The Ultimate Guide to Romanian Deadlifts PLUS The Best Variations

The Ultimate Guide to Romanian Deadlifts PLUS The Best Variations

clock-circular-outlinePosted 7 Sep 2023

If you have stepped foot in a gym, I'd bet on you knowing what a Romanian Deadlift is. If you don’t, it probably sounds a little bit scary (and you pulled a funny face reading the name Romanian Deadlift).

But, it isn’t scary!

In fact, it’s one exercise you absolutely want to be doing in the gym as long as you’re safe to do so, and I’ll tell you why below.

What is a Romanian Deadlift?

Whether the goal is to build peachy glutes to show off your new Gymshark biker shorts, or hamstrings that fill out 5 inch shorts, Romanian Deadlifts will help you get there.

There’s a reason that this is one exercise that you could find a gym bro, gym girl, and an athlete all doing inside the squat racks.

So, what is a Romanian Deadlift? I promise I’ll tell you below this time.

What Does a Romanian Deadlift Work?

Here’s a list of what I see from a Romanian Deadlift:

  • Exercise type - Compound (multi-joint) primary strength exercise.

  • Main joints involved - Hip and knee (hip dominant).

  • Movement pattern - Hinge (hip),

  • Movement direction - Vertical pull (lower-body).

  • Main muscles worked - Hamstrings, glutes, and erector spinae (lower back).

  • Muscle position - The hamstrings and glutes are worked hardest in the lengthened position when the muscles are stretched at the bottom of the movement.

I class the Romanian Deadlift as a primary strength exercise because multiple muscles can be loaded, but loaded heavily! It should not be seen as an accessory exercise, as it can even be used in rep ranges lower than 5 to develop maximum strength in the posterior chain. Even though the hips move backward and forwards during the hinge, force is still applied down into the ground to pull the bar up, which is why I see the direction as a ‘vertical pull’.

The Romanian Deadlift might be one of, if not the best hamstring exercise to develop a strong and muscular posterior chain (backside of our body). Although the hip thrust might be typically hailed as the queen of glute exercises, there’s actually no significant difference in glute muscle activation between the hip thrust and the Romanian Deadlift (1).

When you consider that the Romanian Deadlift also builds a strong lower back and grip/forearm strength, you start to see why I value it so highly when programming for pretty much anyone in the gym.

This doesn’t mean it’s an exercise you have to do, and it doesn’t mean it needs to be in your program.

If you want a Romanian Deadlift alternative, then the Good Morning is a good option (no pun intended). The only real difference here is that the bar is on your shoulders in a Good Morning instead of in your hands, so you can’t load a Good Morning up as much. Your lower back will likely fail before your hamstrings or glutes.

Unsure how to do a Good Morning? Read our ultimate guide to discover one of our favourite hamstring building exercises.

What Is the Difference between a Deadlift and a Romanian Deadlift?

What’s the difference between a Deadlift and a Romanian Deadlift? The deadlift starts from a dead stop on the floor. You lift first. In the Romanian Deadlift, you start standing and you lower first. Although a deadlift is still a hip-dominant hinge movement, there’s more flexion (bend) at the knee to help initiate the pull. This means that the Quadriceps may get a little more involved to help you out and lift more load. Because of this, you don’t get the same lengthening of the hamstrings that you get with a Romanian Deadlift.

At the end of the day, the Deadlift is a Powerlifting movement where the aim is to pick up as much weight off the floor as possible (without passing out).

So, which is better - a Deadlift or a Romanian Deadlift? There’s no real winner.

It’s all context-dependent based on your goals. But, I have personally programmed the Romanian Deadlift for every single one of my clients as far as I can remember. I can’t say the same for the Deadlift. Could you do both? Sure, but they’re so similar I personally don’t see the point.

How to do a Romanian Deadlift?

Romanian Deadlift form? Here are the best coaching cues on how to do the Romanian Deadlift:

  1. Grab the bar just outside your hips with your feet around hip width (2).

  2. Imagine you have apples in your armpits and you can’t let them fall out.

  3. Slide your hips back and up whilst only letting your knees bend slightly.

  4. Allow the bar to glide down your thighs and your shoulders come over your toes.

  5. The bar will typically finish around the middle of your shins.

That’s it! Here are a few further tips:

Romanian Deadlift Form Tips

  • Set your bar up in a squat rack so you don’t have to lift the bar off the floor. We're RDL'ing, not deadlifting here.

