Does this sound familiar? You’re doing one of the greatest exercises ever… the Romanian Deadlift…and no matter how hard you try, you can’t keep your lower back out of it and it’s causing pain? Don’t worry, you’re not alone.
While Romanian Deadlifts (RDLS) are an effective exercise for targeting the hamstrings and glutes, they can sometimes put undue stress on the lower back, leading to discomfort or pain. In today’s coaching I’m going to share two alternatives you can try so you can achieve similar benefits of the RDL, without aggravating your lower back.
WHAT IS AN RDL?
The Romanian Deadlift (RDL) is a compound exercise primarily targeting the posterior chain muscles, which include the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back. It involves a hip hinge movement pattern where you push your hips back while maintaining a neutral spine position. This creates a stretch in the hamstrings and glutes. If it's leg day, you want RDLs in your arsenal.
BENEFITS OF AN RDL
Targeted Muscle Engagement: RDLs effectively isolate the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back muscles, and even the inner thighs, making them a great exercise for strengthening the posterior chain.
Improved Hip Mobility: Performing RDLs can help enhance hip mobility and flexibility, crucial for functional movements and injury prevention.
Compound Movement: RDLs engage multiple muscle groups simultaneously, making them a time-efficient and effective exercise for full-body strength development.
HOW ARE RDLS DIFFERENT FROM A CONVENTIONAL DEADLIFT?
While both Romanian Deadlifts (RDLs) and conventional deadlifts target similar muscle groups, they differ in technique and emphasis.
Typically, conventional deadlifts start with the bar on the floor, which creates a longer path for the barbell compared to the RDL. Because of this, they require more of a knee bend, thus bringing the quadriceps (front thigh muscles) to the party. They also require significantly more hip and ankle mobility than the RDL due to the increased distance the bar has to travel.
Other Romanian Deadlift Variations:
There are multiple variations people sometimes use if they don't feel their glutes when they do RDLs, so they might try these to mix up the stimulus:
Stiff leg deadlifts
Barbell deadlifts (either sumo or traditional deadlift setup)
Dumbbell Romanian deadlifts
Barbell Romanian deadlifts
Single-arm Romanian deadlifts
Unfortunately, it doesn't matter what variation you're doing, any of these can cause low back pain, so the alternatives I have for you in this coaching will benefit you.
WHERE SHOULD YOU FEEL AN RDL?
During a properly executed RDL, you should primarily feel tension and activation in the hamstrings, glutes, and a very small amount (if any) in your lower back muscles. It's essential to maintain a neutral spine and engage the core throughout the movement to ensure proper muscle engagement and minimize strain on the lower back.
HOW THE LOW BACK MUSCLES HELP IN AN RDL
In an RDL, the lower back muscles, including the erector spinae, play a crucial role in stabilizing the spine and maintaining proper posture throughout the movement. While the primary emphasis is on hip hinging and engaging the posterior chain muscles, the lower back muscles work isometrically with the deep muscles of the core to support the spine and prevent excessive flexion or extension.
ARE RDLS BAD FOR YOUR LOWER BACK?
RDLs are not inherently bad for the lower back. However, poor form, excessive weight, lack of hip mobility, and muscle imbalances can increase the risk of low back pain or injury during RDLs. It's crucial to prioritize good form, start with lighter weights, and consistently work on your hip mobility, while you progress gradually to avoid placing excessive stress on the lower back.
WHY DO RDLS HURT MY LOWER BACK?
There are a couple of factors that could contribute to low back pain from RDLs, including poor form, muscle imbalances, or underlying mobility restrictions. Common mistakes such as rounding the lower back, using too much weight, or hyperextending at the top of the movement can strain the lower back muscles and lead to discomfort or pain.
What I see most common is typically, the lower back comes into play when you’re unable to properly brace your abs and your pelvis rotates a little too much, causing excessive extension in the lower back. Think about having too much butt sticking out like you’re trying to get some extra likes on Instagram!
The other usual cause is too much spinal flexion in the lower back, which is usually associated with either poor hip mobility or not having that mind-body connection with your spine.
However, whichever situation you’re in, you can still keep working on your hip hinge with the variations you’ll learn today.
WHAT NOT TO DO IF YOU HAVE LOW BACK PAIN FROM RDLS
If you're experiencing low back pain from RDLs, avoid exacerbating the issue by continuing to perform the exercise with poor form or excessive weight. I usually hear someone say “If I keep moving it, I think the pain will go away.” This is not the best strategy. Instead of continuing to move to make the pain subside, your time would be better spent addressing any underlying issues contributing to the discomfort.
