What Are The Differences Between Stiff-Leg & Romanian Deadlifts?

There are various forms of the deadlift exercise that one can do to help build overall strength and power. The stiff leg deadlift (SLD) and Romanian deadlift (RDL), are two such examples. Both exercises can be done using either a barbell, dumbbell or kettlebells. This article will look at the barbell version of each. The two movements look pretty much similar if you were to see them performed side-by-side. Both exercises stress the hamstring group more than a traditional deadlift exercise. There are, however, key differences. 

Differences Between Deadlifts (RDL & SDL)

The SDL and RDL are often considered the same exercise, but you need to understand some of the nuances between them. The main difference between both exercises is the amount of flexion that occurs in the knees. For example, in the SDL, the knees start fully extended before unlocking slightly as part of the forward hinge. In the case of the RDL, the knees remain bent while executing the movement. When you perform an RDL, your hips are pushed back to the rear, providing greater hip joint rotation. When your hips flex more, the glutes end up working more.

Both exercises work basically the same muscles (glutes, hamstrings and back). However, the SLD, using a more neutral spine ends up getting more lower back activation. A few areas where some people may run into trouble are with exericise technique and if they lack strength and mobility. Let’s take a look at each type of deadlift and discuss each of them.

Romanian Deadlift

With the RDL, the knees are bent more, as mentioned above, compared to a SLD. This in turn, provides greater hip activation and flexion. Keep in mind, many experts believe that locking the knees out completely can increase the chance of injury when performing any type of deadlift.

In terms of technique, position the feet shoulder-width apart while holding the bar with an overhand grip (aka a clean grip). Next, set your back tightly in a complete arch. We’re talking about lumbar extension here. This is real important. I would first suggest to practice the movement near a wall. Stand about a foot away from the wall as a starting position using only bodyweight. Perform a (partial) RDL movement until the glutes come in contact with the wall. Work on maintaining that slight lumbar extension I mentioned above. Then move a few more inches away from the wall and repeat. Continue to move forward, going deeper into the exercise, each time, until you find your end limit. When you feel comfortable with the technique, try the same thing with a broom stick or dowel. Eventually progress to an Olympic bar with no weight, followed by a loaded bar.

To perform an RDL properly means lowering the weight to a comfortable position just below the knee, that ends up fully engaging the hamstring. Keep the knees “relaxed” and slightly bent (about 20-30 degrees). Move the hips back to execute the movement before driving the hips forward and standing back up with the weight. 

The goal is to hinge at the hips as far as you can without losing the arch in your back. Strength and mobility dictates the range of motion someone ends up typically using. Unlock the knees as you hinge, allowing the knees to remain slightly bent until you return to standing vertically, straightening them as you straighten the hips. Keep the bar as close to the legs as possible throughout the motion. The RDL is a great exercise for developing strength through the posterior chain.

Stiff Leg Deadlift

The SLD is similar to a regular deadlift but differs because you keep your legs “almost” straight throughout the workout. The SLD is considered more of a low back exercise and is typically done last in most leg routines.

In terms of SLD technique, start by standing with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Take hold of the bar with an overhand grip, positioning the hands about shoulder width apart. As you stand up, retract your shoulder blades, pulling the bar back into an upright posture. Next, lower the bar until you feel the stretch in your hamstrings and glutes, and then slowly straighten back up. Remember, though, as you feel this in your hamstrings, drive your heels into the ground engaging your hamstrings and glutes as you pull the bar back to the starting position. Keep the bar close to your body. Remain tight in the core with a neutral spine during each repetition.

Keep the initial weight light in both exercises until you feel the targeted muscles really starting to work. It may take some time to get it all in sync because your mind is trying to focus on others things like form and technique.

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