How to strengthen your back and prevent injury by performing Romanian deadlifts

The Romanian deadlift might be less well known than its conventional counterpart, but it could be a more effective training alternative for preventing muscle imbalance, especially for non-strength athletes and recreational trainers. Even better, these benefits come with a reduced risk of back injury.

Often strength athletes overemphasise ‘quad dominant’ exercises such as squats, leg presses and step ups, neglecting posterior chain exercises that work the lower back and hamstrings. Chris Mallac looks at a safe and effective way of redressing this balance – the Romanian deadlift.

The Romanian deadlift (RDL) is not a true deadlift, because the weight is not lifted from the floor and therefore is not a dead weight. The weight moves from knees to hips, not from floor to hips.

Legend has it that the exercise is not even very Romanian: a solitary Romanian powerlifter performed this type of lift many decades ago at a competitive meet and the American competitors liked what they saw, so they ‘borrowed’ the idea and started training with this exercise. It has since become a boutique exercise used by strength athletes, but it is in fact a much safer version of regular deadlifts.

The basic goal of the RDL is to lower a weight from the hips down to the knees and back again to the hips. This is achieved by bending from the hips (and slightly from the knees) while holding the bar with elbows in full extension and shoulder blades retracted in the initial set position.
In contrast to the traditional deadlift, which uses multiple joints and therefore falls into the category of ‘compound’ exercise, the RDL is an isolation exercise that only really uses movement at the hips.

However, along with traditional deadlifts, the RDL is grouped under the ‘hip dominant’ or ‘posterior chain’ list of exercises. The regular deadlift also involves knee bending and is therefore less ‘perfect’ than the RDL as a hip-dominant exercise.

For the average gym-goer or non-strength athlete, the RDL probably represents a better and safer alternative to deadlifts for training the posterior chain muscles, mainly due to the different types of muscle contraction involved in executing the two lifts.

The RDL is a fantastic exercise for athletes with lower back pain to commence learning, once they are out of the acute stage of their injury and pain has resolved. Not only does it strengthen the important extensors of the lumbar spine, but in functional terms it is a much better way for back pain patients to lift from knee level (as you would if you were picking up boxes off a pallet). Learning good RDL technique trains back-pain patients how to protect their spines when lifting.


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