Romanian Deadlift vs Stiff Leg Deadlift

Last update:

If you’re like most lifters on Earth, you’ve probably experienced the age-old “coin-flip” situation of trying to sound “knowledgeable” when discussing deadlift variations….specifically, the Romanian Deadlift and the stiff leg deadlift.

However, you probably never knew which lift was which (if you actually paid close enough attention to notice the differences) and crossed your fingers when commenting on someone’s “RDL” or “stiff leg deadlift”.

If your luck is like mine, you probably always lose this coin flip and, as a result, mislabel the lift(s) in question.

Unimaginable shame likely ensued.

Today, we put this confusion (and sname) to rest and ensure that you’ll never look like a classic “Romanian deadlift vs stiff leg deadlift mis-labeling buffoon (TM)” again! However, if you’re too lazy to read, Alan Thrall has a pretty good video discussing the two lifts (and he’s as sarcastic and biting as I am!)

Romanian Deadlift: Overview

The Romanian deadlift, or RDL, is amore variation of a “traditional” deadlift exercise that is  hamstring-focused. Its name is a reference to Nicolae “Nicu” Vlad, a Romanian weightlifter who won several Olympic medals, and world titles and set several lifting world records. He was seen doing the exercise in the Olympic training hall. When he was asked about the exercise he was doing, he said “It was to make (his) back strong for the clean.” Everyone was interested so Nicu showed them how to do the exercise.

Nicolae Vlad

How To Perform

Step 1: Start the exercise by positioning yourself in front of the bar. Your ankles should just touch the bar. Legs are about shoulder-width apart.

Step 2: Lower down, grab the bar with an overhand grip slightly outside your legs, and stand up. This is where your exercise starts.

Step 3: Push your hips backward, while slightly bending your knees, and bring the barbell down to shin level, without touching the ground.

Step 4: As you are bending your hips backward, your hamstrings will stretch. When you reach the maximum stretch, pull the barbell up by pushing your hips forward and lock at the top position. Your back should be straight and your chest lifted.

Benefits

The RDL has a number of pretty unique strength-building benefits:

  • It puts less stress on your lower back, compared to a regular deadlift.
  • Working your hamstrings and glutes (which the RDL excels at) can boost your performance in other movements where you depend on these muscles, such as running and jumping.
  • Strong hamstrings stabilize your knees and decrease the stress placed on vulnerable ligaments, reducing the risk of injuries.
  • Makes everyday movements (such as walking) more efficient.
  • It can boost your deadlift performance by helping you develop stronger pulls.

Variations

The RDL has quite a few variations, including:

  • Dumbbell RDL: Performed like the standard barbell RDL but with dumbbells instead of a barbell.
  • Snatch-Grip RDL: A standard RDL performed with a grip used to perform a snatch.
  • Trap Bar RDL: A standard RDL, performed with a trap bar instead of a barbell.
  • Single-Arm, Single-Leg RDL: A dumbbell RDL performed by balancing on one leg and holding a dumbbell in your opposite hand at your hip. 
  • Split-Stance RDL: An RDL performed with the legs in a split stance, the rear foot in line with the heel of the front foot.
romanian deadlift vs stiff leg deadlift
@a_schuster

Stiff Leg Deadlift: Overview

Stiff leg deadlift, or straight leg deadlift, is another great exercise for working your hamstrings. The main element of this deadlift is keeping your legs completely straight throughout the exercise.

How To Perform

Step 1: Stand in front of the barbell with the bar almost touching your shins and legs shoulder-width apart.

Step 2: Hinge your hips and lower down to pick up the barbell while keeping your legs straight.

Step 3: Lift the barbell while keeping your chest up, back tight, and very slightly bent knees.

Step 4: Go down the same way, still keeping your legs stiff.

Benefits

Stiff leg deadlifts have several benefits:

  • They work the posterior chain muscles which enhances performance in running, jumping, and lifting (amongst other pivotal movement activities).
  • They improve balance and coordination by requiring you to maintain a stable base throughout the lift.
  • Since they work similar primary muscle groups and movement patterns, stiff leg deadlifts can boost your performance in standard deadlifts.
  • They take the stress off of the knees by putting more pressure on the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings.
  • They aid in the development of the hip hinge which can be useful for other lifting exercises (and movements like kettlebell swings) and make them more safe.

Variations

Like RDLs, stiff leg deadlifts also have a number of variations

  • Dumbbell Stiff Leg Deadlift: A standard stiff leg deadlift using dumbbells instead of a barbell.
  • Kettlebell Stiff Leg Deadlift: A standard stiff leg deadlift using a kettlebell (or two) instead of a barbell.
  • Trap Bar Stiff Leg Deadlift: A standard stiff leg deadlift using a trap bar instead of a regular barbell.
@taylakalisehowe

Romanian Deadlift vs Stiff Leg Deadlift: The Showdown

At first glance, the RDL and stiff leg deadlift look very similar. People confuse them all the time and I’ve found myself (begrudgingly) correcting the terminology of friends and trainees who mix the two up. However, although they may look similar, these are completely different exercises in a number of ways. Let’s break it down:

Romanian Deadlift vs Stiff Leg Deadlift: Similarities

The first major similarity is that both exercises isolate hamstrings and work them more than a standard deadlift.

