The Romanian deadlift is a great exercise for developing hip extension strength and trunk strength, whilst also developing grip strength and scapular control when performed correctly. In this short article I will outline a couple of basic progressions that you can complete, from most basic to more advanced.
All three of these progressions can be loaded using a barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, half trap bar or landmine variation. You can of course just use your bodyweight too, if you are only just starting your strength training journey. The movements are more important than the means of loading it - again, your body doesn’t know if you are lifting a dumbbell or barbell, it only knows stress and tension. For the sake of simplicity, I have include barbell variations as these are more often used.
This is a foundational exercise in a number of training programmes, as it is a great way to strengthen the hamstrings, glutes and lower back which produces an outcome of increased hip extension force (the underpinning outcome).
Prior to this exercise, it’s important that we learn basic hip hinge mechanics (the underpinning movement), which allows us to move through hip flexion/extension in a neutral spine position.
The Romanian deadlift (or ‘RDL’) is a great way to develop strength and hypertrophy, and can be loaded more heavily than the more advanced progressions. This means that once it’s been mastered, you can still include it along with more unilaterally focussed exercises. For example, we could programme an RDL using 3-6 repetitions to develop maximal strength, whilst using higher volume 8-12 repetition schemes in single-leg RDLs. As with all training, it doesn’t need to be a dichotomy - both are needed at relevant times, but we need to understand WHY we are using the exercise and what outcome we are intending to achieve.
Example load parameters - 3 to 5 sets of 5-8 repetitions at 70-85% 1RM (or 1-2 reps in reserve) with a 3s down, 1s up tempo
Split Stance Romanian Deadlift
The split stance RDL variation biases a single limb, meaning we can achieve more relative load. This is owing to the ‘bilateral deficit’, which states that we can achieve more load in a unilateral exercise than we can in half the load from a bilateral exercise. For example, if we can perform 5 repetitions at 60kg, it is likely that we can achieve more than 30kg in a split stance RDL.
A split stance RDL is not technically a truly unilateral exercise, however as both limbs contribute to the load. One way that we can reduce the contribution from the rear leg is to shift our weight onto the balls of our toes by lifting our heel off the ground (known as a ‘B-stance RDL’).
This is the second stage in our progressions and builds the foundations to achieve a truly single-leg RDL.
The benefits of this progression are that you can achieve relatively more unilateral load than a traditional RDL, and a lot more than a single leg RDL where balance is often a rate limiter.
Example load parameters - 3 to 5 sets of 4-8 repetitions per leg at 70-85% 1RM (or 1-2 reps in reserve) with a 3s down, 1s up tempo
Single Leg Romanian Deadlift
The final progression is to move to a single leg RDL, which is a truly unilateral exercise (only one foot on the floor). The benefits of this progression are that you get a large proprioceptive/balance challenge whilst also really challenging the hip and ankle joints. It is a much more difficult exercise to load heavily than a split stance variation, meaning that it isn’t a great option for out and out strength development, but is an excellent tool for developing control, balance, and unilateral hip stability. You can also achieve large ranges of motion when performed correctly, meaning enhanced mobility throughout range.
As this exercise is a difficult one to load heavily, it’s important to consider what the outcome of your training is. If you are using this exercise to develop hamstring strength through range whilst also increasing hip stability then it can be a fantastic option. If you want to develop maximal strength, then balance will limit your ability to achieve this outcome. Understanding the intended goal is important, and you can of course include both bilateral and unilateral variations as has already been suggested.
Example load parameters - 3 to 5 sets of 5-8 repetitions per leg with a 3s down, 1s up tempo
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