The RDL is one of the most effective exercises for lower body strength and size. But how do you perform it properly? And how should you programme it into your workouts? In this complete RDL guide we’ll be covering:

Let’s get straight into it:

RDL: Your complete guide

RDL Meaning

The RDL, or Romanian Deadlift, is a deadlift variation which gained its name after Romanian weightlifter Nicu Vlad was seen doing them in the international training hall. They’re now renowned as one of the most effective posterior chain strength and size exercises around.

RDL Exercise Demonstration

Here’s a quick 60-second RDL exercise demonstration including essential tips and movement cues:

RDL Form

Good RDL form is all about keeping your back flat and hinging at your hips. Your goal is to keep as much tension on your hamstrings as possible and achieve a deep stretch at the bottom.

How do you do an RDL step by step?

Here’s how you do an rdl step by step:

  1. Find your start position, which is stood upright holding your barbell
  2. Make a very small (1″) bend in your knees
  3. Initiate the movement by pushing your butt backwards and hinging at your hips
  4. Hinge as far as your hamstring flexibility allows, aiming to pause in a deep hamstring stretch
  5. With control, start to reverse the movement, bringing your torso back upwards and squeezing your glutes to bring your hips back through.

How do I know if I’m doing RDL correctly?

You’ll know if you’re doing an RDL correctly because you’ll feel a deep stretch in your hamstrings (the muscles on the back of your leg)

You’ll also know if you’ve done them correctly the next day, as you should be experiencing a good amount of muscle soreness.

It can also be a good idea to record yourself performing your rdls and watch the footage back to make sure that you’re moving correctly.

RDL vs deadlift

The RDL is different to the deadlift because you start the movement from standing, whereas in the deadlift you start with the bar on the floor. This means that in the RDL you’re focusing on the top half or top two-thirds of the movement.

The deadlift is also different as you will typically use a slightly lower hip position than in the RDL, as well as using some quads. The deadlift tends to provide a larger overall stimulus and allows you to lift more weight, but the RDL allows you to target your hamstrings more.

RDL vs stiff leg deadlift

The RDL is different to the stiff leg deadlift because you start with the barbell in a standing position, whereas in the stiff leg deadlift you start with the barbell on the floor.

In all other ways, the two movements are identical, working the same muscle groups through the same movement pattern (assuming you’re flexible enough)

RDL Muscles Worked

The main rdl muscles worked are your hamstrings, glutes and spinal erectors:

RDL muscles worked

Hamstrings: Your prime movers, which are loaded eccentrically and stretched under load.

Glutes: A major hip extensor muscle, which you will use to return to your start position.

Spinal Erectors: Major muscles used to maintain your back position and stable torso as you complete the movement.

Rdl for Glutes?

Whilst the RDL definitely uses your glutes, it’s not the best exercise to use if building big, strong glutes is your main goal. This is because it doesn’t allow for your glutes to stretch under load.

If the glutes are your focus, I highly recommend walking lunges and hip thrusts.

RDL Variations

If you’re wanting some variation from the classic barbell rdl, then here are three RDL variations you can use in your own strength training.

RDL with dumbbells

The dumbbell RDL is a simple variation in which you’ll use two dumbbells instead of a barbell. Here’s what the dumbbell rdl looks like:

RDL Form With Dumbbells

Good RDL form with dumbbells is exactly the same as good rdl form with a barbell. You’re aiming for a flat back and a hinge at the hips. You should have minimal knee bend, and you should focus on getting a deep stretch in your hamstrings.

RDL on Smith Machine

The smith machine RDL is an RDL variation where you swap out your barbell for a fixed smith machine bar. The advantage of this variation is the extra stability it provides, allowing you to lift more weight in a smooth, controlled manner.

Smith Machine RDL Form:

RDL form on a smith machine is exactly the same as barbell RDL form. You’re aiming for a flat back and a hinge at the hips. You should have minimal knee bend, and you should focus on getting a deep stretch in your hamstrings.

Single Leg RDL

The single-leg RDL, or one-leg RDL, is a variation that allows you to focus on training one leg at a time. This makes it a useful variation for addressing imbalances, as well as a useful variation for building stability and balance for athletic transference.

Form in the Single Leg RDL

Good form in the single-leg RDL is similar to a typical RDL, but requires more attention to balance and hip position. As you hinge at your hips and get a stretch in your hamstring, make sure to keep your hips relatively level and not overcompensate by twisting.

Programming the RDL

How many sets of RDL should I do?

You should typically do 1-4 sets of RDL’s per workout. Romanian deadlifts are a very potent stimulus, and you might be surprised just how sore one or two sets can make you when performed properly.

How many reps of RDL should I do?

I recommend that you do 5-15 reps of RDL. In theory, you can technically perform 5-30 reps and still get great hypertrophy, but I’ve found that for most people, higher rep RDL’s start to break down your form, or increase your breathing too much.

What weight should I use for RDL?

I recommend that you use a moderate to heavy weight for RDLs, typically a weight that you can perform 5-15 reps with and still have 1-2 reps left in the tank (RIR 1-2)

If you’re not sure how heavy your RDL’s should be when you start, I recommend something in the region of 30-40% of your deadlift 1 rep max. You can always adjust up or down over time.

RDL Workout

An effective RDL workout can actually be incredibly minimalist. Here’s an example:

“RDL’s: 3 sets of 5-10 reps @ 2 RIR”

And that’s it. Done. 3 sets of 5-10 reps and you’re finished. If you do those rdl’s properly with a good controlled eccentric and a deep stretch on each rep, you’ll wake up the next day and your hamstrings will be torched.

RDL Frequently Asked Questions

How do I rdl without back pain?

The rdl should not cause back pain. If you experience back pain whilst performing the RDL then I recommend switching to another exercise. You might also benefit from reducing the weight you’re using and taking the time to film your sets and review your technique. Lower back discomfort is often caused by rounding of the lower back, so keep an eye out for this.

Is rdl a compound exercise?

Yes, the RDL is a compound exercise as it works multiple muscle groups across multiple joints. Specifically, romanian deadlifts work your hamstrings, glutes and spinal erectors, with work focused around the hip joint, but also slightly at your knee joint.

Can rdl replace deadlift?

RDL can absolutely replace deadlift if you’re training for hypertrophy (muscle size) in fact it might even be slightly better as it allows you to target your hamstrings for a deep stretch. However, if you’re training for maximal strength then you’ll still need to include regular deadlifts. Regular deadlifts allow you to lift more total weight, produce more force and build more strength.

Do you touch the ground with RDLs?

You can touch the ground with RDL’s if you have enough flexibility in your hamstrings. If this happens, I actually recommend standing on a slight elevation to allow for even more range of motion and an even deeper stretch.

How do you do an RDL at home?

You can do RDLs at home if you have a barbell, dumbbell or kettlebell. You can also do RDLs at home using a loaded backpack. The main issue you’ll face is that you might not have enough weight to achieve an optimal stimulus. To work around this, I recommend trying single-leg romanian deadlifts.

Next Steps

Alright, that’s enough reading for today, time for action…

1) Try out the RDL in your own training program, or if you need a bit more guidance consider having a look at custom programme options.

2) If you want more training tips, workouts and programmes, feel free to join my mailing list.

3) And if you’re looking for 1:1 strength and conditioning coaching you can find more information about my services here.

‘Til Next Time


strength coach

Alex Parry, MSc, BA

Alex is the Head content writer and Coach at Character Strength & Conditioning, as well as an Assistant Lecturer and PhD Researcher at the University of Hull.

His experience includes 8+ years within professional strength and conditioning, as well as working as a tutor & educator for British Weightlifting.