Most people experience low-back pain at some point in their lives and there are countless reasons why back pain occurs. While it is beyond the health and fitness professional’s scope of practice to attempt to diagnose a cause of injury, you can, however, help your clients reduce the risk of developing back pain by teaching them proper movement sequencing, including how to safely use the hips and stabilize the spine when lifting heavy objects. You may not be able to tell clients why their backs might be bothering them, but you can definitely teach them how to use their bodies more effectively so they don’t experience back pain in the first place.
The Romanian deadlift (RDL) is a traditional barbell lift used to develop the strength of the posterior chain muscles, including the erector spinae, gluteus maximus, hamstrings and adductors. When done correctly, the RDL is an effective exercise that helps strengthen both the core and the lower body with one move. Unlike the traditional barbell deadlift and other quad-dominant exercises such as leg presses, which place significant loads on the anterior portion of the knees, the RDL focuses most of the physical work on the muscles responsible for extending the hip and the knee from the posterior.
Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S., a Boston-based strength and conditioning coach and frequent contributor to Men’s Health, is a fan of the RDL, but only uses it with certain clients. “The RDL is not something I use with just anyone. I have to feel fairly comfortable with someone's ability to move well before I'll consider implementing it into a program,” he explains. “Having said that, I do feel it's a fantastic exercise to build up the posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, erectors), which, coincidentally is an area that’s generally underdeveloped in many people.”
One significant benefit of the RDL is that it teaches clients how to lift from the hips instead of using the lower back. The base move of the RDL is the standing hip hinge, which is an important component of learning how to squat correctly. The first move during the lowering phase of the squat should be the hips moving back in a flexed position. Back pain is often associated with not using the hips properly when squatting or bending over to pick an object up off of the ground. Teaching clients how to lift safely in the gym means they may reduce their risk of injury when lifting heavy things in their daily lives.
Primary Movement Pattern
The primary movement pattern of the RDL is pelvis-on-femur hip flexion and extension with the feet in a closed-chain position on the ground. Hip flexion occurs during the lowering phase and hip extension occurs as the result of the muscles shortening to return the body to an upright position. The major joints involved in the movement include the hip (iliofemoral), intervertebral segments of the spine (specifically the lumbar and thoracic regions), knees, scapulothoracic joints and wrists.
Major Muscles Involved
The primary muscles involved in the RDL are the erector spinae, gluteus maximus, hamstrings (biceps femoris, semitendonosus and semimemtranosus), adductor magus, gastrocnemius, trapezius and forearm flexors.
Benefits of the Romanian Deadlift
The most important benefit of the RDL is that it teaches the proper movement and biomechanics of standing hip flexion and extension. This is the foundational movement for squatting, whether the movement is performed with a weight in the gym or while bending over to pick an object up from the floor.
Gentilcore appreciates the RDL because it can help clients enhance their movement skills and body awareness. “I feel it also helps clients learn to dissociate hip movement from lumbar movement,” he says. This is important because many clients will move from the lumbar spine when bending over, as opposed to moving from the hips. Placing the lumbar spine under load while it is in a flexed position could be a potential mechanism for injury; teaching clients proper hip mechanics could help avoid the risk of low-back injury.
Think of the RDL as a dynamic version of the plank. When performed correctly, the deep muscles of the spine work to maintain stability, while the hips allow the movement of flexion and extension. The lift can help strengthen the posterior chain muscles responsible for extending the hip and knee when the foot is planted on the ground. Finally, the RDL can improve endurance strength of the deep core stabilizers responsible for controlling the position of the spine, as well as strengthen the forearm flexors responsible for developing a strong grip.
Use a pronated (palms-down) grip to firmly grasp a barbell with the hands approximately shoulder-width apart. Maintain a slight bend in the knees with the feet hip-width apart and allow the bar to rest along the front of the thighs. You can also use dumbbells; adjust the instructions to reflect holding one dumbbell in each hand.
Lift the chest and pull the shoulder blades down toward the back pockets to maintain extension of the spine before pushing the tailbone in the posterior direction to hinge at the hips. Cue the client to keep his or her chin tucked into the neck as if holding an egg. This will help the cervical spine maintain a safe position during the movement.
Allow the weight to lower toward the floor while maintaining length through the spine. Do NOT allow the client to round the back or extend the knees while lowering the weight.
