Romanian Deadlift Alternatives: How to Target the Same Muscles

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
March 22, 2022

The more posterior chain focused cousin of the traditional deadlift, the Romanian deadlift is best known for being among one of the most intense lower back, hamstring and gluteus muscle group training exercises available - something that makes it a mainstay in many powerlifting and strength building training routines.

However, many individuals find that they require a substitute exercise to the Romanian deadlift, either because of the fact that they are not flexible enough to perform it safely or because it is rather uncomfortable for their unique bodily proportions.

As such, finding a potential alternative to the Romanian deadlift is rather easy - though what particular exercise to use as an alternative will depend on the training goals of the exerciser themselves, as well as their reasoning behind why the Romanian deadlift must be alternated out in the first place. 

What to Look For in a Romanian Deadlift Alternative Exercise

The Romanian deadlift is an intermediate level free weight compound exercise of the closed kinetic chain variety that places significant stresses on the hip joints, lumbar portion of the spinal column as well as the knees.

This equates to any proper alternative exercise to the Romanian deadlift sharing much of the same training stimulus and complexity that is characteristic of it, such as being of the intermediate or novice level of difficulty in terms of form, or in sharing its nature as a free weight resistance exercise.

barbell romanian deadlift

As such, the list of potential alternatives to the Romanian deadlift is considerably narrowed down - especially when taking into account the drawbacks that are best avoided when substituting out this particular exercise, such as its risk of lower back injuries or its high posterior chain flexibility requirements.

The ideal Romanian deadlift alternative exercise would be one that presents little to no risk of injury while maintaining its significant muscular hypertrophy and strength conditioning benefits, all the while activating much the same muscle groups in a similar pattern.

And while few (if any) exercises fit this particular profile, several such as the stiff legged deadlift and the good morning are sufficiently close enough to allow for such a substitution to occur in the exerciser’s workout program.

What Muscles Should be Activated by a Romanian Deadlift Alternative Exercise?

Being a wide reaching compound exercise that activates practically every muscle group in the body to some capacity, the list of muscle groups that must be activated by the Romanian deadlift alternative exercise is quite long, and only truly applicable to a certain few compound exercises.

These are primarily that of the quadriceps femoris atop the femur, the three heads that make up the hamstring muscle group, the gluteus maximus and minor, the hip flexors, as well as the various muscles located throughout the lower and upper back, such as the trapezius and erector spinae.

These muscles are not all activated in an equal manner throughout a repetition of the Romanian deadlift, however, and as such it is generally the hamstring muscles and the glute muscles that bear the largest percentage of the resistance throughout both the concentric and eccentric phases of the exercise.

This translates to the alternative exercise also following much the same route, wherein they will also activate the hamstring and glute muscles to a large degree as the exercise’s primary mover muscles.

Why is the Deadlift a Poor Alternative to the Romanian Deadlift?

Considering the fact that they practically share the same name, one would stand to reason that the Romanian deadlift and the traditional deadlift are interchangeable exercises with similar patterns of muscular activation and training results.

However, this is not entirely true, as the deadlift’s particular form cues and mechanics equate to significantly more of the resistance being placed on the legs, in particular the quadriceps femoris muscle group along the front of the upper leg.

barbell deadlift movement

While much the same muscle groups as the romanian deadlift are also activated by the traditional barbell deadlift as well, it is in a different intensity per muscle group and as such - while suitable for inducing hypertrophy in said muscle groups - there exist other compound exercises that activate these muscles in a pattern more similar to the romanian deadlift itself.

Are There Safer Alternatives to the Romanian Deadlift?

Some exercisers seeking to alternate out the Romanian deadlift find themselves doing so due to the risk of injury and impingement found during the performance of particularly intense Romanian deadlift repetitions - or in the case of the exerciser utilizing improper form.

This, of course, can easily be remedied by instead choosing an exercise that places the exerciser in a more secure and stable position, thereby reducing the risk of injuries occurring and making up for other drawbacks that come along with the Romanian deadlift itself.

That is not to say, however, that other alternate exercises to the Romanian deadlift are without risk; and the exerciser should always strive to maintain proper form and utilize a reasonable amount of weight in comparison to their own strength level, regardless of what exercise is being performed instead.

In cases of the exerciser being inexperienced or otherwise unfamiliar with whatever alternative exercise they have chosen to use, it is best for them to do so under the supervision of an athletic coaching professional after first consulting with a physician or physical therapist.

Free Weight Alternatives to the Romanian Deadlift

Being a free weight compound exercise with a rather impressive list of muscle groups activated throughout the entirety of the movement, it should be no surprise to the exerciser that the best possible alternative to the Romanian deadlift is that of another free weight compound exercise.

This will have the benefit of carrying over the intensity, stabilizer muscle group activation and independent range of motion of the Romanian deadlift to its alternative exercise, all factors that are native to free weight exercises and vitally important for proper training stimulus and safety during the workout.

Stiff Legged Deadlifts

An exercise that should be first among the list of possible alternative exercises to the Romanian deadlift is that of the stiff legged or straight legged deadlift, a free weight compound exercise extremely similar to the Romanian deadlift in practically every aspect, but practically identical in terms of intensity, muscular group activation pattern and relative form.

While the stiff legged deadlift is often confused with the Romanian deadlift due to the similarity in their appearance and function in a training regimen, they are in fact quite distinct from one another, especially in regards to flexibility requirements and as such their subsequent risk of injury.

barbell stiff legged deadlift

The Romanian deadlift will usually require that the exerciser bend at the hips while maintaining as little a bend in the knees and ankles as possible, with their buttocks coming within close proximity to the parallel level of their knees during the deepest part of the repetition.

