The Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift

The dumbbell Romanian deadlift (RDL) is a great addition and an alternative to the traditional barbell RDL. However, to stay injury-free and actually get any benefit from this exercise, you need to do it correctly.

Below, let’s have a look at why to incorporate the dumbbell RDL in your training program and how to perform the movement correctly and safely. I love this exercise and try to have my clients do it whenever possible, but it’s easy to do wrong.

What Are The Muscles Worked By Dumbbell Romanian Deadlifts?

Dumbbell Romanian deadlifts – a lot like the conventional barbell deadlift or Romanian deadlift – primarily target your legs and back, but more heavily emphasise the glutes and hamstrings.

All in all, the Romanian dumbbell deadlift works the following muscles:

  • Hamstrings. Throughout the range of motion of the Romanian deadlift, your knee remains in a slightly flexed position. This is why this deadlift variation targets the hamstrings more heavily than the conventional deadlift.
  • Glutes. The Romanian deadlift – whether the dumbbell or the barbell variation – heavily works the glutes because you don’t use your quads as much as in the conventional deadlift. Besides, you bend farther down during a Romanian deadlift, which forces the glutes to activate more to bring the weight back up.
  • Upper, middle, lower back, and core muscles. The back and core participate in the movement statically, helping you maintain a safe posture throughout the motion. As you lower the weight and lift it up, your entire back and core must work hard to keep your torso rigid.
  • Forearms. And obviously, the Romanian deadlift works your forearms since you need to be able to maintain your grip throughout the movement.

Dumbbell Romanian Deadlifts Benefits

When it comes to the benefits of the dumbbell Romanian deadlift, I feel I should cover Romanian vs conventional deadlift in general and dumbbell vs barbell Romanian deadlift.

Let’s first try to understand how the Romanian deadlift compares against its conventional counterpart.

Romanian vs conventional deadlift

According to the American Council of Exercise, the primary benefit of the Romanian deadlift over the conventional deadlift is that it teaches you to move from the hip. This is especially useful in the squat since you need to sit down starting with your hips.

Many beginners confuse lumbar movement with hip movement. In any deadlift variation, you are supposed to flex your hips and never flex your lower back. The deadlift requires that you bend down while keeping your back neutral – most newbies struggle with this because they don’t understand the difference between hip and lumbar flexion.

Since the Romanian deadlift is all about the flexion of the hips, it’s fantastic in helping gym-goers with distinguishing between movement in the hips and the lumbar.

Aside from that, the Romanian deadlift is much better when you want to target the posterior chain muscles of your legs specifically. The conventional deadlift works these muscles quite a bit too, but it’s much more quad-dominant.

By fixing the angle of the knee, the Romanian deadlift puts a greater emphasis on your glutes and hamstrings, as explained earlier.

Dumbbell vs barbell Romanian deadlift

When compared to the barbell Romanian deadlift, the dumbbell variation has the following benefits:

  • Easier to master. The dumbbell Romanian deadlift is probably easier to master because dumbbells are much less restrictive than a bar. A barbell dictates your body angles and hand placement, while dumbbells may be held in any way that is comfortable to you.
  • More compact weight distribution. Correct weight distribution is essential in any exercise, and it’s one of the things that newbies struggle with. Since you can keep dumbbells closer to your body, the dumbbell Romanian deadlift features a more compact weight distribution and is perhaps easier to perform than the bar deadlift.
  • Quicker weight changes. This is especially useful for drop sets – you just grab lighter dumbbells when you need to quickly lower weight.
  • Home gym friendliness. The dumbbell Romanian deadlift is more home gym-friendly because dumbbells occupy much less space than a barbell with plates.
  • Lighter weight. The weight you can lift with the dumbbell Romanian deadlift is generally lighter too, which should transfer to a lower risk of injury.

How To Do Dumbbell Romanian Deadlifts?

Correct execution of the dumbbell RDL is crucial for your long-term health. Besides, if your form is garbage, your gains are going to be accordingly low.

Here’s how to set up for the RDL and perform it correctly:

  1. Grab a pair of dumbbells of comfortable weight. If you aren’t sure how heavy you should go, start lighter and increase the weight if needed.
  2. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, the knees soft and slightly bent. Hold the dumbbells in front of the hips, with the palms facing your legs.
  3. Assume a neutral spine position. Squeeze your shoulder blades together, keep your chest out, and keep your core tight.
  4. Hinge at the waist and lower the weight toward the ground. Lower the weight until you feel tension in your hamstrings and glutes. As you go down, you may bend your knees more, though ideally, the knee angle should be maintained throughout the lift.
  5. Squeeze your glutes and push your feet into the floor to lift the weight back up.
  6. Repeat as many times as necessary. For starters, 10 to 12 reps in 3 to 4 sets should be great.

