The Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift, also known as the dumbbell RDL, is an essential exercise for building your hamstrings and low back. It is a closed-chain compound exercise designed to strengthen the posterior chain muscles, primarily the hamstrings, glutes, and the back of the torso.
Learning how to perform the dumbbell Romanian deadlift well will not only strengthen and build these muscles, it will teach you effective movement patterns that translate to most other exercises. And, if you’re training at home, you can do these with minimal equipment!
By the end of this article, you will know how to perform the dumbbell Romanian deadlift, how to avoid the most common errors with this movement, how to program it for your goals, and variations that will kick your training up a notch.
We will cover:
- how to perform the dumbbell Romanian deadlift
- common errors with the dumbbell Romanian deadlift
- muscles worked by the dumbbell Romanian deadlift
- benefits of the dumbbell Romanian deadlift
- who should add the dumbbell Romanian deadlift to their routine, and who should avoid it
- how to program the dumbbell Romanian deadlift
- dumbbell Romanian deadlift variations
- dumbbell Romanian deadlift alternative
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Video: Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift Tutorial
How to Perform the Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
For this exercise, you will need a pair of dumbbells.
Treat this as a repetition. Keep your back flat and use proper mechanics. No sense getting injured picking up the dumbbells because your focus was elsewhere.
Step 1: Place a pair of dumbbells on the ground about shoulder-width apart with the handles parallel.
Step 2: Step between your dumbbells with a hip-width stance and your toes pointing straight ahead.
Step 3: Squat down and grab your dumbbells with a neutral grip. Your back should be slightly arched, your chest up, and your hips slightly higher than your knees.
Step 4: Drive through your legs and stand up with the dumbbells at your sides.
Form Tip: Hold the dumbbells at a slight angle, not directly in front of your thighs, but not at your sides either. The front head of the dumbbells should be pointed slightly toward your midline and the back head of the DBs pointed slightly out.
Step 5: Drive your butt straight backward to hinge at the waist and lower the dumbbells toward the ground. Keep a slight bend in your knees (soft knee), a straight back, your chest up, and your head neutral. Focus on feeling a deep stretch in your hamstrings, and control the eccentric phase.
Movement Tip: The dumbbells should stay very close to your legs as you descend.
Step 6: Pause in the fully stretched position, then reverse your movement by driving your hips forward, extending your back and hips.
Step 7: Avoid fully extending your hips at the top, which will take tension off the hamstrings and hips. Just before reaching full hip extension, flex your glutes and hamstrings hard, and then drive your butt back and drop into another repetition.
Step 8: Repeat for your desired number of repetitions.
Common Errors With the Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
Avoid these common errors to maximize the effectiveness of the dumbbell RDL.
Keeping Your Head Up
Many lifters look up as they hinge at the waist. This places unnecessary stress on your neck and can cause you to overarch your lower back. Instead, your head should remain neutral throughout the movement.
As you hinge at the waist and lower the dumbbells, keep your head in a straight line with your back by allowing your eyes to look toward the floor.
Imagine a yardstick tied to your waist, extending from your low back to the top of your head. The yardstick should remain in contact with your back throughout the entire movement.
Or, think of holding an egg between your chin and neck. That little cue has helped me fix this error with countless clients!
Bending Down Too Far
Another common error is descending too far. Remember, the Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift is a hip-hinge movement, not a squat.
You should lower the dumbbells until you feel a deep stretch in your hamstrings, but no further. When you reach that point of tension, your low back will likely start to round.
If you feel your low back starting to round, stop and reverse the movement. You can always lower the weight or perform fewer reps if necessary. The key is to make sure your form is perfect before adding more weight or volume.
Rounding Your Back
Rounding your back is the most common mistake made when performing the dumbbell Romanian deadlift.
Yes, you can round back during specific exercises, like the Jefferson curl. Those are very specific exercises with very specific purposes and care should be taken when learning them. Performing the dumbbell Romanian deadlift with a rounded back is not only ineffective as a muscle and strength builder, it’s a recipe for disaster.
Before initiating your hip hinge, engage your lats and pinch your shoulder blades together. This will keep your back straight and chest up and will help brace your core.