This is not the case with the stiff legged deadlift, as the primary difference in form between the two is the fact that the exerciser must retain as straight a leg and lower back as possible throughout the entirety of the repetition, requiring significantly more flexibility from the exerciser as well as a higher level of isometric strength in those areas.

However, this will also result in a reduced risk of injury (so long as proper form is maintained throughout the workout) while still retaining a similar level of muscular activation and subsequent training stimulus as what would be found in the Romanian deadlift.

Being of similar intensity and mechanics, the stiff legged deadlift shares the same repetition range as the Romanian deadlift, and as such may be used in practically the same manner and in a similar volume, regardless of periodization or training phase.

Deficit or Raised Deadlifts

A modified form of the traditional deadlift wherein the exerciser’s eccentric range of motion is extended by way of raising their feet several inches off the ground, the deficit deadlift activates the hamstring, hip flexor muscles and gluteus muscles in a capacity far more significantly than the ordinary deadlift is capable of.

This is a characteristic that the deficit deadlift and the Romanian deadlift share, apart from the fact that this elevated position forces the exerciser into incorporating more of their posterior chain as they bend lower in order to complete a repetition of the exercise.

deficit deadlift

As such, though not as suitable an alternative as the stiff legged deadlift, the deficit deadlift is a perfectly acceptable alternative exercise for athletes wishing to intensify their explosive posterior chain capacity as well as improve their core stability by reinforcing their lower back and erector spinae muscles.

This moderately increased range of motion does come with its own set of drawbacks, however, and individuals without sufficient flexibility in their lower back and legs may find that this particular alternative exercise is more uncomfortable than traditional Romanian deadlifts, and even significantly more unsafe in terms of injury risk reduction factors.

Good Mornings

A less intense free weight exercise that is primarily performed for the purposes of strengthening the lower back, gluteus muscles and the various smaller muscles that make up and support the middle of the back, the good morning exercise is often debated in terms of its safety as a movement, though there is no doubt about its effectiveness.

In terms of acting as a romanian deadlift alternative exercise, the good morning is best used by athletes and exercisers wishing to induce a larger amount of training stimulus on such muscle groups like the erector spinae and adductor magnus, all of which are part of the posterior chain and used to great effect throughout the exercise.

barbell good morning

However, some caution must be maintained in individuals with poor experience in barbell based free weight exercises, as the good mornings exercise has a reputation for placing significant mechanical tension on the lumbar spine and similar hard tissue structures throughout the back and upper legs.

This can, unfortunately, run the risk of resulting in severe injuries and nervous system conditions if repeatedly performed with excessive amounts of weight or the usage of improper form.

As such, though the good mornings exercise is no doubt an excellent if not more specific alternative to the romanian deadlift, it is best reserved for exerciser’s beneath the guidance of a personal trainer, athletic coach, or those of at least intermediate free weight exercise experience.

Sumo Deadlifts

Considered a close cousin of the traditional deadlift and the romanian deadlift as well, the sumo deadlift is performed much like most deadlift type movements save with the sole distinction of the exerciser’s arms being placed between their legs as opposed to on the outside.

This will usually force the legs of said exerciser to extend wider and bend lower during the deepest part of the repetition, resulting in increased gluteal and hamstring muscle group activation, replicating the intensity of the Romanian deadlift in those particular areas.

sumo deadlift

Much like other deadlift variations that may be used as potential alternative exercises to the romanian deadlift, the relative safety risks involved during the movement are entirely up to the exerciser’s practice of proper form and how much weight they are utilizing, and as such the sumo deadlift is neither a good nor bad choice in that particular area.

Being quite similar in intensity and muscle group activation pattern, the sumo deadlift may be performed in volumes of repetition similar to that of the Romanian deadlift, usually that of the repetition ranges of three to six with a RPE (rate of perceived exertion) at seventy to eighty percent.

Final Thoughts

While the Romanian deadlift is no doubt an excellent exercise for a variety of reasons, exercisers should not shy away from substituting it with an alternative that better fits their training goals, health conditions or unique bodily biomechanics.

Doing so will not only reduce the chance of injury and likely improve their training gains, but also allow them to more readily enjoy their workout routine - something that has been proven to result in significantly better training stimulus by way of psychological motivation.

And though the majority of alternative exercises to the Romanian deadlift may seem similar in form and muscular activation pattern, it is in these small changes that the distinction between each exercise becomes vitally important, often allowing for the exercise to accommodate certain requirements or goals when performed in the long term.

References

1. Schellenberg F, Lindorfer J, List R, Taylor WR, Lorenzetti S. Kinetic and kinematic differences between deadlifts and goodmornings. BMC Sports Sci Med Rehabil. 2013 Dec 7;5(1):27. doi: 10.1186/2052-1847-5-27. PMID: 24314057; PMCID: PMC3878967.

2. Martín-Fuentes I, Oliva-Lozano JM, Muyor JM. Electromyographic activity in deadlift exercise and its variants. A systematic review. PLoS One. 2020 Feb 27;15(2):e0229507. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0229507. PMID: 32107499; PMCID: PMC7046193.

3. Coratella G, Tornatore G, Longo S, Esposito F, Cè E. An Electromyographic Analysis of Romanian, Step-Romanian, and Stiff-Leg Deadlift: Implication for Resistance Training. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022 Feb 8;19(3):1903. doi: 10.3390/ijerph19031903. PMID: 35162922; PMCID: PMC8835508.

4. Schoenfeld BJ, Contreras B, Tiryaki-Sonmez G, Wilson JM, Kolber MJ, Peterson MD. Regional differences in muscle activation during hamstrings exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Jan;29(1):159-64. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000598. PMID: 24978835.

5. Camara, K., 2015. An examination of muscle activation and power characteristics while performing the deadlift exercise with straight and hexagonal barbells. California State University, Fullerton.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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