Why the Romanian Deadlift Is the Key to Bigger, Stronger Legs

Annie Hayes
·11-min read

What makes the Romanian deadlift worthy of inclusion in your leg-day routine? Well, for a start, it’s one of the best exercises for training the posterior chain – the muscles that make up the back of your body – says David Kingsbury, founder and head trainer at Opus Fitness in London. “It’s really good for strengthening your back,” he says. “Take a bent-over row – you wouldn’t do that move with 200kg, but you can potentially do a Romanian deadlift with that sort of weight.”

For the same reason, it’s excellent for building your grip strength, too – which, believe it or not, can be an important indicator of your overall health. The better your handgrip strength, the healthier your heart, a study of more than 4,600 people by the Queen Mary University of London concluded. Other studies have found that a stronger grip correlates with a lower risk of heart attack, heart disease and stroke.

The benefits don’t end there. Incorporating the Romanian deadlift into your training plan will give your big lifts a serious boost, and if you’re a runner, you’ll see extra power in your stride. Plus, it’s a great fat-burner. “It’s really good for elevation of your metabolism, because it’s such a big compound exercise,” says Kingsbury. “You’re really blowing by the end of a set.”

Put simply, it targets many of the same muscles that a conventional deadlift develops while giving your hamstrings and glutes a little extra attention.

Want to learn how to do it with perfect form? We're here to help.

How to do the Romanian Deadlift

When it comes to deadlift form, two things differentiate the Romanian deadlift.

In a nutshell, your legs are a lot stiffer and there’s much less hip flexion, says Kingsbury. Read: No squatting movement. “Some people think you need to do it with a straight leg but that’s not right – you need to soften your knees,” he says.

To do the Romanian deadlift:

  • Hold your weight (dumbbells or a barbell) in front of your thighs, and lower to the ground by pushing your hips back.

  • As you lower the weight, keep your shoulder blades drawn towards each other and your chest open and wide.

  • When the weight is below your knees, thrust your hips forward and return to the starting position.

Romanian Deadlift: Form Tips

Now you've got the basic technique down, take your Romanian deadlift to the next level with these tips from Kingsbury and Hannah Bright, personal trainer and nutrition coach at DW Fitness First.

  • Depending on how tall you are, Kingsbury says, your weight should stop somewhere between your knee and the middle of your shin (the taller you are, the closer to your knee, FYI). “You don’t want to go too far down,” he clarifies. “It depends on your flexibility, but if you try and move through too great a range, you’ll start to bend from your back and you won’t control it with the right muscles.”

  • A ‘neutral’ or ‘slightly curved’ spine position is key to performing a Romanian deadlift with good form, explains Bright – so avoid looking upwards (or keeping your gaze trained down) to keep your neck in line.

  • Another common technique error involves failing to engage your upper back, “so that towards the bottom of the lift your shoulders are pulled forwards into a rounded position,” says Kingsbury.

What should you do then?

  • Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart and shoulders back, says Bright. “Hinge forward at the hips, keeping your spine straight and sending your hips back as you bend forward,” she says.

  • “Make sure the bar is close to your legs on the way down. Lower as far as you can, keeping your core tight, and return with control to the starting position.”

What's the Difference Between a Deadlift and a Romanian Deadlift?

No deadlift is superior to another, but different deadlifts will allow you to target different areas. So, for example, whereas the traditional deadlift is good for strengthening your lower back, Romanian deadlifts are a great alternative if you're looking to zone in on your hamstrings and glutes and if you want to increase hip mobility.

Romanian deadlifts are also a great option if you're suffering from low-back pain, but still want to incorporate some deadlifts in your programme. A study published in the journal PLoS One reported that the erector spinae was less activated in Romanian deadlifts.

Alternatives to Romanian Deadlifts

Just as Romanian deadlifts allow you to zone in on certain muscles, performing other deadlift variations will allow you to target different muscles. Try these out for starters.

Single-leg Romanian Deadlift

  • Grab your dumbbell or kettlebell and let it hang at arm’s length in front of your thigh.

  • Next, hinge at your hips and lower your torso until it’s almost parallel to the floor. Let your left leg stretch out behind you with your toes pointed down to the floor the entire time. The weight should travel straight down toward the floor in your right hand. Hold your left arm out to the side for balance.

  • Return to the starting position without letting the toes of your left foot touch the floor. That’s 1 rep.

Stiff-leg Deadlift

  • Hold your dumbbells in front of your body with your knees slightly bent.

  • Lower the weight to your ankles by extending through your waist and keeping your back straight, then slowly return to the starting position.

Traditional Barbell Deadlift

  • Keeping your feet flat beneath the barbell, squat down and grab it with your hands roughly shoulder-width apart.

  • Keep your chest up, pull your shoulders back and look straight ahead rather than up or down.

  • Lift the bar, keeping it close to your legs and focus on taking the weight back onto your heels (rather than your toes). Think about pulling the weight towards you on the way up. Lift to thigh level, pause, then return under control to the start position.

  • Let the weight come to a complete rest between each rep. While it's on the floor, take a second or two to make sure your body is in the correct position – chest up, upper back tight and eyes looking forward – before lifting it up again.

When to Put Romanian Deadlifts into Your Workout

With ‘how’, ‘why’ and 'what else' covered, the next question must surely be ‘when’. Timing is everything, and attempting a Romanian deadlift too early in the workout could result in injury if you haven’t warmed up thoroughly. Too late and fatigue may have set in. “It’s a big exercise, it’s going to take a lot out of you,” says Kingsbury, “you want to do it relatively fresh so you can give it your all.”