Additionally, both exercises help you work your hip hinge as it’s a driving force of both exercises.

Finally, both exercises complement traditional deadlifts (but should not be used in place of traditional deadlifts). They work muscles that will positively impact overall deadlift performance, although neither works the same collection of muscles that deadlifts do.

Romanian Deadlift vs Stiff Leg Deadlift: Differences

There are more differences than similarities between these lifts, so we’ll hit each difference individually.

Romanian Deadlift vs Stiff Leg Deadlift: Positioning

Romanian deadlifts and stiff leg deadlifts start from different positions. RDLs start at hip height…so you gotta lift the bar (or, I guess, take it out of a rack) before you even start your first rep. Stiff leg deadlifts, on the other hand, start on the ground (more like a standard deadlift).

@kristy_hawkins

Romanian Deadlift vs Stiff Leg Deadlift: Muscles Worked

RDLs primarily work your posterior chain. A strong posterior chain is essential for stability, producing more strength and speed during sports activities, and reducing the risk of injuries. These muscles include:

  • hamstrings
  • calves
  • glutes
  • lats
  • erector spinae muscles

Additionally, RDLs work the multifidus…one of the deep muscles of the back. RDLs are an exercise that aids in strengthening the back extensors and developing lumbar strength. This helps you develop lumbar and spine stability, which can prevent chronic back pain and injuries.

Stiff leg deadlifts primarily work your:

  • Hamstrings
  • Erectors
  • Lats
  • Gluteus Maximus
@dbell_74

Although they work similar muscles as RDLs, stiff leg deadlifts work your erector spinae and multifidus muscles more because of constantly straightened legs and tighter stance. Since a stiff leg deadlift requires less knee flexion, it also requires greater flexibility than an RDL.

Romanian Deadlift vs Stiff Leg Deadlift: Range of Motion

The range of motion in these exercises is quite different. When performing an RDL, you stop the barbell at the shin level, without placing it on the ground between reps. So the range of motion is more restricted than in the stiff leg deadlift where you let the barbell touch the ground at the bottom of the lift at the beginning of each rep.

Romanian Deadlift vs Stiff Leg Deadlift: Loading

You’re likely going to experience some variance in the weights you can comfortably use for these lifts. While some gurus claim that your max RDL and stiff leg deadlift weights should be 50-70% of your back squat max, you will likely be able RDL more than you stiff leg deadlift. 

Romanian Deadlift vs Stiff Leg Deadlift: Olympic lifting preparation

Because of the knee flexion, RDLs can be more beneficial in terms of preparing you for Olympic lifts. Transitions in snatch and clean are done with flexed knees and require proper timing and tension. On the other hand, stiff leg deadlifts have fewer similarities to the Olympic lifts.

When To Use Each?

So, should you use both? One, but not the other? Neither?

Let’s discuss when each lift should be utilized in accordance with your lifting objectives.

Use RLD for:

  • Building maximal strength: since you will likely be able to lift heavier weights when performing RDLs, these can be more beneficial to helping you develop overall strength.
  • Growing hamstrings and glutes: for the reason mentioned above, you will grow muscle mass in your hamstrings and glutes more with RDLs.
  • Developing deadlift technique: RDLs more closely resemble standard deadlift positioning and can help you develop proper deadlift technique.
  • Increasing Olympic weightlifting performance: because of the similar knee position, RDLs can help you train for the clean and snatch,

Use stiff leg deadlift for:

  • Developing lower back strength: because stiff leg deadlifts emphasize your lower back muscles, especially the erector spinae and multifidus, perform them when you want to build lower back strength.
  • Growing lower back muscles: by working your lower back muscles, stiff leg deadlifts will also help you increase your lower back muscle mass.
  • Improve hamstring flexibility and stronger lower back for other sports: if your sport would benefit from a strong lower back and flexible hamstrings, stiff leg deadlifts can be used to more effectively build and strengthen these muscles

Romanian Deadlift vs Stiff Leg Deadlift – The Post-game

Wow

Not only did we ensure that you’ll never feel the unimaginable shame of mixing these two lifts up ever again, but now you should even have a pretty good idea of the benefits of both exercsies.

Normally, I would immediately suggest heading to your local globo gym and flexing on other, less-knowledgeable patrons with your newfound expertise. However, due to the extent to which the confusion about these two lifts has continued to persist, I’d say you should give them a break…for now.

Instead, take a look at our article discussing how much you should be deadlifting…and feeling that unimaginable shame once more if you’re not yet at an “elite” level yet.

Photo of author

AUTHOR

Tom, CrossFit Level 1 Trainer, ISSA-CPT, PN1-NC, DPA, CAPM has been CrossFitting for over 10 years. He has participated in a number of team and individual CrossFit competitions across Europe and the United States. He was the 2012 Chick-fil-A Race Series champion (North Georgia Circuit) and has put together a few gnarly garage and basement gyms in his time!

Leave a Comment