Can’t Feel Hamstrings In Romanian Deadlifts? Try These 5 Tips

top 5 tips to feel the hamstrings in romanian deadlifts

The hamstrings are heavily involved in the Romanian deadlift (RDL), and for this reason, most lifters will choose to include it in their program to build strength and muscle mass in the hamstrings. 

However, many struggle to actually feel the hamstrings working in this movement – likely because they’re in the wrong positions or not taking full advantage of the components of the lift that target the hamstrings the most. 

To ensure we’re getting the most out of the movement to build better hamstrings, let’s discuss some easy tips to get those hamstrings firing.

My top 5 tips to feel the hamstrings in Romanian deadlifts are:

  • Restrict The Amount Of Knee Flexion That Occurs
  • Practice A Full Range Of Motion
  • Keep The Bar Close To The Legs
  • Maintain A Neutral Spine
  • Increase The Amount Of Time Under Tension

To maximize the hamstrings in a Romanian deadlift, it’s important to first understand how the hamstrings contribute to the movement – so that we can use this to our advantage to enhance how much we feel them.

The Role Of The Hamstrings In Romanian Deadlifts

the main role that the hamstrings will play in the romanian deadlift is to assist the glutes in extending the hip from the bottom position to a standing position

The hamstrings are composed of 3 muscles known as the semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and the biceps femoris, which all work to flex the knee, and to extend the hip.

The main role that the hamstrings will play in the Romanian deadlift is to assist the glutes in extending the hip from the bottom position to a standing position (on the way up). In the bottom position, the hips will be pushed backwards away from the bar and it is the hamstrings job to return the hips to the bar in order to return to a standing position.

In addition to this action, the hamstrings also work to decelerate hip flexion (to keep us controlled as we bend at the hip) and are responsible for dynamic stability of the knee (keeping the knee stable as we move). 

This is why they are active as we lower the bar down into the bottom position of the Romanian deadlift, because during this portion of the Romanian deadlift we are bending at the hip and the knees are staying slightly bent and need to be stabilized in this position throughout the movement.

These movements are important when performing the Romanian deadlift in both the descent (the eccentric portion) and the ascent (the concentric portion) because the hamstrings are working eccentrically (lengthening under the load) to control the descent, and then work concentrically (contract to perform their action) on the ascent to assist the glutes in extending the hips.

To learn more about how our muscles work together in a deadlift, check out our Ultimate Guide For Muscles Used In The Deadlift.

Want to improve your deadlift technique?

How To Feel The Hamstrings With Romanian Deadlifts

how to feel the hamstrings with romanian deadlifts

With the anatomy and biomechanics lesson out of the way, let’s get into the tips!

1. Restrict The Amount Of Knee Flexion That Occurs

To feel the hamstrings while performing the Romanian deadlift we need to ensure that the knees are not traveling too far forward, and instead are maintaining a slight bend in the knee with the shins mostly vertical.

Many lifters make the mistake of allowing the knees to travel too far forward, which turns the Romanian deadlift into a squatting pattern rather than a hinging pattern. This causes us to use the quads throughout the motion rather than the hamstrings, which is not ideal if we’re trying to feel the hamstrings.

We should not take this to an extreme and lock out the knees, because this will likely limit the range of motion of the lift, and place unnecessary strain on the ligaments of the knee and the lower back.

To master the Romanian deadlift and keep the emphasis on the hamstrings, we should keep a slight bend in the knees and focus on sending the hips back behind us, which reinforces the hip hinge movement pattern. This will keep the shins more vertical and allow the hamstrings to do their job.

2. Practice A Full Range Of Motion

To engage the hamstrings fully in the RDL, we should practice a full range of motion with every repetition.  If we’re limiting the range of motion and only complete partial reps, then we will be missing out on full hamstring recruitment.

When we’re training the Romanian deadlift we should be bringing the bar down as far as we can while maintaining a neutral spine and keeping the shins vertical to recruit the hamstring maximally. 