Bending Instead of Hinging
The dumbbell Romanian deadlift is a hip hinge. New lifters tend to bend at the waist instead of hinging, bringing their chests out over their toes. This places a lot of stress on the low back muscles and doesn’t engage the hamstrings and glutes sufficiently.
If you can’t seem to feel a good stretch in your hamstrings and glutes, this is probably the reason why.
Think about pushing your butt straight back, as if you’re trying to touch a wall behind you. If you can’t imagine it, stand with your back to a wall, take a big step away from it, and then try to touch it with your glutes by hinging at the waist.
Or wrap a resistance band around a power rack pillar, set at waist height. Step through the band and walk away from the pillar until you feel a strong pull. Stand tall and then bend at the waist, letting the band pull your butt back. Hinge only as far as your butt can go backward, and then stand tall.
Locking Your Knees
This isn’t a stiff-leg deadlift, which has a different purpose. For the dumbbell RDL, we want a slight bend in the knees. Not too much, it’s not a squat, but enough you can perform a proper hinge. Locking your knees is not only hard on them, it often causes the dumbbells to travel too far in front of your body, which places stress on your lower back.
Bend your knees slightly before you hinge, and focus on keeping the dumbbells close to your body as you descend.
Lifting Too Heavy
This is a mistake for two reasons. First, when you try to lift too much weight, your form will suffer. Second, the Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift isn’t an exercise that’s going to build maximal strength like a heavy squat, deadlift, or barbell RDL will.
The Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift is best used as a moderate-weight, higher-rep exercise to build muscular endurance in the hamstrings and glutes.
If your ego is too big to let you use moderate weights, then this isn’t the exercise for you. Leave your ego at the door and focus on building a better backside.
Weight In the Heels
There is a common misconception that you should press back into your heels during the descent of the DB Romanian deadlift. Your weight should actually stay spread across your whole foot, and your feet should remain flat on the ground at all times.
Toes raising off the ground during the movement usually indicates hamstring inflexibility. If you find yourself in this position, only descend until your toes feel like they’re about to raise off the ground and hold that position for a 3 count. And continue to work on your hamstring flexibility.
Bouncing Out of the Bottom
Bouncing out of the bottom is often used as a way to “cheat” and use momentum to get the weight up. This takes away from the time your muscles spend under tension, which is one of the key drivers of muscle growth.
It also puts unnecessary stress on your joints and connective tissue, which can lead to injuries down the road.
If you find yourself bouncing, try using a weight that’s about 20-30% lighter and focus on maintaining control throughout the entire range of motion, especially the eccentric phase.
You should be able to pause for a full second at the bottom of each rep (at least). If you can’t, the weight is too heavy.
Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift Tips
At the bottom of the movement, when you feel the most stretch, drive your knees slightly out. You should feel the stretch in the hamstrings increase.
Hold the stretch at the bottom for 3 seconds before returning to a standing position.
Because the mTOR/muscle damage pathway is the primary hypertrophy mechanism when performing dumbbell RDLs, you need to focus on the eccentric portion of the movement and the stretch. Perform your reps with a 3-second negative, followed by a 3-second hold in the max stretched position.
Elevate your toes: If you’re struggling to feel a good stretch in your hamstrings, try elevating your toes by steping up on a couple of weight plates. You still want to spread your weight evenly over your whole foot, but this can help you get your butt back and really stretch the hamstrings.
Muscles Worked by the Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
Dumbbell RDLs work your entire posterior chain (the muscles that run along the back of your body), including your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back muscles. They also work to your core to some degree.
Your hamstrings are made up of four muscles: the biceps femoris (made up of two muscles), semitendinosus, and the semimembranosus. Dumbbell RDLs are specifically designed to stretch, strengthen, and build these muscles.
The hamstrings are a biarticular muscle that attaches at the hip and crosses both the hip and knee joint. This means that they play a role in both hip extension and knee flexion. Exercises that cause the hamstrings to both extend and flex, like squat movements, are inefficient hamstrings builders because the muscle is both lengthened and stretched at the same time. Dumbbell Romanian deadlifts are especially effective because they focus only on the extension of the hamstrings.
The gluteal muscles are actually a group of three muscles: the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. The dumbbell RDL engages this entire group, which provides a driving force and stretch reflex during both the concentric and eccentric phases of the movement.
