The Barbell RDL: A Complete Guide | How to Build Stronger Hamstrings!

By
Mike Kenler
October 13, 2020

The Barbell RDL

Formally known as the barbell Romanian deadlift, the barbell RDL is an essential exercise for building strength in your hamstrings and glutes. 

Not only will this exercise increase your lower body strength, it will help you prevent injury and improve your performance in other exercises. In this article, we cover all you need to know about the barbell RDL.

Muscles Worked by the Barbell RDL

Primary Muscle Groups:

The barbell Romanian deadlift engages the four muscles in the back of your leg that comprise the hamstring: the biceps femoris (a group of two muscles: long and short head), semitendinosus, and the semimembranosus. During this exercise, you should feel a deep stretch in these muscles.

The gluteal muscles are a group of three muscles: the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus. While the barbell RDL targets this group as a whole, it especially works the gluteus maximus, which is the largest of the three muscles.

Secondary Muscle Groups:

The barbell RDL is a true compound exercise, as it activates muscles throughout the body. This exercise secondarily works your core muscles, as your abdominals and obliques contract to stabilize your mid-section.

In addition, your trapezius, forearms, and mid-lower back activate to control the weight during the exercise motion.

Barbell RDL Benefits

1. Bigger and Stronger Glutes and Hamstrings

The barbell RDL generates metabolic stress and mechanical damage to the muscle fibers in your glutes and hamstrings. As a result, your individual muscle cells will grow through a process called hypertrophy. 

With greater muscle mass, not only will your lower half look more defined, but you will be able to improve your performance in other lifts such as the barbell squat and the deadlift.

2. Injury Prevention

The barbell RDL can help teach you the proper form of how to hinge at the hips. Far too often, novice weightlifters lack support in their lower back. They tend to bend over from the spine rather than hinge at the waist, thereby risking injury.

The barbell RDL can teach you the proper chain of movements that you use when you hinge your waist, which will allow you to exercise more safely. 

3. Improved Athletic Performance 

Lastly, adding the barbell RDL to your workout regimen can help you improve your athletic performance. Walking, running, jumping, and other athletic movements all depend upon hip strength, endurance, and form. 

The barbell Romanian deadlift increases the strength and stability of your hips and core muscles. This will only serve to improve your performance in any athletic endeavor. 

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How to Do the Barbell RDL

Equipment:

For this exercise, you will need a barbell and some weights. 

Setup:

1. Set up a barbell on the ground with light to medium weight.

2. Assume a standing position with your feet shoulder width apart. Step forward so that the barbell is over the middle portion of your feet. 

3. Hinge at the waist and bend your knees so that your back is roughly parallel to the floor.

4. Grab the bar with your palms facing towards you and your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart.

5. Lift the barbell up to a standing position. 

Action:

1. With a slight bend in your knees, hinge at the waist with a straight back and slowly lower the barbell towards the ground. You should feel a deep stretch in your hamstrings as your hips move backwards. 

2. Pause for a moment at the bottom and reverse the motion as you return to the standing position. Squeeze your glutes hard in this position.

3. Maintain tightness in your core and repeat!

Recommendation:

If you are new to the barbell RDL, choose a light weight to begin and complete 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps. If you are more comfortable with the form, load on some more weight and complete 6-8 reps for 3-4 sets. 

Barbell RDL Mistakes

1. Rounding of the Back

Rounding the back is the most common mistake made during the barbell RDL. Whenever you make any athletic motion, it is important to stabilize your body before you move. 

Before hinging at the waist, pinch your shoulder blades together to keep your back straight and tighten your core to keep your abs engaged. This will greatly reduce your risk of injury during the barbell RDL.

2. Rushing the Motion

The barbell RDL emphasizes the eccentric portion of the exercise when the hamstrings are lengthening. For that reason, it is crucial to do this exercise slowly to maximize the tension on your lower body.

When people rush through the RDL, they usually are trying to lift too much weight. Instead, lift a comfortable weight and complete each rep slowly. Not only will this increase your gains, but it will improve your mind-muscle connection as well!

3. Locking Out the Knees

While you do not want to bend your knees too much during the barbell RDL, locking out the knees can be very unsafe. This can result in the barbell swinging far out in front of your knees, which places excessive stress on the lower back. 

Instead, slightly unlock your knees and focus on keeping the barbell  close to your body as you hinge at the waist.

Barbell RDL Variations

1.  Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift 

The dumbbell Romanian deadlift is a great variation of the barbell RDL. If you feel more comfortable holding dumbbells rather than a barbell, give the dumbbell RDL a try, making sure to keep the same form as the barbell variation. 


2. Single Leg Dumbbell RDL 

You can use the single leg RDL to train your legs unilaterally as well.

Begin by grabbing a pair of dumbbells and assuming a standing position with your feet close together. Place all of your weight on one foot and balance in this position. Engage your core and bring your shoulder blades back and down. 

While keeping your back straight, sit your hips back and begin to bend forward and bring the dumbbells down towards the floor. *Note* — While your planted leg should remain nearly straight, you can allow your trail leg to bend slightly. 

Keep leaning forward until your back is roughly parallel to the floor. You should feel a deep stretch in your hamstrings. Now, reverse the motion as you return to the standing position and squeeze your glutes. Maintain tightness in your core and repeat!

3. Leaning RDL

The leaning RDL is a dynamic variation of the barbell RDL. Start in a squatted position with your back straight and your arms in front of you. Then, push your hips back and reach down towards your toes.

You should feel a deep stretch in your hamstrings. Then, return to the squatted position. Repeat!

Barbell RDL Alternatives

If you enjoyed the barbell RDL, check out these alternative leg and glute exercises to improve your lower body training:

1. Straight-Legged Deadlift

The straight-legged deadlift is very similar to the Romanian deadlift. However, in this exercise, keep your knees completely locked and reach the weight further towards the floor (if your flexibility allows). 

The straight-legged deadlift focuses more on hamstring activation whereas the Romanian deadlift involves greater hip flexion. 

2. Nordic Hamstring Curl

The Nordic hamstring curl is one of the best exercises for strengthening the hamstrings and glutes.

Begin by kneeling on both knees with your back straight. Secure your ankles with a piece of equipment or have your partner hold them in place. Tighten your hamstrings, glutes, and abs.

Keeping your back straight, slowly lean forward until you reach the floor. *Note — most people cannot control the movement all the way down. Lean forward as far as you can until you fall forward and catch yourself.

Squeeze your hamstrings to raise your body back to the starting position. Feel free to push yourself up off the ground if you need an initial boost. Squeeze hamstrings and glutes hard at the top to maximize the contraction. Repeat!

3. RFE Split Squat

‍ Also known as the Bulgarian split squat, the RFE split squat heavily targets your legs and your glutes. 

Begin by placing your trail foot on the elevated surface behind you. Step outwards with your lead foot so that your trail leg is slightly bent. 

Lean slightly forward and keep your back straight. Engage your core and squat downwards into your front leg. Pause for a moment at the bottom of the rep and drive upwards with your lead leg. 

Maintain tightness in your core and repeat!

Looking for A Full Leg Workout?

Follow along to this intense 5-minute barbell leg workout!

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Mike Kenler
Director of Writing | Certified in Plant Based Nutrition at T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies

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