RDL progression to target hamstrings without back pain

Romanian deadlift: this progression helps reduce back pain while strengthening hamstrings and glutes

Posted by for Workouts

This progression on a Romanian deadlift will build strength and stability without compromising on form.  

Now that we’re all working out from home, many of us are on a quest to find the most effective training style. That might mean trying isometric training styles such as barre, or adding in extra reps now that we are confined to light weight workouts. For me, it’s meant finding a heavy dose of workout motivation via Instagram Lives, because doing press-ups, alone, in my kitchen has not felt wholly inspiring. 

Esmée Gummer has been a lifesaver for that. The personal trainer and member of the Strong Women Collective has hosted a variety of upper and lower body workouts on her page all throughout lockdown, and I regularly go back to her IGTV to re-follow her strength-based (yet super sweaty) workouts. 

Her training style is pretty inventive – mixing up the pace, reps and sets to keep me on my toes. Plus, she uses a unique variety of exercises that I would simply never programme myself. One exercise, in particular, has really changed the game when it comes to my training – the single arm Romanian deadlift

You have probably heard of a Romanian deadlift (RDL). Otherwise known as a stiff leg deadlift, it’s a great lower body exercise that targets the hamstrings and glutes. Once you’ve nailed that, you can progress the move into a single leg deadlift, whereby you lower the weights to the ground while balancing on one leg. 

Only, I can never seem to manage that progression. Despite having trained for years and being fairly strong, I simply cannot get on with the single leg RDL. While attempting the move, I repeat to myself the cues that I’ve learned over the years: shoulders back, core engaged, pelvis straight. But the second I starting sending my hips back, my lower back starts aching and everything feels wrong. 

So instead, I limited myself to doing standard RDLs. Except I had hit a wall with this exercise too, as my home dumbbell selection wasn’t heavy enough to challenge me. Enter, Esmée’s single-arm RDL. 

In this move, you place both feet on the floor and, holding a dumbbell in one hand, push your hips back. By holding the weight on just one side I still isolate one hamstring at a time, but with the extra bonus of stability through both feet. Most importantly, there’s no back pain. 

“The main reason for doing single-sided stuff is usually to even out any imbalances,” says Esmée, when I tell her that I’ve been loving this exercise. Imbalances are the variation in strength between different sides of our bodies. While they usually go unnoticed, these weaknesses are suddenly magnified when we put all of our weight and balance through one side at a time. 

“If you hold a weight in your right hand, you’re going to be pulled slightly to the right. You can even that out by putting a weight in your left hand to counterbalance the pull, as we often do when we hold a dumbbell in each hand or hold a barbell across the body. But by doing single-sided work your body has to centre itself. That means you are building your body, stabilising your body and understanding your body, rather than just tipping over or relying on another dumbbell,” Esmée explains. 

Performing this move hopefully means that I will then balance my strength enough to perform a single-leg RDL perfectly. But by correcting imbalances in the body we can also “improve everyday movements, such as walking, running, cycling, and even just stepping out of a car onto one foot. And most importantly, by correct those imbalances now, we’ll be better balanced when we get older,” Esmée says.

In fact, most falls in people over the age of 50 are caused by these imbalances, she says. “People start to train their balance and try to correct imbalances when they lose it – by then it’s too late. Single-side work is so important to do now to maintain that balance,” says Esmée.

Another thing that is better fixed now than later? Posture. “At the moment, with a lot of people working from home and sitting down constantly, postural problems are occurring. You might not even realise that you’re leaning into one hip or you’ve got one shoulder lifted higher than the other. This can cause injury in our workouts, so working each side at a time really helps with alignment,” she adds.

Not to mention, if you’ve been training at home since the start of lockdown, you probably need something to mix up your workouts from both a motivation and a progression point of view. This is an excellent move for that, says Esmée: “It gives you an opportunity to try something different and to add a new challenge into your workouts, rather than just churning out the same things. But it’s also perfect for people who’ve only got one weight, and for them to know that they’re still getting big benefits without a lot of kit.”

Struggle with single leg RDLs? Try a single arm RDL

How to perform a single-arm RDL

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold a dumbbell in your right hand. Place your left hand on your hip or extend it out to your left. 
  2. Keeping your back straight, send your hips back, as though you are trying to get them to touch a wall behind you. Allow your arm to lower down towards your feet. 
  3. Make sure your hips stay in alignment by pushing your left hip forwards and engaging your core. 
  4. Press through your heels to come back to the starting position. 

Repeat up to 12 times each side

Share this article

Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).