The erector spinae is a group of three muscles: the spinalis, longissimus, and iliocostalis. These muscles work to stabilize and extend your spine. Dumbbell RDLs target these muscles, allowing you to maintain a neutral spine while hinging at the hips.
Secondary Muscle Groups:
The dumbbell Romanian deadlift engages other muscle groups as well but to a lesser degree. Your core muscles, abdominals, and obliques contract isometrically to stabilize your body throughout the movement, and your trapezius, forearms, and middle back help control the weight.
Benefits of the Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
The Dumbbell Romanian deadlift is one of my favorite exercises. Below, you’ll see why.
Glute and Hamstring Hypertrophy
The dumbbell Romanian deadlift creates metabolic stress and mechanical damage to the muscle fibers in your glutes and hamstrings and increases mTOR activation by stretching these muscles under load. mTOR is a kinase enzyme that regulates muscle cell protein synthesis. It’s one of the primary drivers of muscle hypertrophy.
Increased muscle mass in your glutes and hamstrings not only makes your legs look better by giving you side-to-side thickness, it’s imperative for balancing out your leg musculature and helping to prevent injury. We tend to focus on the muscles we can see, and building your quads beyond the capacities of your hamstrings is a recipe for a pull or tear.
Proper Hip Mechanics
Learning how to properly perform the dumbbell RDL will teach you how to properly hinge at the hips. If you want to lift big weights, realize your athletic potential, or just not throw your back out picking up your kids, proper hip mechanics are essential.
Beginning lifters have a tendency to bend at the spine and round their backs instead of hinging at the waist. Our spines are designed to bend, and rounding our backs has its place for sure, but maintaining a neutral spine by hinging at the hips is key for protecting our spines, especially when lifting heavy weights.
The Dumbbell RDL is the perfect exercise to learn how to hinge at the hips because it’s a very simple movement. There’s no need to worry about balance or coordination, and you can use a lighter weight while you focus on form.
The lumbar spine and gluteal muscle groups are very important for good posture in humans. Exercising the muscles around these areas helps to distribute the weight of the torso evenly across the body. This improved posture can help to prevent posture-related injuries.
Improved Athletic Performance
The posterior chain muscles are responsible for a significant amount of the explosiveness generated during athletic activities.
Running, jumping, athletic movements, even walking, all depend upon hip and hamstring strength, endurance, flexibility, and proper mechanics.
Dumbbell Romanian deadlifts can help athletes enhance their athletic capabilities and overall performance during sports by promoting muscular hypertrophy and strength in the posterior chain, as well as improving neuromuscular fiber recruitment.
Enhanced Training Benefits
The dumbbell Romanian deadlift can enhance other aspects of training by improving the mind-muscle connection with the posterior chain. This can help you maintain proper form during heavier compound lifts, such as the barbell deadlift.
Unilateral movements are also beneficial for the rehabilitation and avoidance of muscular imbalances.
Who is the Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift for?
The dumbbell Romanian deadlift is a great exercise for most healthy people. Even if you aren’t looking to build a lot of muscle or improve your athletic performance, having strong hips and back and flexible hamstrings is beneficial for overall health and quality of life.
Strength and Power Athletes
The dumbbell Romanian deadlift is a great accessory exercise for powerlifters looking to increase back and hip strength necessary for heavy deadlifts, low bar back squats, and greater isolation of the hamstrings and glutes.
Powerlifters: The dumbbell Romanian deadlift is used in many powerlifting routines to improve overall pulling strength, isolate positional and muscular weaknesses (particularly the hamstrings and lower back), and increase muscle mass.
Strongmen: Strongmen rely on their hips, hamstrings, and lower backs to produce the force necessary to accomplish incredible feats of strength. The dumbbell Romanian deadlift (and its variations) may help improve strength, unilateral balance, coordination, and prevent injury during high-intensity loading in training and competition.
Functional Fitness Athletes
Functional fitness athletes need to be proficient in a variety of exercises and movement patterns and have a wide range of skills. Dumbbell Romanian deadlifts can help functional fitness athletes build back, glute, hamstring, and grip strength while improving coordination.
Football, baseball, softball, soccer, basketball, and other sports require a high degree of posterior chain performance. Dumbbell Romanian deadlifts build hamstring and back strength, which improve athletic movement patterns like running, sprinting, and jumping. Increasing glute and hamstring engagement is crucial to athletic performance overall.
