There are certain fitness moves that just sound intimidating. Bear planks. Alligator crawls. And another one that tops the list as many trainers’ fiery favorite? Romanian deadlifts.
The full body move—which you’ll find as a mainstay in many strength training workouts—is an amped up version of the old-fashioned dead lift, and is characterized by an increased range of motion from your knees. The result? A weighted workout that will hit your hamstrings, core, and glutes in one fell swoop. While the move can admittedly be scary to try on your own, don’t worry: We’ve got you covered with everything you need to know to master it—and how to have perfect Romanian deadlift form—below.
What’s the difference between a regular deadlift and a Romanian deadlift?
There are a number of different types of deadlifts out there—from single-leg deadlifts to Sumo deadlifts—but they’ve all got the same general idea: to lift a weight along the front side of your body using your core and posterior chain. Romanian deadlifts are one of many types of moves that fall into this umbrella category. Unlike moves that share its name, the Romanian deadlift is super targeted to hit your glutes and hamstrings hard.
With a regular deadlift, you grab a weight up off of the floor and pull it up to stand, using the muscles in your glutes and core. A Romanian deadlift, however, starts with the weight at your hips, which creates a smaller range of motion. “Romanian deadlifts tend to target the hamstrings and the move is dependent on hamstring and hip strength,” says Training Mate Founder Luke Milton. “Usually the Romanian Deadlift is performed with a lighter weight than a standard deadlift and is focused on the eccentric lowering motion, as opposed to the deadlift, which has a concentric lifting focus.”
Because you’re lowering the weight down against gravity instead of lifting it up off of the floor, the move requires you to engage your glutes and hamstrings in a completely different way. And, bonus? It will also hit your core and forearm flexors with each and every rep.
How to build up to a Romanian deadlift
Before you grab a weight and get to work, there are a few things to keep in mind. Most importantly? You’ll want to start light. Since this move is more targeted than your conventional deadlift, you’ll want to take things down a notch with how heavy you’re lifting. Use lighter weights than you would for a traditional deadlift and work up your strength until you’re able to progress to some higher pounds. “Start with lighter weights—whether that’s a dumbbell or a kettlebell—as you build up grip strength, says Katie Kollath, CPT and co-founder of Barpath Fitness. The move is traditionally done with a barbell, but you can swap in a dumbbell if you want to work with something lighter (or if that’s all you’ve got at home).
Another way to work your way up to the full expression of the move is to practice with single-leg Romanian deadlifts, in which you’ll keep one leg planted on the floor with the other extended out behind you as you lift. “This variation requires much more unilateral stability,” says Kollath. This will help you become accustomed to the lowering motion, and make it easier when you work your way up to trying it with two feet flat on the floor.
The biggest mistakes people make in their Romanian deadlifts
1. Using weight that’s too heavy: While you may think you’ve got lifting your usual set of heavies down pat, trying to use them in your Romanian deadlift can lead to problems. “Because the Romanian deadlift requires such hip and hamstring strength, the overload of heavy weights combined with inadequate strength of the hamstrings and hips usually leads to a sore lower back,” says Milton. Plus, it will prevent you from being able to do the move properly, which totally defeats the purpose in doing it at all.
2. Rounding your spine: It may take some getting used to, but it’s important to keep your spine completely straight as you lower down into the move. “You want to lower the bar down while maintaining spinal extension—aka a flat back—and only go as low as you can while keeping that position,” says Kollath. “As soon as you feel or see rounding in the spine, you’ve got too far.” How low you’ll be able to go is completely dependent on your individual body. According to Kollath, some people will need to stop just under the knees while others will have the ability to lower to the shins or even the floor—but it’s important to pay attention and stop as soon as you feel your form start to sacrifice.
3. Looking up: “As people attempt to engage the lats and keep the back tight, they may look up and cause stress on the cervical spine,” says Kollath. To avoid this, you’ll want to keep your gaze fixed out in front and slightly downward, which will help keep your head and neck in alignment with the rest of your spine.
4. Locking your knees: While there is a version of a deadlift that requires you to keep your legs straight (called a “stiff leg dead lift”), you want to make sure they stay nice and loose for this variation of the move. “Be sure to keep your legs bent as this can lead to injury,” says ACE-CPT, Kollins Ezekh. Locking your knees is a major no-no, too, as that’s another surefire way to hurt yourself.
A step-by-step guide for proper Romanian deadlift form
1. Start standing with your knees slightly loose with the barbell (or whatever you choose to use for a weight) held squarely in front of your hips. Focus on engaging your lats by squeezing your shoulder blades back and down.
2. Initiate the movement by pushing your hips and glutes back and keeping your knees slightly bent.
3. Keep the weight close to your body as you bend forward, and go as far down as you can without rounding your upper back in the process. Keep your gaze looking straight ahead to ensure you’re keeping your back straight as you bend over.
4. Drive your hips forward and squeeze your glutes as you stand back up to start.