. The reason being is because of the flexed knee position during the descent. This position puts a stretch on the hamstrings forcing them to work hard throughout the movement.

 

Glutes

The primary role of the gluteus maximas is hip extension (Ie increasing the angle between the thigh and the pelvis). Once we reach the bottom of the RDL movement, it will be the glutes that need to work hard to push the hips forward to return to the starting position. The glutes are considered one of the most powerful muscles in the body and our heavily involved in exercises such as the squat, deadlift, and hip thrusts, so building strength in this region is a sensible idea.

 

Lower back

The lower back muscles, in particular, the Erector Spinae muscles will be heavily recruited during the Romanian deadlift. The role of these muscles will be to keep the back straight throughout the movement. If we can’t keep the back in a safe position throughout the movement, we could end up with a nasty injury.

 

Upper Back

The upper back muscles, including the lats and traps, will also be targeted throughout the lift. The role of these muscles includes preventing the shoulder from rounding forward as we lower the weight, preventing the shoulders from dropping as we hold the weight, and helping maintain the neutral spine position throughout the entire movement.

 

Forearms

Lastly, the forearms. Like any exercise that involves holding a weight (essentially with your fingers), your forearms are responsible for the grip strength needed to prevent the weight from falling out of your hands. When we start performing high-rep sets, our grip strength is vital to ensure our target muscles fatigue before our grip strength does. 

 

 

How to do the Barbell RDL

The Barbell RDL is an awesome exercise that when performed correctly can provide numerous benefits. On the other hand, it’s also an exercise that if performed with improper form can cause a big upset.

It’s imperative then, that we learn how to perform the exercise with proper form so we can benefit from the number of positive benefits it provides.

Barbell RDL - How to

 

The Setup

A big difference between the RDL and the conventional deadlift or stiff leg deadlift is the starting position. With the conventional and stiff leg deadlift, the starting position will be with the barbell on the floor and the first half of the movement involves you lifting the barbell until you’re upright. In contrast, the RDL has you starting in the upright position with the weight in your hands and the first half of the movement involves you lowering the bar toward the floor.

To get to the RDL starting position we can either use a squat rack to hold the barbell which will us to re-rack in the upright starting position, or we can deadlift it off the floor.

If we opt for the deadlift option, this is what we’re going to need to do:

  • Load the barbell with your desired weight
  • Step under the bar and adopt a hip-width stance. As you look down, the bar should be positioned over your shoelaces. Slightly point the toes outwards.
  • Bend down and grab the bar with a double overhand grip, slightly outside shoulder width distance
  • Bend the knees, keep the back straight, arms straight, and shoulders in line with the barbell
  • Maintaining a straight back, push through the middle of the foot to lift the weight to the upright position

If we decide to use the squat rack, this is what we’re going to do:

  • Setup the squat rack so that the bar height is between the knees and the mid-thigh
  • Load the barbell with the desired weight.
  • Step under the bar. As you look down, the bar should be positioned over your shoelaces.
  • Grab the barbell with a double overhand grip
  • Set your shoulders and back and lift the barbell off of the squat rack stand
  • Carefully take 1-2 steps backward leaving you with enough room to complete the movement without colliding with the rack
  • Position the feet hip distance apart and slightly point the toes outwards.

 

The Movement

So we’ve got to the starting position and we’re ready to start the movement, here’s what we’re going to do:

How to perform Barbell RDL

  • Keeping your chest up, shoulders back, abs tight, and back braced – unlock your knees so that there is a slight bend.
  • Push the hips backward and slide the barbell down the legs while maintaining the body cues mentioned above
  • As you lower the bar down the knees you will begin to feel the hamstrings stretch. Once your hips stop moving backward and you feel a deep stretch in the hamstrings, you have reached the bottom of the movement (this is usually a few inches below the knee)
  • Contract the glutes and the hamstrings pull the bar back up the legs and shift the hips forward. Remembering not to overextend.

 

Form Tips

To benefit the most from the Romanian deadlift, and to avoid picking up an injury, we’ll want to stick to the following form tips:

Neutral Spine – Throughout the movement, it’s vital to maintain a neutral spine. If we round the spine at any time during the movement we’re asking for trouble. Don’t be fooled into rounding the spine just to allow the bar to move further towards the floor thinking you’re getting that extra range of motion – going lower isn’t the goal here, it’s feeling the stretch on the hamstrings (which happens at different positions for each individual – heck my hamstrings are on fire at the knee!)

 

Knee position – At the start of the movement we unlock the knees, which is basically bending them slightly. A common mistake we often see is that people are prone to excessive bending of the knee as the bar travels down the front of their legs.

Instead, we should focus on keeping the same degree of knee bend throughout the entire movement. Yes, the degree of knee bend will reduce slightly as the bar moves closer to the floor because the hamstrings are being stretched, but we want to control this so that the exercise doesn’t turn into some sort of squat variation. The goal here is to target the hamstrings, not the quads.

