The Romanian Deadlift is hands down my favorite exercise for hitting my hamstrings along with my posterior chain because it allows me to use heavy weights, the lift isn’t too technical, the stretch that I get in the hamstrings is amazing and the contraction is great as well. One of the biggest problem that I see with people who do RDL’s is that they don’t like to go too heavy because they baby their hamstrings and on the other side of the fence you have a lot of people who do heavy RDL’s but end up getting a lot of lower back pain.
I am going to first address the first group, if you aren’t lifting heavy on RDL’s then you are leaving a lot of potential size and strength on the table because this is a phenomenal posterior chain exercise that will build your back side like no other. Secondly, if you are part of the second group who gets hurt often when doing heavy RDL’s then you should follow the tips below so that you minimize the injury risks for the next time you train your lower body with RDL’s.
1) STOP LIFTING IN SUCH A LOW REP RANGE AND TRAINING TILL FAILURE
One of the biggest mistakes that I see with people who hurt their backs with RDL’s is that they will do heavy singles, doubles or even triples where they are using way too much weight and the set looks like a grinder from the first rep because the bar is moving way too slow. I am a big advocate of doing sets of 5-8 on RDL’s for the most part because that way you have to actually get some reps in so you will have to lighten up the weight so you will be getting more out of less weight.
As a bonus, I honestly think that you will build more muscle by doing sets of 3×5-8 than if you were to just do 3×3 because there is more volume, total amount of weight being moved and a lower injury risk in my humble opinion.
I suppose that you could do very low rep RDL sets on a frequent basis if your don’t go to failure and use sub maximal loads too, but I would still recommend sets of 5 throughout the year too because you can’t only do singles and triples all year long.
2) STOP MAKING SUPER BIG WEIGHT JUMPS FOR WARM-UPS AND BETWEEN SESSIONS
Another mistake that I see with people hurting their lower backs with RDL’s is that they will make very big jumps in weight from session to session or on warm-up sets, I am not a big advocate of any of them.
If you did RDL’s with 405×5 with very sloppy form then don’t expect to hit 415×5 with good form because it won”t happen in most cases and that’s honestly a pretty big jump too.
As for warm-up sets, the jumps that you will make really depend on how strong you are. If you can do RDL’s with 405×5 with good form then a good warm-up might be something like:
empty bar x 5
This is a safer warm-up in my opinion and you aren’t pre-exhausting yourself too much which is good too. Although if you were to be doing RDLs with 275lb x 5 then I would recommend a warm-up that is more like this:
empty bar x 5
This is a wiser warm-up for a 275lb Romanian Deadlifter because the jumps aren’t that high and by the time that he/she is at the desired weight then they will feel better and more ready.
3) MAKE A CONSCIOUS EFFORT TO KEEP THE CHEST UP THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE MOVEMENT
One of the most important cues for getting stronger on RDL’s and also to prevent back pain as much as possible is to teach yourself how to keep your chest up at the bottom of the RDL. When you are at the bottom with the bar at around mid shin level then you basically want to pull the bar as far as you can into the mid shin area while consciously sticking your chest out. This back arch will make you a lot stronger and it will also keep you a lot safer for when the weights get heavy. The important thing though is that you apply this when you are lifting heavy as well and not just to do it on your warm-up sets because or else it just defeats the purpose. You want to do this cue on your warm-up sets so that it becomes second nature and then it eventually becomes a habit that you don’t have to think about.
4) PUSH YOUR HIPS BACK TO ENGAGE AND LOAD UP MORE OF THE POSTERIOR CHAIN
One of the biggest RDL mistakes is that most people treat their RDLs like a Stiff Legged Deadlift and they don’t push their hips back enough which shifts more of the load to the lower back and not enough of the load to the hamstrings and glutes. Next time you do RDLs, try to push the hips back as much as possible and even exaggerate it if you have too. I promise you that you will feel the movement more in your hamstrings and glutes while feeling it less in your lower back.
