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Home » OSL Blog » Stiff Leg Deadlift vs. Romanian Deadlift

Stiff Leg Deadlift vs. Romanian Deadlift

June 18, 2019

If you read our article on How to Deadlift, you know there are different variations of the deadlift.

Oh wait, you haven’t read the article yet? No problem, we’ll wait til you’re done and get back here.

Ready now?

Today, we’re going to discuss the stiff leg deadlift vs Romanian deadlift.

Deadlift
Dealift variations will boost and liven up your workouts.

While both types of deadlifts are very similar, there are some key differences that should be noted. These differences change the muscles worked, your form, and the range of motion needed to perform the exercise.

Both exercises can improve your lower body strength along with your performance and technique in the squat, clean, and snatch form.

Also, both have other name variations that all refer to the same form of deadlift. We want to clear up any confusion if these terms are used interchangeably throughout the article.

Stiff Leg Deadlift Names

The stiff leg deadlift is also known as the

  • stiff legged deadlift
  • straight leg deadlift

Romanian Deadlift Names

The Romanian deadlift has also been called the

  • Roman deadlift
  • Keystone deadlift (lesser known and often not referred as)
  • It can also be mistaken for the Hungarian Deadlift

Different names, same type of deadlift.

Now that we’ve got that cleared up, let’s dive into the stiff leg deadlift vs Romanian deadlift. Today we’ll discuss:

  • The history of the two deadlift variations
  • The muscles worked for each
  • The role they played (or didn’t) in the Golden Era
  • When you should use one over the other
  • Weight comparisons for each
  • How to perform each correctly
  • Alternative options besides a barbell
  • Benefits to each type of deadlift

The Romanian Deadlift

Before we discuss how to properly perform a Romanian deadlift, let’s first learn about its history.

The Romanian deadlift was invented by Nicu Vlad and his coach Dragomir Cioroslan. Vlad was a Romanian weightlifter and his unrecognized form caught the attention of U.S. Olympic Weightlifting Coach Jim Schmitz.

Back in 1990, Schmitz’ U.S. Weightlifting team was attending a weightlifting clinic as his San Francisco gym. The clinic was led by Vlad and Cioroslan. After the clinic, Schmitz noticed Vlad’s form of deadlifting and asked him to repeat it for his team.

Developed as a way to increase back strength to perform other weightlifting exercises, Vlad happily demonstrated. Without a name for his technique, Schmitz dubbed it the Romanian deadlift to honor the creators.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Interestingly enough, the Romanian deadlift’s popularity has also had an effect on the stiff legged deadlift form. Currently, the stiff legged deadlift is performed with a straight back like the Romanian deadlift. Historically, it was performed with a rounded back in order to increase the stretch on the hamstrings.

This change in form is most likely why the stiff leg deadlift and Romanian deadlift are hardly distinguishable today.

The Stiff Leg Deadlift

The straight leg deadlift does not have a history like the Romanian deadlift, sadly.

It gets its name due to the position of your legs when completing this type of deadlift. By using a stiff legged approach, you put more stress on the legs and lower back. This provides greater muscle activation in those areas and works them differently than other deadlift stances.

Stiff leg deadlift
A stiff leg deadlift puts more stress on the legs & lower back.

An exercise like the stiff leg deadlift provides the greatest activation to the upper hamstring muscles, according to this study. When compared to the conventional deadlift, the stiff leg deadlift activates the medial gastrocnemius (calf muscle) much more as well.

Deadlifts in the Golden Era

Deadlifts have been around since the Golden Era of bodybuilding. It was an essential way to increase muscle mass using minimal equipment.

Legends like Ronnie Coleman, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and going back as far as John Grimek performed deadlifts to achieve amazing results.  

John Grimek

Of course, variations like the Romanian deadlift weren’t around back then, so you can’t compare to the stiff leg deadlift. A variation on the classic, the straight leg deadlift is a great option when targeting the hamstrings and glutes.

There is a reason that there have been so many variations of this essential exercise. The ability to focus on targeted muscle groups for competition and to help with injury recovery while building strength. Allowing people the chance to create muscle and build strength.

No wonder the deadlift has lived from before the Golden Era and is still being used today. The popularity of the deadlift has created variations like the stiff leg deadlift and Romanian deadlift for bodybuilding.

Functional exercises that really work and have the evidence to back it up will always stand the test of time.

Muscles Worked

Muscles
Both deadlifts target hamstrings, glutes and back.

Both the stiff legged deadlift and the Romanian deadlift work the following muscles:

  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Posterior chain (back and spine)

And to a lesser degree, the quads, calves, and forearm muscles. The deadlift is a great way to activate the entire posterior chain. Most people don’t realize or think about how everyday activities are actually performed by the body.

Movements as simple as bending over or picking something up off the floor can be helped by deadlift muscle activation.