For most lifters, this will be when the bar is approximately mid-shin. There are exceptions to this with lifters who have greater hamstring mobility and those who have very poor hamstring mobility.

For those who have poor hamstring mobility, the movement will naturally have less range of motion than those with better hamstring mobility. It’s important not to push past the point where it is possible to maintain a neutral spine and keep the shins vertical because there is no additional benefit in going further if we’re not in the right positions.

To increase the range of motion for those who have exceptional hamstring mobility, we can put a plate under the toes to get a larger stretch in the hamstrings, which helps us to feel the hamstrings more in the Romanian deadlift. 

However, I do not recommend this for those who have poor-to-average hamstring mobility as it will likely compromise their lower back position and cause them to deviate from a neutral spine.

3. Keep The Bar Close To The Legs

To keep the focus on the hamstrings rather than the lower back in the Romanian deadlift, we should keep the bar close to the body throughout the entire movement and avoid letting the bar drift away from the legs.

If the bar drifts away from the legs during the Romanian deadlift, it alters the bar path and makes the lift much more challenging (and not in a good way). When the bar drifts away from us, it makes it harder to maintain a neutral spine, which causes the lower back to take on a lot of stress. 

This is an unfavorable position not only because it takes the emphasis off of the hamstrings, but because it is more likely to cause an injury due to the strain it places on the lower back, especially with repetitive motions and/or heavier loads.

To keep tension on the hamstrings and reduce the risk of injury while performing the Romanian deadlift, we should keep the bar close to us by actively trying to keep the bar against the legs throughout the movement.

To learn more about why it is important to keep the bar close while deadlifting, check out our article “What Is The Best Deadlift Bar Path?”

4. Maintain A Neutral Spine

To feel the hamstrings working in a Romanian deadlift, we need to maintain a neutral spine throughout the movement.  If our spine is not neutral we increase the risk of injury, and impact our ability to engage the hamstrings properly.

If our lower back is arched then the pelvis is anteriorly tilted (tilted forwards), and when this happens the hamstrings end up in a lengthened position that makes it difficult to engage them while lifting because they will likely feel very tight. If the hamstrings are already lengthened due to the position of our pelvis, then we will not get much range of motion out of the movement before feeling like they’re too tight.

If our lower back is rounded then the pelvis is posteriorly tilted (pelvis is tucked under) and when this happens, we increase the amount of shear forces (forces that push in opposite directions) on the spine – which increases our risk of injury by putting the intervertebral discs in a vulnerable position.

To get the most out of the Romanian deadlift for the hamstrings, we need to maintain a neutral spine throughout the movement by reinforcing the right positions, keeping the core engaged, and having the bar close to the body.

For more information on maintaining a neutral spine in a deadlift, check out our other article “How To Keep Your Back Straight While Deadlifting”.

5. Increase The Amount Of Time Under Tension

To ramp up how much we feel the hamstrings in the Romanian deadlift, we can increase the amount of time the hamstrings are under tension by slowing down the eccentric (the descent) and/or adding a pause in the bottom position.

To increase the amount of tension we develop in the hamstrings we can slow down the lowering phase (eccentric) of the Romanian deadlift because they are heavily involved in this position of the lift by decelerating hip flexion and dynamic stability of the knees. 

Another option is to add a pause to the bottom of the romanian deadlift because this is when the hamstrings will be at their most lengthened position, and therefore they will have to work harder to maintain this position and to contract to bring the bar back up to the start position.

The more time under tension we can achieve, the more engagement we will get from the hamstrings in the Romanian deadlift. 

It should be noted that the more we slow the eccentric or the longer we pause, the harder it will be to return to a standing position as the hamstrings will be more fatigued. It’s important not to fatigue ourselves to the point where we lose our neutral spine position.

Deadlift Alternatives To Target The Hamstrings More

So far we’ve discussed how we can increase hamstring activity in the Romanian deadlift by increasing the amount of time that they spend under tension by adding a tempo and/or a pause to the repetitions. 

In addition to this, there are also some other deadlift variations that we can include to help feel the hamstrings more in a hip hinge pattern similar to the Romanian deadlift.

