If you want to know how to do the dumbbell RDL (Romanian deadlift), what muscles it works and where you should feel it, this page will tell you everything you need to know.
What is the Dumbbell RDL (Romanian Deadlift)?
The dumbbell Romanian deadlift, or RDL for short, is a deadlift variation where the legs are kept straighter than a conventional deadlift.
The movement also ends when the bar reaches the midpoint of the shins, or slightly below the knee if you’re not particularly flexible, while the traditional deadlift involves bringing the barbell all the way down to the floor.
The Romanian deadlift is typically done with a barbell, but you can also do it with dumbbells. The dumbbell RDL is an effective way to target the hamstrings, glutes and lower back, and is particularly useful if you don’t have access to a leg curl machine.
Dumbbell RDL: Muscles Worked
The dumbbell Romanian deadlift targets a number of muscle groups, the main ones being:
- Hamstrings (biceps femoris, semitendinosus and semimembranosus)
- Erector spinae (lower back)
Because the hamstrings cross two joints, it’s a muscle group you can train with exercises like the Romanian deadlift (which involves hip extension) as well as the leg curl (which involves knee flexion).
How to Do the Dumbbell RDL
The dumbbell RDL is performed in the same way as the barbell Romanian deadlift. Both variations target the hamstrings, glutes and lower back.
- In a standing position, position your feet hip-width apart with a slight bend in your knees.
- Hold the dumbbells in front of your thighs with your palms facing you, rather than at your sides.
- Lift your chest and keep a slight arch in your lower back. You want to maintain this neutral spine position throughout the exercise.
- Begin the exercise by pushing the hips back as far as possible. During the hip hinge movement, your knees should remain slightly bent and your spine in neutral.
- As you lower the dumbbells, keep them close to your body. Don’t let them drift too far in front.
- Keep the knees slightly bent throughout the exercise, with most of your weight back on the heels.
- Lower the dumbbells to the point where you feel a stretch in your hamstrings. For some people, that might be at the midpoint of the shin, while for others it might be level with your knees. It all depends on how flexible you are.
- Return to the starting position by pushing up through your heels.
What About the Single Leg RDL?
As the name suggests, the single leg RDL involves performing an RDL with only one foot on the floor rather than two.
In most cases, I don’t recommend the single leg RDL, mainly because standing on one leg has the effect of reducing your stability.
Why is that a problem?
Because you’re trying so hard to stay balanced, you won’t be able to work the hamstrings, glutes and lower back as hard as you otherwise might have done had both feet been on the floor.
Unless you’ve got an injury that’s taken the regular RDL off the menu, one leg is significantly weaker than the other, or you want to focus on improving hip stability, I think you’re better off with the regular RDL.
Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift: Common Mistakes
- Hunching over rather than standing tall.
Don’t allow yourself to hunch over and round your upper back. Before you start the exercise, keep your chest lifted, your shoulder blades pulled back and think about standing tall. Maintain the natural arch in your back the whole time.
FREE: The Muscle Building Cheat Sheet. This is a quick guide to building muscle, which you can read online or keep as a PDF, that shows you exactly how to put on muscle. To get a FREE copy of the cheat sheet emailed to you, please click or tap here.
- Allowing the dumbbells to travel too far away from the body.
One of the things that differentiates the Romanian deadlift from the stiff-leg deadlift is the position of the dumbbells. With the Romanian deadlift, the dumbbells are kept a lot closer to the body than they are during the stiff-leg deadlift. As you bend forward, don’t let the dumbbells drift too far away. They should stay close to your thighs.
- Bending too far forward without pushing the hips back.
Start the exercise with a stance that’s slightly narrower than shoulder width. Push the hips back, and allow the dumbbells to glide down your legs. Lower the dumbbells only to the point where you feel a stretch in the hamstrings, which is usually just slightly below knee level (although it may be higher depending on how flexible you are). There’s no need to go all the way down to the point where your hands are close to the floor.
- Doing too much too soon.
The dumbbell Romanian deadlift is one of those exercises that generates a lot of post-exercise muscle soreness, mainly because you’re generating high levels of tension at long muscle lengths. Do too much too soon, and you’re going to be sore for several days afterwards. Start out with a few light sets, and gradually increase both the weight and effort level over time.
Dumbbell RDL: Frequently Asked Questions
Are Romanian deadlifts better with dumbbells or a barbell?
That depends on how strong you are. If you’ve got a strong posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes and lower back), you’re better off using a barbell, as you’ll be able to challenge your muscles with more weight.
But if you’re just getting started, and your hamstrings, glutes and lower back aren’t particularly strong, the dumbbell RDL will do the job just fine.