Muscle Triggering

When considering the stiff leg deadlift vs Romanian deadlift, which do you think offers greater muscle triggering?

The Romanian deadlift is preferable if you want a higher degree of activation for your hamstrings and glutes. When performing the Romanian deadlift, your hips are pushed more to the rear, providing greater hip joint rotation.

Your hips flex more, working the glutes to a greater degree. However, with the more neutral (straight) spine in the stiff legged deadlift, you get the benefit of lower back activation.

While the stiff leg deadlift does offer a great amount of low back activation, it’s not without risk. Too many reps or too much weight can cause stress to the spine, which can create disk deterioration over time.

stretching
Stretch by touching your toes to simulate the stiff leg deadlift.

If you really want to feel the difference in muscle activation, try bending over to touch your toes. Do the same motion, once with your legs straight and once with your knees slightly bent.

Feel the difference? That is much like the difference in muscle activation for the stiff leg deadlift vs Romanian deadlift.

When Should I Use One Over the Other?

Trying to determine when to do the stiff leg deadlift vs Romanian deadlift?

The answer lies in what your goals are. If you’re just looking to work the muscles listed above, then you’ll do just fine with the stiff leg deadlift.

However, if you are preparing for the Olympics or another lifting competition, stick with the Romanian deadlift. It will help you with perfecting your pull doing Olympic lifts like the clean and snatch.

deadlift
Romanian deadlift will help you with perfecting your pull doing Olympic lifts.

The path the bar takes when performing the stiff legged deadlift can disrupt your pull path. Save this deadlift for when you want to focus on your back strength and do the Romanian to target your legs.

Of course, you don’t have to plan to compete to do the Romanian deadlift. You can perform both variations regardless of your goals. The Romanian offers more targeted muscle activation to give you an edge when performing and helps build muscle mass.

Weight Comparison

According to stats entered into Standard Level, many more people do the Romanian deadlift vs stiff legged deadlift.

Just because the RDL is more popular, does that mean you can lift more weight than the stiff legged deadlift?

Not according to their results. Both men and women logged anywhere from one to three percent higher weights in the stiff legged deadlift.

Deadlift
The standing leg deadlift alows you to lift more weights.

You can also use a calculator like this one on StrengthStandards.com. You enter your gender, weight, and performance level and it tells you the standard you should be able to deadlift.

Since the Romanian deadlift primarily uses the glutes and hamstrings, you should actually be able to lift more weight. Ideally, you should do low reps with heavier weights doing the Romanian deadlift. And you should be doing lighter weights with higher reps for stiff legged deadlift.

deadlift
Weights of deadlifts vary from one person to another.

Of course, how much you can or should deadlift is different for each person performing the lifts. The number will be different for everyone, but is mainly based on:

  • Age
  • Weight
  • Gender
  • Experience level
  • Body composition/limitations
  • Workout goals

Intermediate Level Lifters

Generally, an intermediate level lifter should be able to lift around 100 percent of their body weight as a woman. For men, that number increases to as much as 125 percent of their body weight.

As you gain experience, confidence, and muscle, your lift minimums will increase as well. As always, proceed with caution. You risk possibly significant injury if you try to increase weight too fast and by too much of load.

How to Perform

The stiff leg deadlift and Romanian deadlift look very similar in execution, but there are key differences. Here, we’ll explain how to perform each type of deadlift and then discuss the differences between them.

1. Stiff Leg Deadlift

You can start either from the floor or a lifting rack. If you choose to start from the floor, make sure you have proper form down first.

Grab the barbell with an overhand grip with hands at either side of your hips. Make sure your feet are no more than hip width apart and toes are facing forward.

Maintain a straight leg throughout the exercise, a very slight bend at the knee is okay but keep it locked. Then, bend at the waist and start to lower the barbell down towards the ground. Use your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back to help guide the bar down.

stiff leg deadlift
Remember to keep your legs straight while performing the stiff leg deadlift.

Stop once you feel your back starting to round or you’ve reached the floor, whichever comes first. Then, in one fluid movement, bring the weight back up until you’ve reached the starting point.

In this lift, your knees will stay mostly straight except for a possible slight bend at the knee. The back, glutes, and hamstrings will be the driving force lifting the weight to your hips. Proper form includes bending at the waist with a straight back and stiffening the hamstrings for maximum activation.

2. Romanian Deadlift

The starting position for the Romanian deadlift is very similar to the stiff legged deadlift. Keep your chest up and shoulders back with a slight bend to the knee.

Romanian deadlift
The starting position of the Romanian deadlift.

You will be starting at the hips, so use a rack to start. If you don’t have a rack, pull from the floor and do a conventional deadlift before you start the Romanian.