The dumbbell Romanian deadlift is a fantastic exercise for anyone interested in general fitness and health. For one, it can aid in the prevention of a lower back injury (learning how to pick things up correctly is incredibly important). You’ll also build muscle and lay the foundation for more advanced fitness routines involving running, jumping, and strength-based exercises.
Who Should Avoid Dumbbell Romanian Deadlifts
However, some individuals with injuries, limitations, or a particular training focus may find other exercises more beneficial.
Individuals with hip problems, quadricep femoris impingements, previous patellar dislocation, back issues, or any other sort of leg and lower back damage should seek medical assistance before attempting the dumbbell Romanian deadlift.
Individuals with inflexible hamstrings and glutes should avoid performing the dumbbell Romanian deadlift until they develop the flexibility to perform this exercise appropriately. A lack of flexibility in these muscle groups can lead to injury as a result of the strain put on them during the activity.
Regardless, a thorough warm-up is recommended prior to performing dumbbell RDLs. Warm-up very well if you are going to include these at the beginning of your workout, or consider moving them toward the end of your workout so that you will be sufficiently warm as a result of previous exercises.
Programming the Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
Whether you want to get stronger, gain muscle, or improve your muscular endurance, the following programming recommendation will help.
How to Warm Up for the Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
Warm-up well before you do your dumbbell RDLs. Even if this exercise falls in the middle of your workout, performing a brief RDL-specific warm-up before starting your working sets is a good idea.
- Inchworm with Hip Opener: 2 x 8 per side
- Prone Banded Hamstring Curl: 2 x 15
- Lateral Lunge: 2 x 8 per side
To Build Muscle
Increased training volume, time under tension, and/or metabolic disturbances within the muscle (due to shorter rest periods and high volume) can all cause muscular hypertrophy. With that said, coaches and athletes may use the recommendations below to enhance muscle growth and create a stronger base for more advanced dumbbell or barbell Romanian deadlift exercises.
- 3-5 sets of 6-10 repetitions with a moderate to heavy weight.
- Or, 2-4 sets of 12-15 reps with a moderate weight to near-failure.
- Rest for 45 to 90 seconds between sets.
If you really want to blow your legs up, superset these with short-step Bulgarian split squats (the shorter lunge step focuses more on your quads).
- Right leg short-step Bulgarian split squat for 6 reps, 6010 tempo
- 30-second rest
- Left leg short-step Bulgarian split squat for 6 reps, 6010 tempo
- 30-second rest
- Dumbbell Romanian deadlift for 6 reps, 3310 tempo
- 1-minute rest
- Repeat the superset for 3-4 total supersets
To Gain Strength
The dumbbell Romanian deadlift can be used to increase your hamstring and gluteus Maximus strength, but not in the same way as with a traditional deadlift. While this exercise can be used to improve strength, it is more of an isolation movement than a true compound movement. Stick to higher reps than you would with the conventional deadlift.
3-4 sets of 6-8 reps, 3310 tempo, and 120 seconds of rest.
To Increase Muscular Endurance
Sports like running, CrossFit, and endurance activities require a higher resistance to muscular fatigue. Rep ranges for muscular endurance programs will be higher than maximal strength and hypertrophy schemes and will use lighter loads.
2-4 sets of 12-20 reps with a light to moderate load, resting for 30 to 45 seconds.
If the dumbbell Romanian deadlift is a new lift for you, start light. The most important thing for you to do when learning this movement is to execute it perfectly. Form is everything with this exercise!
Start with 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps. Use a 3310 tempo (3-second negative, 3-second pause in the fully stretched position, 1-second lift, and 0-second turnaround) and 60-90 seconds of rest between efforts.
Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift Variations
Like the dumbbell version? You’ll probably like these as well.
Barbell Romanian Deadlift
In my humble opinion, this is the king of hamstring builders. The barbell allows you to train with a significant amount of weight, strengthening your entire posterior chain like no other exercise can.
I prefer the dumbbell version for beginners because it’s easier to learn perfect form. You have more freedom of movement with the dumbbells and they’re not stuck in front of you. This makes it easier to learn to get your hips back.
Because the barbell sits in front of your things, beginners have a tendency to lean too far forward. But once you have your form perfected, adding in the barbell version is incredible for adding strength and size.