Coach the client to lower until tension is felt in the back of the thighs—probably when the bar gets to about knee height or, if the client has more flexibility in the hamstrings, to about mid-shin. Instruct the client to look toward the floor, as looking at a mirror can create stress in the cervical spine. If necessary, move the client away from facing a mirror so he or she can focus on the movement.
To return to standing, push both heels into the floor, press the hips forward and pull back on the knees while keeping a long spine. Allow the barbell to return to the front of the thighs. Cuing the client to pull back on the knees will engage the distal attachments of the hamstring and adductor muscles, which help extend the knee when the foot is in a closed-chain position.
Keep the spine long and maintain a slight bend in the knees throughout the movement.
For best results, use a squat rack to rest the barbell at thigh-to-waist height when starting, as opposed to trying to lift the weight up from the floor. Starting with the weight at the appropriate height can help the client begin in a good starting position.
Note: There is another version of the RDL that focuses on keeping the legs straight with knees fully extended. This is an extremely advanced version designed to place more load directly into the hamstrings, as opposed to using the hamstrings and glutes together, and should only be practiced by experienced lifters with excellent body control.
Teaching the Lift
The barbell version of the RDL is an advanced progression. Foundational exercises that teach the movement of hip extension, while also strengthening the posterior extensor muscles, are the hip bridge and hip thruster. These exercises focus on hip extension and flexion from a supine position and can be used to teach clients the movement pattern before progressing to the standing version.
Once a client demonstrates good control of hip flexion and extension, he or she can progress to performing a standing hip hinge without weight. When the client can perform 10 to 15 good hip hinges while maintaining a stable spine and demonstrating appropriate range of motion through the hips, he or she will be ready to perform the RDL with external resistance.
Gentilcore uses the bar to provide important kinesthetic feedback to the client. “I feel it's very important to keep the bar against the body the entire time—the farther the bar hovers away from the body, the greater the stress placed on the lower back. To correct this, I like to tell people to pull the bar into their body and to slide or glide it down their thighs.”
Gentilcore uses additional cues to help clients get an adequate stretch through the glutes and hamstrings. “[I tell a client to] move his or her head and hips as far apart as possible. This ensures the client learns to push the hips back and get a thorough stretch through the hip extensors [glutes and hamstrings].”
Common Mistakes (and How to Fix Them)
One of the most common mistakes people make while performing the RDL is allowing the spine to bend and round. When the RDL is done incorrectly, people are often flexing and extending from the lumbar spine, rather than from the hips, which could cause significant injury to the low-back muscles. If a client is bending from the lumbar spine and having a hard time focusing on hinging from hips, have him or her hold a dowel rod along the spine. The right hand should hold the rod in the small of the back and the left hand should keep the rod stable along the upper thoracic spine (between the shoulder blades). Holding the dowel rod along the spine provides kinesthetic feedback to keep the client from bending the lower back, allowing him or her to emphasize movement through the hips.
Another common mistake is watching oneself in the mirror when performing the lift. Looking directly at the mirror strains the cervical spine, and looking from the side causes the spine to bend in the direction of the mirror. The body follows the eyes, so cue your clients to keep his or her neck in a neutral position and look toward the floor while hinging forward at the hips.
Finally, clients often bend their knees during the RDL, as if they were performing a squat. A simple way to correct this is to place your hand in front of the client’s knees. As the knees touch your hand, coach the client to push back into the hips without letting the knees bend forward. Over time, your client will learn how to engage the hips, which will keep the knees from moving.
Tips for Beginners
Ideally, beginning exercisers, or those new to the RDL, should start with weighted hip thrusters in the supine position to first improve strength of the hip extensors before progressing to the standing version.
Similarly, clients should learn how to perform a standing hip hinge without weight before progressing to using external resistance. When a client is first beginning to use an external load, start with lighter weights, such as a medicine ball or dumbbells, before progressing to a standard Olympic bar, which weighs 45 pounds, before adding any additional plates.
Teaching clients proper form for the RDL and adding it to their programs can be an effective way to help them improve their strength while remaining injury free. The RDL can help those who have experienced back pain learn how to stabilize their spine and move from the hips, both of which are important for optimal movement mechanics. For clients who don’t experience low-back pain, the RDL can play a role in ensuring that back pain does not become a part of their future.
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Health and Fitness Expert
Pete McCall, MS, CSCS, is an ACE Certified Personal Trainer and long-time player in the fitness industry. He has been featured as an expert in the Washington Post, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Runner's World and Self. He holds a master's degree in exercise science and health promotion, and several advanced certifications and specializations with NSCA and NASM.