Are you confused about what the difference is between a deadlift and Romanian deadlift? Check out our article Deadlift vs Romanian Deadlift: Form, Benefits, Differences for some clarity.

Rear Foot Elevated Romanian Deadlift

The rear-foot elevated Romanian deadlift is a single leg variation that is typically performed with dumbbells, which involves elevating one foot to a bench (or a box) to emphasize one leg at a time and increase the level of tension on the hamstrings more than a traditional Romanian deadlift.

How-To:

  • With dumbbells in hand, set up in front of a bench (or a box of similar height) and place one foot on the bench by rotating from the toe or resting the top of the foot on the bench.
  • Step out with the front leg until the one of the back leg forms approximately a 90 degree angle
  • Maintain a slight bend in the knee and send the hips back to perform a hinge
  • Keeping the dumbbells in close proximity to the body, continue descending until the dumbbells are mid-shin (or above if hamstring mobility is limited and compromises spinal positioning)
  • Ensure that the hips are remaining square throughout the movement and no twisting is occurring
  • In the bottom position, drive the hips back underneath the body to use the hamstrings of the working leg to return to a stacked position
  • Complete all desired repetitions on this side before switching sides

The Rear Foot Elevated Romanian Deadlift increases our ability to feel the hamstrings working because having the object behind us that is elevating our foot and the dumbbells in front of us that we want to travel vertically along our legs, cues us to send the hips further backwards and maintain a smaller bend in the front knee.

I prefer to elevate my rear foot rather than to hover it (which would be a single leg Romanian deadlift) because it allows for heavier weight to be used to really feel the hamstrings rather than worrying about maintaining balance during the exercise.

This variation is perfect for those with flexible hamstrings because it will provide a greater stretch than a traditional Romanian deadlift. It is also a great option for those who have one side stronger than the other because it allows us to target both sides individually. 

However, I do not recommend this variation for those who have limited hamstring mobility, as it will likely feel too intense and the range of motion will be too limited to achieve the desired effect.

Stiff Leg Deadlift

The stiff leg deadlift is a deadlift variation that is often confused with the romanian deadlift, but is different because it has less of a bend in the knees than the romanian deadlift and it starts from the floor (like a traditional deadlift) and not out of the rack.

How-To:

  • Set up a barbell on the floor with the desired weight
  • Place the feet under the bar so that the bar cuts the shoes in half when looking down, and take a hip-width stance
  • Hinge at the hips with a neutral spine to grab the bar
  • Ensure that the hips are even with the shoulders, the spine is neutral, and the knees are unlocked but not bent
  • Tighten the lats to prevent the upper back from rounding
  • Press the floor away with the feet to initiate the motion to stand, and drive the hips forward to bring them to a stacked position under the ribs and shoulders
  • Once a standing position has been achieved, reverse the motion by sending the hips backwards to hinge with a neutral spine
  • Once again, the knees should be unlocked but not bent
  • Return the bar to the floor
  • Repeat for the desired number of repetitions

The stiff leg deadlift is a popular alternative for the Romanian deadlift because it increases the stretch that we get in the hamstrings because we have less bend in the knees throughout the movement – which requires more effort from the posterior chain (hamstrings and glutes) to extend the hips to a standing position and also to control the bar back down to the floor.

The stiff leg deadlift is a great alternative for those with good hamstring flexibility because it will produce a greater stretch than the Romanian deadlift – which allows us to feel the hamstrings working.

It is also beneficial for those who are still learning how to hinge properly because it reinforces the hinge position rather than a squat. 

That being said, those who have limited hamstring mobility may not be able to achieve a true stiff-legged deadlift without compromising the neutral spine position. If this is the case, then the stiff-leg deadlift should be avoided and the Romanian deadlift should be performed instead.

Wondering whether hamstrings improve deadlifting performance? Check out my article: Do Leg Curls Improve Deadlifts

Good Morning

The good morning is performed with a bar on the back similar to a low bar barbell squat; however, it is different from a squat because it is a hip hinge. With the good morning, the knees are restricted and we are actively trying to get the torso to come forwards while the hips travel backwards.

