Romanian Deadlift (RDL) vs. Stiff Legged Deadlift or Straight Leg Deadlift (SLDL)

In the past month it seems the like I have run into at least a half dozen people performing what they thought was a Romanian Deadlift (RDL), at least that has always been what they say they are doing. I am not sure if it has become more popular as of recent or I have noticed it more but unfortunately most of the athletes were not performing the movement they thought they were. In most cases they were doing something closer to a Stiff Legged or Straight Leg Deadlift (SLDL) rather than a Romanian Deadlift (RDL). This is a problem I have encountered many times over the years but with more frequency recently so I thought it was time to address it. 

Somewhere along the way, clients and trainers began thinking that a Romanian Deadlift is a straight weight to floor movement but it really should not be, that is more appropriately termed a "Stiff Legged" or "Straight Leg Deadlift".  Even a  a Straight Leg Deadlift usually doesn't get lowered all the way to the floor.  As all these are movements designed to work the hamstrings, each athlete needs to gauge their own flexibility and range of motion. 

Many people think the moves are similar but when performed correctly they are very different...

Think the Deadlift, Romanian Deadlift and Straight or Stiff Legged Deadlift are the same? Not when done correctly...

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Origins

First of all let’s get some history straight as to where the RDL came from. There was a very famous weightlifter from Romania that was visiting the Olympic Training Center named Nicu Vlad. He had a tremendous amount of strength in the powerlifting movements and he was seen performing a new exercise that accentuated the eccentric portion of a deadlift movement (lowering portion in this case), while maintaining a neutral lower back thus less strain. Not knowing what to call this exercise the weightlifters that saw this named it a “Romanian” Deadlift since Vlad was from Romania. So if you aren’t doing it the way Vlad did it, are you actually doing a Romanian Deadlift (RDL)?  Maybe, it depends on who is coaching.  That being said, more important is the intention of the movement and the risk reward profile.

​Over the years many variations have popped up and what you name a movement is not as important as the intention of the movement.  As such I am going to explain both the intention as most experts agree today and the variations that are acceptable and how to distinguish them.  Lastly I will tell you which one I think is best and why.

The Movement

First of all let's distinguish the key elements of a deadlift.  The deadlift is a movement whereby the athlete pulls the weight off the floor by squatting down and standing up.  I am going to trust that anyone reading this has seen or performed a deadlift.  The key is that a deadlift is almost completely a concentric muscle movement.  What that means is that most of the work is performed by the muscle while fighting gravity as the posterior muscles contract during the lifting phase.  The eccentric or lowering part of the movement in this case, is often performed very rapidly or in some cases the barbell is dropped to the mat.  If the athlete lowered the barbell back down with the same or slower speed in which they lifted it, the hamstrings would get more work during the eccentric phase, but doing this would put the athlete's lower back at risk for injury.  Thus a faster release or dropping of the weights is often see at heavier loads.  The RDL is the solution to the problem of training the eccentric phase of the deadlift while minimizing risk of injury to the lower back.

Muscles Groups

The RDL and SLDL target the same primary muscles, the glute (butt), hamstrings (back of thigh) and the lower back (additional work is done by the upper back and gripping muscles). The biggest difference is in how the lower back muscles are stressed which is dictated by the correct form and technique of each movement. The three types of back muscles that support and move the spine are the extensors, flexors and obliques.

  • The extensor muscles are attached to the posterior (back) of the spine and enable standing and lifting objects. These muscles include the large paired muscles in the lower back (erector spinae), which help hold up the spine, and gluteal muscles.
  • The flexor muscles are attached to the anterior (front) of the spine (which includes the abdominal muscles) and enable flexing, bending forward, lifting, and arching the lower back.
  • The oblique muscles are attached to the sides of the spine and help rotate the spine and maintain proper posture.