WHAT HELPS LOW BACK PAIN FROM RDLS
To alleviate low back pain from RDLs, focus on improving core strength, addressing any deficits in your hip mobility, and incorporating alternative exercises that target the posterior chain with less stress on the lower back. Consult with a personal trainer or licensed practitioner for personalized guidance and rehabilitation.
THE BEST LOW BACK FRIENDLY ROMANIAN DEADLIFT ALTERNATIVES
The two best alternatives for RDLs are either a staggered stance or a balanced supported single-leg variation. Both of these exercises require way less hip mobility and force the user to use significantly less weight and can even be done with zero load added, which makes them incredibly user and low back friendly. I typically recommend using 30-40% less weight than you would on a barbell.
When your stance is either staggered or single leg, you’re forcing the load into the tissues of the hips instead of possibly the lower back, which is the main goal of these movements. Give both of these a try to see which one feels more comfortable for you.
How to Do the Staggered Stance RDL
In this version, we’ll have you setup in a slightly staggered stance:
All of your weight should be on your front leg, using the back foot as only a balance piece.
Maintaining a neutral spine (not too extended or flexed) throughout, think about pushing your hips back while keeping your lead knee still. Don’t allow your weight to shift to the back leg too much as the load should still be in the front leg.
Pause when you start to feel the stretch in the hamstrings and glute of the lead leg.
Push your lead foot through the ground to drive the hips forward, back to the starting position.
Equipment needed: 2 dumbbells or kettlebells you can hold for load
How to Do the Balanced Supported Single Leg RDL
The next version will be on one leg only, however, we don’t want to make this a balance exercise. When performing this movement make sure you have a bench, wall, or anything that you can use to help you maintain your balance. If you’re working the right leg, have the support structure on your right side, and the dumbbell in your left hand.
Maintaining a neutral spine, bring your left knee to just about waist height.
With a slight bend in the lead leg, push the hips and your left leg backward like you're stomping your left foot on the wall behind you.
Try not to let your hips rotate to the left, but rather keep them square with the floor.
Pause when you start to feel the stretch in your right hip and hamstring.
Push your right foot through the floor to initiate bringing the hips forward, driving your left knee back up to waist height.
1 dumbbell or kettlebell you can hold for load
Something to balance with like a bench, rig, counter, chair, etc.
HOW TO PROGRAM THESE RDL ALTERNATIVES
If you’re just starting out, begin by performing each of these with zero weight and work on feeling the hips moving backward and then feeling the stretch in the glutes and hamstrings. Go slow, especially when pushing the hips back, and try to really connect with what is happening in your lower body, as well as your midsection.
Start out with 2 sets of 10-12 reps, 2 times per week. From there you can slowly start to add weight and an additional set. Don’t be in a rush to progress the weight, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
HOW TO GET RID OF LOW BACK PAIN
If you are currently experiencing lower back pain, I would first suggest getting a proper assessment from a licensed practitioner to figure out the severity of the situation. If your lower back is only a nagging issue that comes and goes, then here are some strategies that can get you over the hump:
Develop more spinal mobility (ability to articulate each individual vertebrae of the spine)
Increase strength in deep front core muscles. Lack of strength here will make the lower back do too much work when doing RDLs.
Work on feeling your hips when doing any activity that resembles a hinge, lunge, or squat. The alternatives listed above are a great introduction to this.
The two videos below will attack each of these and will get you on your way to a healthier lower back.
Incorporating these coaching tips and alternative exercises into your routine can assist in not irritating your lower back while performing Romanian Deadlifts (RDLs) while reaping all the benefits of this amazing exercise. Remember to prioritize proper form, listen to your body, and seek professional guidance if needed to ensure a safe and effective training experience.
BUT DON’T FORGET…
If you’re always feeling your lower back than you have a hip/spine mobility issue that we can fix real quick. Click the link below to get my Sticky Hips Cheatsheet to pinpoint where your problems are coming from or where weaknesses may be lurking so you can take action.
ABOUT COACH MATT PIPPIN
Matt is a Strength and Mobility Coach with over 15 years experience in his field and has coached over a thousand professional, collegiate and everyday athletes with the goal to help them move, feel and perform at their highest level. He's incredibly passionate about bringing simple and effective online mobility training programs to everyone who wants to take control of their self care and make lasting change. CLICK HERE to learn more.
NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist
Level 3: Fascial Stretch Specialist
Level 1: Institute of Motion Health Coach
Certified FRC Mobility Specialist (FRCms)
Level 1 Kinstretch Instructor
Weck Method Qualified