The Lift: Romanian Deadlifts

The Lift: Romanian Deadlifts

In the summer of 1990, at the Sports Palace in San Francisco, legendary Romanian weightlifter Nicu Vlad unintentionally revealed to the world one of his strength training secrets. The lift, which was later dubbed the “Romanian Deadlift” had never been witnessed in the USA until that summer when he toured the country for training for the 1990 Goodwill Games.

Part of the clinic was Nicu doing a workout where he cleaned and jerked around 220 kg to 230 kg, and then he proceeded to do this lift, a combination stiff-leg deadlift and regular deadlift, but actually neither. He did several sets, working up to 250 for triples.

Someone watching asked what the exercise was he was doing. Nicu just shrugged his shoulders and said it was to make his back strong for the clean. Dragomir also said the same; it was just a lift that Nicu had developed for his back and clean. Well, then everyone was really interested and asked Nicu to demonstrate it with lighter weights and describe how to do it. Someone taking notes asked what this lift was called. There was a long pause and Nicu and Dragomir didn’t have a name, so I said, “Let’s call it the Romanian deadlift or RDL for short,” and every one agreed and there you have the birth of the RDL.

What the Hell are Romanian Deadlifts?

The Romanian deadlift, or RDL, is an eccentric lift, in comparison to all other deadlifts which are concentric lifts that normally start and focus on the positive portions of the lift. The RDL is a lift that starts at the top and focuses on the eccentric, or negative portion, of the movement in which the bar travels toward the ground.  Without touching the ground, the bar is then lifted back up to the starting position.

The Lift: Romanian Deadlifts

Nicu Vlad performing the Romanian deadlift on a platform to increase range of motion. Credit: 70’s Big

Primary muscles groups contracted in the Romanian deadlift are the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back. Nicu Vlad performed this style of deadlift to strengthen his back for the Olympic clean. If you’re familiar with good mornings, imagine the same movement but instead of holding the bar on your traps and rear deltoids, it is held in your hands.  Although the movements are similar, I would argue that RDLs are much and more effective than good mornings at working the hamstrings.

Whereas good mornings load the barbell on the upper back, the RDL does not. This means that starting out, there is already less of a chance to round the back during the lift, which should be avoided at all times. The RDL also separates the eccentric and concentric portions of the movement with a natural elastic bounce of the hamstrings, whereas the eccentric portion of a good morning must be stopped in large part by the lower back unless chains or pins are used in a power rack to halt the eccentric portion. Secondly, but anecdotally, I feel a much deeper hamstring stretch from an RDL partly because it allows me to safely load the bar with as much weight as I can hold on to, without the worry of failing and rounding out my back during the lift.

How to Perform Romanian Deadlifts

Start with a loaded set on a power rack set at a height that you can clear the bar off the pins in a normal deadlift lockout stance.  The bar can also start off the ground but don’t try to do a Romanian deadlift starting off the ground.  If you’re starting with the bar on the ground, deadlift it up as you normally would and stop at the top of the lift keeping your whole body straight but your knees unlocked.  Use the same overhand or mixed grip that is used in a normal deadlift.  Straps or an overhand hook grip may be used if you find that the weakest part of the lift is holding onto the weight.

What does matter is keeping your lower back tight and absolutely straight the entire time.  As you lower the bar toward the ground, go only as low as you can without rounding your back.  If you have fairly average flexibility, you should be able to touch your fingers to your toes with a rounded back.  You’ll probably only be able to bring the bar just below the knees without rounding your back.  It is at this point that you’ll feel your hamstrings stretched out to their fullest.

Unlike the stiff-legged deadlift, which Romanian deadlifts are often confused with, the legs don’t stay completely straight.  Instead, the glutes and hips are driven back and the knees bend slightly but the knees never move forward.  The barbell glides down along the legs the entire way and never leaves contact with the body.  When the hamstrings can’t stretch any further, pull the bar back up and drive the hips forward.  The more repetitions you do, the lower your hamstrings will allow the bar to travel because of increases in hamstring flexibility.

Key Points

  1. Start the lift at the top.
  2. Maintain a straight lower back at all costs.
  3. Drive the hips back and chest forward.
  4. Lower the bar down the legs, touching the legs the entire time.
  5. Unlock to knees and allow them to bend slightly but don’t push them forward.
  6. Go as low as your hamstrings can stretch with a straight lower back.
  7. Bring the bar back up the legs.
  8. Drive the hips forward.
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