The Romanian Deadlift or RDL as it’s more commonly known is a great exercise for adding strength and size to the hamstrings and glutes. But it can also be brutal on your back if you’re making one or more of these simple mistakes.
There are lots of ways in which your RDL form could be breaking down, and it’s seldom just one thing that’s going wrong. But from my own experience with this lift, here are three of the more common mistakes that can quickly get you in trouble and cause you unnecessary pain.
1. Bending at the waist
It is entirely possible to achieve 90º or more flexion at the trunk without any movement of the hips at all. However, bending in this way puts incredible stress on spinae erector muscles of the lower back, as well as compressing the hell out of the vertebrae and discs in the lumbar spine.
The RDL is intended to be hip hinge movement, where flexion is achieved through the movement of the hips, not the waist. And this means driving your hips backward, essentially lengthening both the glutes and hamstring muscles on the back of the leg.
So if you are coming out of a set of RDLs with your lower back aching, there’s a really good chance you are simply bending at the waist and not leading the movement with an extension of the hips.
One other cue that’s useful here is to keep the hips high. This ensures that you are not also bending at the knee and essentially sitting down into the movement. It can help to imagine that each of your hips is strung to the gym ceiling with a wire that allows the hips to travel backward and forwards, but not up and down.
2. Letting the barbell drift away from your thighs/shins
Next on the list of mistakes is letting the barbell drift away from the body as you lower the weight, and it’s another common reason why lifters feel strain in the lumbar and spinae erector muscles.
As we lower the barbell in the deadlift, we are creating a moment arm with your hips. And the greater the distance the barbell is from your hips (the fulcrum), the longer the moment arm and the greater the moment force – i.e. the effective weight of the barbell.
If you’re struggling with this, think of when you last changed a tire and had to undo those wheel nuts. The shorter the wrench, the harder it is to undo the wheel nuts. That’s because the moment force you can apply to the nut is reduced. When you increase the length of the wrench you can get more leverage, which is the easy way of saying apply greater moment force.
So when you keep the barbell in contact with the thighs, knees, and shins, you are minimizing the length of the moment arm and getting the best possible leverage on your lift.
3. Bleeding away your power with a weak core and lack of tension
If you’ve been around the gym and personal trainers for more than five minutes, you’ll have heard them urging for a tight core or “stay tight“.
This is because just about every movement pattern of the human body either originates from or ripples through the trunk, and when our core is not tight, we do not have a stable base to work from.
Combined with proper breathing technique, hard tensing of the core muscles significantly increases the stability and rigidity of the spine, and dramatically increases our lifting performance.
This is true for just about every lift you perform in the gym, and it’s especially true for the squat and deadlift where spinal stability is critical to both performance and injury prevention.
At the top of the movement, before you begin the hip hinge, take a deep breath and aggressively flex your core. Lower the bar, pause, and about two-thirds of the way through your return to the top of the movement, slowly release the breath through pursed lips. This helps ensure you don’t release the tension too early, or too quickly.
A few other tips you might find useful to further improve your RDL:
- Grip the barbell a fist wider than shoulder-width. This generally ensures that your hands won’t foul your thighs and knees as you lower and raise the bar.
- Stop letting the weight hang on your bones. Keep your lats tensed, your spine neutral and your shoulders braced and back. Don’t shrug the barbell, but don’t just let it hang off the bone structure of the shoulders.
- Unlike the deadlift, the RDL starts with the eccentric phase of the movement. As a result, it can be advantageous to set up the barbell on your rack or stabilizers, allowing you to get a strong starting position and set up for the movement.
- The average non-competitive lifter is not training the RDL to improve grip strength! So take one more variable out of the equation and use straps to ensure a solid grip. I personally use the Versa Grip Pro for my pulling work, and it makes one hell of a difference to the quality of your lifts.
It’s just too easy to load up the barbell, get all beast mode, and muscle through some ugly-looking reps. Instead, focus on good mechanics, intelligent cues, and building your strength from a stable foundation.
There’s never a reason to experience pain from your lifting, and you risk a serious injury by not cleaning up your form and nailing your movement patterns.
If you’ve experienced pain with your RDLs, drop me a comment below. And let me know if these fixes and tips worked for you, as well as any others I might have missed!
Want a better way to deadlift?
The harsh reality is that the set-up and execution for a conventional deadlift is far from optimal for most people. But you don’t have to give up on the deadlift altogether. In this article, I talk about the challenges of the conventional deadlift and give you 5 reasons why the trap bar deadlift is a superior movement for most people.
It’ll cost you nothing but a little of your time, and it might just change your life!