RDLs (Romanian Deadlifts), in every form and variation, are a staple in most strength and conditioning programs in high school, collegiate and professional baseball. They are designed to improve tri-planar strength, stability and athletic performance. RDLs are an excellent posterior chain, hip hinge exercise for the glute, hamstring and erector spinae muscles that have carry over value in the weight room and on the playing field. They help improve mobility in the hip, dynamic flexibility in the hamstrings and low back and strength in the squat and deadlift. They can also help improve speed and reduce the risk of injury. RDLs are functional exercises that can be used as a body weight warm-up or as a loaded strength exercise to help improve strength, balance and proprioception. Unfortunately, some athletes use poor technique and/or try to progress too fast by performing advanced variations before they have mastered the basics. Proper execution of this exercise is vital in ensuring an athletes safety. Furthermore, the ability to hip hinge under load ensures an athlete is ready to execute the deadlift which requires even more technical efficiency to execute properly.
The purpose of this post is to outline a progressive sequence of RDL exercises that allows the athlete to progress from simple to more complex movements and from internal to external resistance loads. The following sequence of exercise allows the athlete some variability without having to learn an entirely new movement pattern. The essence of the RDL remains the same, but the exercise is changed enough to allow different loads and slightly different neurological patterns to be utilized.
- RDL with a dowel. The first progression helps teach the athlete how to hinge properly by using a dowel. If the hips do not travel back, the load will be placed primarily on the on the lower back with minimal load on the glutes and hamstrings.
The athlete stands with the feet hip-width apart and knees in a fixed position but not locked and holding a dowel along the spine from the back of the head to the lower back. There should be three points of contact of the dowel with the head, upper back and glutes. Keeping dowel tight to body, the athlete pushes the hips back and hinge at the hips loading the hamstrings and glutes. He/she then contracts the hamstrings and glutes, returns to the starting position and repeats the exercise for the prescribed number of reps. The athlete should keep the torso straight and the dowel in contact with the head, upper back and glutes throughout entire movement. Once the proper technique using the dowel is learned, athletes should be able to maintain the proper posture needed to successfully hinge and load hips in more advanced progressions.
- 2 arms and 2 legs DB RDL. Once the athlete demonstrates the ability to hinge and load the hips properly while maintaining a strong upper body posture, he/she can add resistance in the form of free weights. Depending on the readiness and training age of the athlete, he/she can start by placing the DB’s on blocks to help learn how to hinge under load. If the athlete is more advanced, he/she can start with a full RDL with the DB’s. The movements are similar to those with the dowel, except the DB’s serve as a counter weight. The athlete begins with the DB’s in front of the body, palms facing the body and arms fully extended. While maintaining good upper body posture with lats engaged, the athlete performs and RDL. The key is to not collapse in either the lumbar or thoracic region, as both can compromise proper execution of exercise.
- 2 arms and 2 legs BB RDL. This exercise is similar to DB variation described above, except that the load can be increased substantially by utilizing a barbell. Before attempting this exercise, the athlete should be able to demonstrate competency in both of the previous variations. Cuing the athlete on tightness in their lats and upper back is a key for this exercise. Pinching the elbows and squeezing the armpits are also good cues to help the athlete maintain tightness in the back and ensure that the barbell does not travel away from the body. Keeping the bar close to the shins will help ensure that proper technique is used and the exercise is performed safely
- 1 arm and 1 leg RDL with foam roll. Once an athlete has demonstrated an ability to hinge properly, they can then be progressed to the more advanced single leg variants. Utilizing a foam roll is a good starting place to help them achieve an ability to hinge using only one limb. Same concept as the double leg variant in that athlete needs to maintain good posture and tightness in upper back. While maintaining two points of contact with foam roll in the top of the foot and the hand, athlete then hinges at hip and loads their hamstring and glute performing a single leg RDL.
- 2 arms and 1 leg DB RDL. The fourth progression is to introduce a degree of instability, balance and proprioception by performing the exercise on one leg while holding resistance (DBs or KBs) in each hand. The two-arm, single-leg variant re-introduces a familiar concept in utilizing both arms, helping athletes maintain good upper body posture while learning to properly hinge and load on one leg. The athlete holds both dumbbells or kettlebells out in front of their body just as they did in the previous 2 arms and 2 legs variations.
- 1 arm and 1 leg RDL with cable and DB. The fifth progression is the single-arm and single-leg RDL utilizing either a cable or DB for resistance. The cable provides slightly more stability because the resistance is fixed and the balance variable isn’t as challenging which is why some recommend that athletes perform a cable RDL before the DB RDL. If an athlete demonstrates a strong ability to perform the previous variations, however, they should be able to progress directly to the DB version. The same techniques and concepts used in the previous exercises apply to this exercise.
- 2 arms and 1 leg BB RDL. This is the most advanced RDL exercise, and athletes must possess an advanced level of strength and balance to properly execute this version. Maintaining good posture in the upper body, engaging the lats by “pinching” the armpits and bracing the core are essential to safe performance of this version. This option allows the athletes who can perform single-leg RDL’s with high levels of resistance the opportunity to further challenge themselves.
Key Takeaways. Proper and efficient execution of the RDL requires consistent coaching. Improper execution and progression of this exercise can increase the risk of lumbar discomfort and injury. Regardless of what stage of the progression an athlete is in, the cues remain the same.
Start the exercise from the floor up, i.e., the athlete needs to “root” themselves into the ground with one or both feet. The athlete should pretend that he/she is pinching the ground with the entire foot (like a bird’s talons). This will help engage the glute complex and increase stability at the hip.
With this cue also comes slight natural external rotation of the femur which is required to execute the RDL properly. Another cue that can accomplish this (mainly with the double leg variants) is to separate the floor with the feet. Once the athlete is rooted into the ground and has accomplished femoral external rotation, they need to be able to simultaneously brace the core and engage the lats with either DBs or a BB. Bracing the core is key as this will help protect the spine and limit lumbar injuries if form is compromised.
If an athlete struggles with this cue, placing a weight belt that is a size too big around the waist is a good external cue. Tell them to “fill the belt” making them expand their midsection and low back to make the belt tight.
Cuing an athlete to pinch the armpits with the elbows is a good cue to engage the lats and keep the upper back tight throughout the exercise. This also ensures that the barbell stays tight to the body and doesn’t drift too far away from the midline. The farther away the barbell is from the body in any RDL variation, the more inefficient and unsafe the exercise becomes.
Using these cues and the aforementioned exercise progressions can help younger athletes learn how to perform the RDL efficiently, safely and ultimately help improve overall athletic development.
Dwayne Peterson, RSCC, is the AAA strength and conditioning coach for the Houston Astros.