 

Range of motion – Everyone’s physiological makeup is different. One person may feel a stretch in their hamstrings when the plates are a couple of inches off the floor and another person may feel a stretch in the hamstrings when the bar is just past the knees, And both our completely fine.

We want to go as low as we can to feel a deep stretch on the hamstrings – at what point this occurs, it doesn’t matter. Do what works for you, and don’t compare the range of motion to other people’s capabilities.

 

Weight distribution – Naturally, as you hinge at the hips, the weight will want to shift from the entire foot to the heels. We should be conscious of this and try to maintain keeping the pressure through the mid to back foot and prevent the toes from lifting off the floor. 

 

Upper body positioning – Although a lower body movement, a number of positions need to be maintained by the upper body for injury prevention and to allow for the movement to recruit the target muscles.

Firstly, the arms. The arms should be locked out and not flexed at the elbow. Flexing at the elbow joint will mean the biceps are working hard to maintain the position, using energy where it’s needed elsewhere (the hammies!). You also run the risk of a bicep tear if we’re working with heavy loads – something we’ll want to stay well clear of.

Secondly, we’ll want to ensure the chest is up and the shoulder blades are back and dropped (these two work synonymous with each other). This position throughout the movement will help maintain a healthy back position and reduce the chances of injury.  

 

Bar path – The bar should stay close to, or even touching the legs at all times. Many athletes like to keep it touching the legs where possible as it helps them to keep on the right bar path. If the bar shifts too far forward you’ll be putting too much pressure on the back and less pressure through the hamstrings.

 

Exercise Tempo – You see many people in the gym rushing the movement, this may be due to working with weights they’re not comfortable with, or maybe they haven’t been taught correctly.

The Romanian deadlift focuses on the eccentric portion of the exercise ie. The lengthening of the hamstrings as we lower the weight. If we fail to control this, and “drop” the weight too quickly, we could potentially overstretch the hamstrings and pick up an unwanted injury.

 

Grip Strength – The Romanian deadlift is not an exercise to test how strong your grip is, It's an exercise to build the hamstrings and glutes. We should therefore not let our grip strength govern how much weight we can use during the exercise, and if our grip strength starts to fail before our hamstrings/glutes do, then it's probably time to invest in some wrist straps. 

Our recommendation

Recommended wrist straps

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Barbell RDL Benefits

If you’re still undecided as to whether you need to program in the RDL to your exercise regime, let us cover the benefits to help you make up your mind.

 

Hamstring and Glute strength and size

As you know, the prime movers in the RDL are the hamstrings and glutes, therefore they’re a great exercise if you’re looking to build muscle and strength in this region. Implement progressive overload and fuel the body with the right nutrition to maximise the strength and size benefit the RDL can bring.

 

Teaches the hip hinge

The Barbell RDL is a great movement that can teach you how to properly hinge at the hips.

Many exercises rely on the ability to hip hinge so having the ability to do this correctly is vital. Often you see people at the gym performing this fundamental movement pattern incorrectly, you see them curve the spine as they lack the support in their lower back – this is a recipe for disaster.

Mastering the form with the Romanian deadlift can help learn how to hip hinge safely, it will teach you to brace the core and the back through the movement to maintain a healthy spine position.

It also helps to teach lifters to use the hips rather than the lower back when the big lifts. With many cases of back pain being associated with not using the hips properly during exercises, mastering how to use the hips is a must.  

 

Builds the Posterior Chain

The RDL is an excellent exercise used to build strength in the posterior chain muscles including the erector spinae, glutes, and hamstrings. With many people being underdeveloped in this area, the RDL can help with bringing this region up to speed with the rest of the body.

 

Aesthetics

Aesthetics and building a body that looks good is a goal that is of high priority to many gym goers. While several men are striving for big arms and chests, many women are targeting the well-toned rear look.

To achieve this, not only do we need to build strong fuller glutes, but we need to build the hamstrings – and that’s where the RDL comes in.

As you know, the RDL primary mover is the hamstrings. But what we haven’t mentioned is that the second highest recruited muscle during the exercise is the glutes. This is because during the concentric part of the exercise the glutes are working hard to extend the hip and bring you back to the starting position.

As a result, the RDL is the perfect exercise to build that popular heart shaped butt look.

 

Sports Performance

Many sports require athletes to have strong hamstrings. If your chosen sport requires you to run, jump, push or pull, then you’re going to need to build your hamstrings.

Not only does the Romanian deadlift increase hamstring strength to aid in athletic performance, but it also helps by increasing hip stability and core strength – 2 components that are required for most athletic endeavours.

If increasing your speed, power, agility or strength can help you reach new heights in your sport then strengthening your hamstrings should be high on the priority list. 

