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Not Feeling RDLs In Your Hamstrings? Here’s What To Do

Ever hit the gym to hit Romanian deadlifts, only to feel like you’re not truly hitting your hamstrings? Yeah, me too. As a CSCS with a Masters in Sports Science, I’ve been down that frustrating road more times than I care to admit.

It’s like throwing a party for your best friend, but your friend never shows up — what gives? The truth is, the Romanian deadlift (RDL) is a stellar move for beefing up those hamstrings (and the back, low-key), but only if they’re actually kicking into gear.

If you’re not feeling the burn where you’re supposed to, chances are you’re missing out on some key elements of the lift, or making some of these common RDL mistakes. Don’t worry, though; I’m here to help you get those shy hamstrings to come out and play.

Important Takeaways

  • Understand the Hip Hinge: Proper hip hinge mechanics are crucial in Romanian deadlifts to engage the hamstrings. Push your hips back as if trying to close a car trunk with your rear to ensure proper form and maximize hamstring involvement.
  • Focus on Mind-Muscle Connection: Improve your results by mentally focusing on the hamstrings during the exercise, feeling the muscle stretch and contract throughout the movement. Bro science? Maybe, just try it.
  • Warm-Up Adequately: Incorporating dynamic stretches and light exercises that mimic the RDL motion before your session can enhance muscle activation and performance. My favorites are seated and prone hamstring curls.
  • Adjust Foot Position and Tempo: Experiment with foot positioning and increase time under tension by controlling the lifting speed to further engage and strengthen the hamstrings. Some days you may stand differently than others.
  • Try Alternatives for Variation: If RDLs aren’t effective, incorporate stiff-leg deadlifts or Good Morning exercises to target the hamstrings differently and potentially enhance muscle response. You can also try using cable and banded RDLs.
  • Avoid Overloading Weights: This is my issue to a tee sometimes. Using excessive weight can compromise form and reduce hamstring engagement. Focus on lifting intelligently rather than maximally to benefit the targeted muscles.

Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift RDL form

Understanding Romanian Deadlifts and Their Impact on Hamstrings

Romanian Deadlifts (RDLs) are a staple in my training programs, and they’re fantastic for targeting the hamstrings—if you’re hitting the form correctly per your anatomical needs.

The Role of Hamstrings in Romanian Deadlifts

The hamstrings aren’t just in the game for looks; they’re crucial for lower body strength and power. In the Romanian Deadlift, the hamstrings play dual roles: they help in hip extension and knee stability. Essentially, they aid in pulling your torso back up from the bent-over position, working in unison with your glutes.

A big mistake I see is treating the RDL like a standard deadlift, focusing on lifting more with the back rather than pushing the hips back and up. Remember, the motion should hinge at the hips with minimal knee bend, emphasizing hamstring and glute engagement.

Romanian Deadlift how to fix a squatty hinge

If you’re not feeling your hamstrings, there’s a good chance your hips aren’t shooting back far enough and you’re bending too much at the knees. Stand two feet away from the wall and push your hips back while maintaining a soft knee bend. Feel that stretch? Think as though I’m behind you pulling your tailbone with a string.

Common Misconceptions About Hamstring Activation

One myth I’d like to bust is that if you don’t feel your hamstrings screaming during the lift, you’re not working them. That’s just not true. Muscle activation and muscle soreness are not the same. Muscle activation and grandiose feelings of contractions are not always the same. Sometimes, we don’t “feel” what we’re working on despite working them efficiently.

Another common misconception is the mindset that heavier is always better. Loading up the bar too much can actually pull your form out of whack, making it harder to engage the right muscles. For example, I know I’m going too heavy when I feel my erectors getting more involved to help maintain my torso position.

Why You May Not Be Feeling Your Hammies

  1. Inadequate Form and Technique: If you don’t have your hip hinge on lock, then you can’t expect to efficiently hit your hammies. I have an in-depth guide to help with this.
  2. Lack of Mind-Muscle Connection: Your form is solid, but you’re still struggling. Try slowing down, turning on some chill music so you can focus and mentally focus on what your hamstrings are doing during reps.
  3. Improper Warm-Up Routine: Try hitting some hamstring curls before your RDL sets. Sometimes, this can help give them a little pump and create almost an “awake feeling” before reps — gosh, that sounds so bro-sciency, but that ish works.

How to Trap Bar Romanian Deadlift Step 3 Hinge

Techniques Tweaks to Enhance Hamstring Engagement

Instead of labeling a lack of hamstring feeling as a “mistake” you may just not be optimizing your setup and execution for your anatomy. RDLs can look different from lifter to lifter, try the following to get more hammies.

Step 1: Adjust Your Foot Position

I’ve learned through both my training and coaching experiences that small adjustments can lead to massive improvements. For starters, keeping your feet hip-width apart ensures that the hamstrings are optimally positioned to bear the brunt of the load.

Now, if you’re like me and enjoy experimenting to find that “sweet spot,” try adjusting your stance width and foot position. For example, my “sweet spot” varies between a hip and a slightly wider width, and I typically enjoy having my toes turned out slightly. This changes based on my day-to-day, though, as my tightness/soreness can influence what feels best.

Step 2: Work Through An Effective Range of Motion

Notice how I said “effective” and not “maximal” — there’s a difference. More range of motion is great for hypertrophy; however, if you are forcing an excessive range of motion to pull you out of position or shifting emphasis away from your hammies, then how beneficial is it?

If you’re reaching at the bottom of your RDL reps or feeling your erectors getting blown up, try shortening your range of motion. If you want to shorten your ROM and be consistent in doing so, add a box or something in front of you to tap to know when to come back up.

How To Romanian Deadlift Step 3

Step 3: Slow Down, Grasshoppa

So simple, yet so overlooked. Your form is solid, and your range of motion is in check. Now add tempo to truly dial in your hamstring engagement. Tempo is one of my all-time favorite tools for building the hamstrings with RDLs.

If you’re new to tempo, I’d suggest doing the following. This is a common tempo I’ll use in me and my client’s programs when our goals revolve around a blend of strength and hypertrophy. Our goal is to increase mechanical tension on the hamstrings.

  • 3-seconds down
  • 2-seconds hold at the bottom
  • 2-seconds up
  • 1-second hold at the top, actively squeeze the glutes and quads

Final Words

If some days you’re not feeling your hamstrings to the same degree as others, that’s okay, don’t panic. Remember, that feeling doesn’t always equate to maximal growth and sometimes we’re hitting muscles despite not “feeling” them a ton.

For occasions where you find yourself struggling to “feel” the hamstrings over multiple weeks in a row or like your erectors are getting blown up and doing too much, then I’d suggest tweaking your form using the steps above.

Jake Boly, CSCS, MS Sports Science

Jake Boly, CSCS, MS Sports Science

Jake Boly is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of That Fit Friend. He's often regarded to as a go-to resource in various performance shoe communities. He’s been formally reviewing shoes and training gear for over 7 years and has hand-tested over 400 pairs of shoes. Jake is known on the internet and YouTube for blending his review process with his educational, strength sports, and personal training background.

Jake has a Masters in Sports Science, a Bachelors in Exercise Science, a CSCS, and he's been personal training for over 10 years helping hundreds of clients get stronger, lose weight, and accomplish their goals. He uses his exercise science brain and personal training background to make curated and thoughtful review content on the fitness gear he's testing.

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