Ready to take on the Romanian deadlift? Below, you’ll find two no-nonsense workouts, plus a variation of the move to attempt when you’ve mastered it.

Romanian Deadlift Workout: Legs Only

This leg day burner by Bright utilises simple sets and supersets to fire up your lower body. We suggest getting the bus home.

Barbell Squat

Sets: 4
Reps: 10

  • Stand with your feet more than shoulder-width apart and hold a barbell across your upper back with an overhand grip – avoid resting it on your neck. Hug the bar into your traps to engage your upper back muscles.

  • Slowly sit back into a squat with head up, back straight and backside out. Lower until your hips are aligned with your knees, with your legs at 90 degrees – a deeper squat will be more beneficial but get the strength and flexibility first.

  • Drive your heels into the floor to push yourself explosively back up. Keep form until you’re stood up straight: that’s one.

Barbell Deadlift

Sets: 4
Reps: 10

  • Squat down and grasp a barbell with your hands roughly shoulder-width apart. Keep your chest up, pull your shoulders back and look straight ahead as you lift the bar.

  • Focus on taking the weight back onto your heels and keep the bar as close as possible to your body at all times.

  • Lift to thigh level, pause, then return under control to the start position.

Leg Press (A)

Superset with Romanian Deadlift
Sets: 3
Reps: 15

  • In the leg press machine position your feet shoulder-width apart on the platform and raise until your legs are outstretched without locking your knees.

  • Slowly lower the platform until your knees are at 90 degrees to the floor, then push back to the start position through your heels.

Romanian Deadlift (B)

Superset with Leg Press
Sets: 3
Reps: 15

  • Stand behind a grounded barbell. Bend your knees slightly to grab it, keeping your shins, back and hips straight.

  • Without bending your back, push your hips forwards to lift the bar. From upright, push your hips back to lower the bar, bending your knees only slightly.

Walking Lunges (A)

Superset with Kettlebell Swings
Sets: 3
Reps: 12 (per leg)

  • Lunge forward as far as you can with your right leg, bending your trailing knee so it almost brushes the floor.

  • Use the heel of your right foot to push yourself off into the next lunge, this time leading with your left leg.

Kettlebell Swing (B)

Superset with Walking Lunges
Sets: 3
Reps: 12

  • Place a kettlebell a couple of feet in front of you. Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and bend your knees to lean forward and grab the handle with both hands.

  • With your back flat, engage your lats to pull the weight between your legs (be careful with how deep you swing) then drive your hips forward and explosively pull the kettlebell up to shoulder height with your arms straight in front of you.

  • Return to the start position and repeat without pauses.

Romanian Deadlift Workout: Legs, Back and Chest

Photo credit: Constantinis - Getty Images
Photo credit: Constantinis - Getty Images

This workout by Kingsbury takes a more functional, full-body approach, hitting your legs, back and chest in quick succession.

Incline Barbell Bench Press

Sets: 4
Reps: 12

  • Lie back on a bench set to an incline angle and lift a barbell to shoulder height, palms facing away from you.

  • Breathe out as you press up with both arms. Lock out your arms and squeeze your chest before returning slowly to the start position.

Romanian Deadlift

Sets: 4
Reps: 12

  • Stand behind a grounded barbell. Bend your knees slightly to grab it, keeping your shins, back and hips straight.

  • Without bending your back, push your hips forwards to lift the bar.

  • From upright, push your hips back to lower the bar, bending your knees only slightly.

Walking Lunges

Sets: 3
Reps: 10 (per leg)

  • Lunge forward as far as you can with your right leg, bending your trailing knee so it almost brushes the floor.

  • Use the heel of your right foot to push yourself off into the next lunge, this time leading with your left leg.

Standing Cable Chest Fly

Sets: 3
Reps: 10

  • Attach stirrup handles to the high pulleys of a cable crossover machine. Take one in each hand – your arms should be outstretched with a slight bend at the elbow.

  • Place one foot slightly forward, brace you core, and pull the handles slightly downward and across your body until your hands meet, then return to the start position.

Single Arm Dumbbell Row

Sets: 3
Reps: 10

  • Head to a flat bench and place your right hand against it under your shoulder, keeping your arm straight.

  • Rest your right knee on the bench and step your other leg out to the side.

  • With your free hand grab a dumbbell off the floor and row it up to your side until your upper arm is parallel with the floor. Lower slowly back to the floor and repeat.

Prone Hamstring Curl

Sets: 3
Reps: 10

  • Lie face down on a leg curl machine with your heels against the lower pad and the upper pad against your thighs.

  • Bend at the knee to pull the pad up as far as possible then return to the start position.

Single Leg Romanian Deadlift

Single leg Romanian deadlifts encourage unilateral stabilisation through your hips and glutes, says Kingsbury, improving strength and stability evenly. “Think about a basketball player who does loads of jumping on one leg, or a long jumper who does loads of explosive jumps on one side,” he says. “It’s about keeping your legs even on both sides – you have to make sure you’re taking them through an equal ratio of work because otherwise you’ll create imbalances and issues.”

Single Leg Romanian Deadlift

  • Hold two dumbbells in front of your thighs, palm facing inwards.

  • Slowly lift one leg straight behind you, bending the other slightly, and lean forward so that your arms lower the dumbbells towards the floor.

  • Pause, then return to upright position.

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