How-To:

  • Set the pins of a rack so that the bar rests at shoulder height
  • Place the hands evenly on the bar wider than shoulder-width
  • Walk under the bar and position it on the lower traps (in low bar position)
  • With the hips stacked underneath the ribs, straighten the legs to unrack the bar from the pins
  • Walk backwards 2 to 3 paces to clear the pins and set feet hip-width apart
  • Use the hands to to squeeze the bar against the back to maintain its position throughout the movement
  • With a slight bend in the knee, hinge at the hips with a neutral spine to send the hips backwards and allow the chest to come forwards
  • The hips should travel back as far as they can without additional bending of the knees
  • The chest should be just above parallel with the ground
  • At this point, drive the hips back underneath the bar to return to a stacked position
  • Ensure that a neutral spine is being maintained throughout the movement, and the bar is squeezed against the upper back to avoid rolling forwards as we hinge
  • Repeat the movement for the desired number of repetitions

The good-morning is a hip hinge that differs from the Romanian deadlift because we are loading it from a racked position on the back rather than a pulling position.

However, it is similar to the Romanian deadlift in that it requires the knees to be slightly bent and involves sending the hips as far back as we can.

This allows the hamstrings to work as we hinge to decelerate the hips as they flex and dynamically control the knees, but also on the way up to extend the hips from a flexed position.

To learn more about the differences between the RDL and good morning, check out my article on Good Morning vs Romanian Deadlift: Differences, Pros, Cons.

Block Deadlift

the block deadlift starting the movement from the block that will prop the bar up so that it rests at mid-shin

The block deadlift is similar to a traditional deadlift but instead of pulling from the floor, we will be starting the movement from the block that will prop the bar up so that it rests at mid-shin. 

The block deadlift is similar to the Romanian as it will have the same range of motion, but is opposite to the Romanian –  it will start from the floor and return to the floor, whereas the Romanian starts from the top and returns to the top.

How-To:

  • Use blocks or gym padding to elevate the bar so it rests at shin height
  • Place the feet under the bar so that the bar cuts the shoes in half when looking down, and take a hip-width stance
  • Hinge at the hips with a neutral spine to grab the bar
  • Ensure that the hips are just below the shoulders, the spine is neutral, and the knees are slightly bent
  • Tighten the lats to prevent the upper back from rounding
  • Press the floor away with the feet to initiate the motion to stand, and drive the hips forward to bring them to a stacked position under the ribs and shoulders
  • Once a standing position has been achieved, reverse the motion by sending the hips backwards to hinge with a neutral spine
  • Return the bar to the blocks
  • Repeat for the desired number of repetitions

The block deadlift works similarly to the Romanian deadlift because the range of motion is the same; however, it can be loaded much heavier than the Romanian because it is being pulled off of the blocks and returns to the blocks – which allows us to “rest” between reps.  

The block deadlift emphasizes hip extension because we have less bend in the knees from the blocks and the hips are further behind the bar, which will recruit the hamstrings (along with the glutes) because they perform hip extension. 

We can also slow down the lowering portion of the block deadlift (eccentric portion) to recruit the hamstrings further, as they are involved in decelerating hip flexion as well.

For other exercises that we can include to target similar musculature to the romanian deadlift, check out our other article the 9 Best Alternatives For The Romanian Deadlift.

Final Thoughts

To engage the hamstrings fully so that we can feel them when we deadlift we need to master the hinge movement pattern, use a full range of motion, and increase the amount of time under tension. However, it’s important to note that even though we may not feel our hamstrings working as much as we might expect – it doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t doing their job.

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About The Author

Amanda Parker

Amanda Parker has a passion for competing and coaching in both powerlifting and weightlifting. She uses her knowledge from her Kinesiology Degree, CSCS, and Precision Nutrition certification to coach athletes and lifestyle clients for performance in training and nutrition. Connect with her on Instagram.