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Romanian Deadlift Vs Stiff Legged Deadlift

Many of us have a love hate relationship with the deadlift. On one of my previous blogs I discussed deadlifting technique - How to perform the perfect technique.

This week’s blog I want to look at two related (and often confused) movement that are somewhat related to the deadlift. Romanian Deadlift (RDL) and the Stiff-legged deadlift (SLDL).  Many in the field tend to use these two terms interchangeably but they actually describe two very different exercises.

Muscles Targeted

Both the RDL and SLDL target the same primary muscles which are the glutes, hamstrings and low back (additional work is done by the upper back and gripping muscles). In this context, one of the primary differences between the RDL and SLDL is that the RDL only works the spinal erector muscles statically, as there is no movement in the spine itself.

In contrast, due to the rounding and un-rounding (flexion and extension) that occurs in the SDL, the spinal erectors are trained more dynamically in the SLDL. However, the consequence of this is also a great deal more stress on the low back and spine

The Romanian Deadlift

The Romanian deadlift is a lift that was developed by Romanian weightlifter Nicu Vlad, to assist with the pull on the clean and jerk. This lift is performed in a similar manner to the stiff-legged deadlift, but there are differences. Unlike the stiff-legged deadlift, when you lower the bar on the Romanian deadlift, you push your hips back so the bar is closer to your body at all times. Your torso will approach parallel to the ground faster than in the stiff-legged deadlift, and when the bar is just past your knees,you straighten your legs quickly and explosively pull the weight back up.

How to perform it:

Stand behind a barbell and reach down to grab it with both hands, hinging at the hips. Bend your knees slightly but keep your torso is straight and parallel to the ground. Squeeze your hamstrings and glutes as you stand up straight, keeping the barbell close to your body. Hinge forward again, lowering the weight to your shins for one rep.

The Stiff-Legged Deadlift

May be done for up to 20 repetitions per set, but on high-repetition sets, take care to ensure that your technique does not suffer due to fatigue. Dumbbells can be used for this exercise, but this significantly reduces the weight you can use.  Remember Stiff-legged deadlifts display a high degree of hamstring activation. The DOMS can be intense!!!  

How to perform it:

Hold a barbell with an overhand grip and extend your arms straight down. Bend your knees slightly, just enough so that your legs are not locked. Without allowing your knees to bend any further, lower the barbell to either the limit of your flexibility or where your lower back starts to round. Stand up by reversing the path of the bar.

Differences in Muscle Recruitment

Both exercises work your hamstrings and lower back, but by pushing your hips to the rear, you are increasing the rotation at your hip joint in the Romanian deadlift. This means your hips are flexing more, and you're working your gluteus maximus, or posterior, to a higher degree. Your torso angles more, so there is greater activation of your spinal erectors, or lower back, in the Romanian deadlift. No research has been performed to determine if there is any difference in activation of your hamstrings when comparing the two lifts.

Differences in Application

If your only goal is to work the muscles of your lower back, hips and hamstrings, the stiff-legged deadlift works well. If your goal is to improve your pull in Olympic weightlifting, then not only does the Romanian deadlift work better, the mechanics of the lift are the same. The stiff-legged deadlift features a different bar path, which can disrupt the pattern of your pull. 

Incorporating these into your workout programme

As far as programming, both the RDL and SLDL are generally better used for moderate reps, unless a lifter is verytechnically skilled. Reps lower than three tend to be problematic, invariably lifters get a little bit freaked by the heavy weights and do funky things technique wise. Sets of 5-8 are generally the best way to go for most lifters and the RDL/SLDL is usually used as a secondary leg exercise following squats or deadlifts. Higher reps can be done but lifters have to be aware of signs of upper back fatigue and form breakdown.  With the RDL this causes rounding and a loss of proper technique.

I’d note that RDL’s do involve a lot of low back even though the spinal erectors aren’t being used dynamically.  If a lifter has exhausted their low back with heavy deadlifts or power style squats, RDL’s may be a real problem technically as the low back will give out. If so, don't worry keep the weights LIGHT.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that RDL’s are notorious for causing some pretty crippling hamstring soreness.  The hamstrings are often prone to soreness in the first place and the high stretch component of the RDL tends to exacerbate this.  Just something to keep in mind when you introduce the movement (or re-introduce it after a long lay-off); start light or you may not be able to walk for 5 days - John Wayne!