Grab the bar with an overhand grip roughly shoulder width apart. The bar should rest on your thighs and stay close to the body throughout the deadlift.

Hinge your hips back as you lower the barbell down to your shins. Make sure you keep a neutral spine with a slight arch in the lower back to maintain proper form. Allow your glutes, hamstrings, and lower back to do the heavy lifting.

Romanian deadlift
Engage your glutes and hamstrings when coming back up from the romanian deadlift.

In a fluid motion, move back up to the starting position, with the barbell close to your body at all times. Use your glutes when coming back up – make sure they are nice and tight to help with the lift.

You should feel the bar running up and down your body throughout the deadlift.

3. The Differences

Even though these exercises are similar, there are some key differences to each of these types of deadlift.

First, the knees are almost completely straight when doing the stiff legged deadlift. With the Romanian deadlift, the knees are more bent to provide greater hip activation and flexion.

Some believe that locking the knees can increase the chance of injury when performing a deadlift. Actually, the hamstrings help protect the knee joint, which means stronger hamstrings benefit the knees.

knee
Hamstrings assist in protecting the knee when doing the stiff leg deadlift.

The stiff leg deadlift also takes the barbell to the ground, whereas the Romanian stops at the shins. The back is also arched with the Romanian and straight with the stiff legged deadlift.

The barbell is also kept closer to the body when performing the Romanian deadlift compared to the stiff leg deadlift. And you have a different starting position than the Romanian.

Alternate Weight Options

Most people believe that the one true way to perform a deadlift is by using a barbell and/or rack machine. While that may be true, it’s not the only option available to lifters.

You can certainly use dumbbells in place of a barbell to perform either the straight leg or Romanian deadlift. However, if you choose dumbbells, know that the amount of weight you will be able to lift is much lower.

bodybuilder
Deadlifts can be done with dumbbells instead

When practicing for proper form, it might be in your best interest to start with dumbbells. After all, you don’t want to lift anything heavy until you know you’re in the correct position to avoid injury.

Benefits

There is no denying that the deadlift is an essential part of any workout for serious fitness enthusiasts. After all, it didn’t make it into the “Big 3” of exercises and have entire comps designed around it for nothing.

Regardless of if you prefer the stiff leg deadlift to the Romanian deadlift, they both offer awesome health benefits.

They work various muscles groups throughout the body and are considered a whole body workout. Not only does the deadlift increase muscle strength, it also can help the body heal from injuries and improve posture.

Deadlifts as Part of Normal Workout

People who perfect the deadlift and use it as part of their regular workout arsenal learn more about proper body mechanics. Understanding the difference of bending at the waist rather than the hips, and how all the muscles work together. These are just some of the lesser realized benefits of performing deadlifts.

Senior exercising
Deadlifts increased functionality when performing daily activities.

Deadlifts have also been included in post surgery workout routines. They are also attributed to increase in functionality when performing activities of daily living (ADL).

Out of the two, the Romanian is a more advanced deadlift. You’ll want to work on perfecting the straight leg deadlift before you work on the Romanian.

The Romanian increases grip and forearm strength while also creating awareness of hip flexion and extension.

posture
Both deadlifts improve posture and increase overall strength.

To recap just some of the benefits of these two deadlifts:

  • Improve posture
  • Strengthen the core and other major muscle groups
  • Increase overall strength
  • Heal from injuries
  • Prevent future injuries from happening
  • Help you better understand the biomechanics of how the body functions and works together to perform everyday tasks
  • Increases bone density
  • Isolate different muscle groups depending on deadlift type
  • Create the ability to lift more (starting with straight leg deadlift)
  • Increase speed and jumping along with other skills

So Which One is Better?

Given the information provided in this article, the Romanian deadlift seems to be a better overall exercise.

However, you don’t want to completely forego the stiff leg deadlift. While the Romanian deadlift provides greater hamstring and glute activation, the stiff legged deadlift has its place.

The Romanian deadlift should not be added to your exercise routine until you’ve got perfect form down. This is for your own safety to avoid injury that can delay your gains.

Only once you’ve got the correct form should you add in deadlift variations to focus on other muscle activation.

For best results, start out building your back, hamstring, and glute muscles with the straight leg deadlift. Then, once you’re ready to take it up a notch, add in the Romanian deadlift.

As mentioned previously, you should be doing lower weight with higher reps on the stiff legged deadlift. When using the Romanian deadlift, low reps with higher weight limits work best.
What’s your take on the stiff leg deadlift vs Romanian deadlift? Do you prefer one over the other? Let us know in the comments.

Disclaimer: None of the individuals and/or companies mentioned necessarily endorse Old School Labs or COSIDLA Inc. products or the contents of this article. Any programs provided for illustration purposes only. Always consult with your personal trainer, nutritionist and physician before changing or starting any new exercise, nutrition, or supplementation program.
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