The Romanian deadlift is considered by many to be a “stiff-leg deadlift”, unlike the regular deadlift, in which one goes into a deep knee bend. Thus, unlike the well-known admonishment to lift heavy objects with the legs in order to avoid back injury, this exercise requires one to ignore it.
So, is the Romanian deadlift dangerous? The short answer is: “It can be”.
Reasons for popularity:
Why are people doing this exercise?
Despite the obvious logic involved here (lifting using the back can injure it), the Romanian deadlift is a weight-training exercise that many fitness experts and trainer swear by. It is touted as a great way to stretch and strengthen hamstring. It also hits the entire posterior muscle chain – the muscles on the backside of one’s body, from the hamstrings, over the buttocks, and into the lower back.
This exercise has also gained some notoriety by the fact Victoria’s Secret model Romee Strijd performs it and was filmed demonstrating it on Instagram. She apparently performs the exercise “correctly”, which actually includes a slight bend in the knees.
That bend, or lack of it, plays a primary role in this exercise’s safety.
When performed properly, the body only pivots along the hip axis. By excluding the action of muscles like thighs, shoulders, and arms, tension is concentrated on the lower back, the gluteus, and the hamstrings.
For example, certified strength and conditioning specialist Mark DiSalvo, who is a fan of this exercise, admitted that it can be difficult for beginners to perform well.
That is exactly the point. Sure, many people perform this exercise and have not experienced any immediate or obvious injury (yet). But one single moment of neglect while performing this move can lead to serious consequences.
One of the 10 most dangerous exercises!
CNN published an article by fitness expert Amy Schlinger in 2017 that lists the Romanian deadlift as one of the “10 most dangerous exercises that lead to injuries”. One of the reasons is that this exercise is usually performed using more weight with relatively few repetitions.
While admitting that the exercise is a great one for back and hips, it is one of the easiest ways to cause injury to the back, “if you don’t know what you are doing”.
Is Romanian deadlift dangerous?
Most fitness experts and websites rephrase the question: “Can Romanian deadlift be dangerous?” Any online search for the dangers of the Romanian deadlift results in the benefits of the exercise and instructions as to how to properly perform the exercise and avoid injury. Very few warn explicitly against doing the exercise at all.
So, what are the mistakes that can lead to injury?
- Knees not slightly bent
Despite popular usage, a “stiff-leg deadlift” does not (necessarily) mean that the legs are completely straight.
It merely means that the knees do not flex during the exercise.
A slight bend in the knees not only better involves the hamstring muscles – one of the main benefits of this exercise- It also protects the pelvis and lowers back from injury.
- Rounding the back
People often fail to keep their spine completely straight – or even slightly arched – when raising or lowering the barbell. Just as when picking up something from the floor at home, most people tend to bend their spines forward.
Many people will start outperforming this exercise correctly. As muscle fatigue increases during a set, however, people tend to neglect form; their concentration focuses more on how many more repetitions they can or should do.
- Their head drops, their back rounds
One key thing for exercises to concentrate on is their hips. They can avoid bending and rounding the back by focusing on pushing the hips back while lowering the upper body and forward while raising it. This helps keep the spine straight.
Another thing to concentrate on is keeping the chest up. This also helps arch the lower back.
Rounding the back while lifting shifts the burden almost entirely to the lower back muscles. If one does this while performing the Romanian deadlift, lumbar disc injury or muscles spasms can result.
What else can cause someone to round the back?
- Not keeping the bar close to the body
Many beginners will bend over to grab a bar located too far in front of their feet. They will also perform the exercise with the bar too far away from their shins. This results in a weight shift forward. If one’s weight is shifted too far forward, however, the lower back muscles are forced to assume too much work.
How close should one keep the bar to the body?
Just before the bar reaches a spot just below the knee, the bar should brush – or almost brush – the shins.
One way to make sure to keep the bar close to the body is to concentrate on engaging the latissimi. The lats are used to pull the bar towards the body.
- Not enough focus on the hamstrings:
The exercise is supposed to place demands on the gluteus and hamstrings as well as the lower back muscles.