I honestly used to think that I was pushing my hips back a lot but I had no clue until I recorded myself doing RDL’s and noticed that I could have pushed my hips back a little more. As a bonus, the more you push your hips back then the better of a workout your hamstrings will get because the stretch will just be amazing, you have to try it yourself.
5) REMEMBER TO PULL BACK ON THE CONCENTRIC COMPONENT AND NOT JUST UP
Another big mistake that people make when they do RDL’s is that they will pull up when coming up on the concentric, but they won’t pull back. Deadlifting variations are all about leverages and if you only rely on using your lower back to pull up then you will run into more pain. Think about it, you aren’t leaning back or anything like that, but you are just pulling yourself up and more back and since the heavy weights are in your hands then your spine will still be neutral and your whole body will still be straight at the top of the movement if you do it properly.
6) PULL THE BAR EXTREMELY HARD AGAINST YOUR THIGHS IN ORDER TO ENGAGE THE LATS MORE
The lats help stabilize the spine and they are very strong muscles that can handle a lot of abuse and weight so it would be smart that you use them instead of just relying on your hamstrings, glutes and lower back to do all of the work. The role of the lats in the RDL is to keep the bar as close to your body as possible and this is important because when dealing with heavy weights if the bar is only a few inches away from your legs then you will start to round more and feel more back pain.
7) STOP DOING HALF REPS
If you want to stop getting lower back pain from RDL’s then it is very important that you stop doing half reps (reps where you only bring the bar to your knees or above). When you do this you are basically ego lifting in the sense that you are only strong in a certain range of motion and you also aren’t training the hamstrings as optimally as you can in most cases. Notice how I said in most cases because I there are certain exercises that I do such as the Rack RDL where I purposely overload the top half of the movement in order to really overload that part of the lift, but its intentional. When you are doing regular RDL’s, you want to go to about the middle of the shin. Some people like to touch the floor with the bar and that’s great if you have good full body awareness and hamstring flexibility, but its not going tot make or break you, both are fine in my opinion.
8) PULL RDL’S FROM THE RACK INSTEAD OF THE FLOOR
I remember I trained at my buddy Justin’s commercial gym and all of the squat racks were taken and I was doing RDL’s that day so I basically decided to do my RDL’s from the floor where I had to conventionally Deadlift the weight up and then start the movement. The problem with this is that it takes a lot of energy to get the lift started and I noticed that I get better hamstring workouts when I pull the weights from a rack that is set to about knee height so I can basically un-rack the weight and start the set more easily. This is a small detail and its more of my personal preference, but maybe the same thing might apply to you as well.
9) GET A BELLY FULL OF AIR, KEEP YOUR CORE TIGHT AND THEN DO THE CONCENTRIC PART
I’ve noticed that when people actually do un-rack the bar on their RDL’s that they don’t take a deep breath in and tighten their core in order to have a more stable foundation and help protect the lower back to a greater degree. Remember that belts won’t help your lower back feel better in most cases because you are just using it as a crutch to lift more weight. You want to try to build your own belt with insane core strength instead. My favorite ab exercises are weighted planks or weighted decline sit-ups.
BONUS TIP: DO CABLE SUMO PULLTHROUGH BETWEEN RDL SETS FOR MORE GLUTE ACTIVATION AND SPEED
I do a few exercises for glute activation during my actual warm-up before the workout, but I like to do sumo cable pull-through between my sets of RDL’s because it helps my glutes feel more activated while also helping with my speed out of the bottom of the movement. I don’t go heavy on these at all (maybe sets of 12-15 reps) and it works just fine.
The RDL is one of the most chopped up exercises that I see in the gym and it is very rare to find someone doing an RDL with good form with an appreciable amount of weight. If you follow the tips above then I can almost guarantee you that you will reap the benefits of this amazing exercise, get stronger, build more muscle and stay injury free!