 

Romanian Deadlift V Stiff Leg Deadlift

“What is the difference between the Romanian deadlift and the Stiff Leg deadlift?” A question we’ve been asked countless times and one that doesn’t seem to be going away in a hurry.

So, let’s answer it.

The first big difference is the starting position. With the RDL you start the movement in the upright position whereas the stiff leg deadlift begins from the floor.

Barbell RDL Starting Position

Stiff leg deadlift starting position

The second difference is the range of motion. Romanian deadlifts are designed so that the bar goes just below the knees (that’s roughly where you feel the stretch in the hamstrings) whereas the stiff leg deadlift touches the floor after each rep.

Essentially, when performing the RDL the bottom of the rep is when the hips stop moving backward. But with the RDL, you keep flexing the hip and knees until the weights touch the floor.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that stiff leg deadlifts are therefore the better exercise because they have a larger range of motion. The fact that the RDL doesn’t touch the floor means that you keep tension on the target muscle, and with mechanical tension being the main driver for muscle growth, the RDL is considered an ideal exercise for building strength and size.

Although both exercises target the same muscle groups, in our experience, the RDL emphasises the hamstrings and glutes whereas the Stiff leg deadlift shifts the emphasis to the lower back. Both exercises have a place in the training program depending on which muscle group we’re looking to build on.

 

Barbell RDL Variations

 

Smith Machine Romanian Deadlift

The smith machine variation is ideal for individuals who are new to the RDL. It allows you to focus on perfecting the movement pattern without worrying about balancing the barbell or swaying forward or backward as the machine is there to support you. It also means you can start the movement in the starting position without the need to deadlift it off of the floor.

Smith machine Romanian Deadlift

 

Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift

The dumbbell variation is very similar to the barbell version with a subtle difference. The difference is that each arm is loaded individually. This can help fix any muscle imbalances and helps with stabilisation at the hips and back by reducing the chances of one side doing the majority of the work.

It’s also a handy exercise to have in your arsenal for when all of the barbells at the gym are taken, or when you don’t have access to a barbell such as working out at home.

 

Single Leg Romanian Deadlift

In this variation, we will be training each leg unilaterally. Again, working out in this way can help iron out any muscle imbalances, so we recommend including some unilateral exercises in your training program. If balance and coordination and required for your sport, then this exercise could be the one for you. 

 

Dumbbell split leg Romanian Deadlift

Similar to the single leg RDL, but this time our trailing leg will have the ball of the foot on the floor for support. As stability is one of the elements contributing to a good muscle building exercise, being able to train each leg independently whilst providing a degree of stability is a sound approach to an exercise, for both muscle and strength gains.

Dumbbell Split Leg Romanian Deadlift

 

Romanian Deadlift Alternatives

As we know, the prime mover muscles for the Romanian Deadlift are the hamstrings and the glutes. So, to find a good alternative, we must choose exercises that also target these 2 muscles.

We’ve recently written an article discussing the best exercises to target the underbutt. As the underbutt is the area where the hamstrings and glutes met, the best exercises to target this area are also the ones that involve the glutes and hamstrings.

But, we’ll reiterate the best exercises here…

 

Barbell Goodmorning

The barbell goodmorning is a very similar movement pattern to the RDL, with the difference being where the resistance comes from. With the RDL the resistance (barbell) is in the hands, whereas the goodmorning has the resistance on the shoulders. This can will shift some of the emphasis from the hamstrings to the glutes and lower back.

With regards to loading, the goodmorning is typically more difficult than the RDL as the resistance is further away from the pivot point (ie It’s on the shoulders not in the hands). Start light and work up to a weight you’re comfortable with.  

 

Glute Ham Developer

As the name suggests, the glute ham developer does exactly what we’re after – it develops the glutes and hamstrings. It can also help by reducing the load on the lower back. The lower back has its fair share of involvement as it’s required for all the big lifts, so an exercise that gives it a rest is the perfect solution.

 Glute-ham developer exercise example

 

Reverse Hyper Extension

Many RDL variations and alternatives are limited by grip strength, you can only perform the exercise as long as your grip allows you to. That’s not the case with reverse hyper extensions. You can fatigue the muscles you’re targeting without having to give up halfway through as your grips failed you.

The reverse hyper extension is also a great exercise for building lower back strength. Having a solid lower back prevents the spine from flexing during compound exercises such as squats and deadlifts. So using isolation exercises like the reverse hyper extension is a great idea as it can build strength and prevent future injuries.

Reverse hyper extension exercise example

 

Barbell RDL – Final Thoughts

You’ve made it to the end of the article. Hopefully, you now understand how to perform the barbell RDL, and why you should consider incorporating it into your workout program. The ability to build the muscles in the posterior chain through RDL’s will not only work wonders for aesthetics, but the increased power, endurance, and strength benefits are transferable to other exercises and sporting disciplines – helping you to perform at the top of your game.

Barbell RDL By Robor Fitness Pin

 

 


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