The straight leg or "Romanian" deadlift is named (by Jim Schmitz) after Nicu Vlad, a weightlifter from Romania. Nicu was one of the first athletes (in Western society, at least) observed using this exercise in 1990. Although it is called a deadlift, it is actually quite different in the setup, approach, and execution of a standard deadlift, not to mention targeting a more specific muscle set in the body (posterior chain).
I can't stress enough how much I not only enjoy this exercise, but highly recommend it to others who have had lower back pain. The unfortunate part about an exercise like this is that it may immediately seem dangerous to those of you with a history of back problems. We are constantly reminded to "lift with our legs" in order to save our backs. Although there isn't anything wrong with learning how to lift something with our legs, this is generally meant for objects that we are picking up off the floor such as a box or large item that extends out beyond our centre of gravity.
Safe and effective barbell training is designed to distribute the load being lifted above our centre of gravity in order to use our bodies in the most mechanically advantageous way possible. A movement such as the straight leg deadlift, although appearing to be dangerous, can actually be a very safe and effective way of lifting, targeting the muscles that make up the posterior chain in order to strengthen the connective tissues there.
Keep in mind, however, that as with any form of exercise, there are inherent dangers associated with lifting weights, and if you have a history of injury or are unsure about a specific movement, it would be best to speak to a qualified medical professional, such as your doctor, to seek their opinion on whether or not you should partake in a particular exercise or program.
The Straight Leg Deadlift
Although we will see in the explanation below that the legs are actually slightly bent, the naming of the straight leg deadlift signifies the "locked out" nature of the legs, all but eliminating the quadriceps from the exercise (some stabilization required). The straight leg deadlift specifically targets the hamstrings, the glutes, the hips, and the erector muscles of the back.
This will be elaborated on later in this guide, but your starting position for most individuals will be on the floor. However, as you improve your range of motion in this exercise, you will benefit from standing on a raised platform for allow the diameter of the weight plates on the barbell to pass lower than the level of your feet.
- Depending on what set up you have, your "starting point" will be different. If your barbell is starting from a racked or elevated position, simply lift the weight from its rack. If, however, you are starting from the floor, your initial lift of the barbell to get into a starting position should be done with a standard deadlift by bending your knees to pick the bar up. Remember to exhale through the lift. Either way, grab the bar with a double overhand grip (pronated).
- *NOTE* - do not just rush through this movement. Although you are just getting into a starting position, focus on your form picking the bar up with a flat back (natural curvature), shoulders over the bar, etc. Use the cuing found in my deadlift guide.
- You should now be in an erect position with your arms hanging loose, and straight down, holding the bar in a pronated grip against your upper thighs or hips. Your knees should have a slight bend to them.
- From your standing position, take a deep breath and puff out your chest. This causes your shoulders to fall back slightly, squeezing your shoulder blades together as well as rounding your lower back giving you a natural anterior pelvic tilt. (Do not over-exaggerate the curvature of your lower back, however!)
- Initiate the movement by bending at your hips and pushing your glutes behind you. Think of your upper body as a solid board, as is your lower body, and you are simply hinging at the hips.
- Your lower legs should remain upright and perpendicular to the ground, however your knees will ever so slightly bend in order to activate your hamstrings. You are bending at the hips as your glutes push behind you. You want to keep the "proud" or "puffed" chest throughout the entire range of motion. This will force you to focus on engaging the back erectors and keep that flat back (natural curvature).
- The barbell's trajectory should, more or less, move straight up and down. This way, the barbell should remain over your mid foot, traveling directly along your legs without scraping or crashing against your legs. This will force your lats to engage and help keep that important flat back.
- This exercise is unlike others in that your primary goal should not be to aim for full range of motion (getting the bar to the ground, for example), if you do not have the flexibility. Your range of motion is determined by your flexibility. Once you reach a point where you can no longer lower the barbell without losing the curvature of the lower back, or the upper back collapses (shoulders begin to sag to the ground), you should complete the repetition by executing the concentric portion of the exercise and returning to a standing position.
- Once you have reached the "bottom" of your eccentric action, you should exhale as you stand back up. In order to do so, the hamstrings and glutes "pull" your upper body back into an erect position by hinging at the hips, bringing them forward.
- This is a strength building exercise, both the eccentric (lowering), and the concentric (raising) actions of the bar should be done in a slow and controlled manner.
Whether you are using a barbell or dumbbells for this exercise, the cuing and range of motion should be essentially the same. Make sure you maintain the slight bend at the knees and the natural curvature of the spine throughout the full range of motion.
Q&A, Miscellaneous Facts/Tips
- One of the best things I like about the RDL is that this exercise is a tremendous posterior stretch while also working to strengthen the muscles and ligaments. The more frequently you do this exercise, the more flexible you will become therefore increasing your range of motion. You may even reach a point when you need to stand on some sort of platform (a couple stacked plates should do the trick) in order to allow the barbell to pass lower than the level of your feet.
- hen I attended my USA Weightlifting course, my instructor mentioned at how some of the Olympics-bound athletes are able to straight leg deadlift as much weight as they squat. Now although this may not be the same for you, keep in mind that the glutes and hamstrings can be, and should be very strong to help with your overall posture and posterior chain strength.