  • Don’t squash your apples too much so your shoulders are stuck back. Just keep the apples in there and let your arms stay loose and relaxed.

  • If your grip just won’t play ball, mix your grip. I usually have my strong handover and my weak hand under, as this is the one that will work harder. If it’s still not playing ball, buy some straps.

Personally, I don’t like the Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift. It’s harder to teach as there’s not a bar with a clear path to help you master the hinge and degree of knee bend. You also can’t load up with Dumbbells like you can with a barbell. So, I’m more of a Barbell fan when it comes to Romanian Deadlifts.

5 Romanian Deadlift (RDL) Variations

Now, we know Romanian deadlifts are a useful exercise no matter your fitness goals. So, how can we mix it up a little without neglecting the fundamental movement and the benefits of the RDL?

Enter, Romanian deadlift variations. Here are 5 RDL variations to keep things fresh in your training program:

  1. Barbell RDL

  2. B Stance RDL

  3. Rear Foot Elevated RDL

  4. Single Leg RDL

  5. Trap Bar RDL

1. Barbell RDL

This is the main character of the RDL variations, as we've discussed above. Need I say anymore?

2. B Stance RDL

This variation might just spice things up for you a little bit. You step one foot back so your toes are roughly in line with the back of your front foot. Lift the heel up of your back foot so it’s light, loose, and relaxed with a bent knee.

Most of your weight will be on your front leg as you lift. This allows for a bit more individual work for each leg, but still with a good amount of stability to get some weight on the bar. The only thing to consider is that you have to do both legs, which is not forgiving on your grip!

3. Rear Foot Elevated RDL

This just takes the B stance RDL and adds a bit more zing & pep (if you have seen The Office US you know). You simply elevate the rear foot up on a bench or box. Essentially, a Bulgarian RDL.

Try to keep the height of your hips even when doing this, so one side doesn’t drop down more than the other.

The benefit of this variation is that you will get even more individual work for each leg, with less support from the rear foot.

4. Single-leg RDL

This is your lowest stability RDL variation. This means it’s hard to balance, so it’s hard to load up and apply high force through the hamstrings and glutes to develop strength and size. However, for the force you lose, you gain the benefit of improving stability around the hip, knee, and ankle joints.

If you’re going to expose and improve any asymmetries, it will likely be with this variation. This is an RDL variation I quite like to use with Dumbbells. You can opt for holding one dumbbell in the hand opposite to the leg you’re working (allows you to hold onto something with the other hand for balance if needed), a dumbbell in each hand or a barbell.

Rather than focusing on the hips, I imagine that I have to push my bedroom door shut with my non-working leg and that I have to keep my toes pointing to the floor.

5. Trap Bar RDL

Adding a bit of spice (and zing, and pep) to the Barbell RDL, you can switch things up with a trap bar.

Be mindful that it’s harder to keep your knees slightly bent in this variation as you don’t have the bar sliding down your legs for feedback. However, if you feel your RDL technique is well ingrained, this can be a great variation to load RDLs up in a different way than using a regular barbell.

Because the load is at your sides and stays closer to your hips as you hinge down, this Romanian deadlift variation will likely be less demanding on your lower back, allowing you to load up and feel it on the hamstrings and glutes.

. . .

Andy has a BSc (Hons) in Exercise Science and an MSc in Strength & Conditioning. He has worked with Leeds United, Science for Sport, the NHS and more. Andy works privately with elite football players and gym goers who want to improve their performance, fitness, and body composition.


  1. Delgado, J., Drinkwater, E.J., Banyard, H.G., Haff, G.G. and Nosaka, K., 2019. Comparison between back squat, Romanian deadlift, and barbell hip thrust for leg and hip muscle activities during hip extension. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 33 (10), pp.2595-2601.

  2. Frounfelter, G., 2000. Teaching the Romanian deadlift. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 22 (2), p.55.

Andrew HydeBy Andrew Hyde

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