And here are a few videos for a better demonstration.

Regarding knee bend – some people bend them more than others. How much to bend your knees depends on your preferences and flexibility. Try to bend your knees minimally, but make sure that your spine remains neutral no matter what.

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Proper Form To Perform A Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift - Mistakes To Avoid

The Romanian deadlift can be difficult for beginners, especially if you aren’t familiar with the base movement – the conventional deadlift. Here are a few mistakes that you should keep an eye out for when performing the RDL:

  • Locking the knees out. If you lock out your knees, you won’t be able to maintain a neutral spine throughout the range of motion. Besides, you probably don’t have enough hamstring and glute flexibility to properly do the RDL with straight legs in the first place. So a slight bend is perfectly fine for this exercise.
  • Rounding of the back. Beginners may not understand the “hip hinge” cue well and flex their lumbar instead of the hips. Remember – an ideal RDL requires that the only movement occurs at your hips. Your back and knees should not move throughout the lift (though knee movement is fine too). This is to ensure that your back is safe and that you get a nice stretch in your hamstrings.

The GIF above shows what your back ideally should NOT look like when doing the RDL.

  • Looking up or down. To keep your neck safe, you should look down as you lower the weight toward the floor. Some people try to look forward to maintain a neutral spine – this may overly stress your neck. As a part of the spine, your neck should be in line with the rest of your back.

What Are The Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift Variations And Alternatives?

If you don’t like the dumbbell Romanian deadlift or want to add some variety to your routine, here are a few variations and alternatives to try out.

Single-arm, single-leg dumbbell RDL (opposite sides)

If you’ve mastered the standard dumbbell RDL, then you may try the single-leg Romanian deadlift.

This variation is usually performed while standing on one leg and holding a dumbbell in the opposite hand. So if you stand on your left leg, you should hold the dumbbell in your right hand.

The single-leg RDL is done as follows:

  1. Balance on one leg and pick up a dumbbell with the opposite hand. Keep your leg slightly bent.
  2. Bend forward to lower the dumbbell. Go down until you feel tension in the working leg’s hamstring and glute.
  3. Bring the dumbbell back up using your glute.

The single-leg Romanian deadlift is extremely demanding on your balance. You should start with very light weight to build the foundation for heavier weights.

I probably wouldn’t do the single-leg RDL regularly, but it’s an excellent movement if you want to add more variety to your routine or perhaps treat muscle imbalance. It’s great at working your core too.

Single-arm, single-leg dumbbell RDL (same side)

You may also perform the single-leg dumbbell RDL by using the hand on the same side as your balancing leg. This variation is performed in the same way as the opposite-side single-leg RDL, but it’s much more demanding on balance and flexibility.

Stiff leg dumbbell/barbell deadlift

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The stiff leg dumbbell/barbell deadlift is very similar to the RDL and is often mistaken for it. But there is one big difference between the two – the stiff leg deadlift requires a minimal bend in the knees (straight but not locked legs are ideal), and it also implies that the bend of the knees should not change throughout the movement.

Due to this subtle change in execution, the stiff leg deadlift loads the hamstrings and glutes more than the Romanian deadlift.

The weight is also typically lowered onto the floor in the stiff leg deadlift, whereas the RDL usually stops at mid-shins.

Other than the knee angle and the range of motion, proper form for both styles of the deadlift is nearly identical – you should keep your upper body rigid and move at the hip. But you need extra flexibility to correctly and safely perform the stiff leg deadlift.

The Conclusion

The dumbbell Romanian deadlift is a wonderful exercise, and you should definitely try to squeeze it into your routine. It’s excellent specifically for building posterior chain muscle strength and mass.

But do remember to keep your back neutral throughout the entire motion and try to catch that feeling of tension in your hamstrings as you lower the weight. These two points are fundamental for the safe and effective execution of the RDL.

Jessica Carter
Jessica Carter
Jessica is an AFLCA certified personal trainer and holds a Masters degree in physical therapy from the University of British Columbia. She has been working in the field for 5 years and writes as a freelance about all things fitness related.