When it comes to building strength, athleticism, and the overall health of your body, there are very few exercises that can compete the deadlift. It’s generally the exercise that we can load up with the most weight and allows for the most muscle growth.
There’s a variation, however, that aggressively targets the posterior chain of muscles: the Romanian Deadlift. It’s a great functional strength builder that offers a myriad of benefits, but it can also leave certain lifters more susceptible to injury.
The Romanian deadlift was made popular by Romanian weightlifter Nicu Vlad. He competed in the Olympic Games in 1984, 1988 and 1996 winning gold, silver, bronze medals. He performed the exercise to compliment his Olympic lifts.
Some athletes have a difficult time performing the Romanian deadlift properly, and it’s not a lift that will suit every lifter. But there are also some exercise variations available to help target the same areas that the Romanian Deadlift excels in.
The Romanian deadlift is actually not a deadlift at all; the barbell does not hit the ground between repetitions. With that said, it’s a top choice by strength athletes and coaches because it works several large muscle groups simultaneously and allows a lifter to lift heavy while specifically targeting some of the biggest muscles in the body.
Sports trainers love this exercise too, especially football linemen and wrestlers. Although it was developed by an Olympic lifter to build strength in the lower back for the clean, it also develops great power in the hips and pelvis. The Romanian Deadlift excels at building explosive lower body strength and building up muscles that are generally more prone to weakness and injury.
Bodybuilders can also benefit from this exercise, not only for its ability to improve strength in other primary lifts like barbell deadlifts and power cleans, but specifically for adding muscle mass to the lower back, glutes and hamstrings.
The Romanian deadlift works many of the same muscles that any deadlift targets. However, this lift specifically targets the spinal extensors, glues, and hamstrings. The Romanian Deadlift also heavily focuses on the mechanics of a “hip hinge,” teaching the lifter’s glutes to fire and provide the explosive strength to complete the movement.
The glutes are the largest and most powerful muscles in the body – and a muscle group that can become underdeveloped in those who sit often throughout the day. These muscles provide hip stability and a weakness in the glutes can cause posture and stability issues elsewhere. The Romanian Deadlift is a great exercise to eliminate these issues.
The hamstrings are another muscle that can be underdeveloped in some individuals. For many people, the quadriceps are more developed than the hamstrings. The Romanian Deadlift pulls the quadriceps out of the movement and allows the lifter to specifically target the hamstrings without the quads helping out.
The extensor muscles function to stabilize the spine and straighten the torso. Weak extensors can leave a lifter susceptible to spinal injuries. The Romanian Deadlift also secondarily works the core, lats, and traps.
One of the biggest dangers of the Romanian deadlift applies to those who suffer from back weakness or lower back pain. Luckily, there’s a fantastic alternative to alleviate the load on the spine:
The sumo deadlift. The sumo deadlift is essentially a deadlift with a much wider stance. It allows the spine to stay more vertical throughout the movement while also focusing more heavily on the glutes and hamstrings than the traditional deadlift.
To give this movement a try, use an Olympic bar and stand with a wider stance than a conventional deadlift. The idea here is that you should stand so that your feet are pointed toward the plates on either side and your kneecaps in line with your toes. For most people, this generally means that taking a generous step wider with each foot than a conventional deadlift stance.
Other than gripping the bar in the middle, the mechanics of a sumo deadlift are like that of an ordinary deadlift. The other main difference is that the movement begins in the knees rather than a hip hinge. As you lift the weight off the floor, drive your hips forward to explode through the end of the movement. If done correctly, the exercise will target the glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps without putting the spine at risk.
Leg curls are an accessory exercise used by bodybuilders, strength athletes and runners because they directly target the hamstrings. The biggest issue with most deadlifts and squats is that they’re quadriceps-dominated movements. The leg curl allows you to supplement any sort of compound movement by giving your hamstrings individual treatment.
If you are lacking development in your hamstrings or experience tightness and discomfort when performing Romanian deadlifts, then leg curls can be a wonderful addition to your exercise routine.
There are several variations of leg curl machines. The most popular is the lying leg curl, but some machines also allow you to perform the exercise while seated. Most universal multi-stations also have a pulley set up to allow you to perform one-legged standing leg curls as well. If you have the equipment on hand, it might be worth experimenting to see which version works the best for you.
As an isolation exercise with movement occurring at only the knee joint, the leg curl is a very simple exercise. Whether lying, seated or standing, the basic movement is that you simply bend at the knee and try to bring the heel of your foot up to the top of your hamstring. The key to using this exercise as a Romanian deadlift alternative is to try to correct any issues you might be having with your hamstrings. If you suffer from a lack of strength, it might be worth loading up the weight and working on adding strength. For muscle tightness, go light and work on repetition.
Isolation movements like the hamstring curl are used by bodybuilders for aesthetics. If your exercise goals are related to appearance, the leg curl can work wonderfully in your exercise regimen. If you’re hoping to increase your functional strength, however, you can still use the leg curl in ways to improve your health and flexibility.
Our final exercise alternative is the perennially underrated lunge.
Lunges are a fantastic exercise in their own right and a great alternative to the Romanian deadlift because they allow you to work with a lighter load and still see results. Unilateral exercises like the lunge are fantastic for functional strength as well; they can help you identify weaknesses that are hidden in bilateral movements like the deadlift.
You can perform a deep lunge with a barbell across the back of your shoulders or by holding dumbbells in your hands. When performed properly and dropping down into a deep position, lunges do a great job of working the hamstrings, glutes and hips.
The exercise may sound simple to perform, but it has some variables that will be different for everyone. Start in a standing position and take a comfortable step forward. As you plant your leading foot, drop your weight slowly and brace on your leading leg. When done correctly, the lead leg’s knee remains right over the foot for the entire movement. Allow the knee of your opposite leg to nearly touch the floor before pushing through the heel of your lead foot and raising yourself to your starting position.
There are plenty of lunge variations, but a stationary lunge is probably the way to start. Variations like the walking lunge take some time to master the mechanics. As a variable to the Romanian deadlift, the lunge will focus much more on the quadriceps than any of the other exercises listed, but it will train functional strength, balance, and flexibility in a safer way. The lunge also allows for more customization; you can load up heavy for fewer repetitions or perform the exercise in a way that targets increasing muscular endurance.
The Romanian deadlift is one of the best assistance exercises you can perform to improve many of the Olympic lifts and it’s a fantastic exercise in its own right. The Romanian deadlift is one of the only exercises that allow you to lift heavy weights without mainly targeting the quadriceps.
But as with any exercise that loads heavy, inflexibility or injury can make the exercise a tough task to perform effectively. Some people also have issues with feeling the exercise properly or having the mind-muscle connection to properly fire the right muscles at the right time. For those people, there are plenty of other exercises you can substitute to achieve similar results.
Try including sumo deadlifts, leg curls and lunges in your weight lifting routine and see how your body responds to them. When performed with proper lifting technique, these exercises should be a little easier on your body without sacrificing the benefits to strength and size that the Romanian deadlift provides.
Valerie Cox is a contributing author for Texas Orthopedics.