Where should you feel Romanian Deadlifts?
You’ll feel the Romanian deadlift in your hamstrings, glutes, lower back, and forearms. If your grip strength tends to give out first, use lifting straps. I like Harbinger Big Grip Lifting Straps, mainly because they have a rubber strip that prevents the bar from slipping.
Is a Romanian Deadlift the same as a stiff-leg deadlift?
A Romanian deadlift is different to a stiff-leg deadlift. While the two exercises might look very similar, there are some key differences between the two.
When you do a Romanian deadlift, you start the exercise by pushing the hips backwards. The stiff-leg deadlift, on the other hand, starts with more of a forward bend at the waist.
During the Romanian deadlift, as you lower the bar, it stays relatively close to your body compared to the stiff-leg deadlift.
The Romanian deadlift stops at the point where you feel a stretch in your hamstrings. If you have very tight hamstrings, the end point may be level with your knees. With a stiff-leg deadlift, the bar comes down closer to the ground.
What can I substitute for the RDL?
A simple Romanian deadlift alternative would be the 45-degree hip extension, which also works the glutes, hamstrings and lower back.
However, when you’re looking for alternatives to the dumbbell RDL you also need to consider what other exercises you’re doing for your lower body.
A training program that includes the squat and an exercise like the seated leg curl, for example, is going to hit the glutes, hamstrings and lower back. Those are the same muscles targeted by the dumbbell Romanian deadlift.
To be clear, the squat itself is not an effective replacement for the dumbbell or barbell RDL. Along with the quads, it hits the glutes and lower back, but doesn’t do much for the hamstrings. They’re involved in the squat, but not challenged sufficiently to make them grow.
And the leg curl isn’t a direct replacement for the Romanian deadlift because it doesn’t do much for the glutes and lower back.
But combining the two exercises, squats and leg curls, allows you to hit the same muscles as the RDL.
What if you don’t do squats? What if the exercises you do for your lower body don’t require as much work from the muscles in your trunk, such as the leg press, leg extension or Bulgarian split squat?
If so, then you’ll benefit from some other exercises that hit the spinal erectors, such as rack pulls, or even the bent-over barbell row.
If you find that the right leg is stronger than the left leg, or vice versa, you can also try the single-leg Romanian deadlift. Because you’re training one leg at a time, this exercise can help to even out any muscle imbalances that might exist.
Why do I feel the Romanian deadlift in my lower back?
When you’re doing the RDL, your spine should remain in its naturally curved position. By that, I mean you want to keep a slight arch in your lower back throughout the movement.
The spinal erectors, a group of muscles that run more or less the entire length of your spine, have to work very hard just to prevent your back from rounding.
As a result, you are going to feel the dumbbell Romanian deadlift in your lower back, both during the workout itself and sometimes for a day or so later.
If you’re new to the RDL, it can be slightly disconcerting to wake up the next day and find that your lower back feels sore. You start to worry that you’ve put your back out, or done something wrong.
Delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS for short, is normal. It’s a sign that you did something your body wasn’t used to, rather than injuring something.
However, if you’ve never done Romanian deadlifts before, make sure to start off with a light weight and a relatively low volume of training, and build things up gradually over time.
You can also try shortening the range of motion, and focus more on pushing the hips backwards, rather than bending forwards. This tends to reduce the amount of work done by the spinal erectors, so you won’t feel it as much in your lower back.
How many sets and reps should I do?
The number of sets you do depends a lot on how often you’re training the lower body, the amount of volume you need to stimulate growth, what other lower body exercises you’re doing, and so many other factors that make it impossible for me to give you any other answer than “it depends.” As a rough guide, aim for somewhere between 2-5 hard sets per workout.
As for reps, the dumbbell RDL is one of those exercises that lends itself to a moderate rep range. And by a moderate rep range, I’m talking somewhere in the region of between 8-15 reps per set.
Both high reps and low reps can be used to build muscle, with lower reps and heavier weights giving you more bang for your buck in terms of strength gains.
FREE: The Muscle Building Cheat Sheet
If you're overwhelmed and confused by all the conflicting advice out there, then check out The Muscle Building Cheat Sheet.
It's a quick guide to building muscle, which you can read online or keep as a PDF, that shows you exactly how to put on muscle. To get a copy of the cheat sheet sent to you, please enter your email address in the box below, and hit the “send it now” button.
- Muscle Evo – a training program for people who want to build muscle and get strong while minimizing fat gain.
- MX4 – a joint-friendly training program for gaining muscle as fast as humanly possible.
- Gutless – a simple, straightforward, science-backed nutrition system for getting rid of fat.