Single-Leg Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
This is a great variation of the DB Romanian deadlift that allows you to work on one leg at a time. Unilateral training has many benefits, including fixing and preventing imbalances, improving coordination, and helping to correct movement pattern deficiencies.
This variation is quite a bit harder to master than the standard dumbbell version. So take your time and learn to do these right. You’ll be glad you did.
Stand with a dumbbell held in your right hand.
Engage your core and drive your hips back to hinge at the waist, but let your right leg come off the ground and travel behind your body. Almost as if an imaginary line is drawn from the top of your head down to your right heel, and that line must stay perfectly straight.
As you descend, the dumbbell in your right hand will travel toward your left foot.
Lower only as far as your hips allow, maintaining a neutral spine.
Return to standing and repeat for your desired number of reps.
Rest, and then repeat with your other leg.
You can also perform the single-leg dumbbell RDL by holding the dumbbell in the same hand as the leg you are working (right hand, right leg). Perform this just like the above example. This variation, however, is much more balance-intensive!
Alternating Dumbbell Straight-Leg Deadlift
The alternating dumbbell straight-leg deadlift is very similar to the single-leg version, but you will hold 2 dumbbells and switch legs after each repetition.
Grab a pair of dumbbells with your palms facing towards your body.
Engage your core and drive your hips back. Allow your right leg to come off the ground and extend behind you.
Lower both dumbbells toward your left foot. Go as low as you can while maintaining a neutral spine.
Return to standing and shift your weight to your right foot. Hinge at the waist, but this time allow your left leg to travel behind your body.
Repeat back and forth until you have completed your desired number of repetitions.
Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift Alternatives
If you liked the dumbbell Romanian deadlift, here are some alternative leg and glute exercises to add to your routine.
The stiff-leg deadlift, also known as the straight-leg deadlift, is often confused with the Romanian deadlift.
The major difference between the two is that in the stiff-leg deadlift you keep your knees completely locked and reach the weight further toward the floor. There is much less of a hip hinge with this movement. Instead, you bend more at the waist and allow your upper body to come further forward.
The stiff leg deadlift involves much more hamstring stretch and flexibility than the Romanian deadlift, and less glute activation.
The RDL is safer to learn for beginners and is a better overall posterior chain movement. But the stiff leg deadlift is great for stretching the hamstrings under load and improving flexibility, along with hypertrophic gains.
The hip extension is another alternative exercise to work your glutes and hamstrings and is incredibly beginner-friendly.
Lie face down on the glute-ham developer (GHD) with your hips supported by the pad and your calves locked between the foot rollers.
Extend your upper body so that you are parallel with the ground. Hinge at the hips and allow your torso to come forward until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings.
From here, drive through your heels and extend at the hips to return to the starting position.
Repeat for your desired number of repetitions.
Glute Ham Raise
The glute-ham raise is another RDL alternative to work your glutes and hamstrings.
Begin on the glute-ham developer in a vertical position, with your thighs pressed into the inside of the hip pad.
Contract your abs and glutes and lower your torso to parallel with the ground. As you lower your body, your thighs will roll on top of the hip pad. The end position is with the middle of your thighs on the hip pad and your body parallel with the ground.
Flex your hamstrings and drive your knees into the back of the hip pad to raise back up to the vertical position.
Repeat until you reach your desired number of reps.
If you’re weightlifting or training for hypertrophy, save up and get a set. You’ll want a variety of weights to follow your progressive overload pattern. If you’re into functional fitness or just want to get in shape, pick up a pair of 35s or 50s.
Titan Fitness Hex DBs – these are inexpensive as far as dumbbells go, but they’re good quality. I have a pair of 50s and they’ve lasted.
Rogue Hex DBs (singles or sets) – I love the contour of the handles on these. And they’re indestructible. I drop mine a lot!
Conclusion: The Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
The Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift is a great exercise to work your glutes and hamstrings. It is safe to learn for beginners and is a great way to learn proper hip-hinge mechanics. There are many variations of the Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift, so you can find the one that best suits your needs. Be sure to use a heavy enough weight that you can challenge yourself, but not so heavy that you sacrifice good form. Dumbbells are a great way to add resistance to this exercise, but if you don’t have access to dumbbells you can use a barbell or kettlebell.