In order to achieve this, one’s weight needs to be centered over the middle and back of the feet.
In order to work hamstrings, gluteus muscles, and the lower back, there are other exercises which pose less risk of injury:
There are a variety of yoga positions that will work the hamstrings. Four of the more basic ones are the Downward Dog, the Triangle poses, the Locust pose and the Big Toe Pose.
Some of these will also provide some exercise for the gluteus.
The Big Toe pose also works the back muscles. Others that work the back are also the Bridge pose, the Cobra pose, and the Chair Pose.
For the gluteus, in addition to the Chair pose, the Bridge pose and Locust pose, the Upward Plank pose and the Upward Bow (or Wheel) pose are excellent exercises.
These are just a few of the beneficial Yoga poses for these posterior muscle groups.
Other, more conventional alternatives can be performed in a gym.
Learn more on Yoga positions here.
- Conventional Deadlift:
The main difference to the Romanian deadlift is that one flexes the knees here.
Flexing the knees when lifting is, after all, the proper way to lift anything. The “disadvantage” here is that this exercise also involves the thigh muscles and the range of hip movement is limited. The posterior muscles are therefore worked somewhat less.
- Rack pull:
This exercise is actually a modified Romanian deadlift.
The difference is that the barbell is placed on a platform or rack. In this way, one can lift the barbell from and lower it to an elevated position. This reduces the range of motion and spares the back from extended stretching, thereby reducing the chance of injury.
- Kettlebell Swing:
This exercise involves the same range of motion but is performed with less weight.
One compensates for the lower weight with more repetitions.
One must be careful here and control movement. It is easy to perform the swing with too much impetus and lose control, which can also cause injury.
- More targeted approaches:
Another approach is to do exercise targeted at each of the posterior muscles singly, instead of working all of them at once.
The hamstring curl is one exercise that targets the hamstrings (obviously). The easiest way to perform this one is on an apparatus designed for it.
An alternative method is to tie a weight to an ankle and perform the curls leaning forward against a wall or lying on an elevated surface (a bench, for example).
A classic squat, with or without dumbbells, is a great way to hit the gluteus. One can control the range of movement downwards so as to avoid placing to much strain on the knees. Controlled movement is the key to getting the greatest benefit from this exercise.
Hyperextensions are also a classic exercise. This hits the lower back muscles (and gluteus!) A number of variations are available using not weights, free weights or seated back extensions machines.
Rear leg raises, using resistance bands, ankle weights or no weights are also a classic exercise. One can perform with knees bent (sparing the hamstrings somewhat) or the legs extended.
These are really just a few of literally dozens of possibilities. The Internet offers plenty of options, complete with specific instructions and demonstration videos. Before trying any exercise that might seem to pose some risk, inform yourself or seek expert advice at a good fitness club.
The Romanian deadlift can be dangerous if not done properly. The most common injuries that can result are:
- Lumbar disc injury
- Pulled muscles
- Muscles spasms in the lower back
If you want to do this exercise without undue risk of injury, it is best to learn it from an experienced trainer and have someone supervise while performing it.
The key aspects of performing the Romanian deadlift well are:
- Stiff but slightly bent knees
- Spine kept straight or slightly arched
- Keeping chest up
- Pushing hips forward and back, instead of rounding the spine
- Weight on middle of the back of the foot
- The bar kept close the body – use the latissimus muscles
As with most any other exercise, the Romanian deadlift can be beneficial when done correctly and harmful if not.
It is important to remember, however, that the Romanian deadlift is an exercise touted by serious fitness enthusiasts and bodybuilders. It might be, in the opinion of its fans, “the best” single exercise for the entire posterior muscle chain, but it really is not essential for most people who simply want to get into – or keep in– great shape.
There are, however, plenty of alternative exercises that will benefit the same muscles as the Romanian deadlift. Many of these may not have the same overall effect, but most of them reduce the risk of injury, especially to one’s lower back muscles.
Thank you for putting the time to read through this article and please check out my other article on the exercise that burns most calories here!