The biggest difference between the RDL and the SLDL is how those lower back muscles are stressed especially the small spinal erector muscles or erector spinae. These smaller muscles fan out and up the spine and are more tendinous in structure along the sacral region (lower back). In other words, along the lower back they look less like the belly of a large muscle and look more like a fibrous tendon. This means they are more prone to tearing as they don’t stretch as well and are less pro-fused with blood meaning they heal slower if injured. In the RDL, the spine stays in a neutral or static position thus the lower back muscles are not in acute stress when performed correctly. In the SLDL the spine is in some level of flexion (bending or rounding) depending on knee flexion (bending) and thus the spine is more stressed increasing the potential for injury of tendons, ligaments and disks.

Form and Technique

The biggest notable difference in this movement is the rounding of the back that inevitably happens with a SLDL. In its most simple state, the Straight Leg Deadlift is similar to a movement where you attempt to bend over and touch your toes without bending the knees but with weight in your hands. In a slightly modified version, the Stiff Legged Deadlift, the knees have slightly more bend but the movement still stems from the bending of the torso. So the stiffer the legs and the less bending of the knees, the more bending forward at the torso/lower back (flexion) or lifting back up (extension) the same way. In addition the range of motion in both movements takes the weight from the ground into a standing position and back down again. In a RDL the range of motion should be limited to a comfort level usually just below the knees and then back to standing. You should not take a RDL to the ground!

Romanian Deadlift Setup

Romanian Deadlift Setup

Loading  a rounded back means you are pulling weight while in a contracted state which is a recipe for an injury.  Although you could reduce the range of motion the likelihood of rounding the back at the bottom is almost inevitable with a SLDL.  Put enough weight on this movement and the risk for a muscle or disk injury is significant and the risk return for this exercise is minimal and not one I would use with most athletes. There are better ways to exercise the posterior chain with an eccentric movement while stretching the hamstrings.  Enter the RDL...

Romanian Deadlift - Bottom

Romanian Deadlift - Bottom

You will often hear that the RDL sets up the same as the SLDL but that is because everybody starts both exercises with the barbell on the ground. But if you want to perform the RDL properly you should start with the barbell in the rack just above your knees.   If you don't have a rack you should properly deadlift the weight up before beginning a RDL.  Thus the movement begins with the lowering or eccentric stretching phase of the posterior chain (hamstring and glutes).  Performing the RDL properly means you start from the standing position, you lower the weight to a comfortable position just below the knee that fully engages the eccentric movement of the deadlift stretching the hamstring.  Keep the knees loose and slightly bent at about 20+ degrees and move the hips back while maintaining the spine in a static or neutral position and then thrusting the hips forward and standing back up with the weight.  Additionally the barbell stays in contact with the thighs whereas in the SLDL the barbell hangs out a little further thus also compromising the lower back.  Eyes are straight ahead with a slight downward gaze and chest remains high.

In general the RDL is very different than the two versions of the SLDL and when performed correctly should never risk injury to the lower back. The lower back should remain in a healthy lumbar curve (half moon) or neutral position vs a rounded or humped shape. In short the RDL when performed properly is both safer and healthier for the back giving the athlete a better risk return performance profile.

Below are some more finer details on the various forms of the RDL from some of the highest recognized weightlifting experts in the health and fitness field; Bret Contreras and Mark Rippetoe.  When in doubt make sure you get your information from a reputable source!

Dean
A graduate of Loyola University and MBA from The University of Chicago.
Pre-med LSU and post graduate at A.T. Still University.

His love of technology started right out of school. As a new hire for Arthur Andersen's Consulting group, the largest accounting and consulting firm in the world at that time, he led the first implementation of one of the very first IBM and Apple personal computers ever used in the business environment quickly becoming the world wide expert in analytical implementation of personal computers for business. Eventually moving on to a widely successful leveraged buy-out and then returning to Arthur Andersen and becoming a Partner in the Chicago office, he specialized in health, fitness, nutritional and food businesses managing some of the largest strategic food industry restructuring deals at the time. As COO of a successful Midwest Venture Capital firm, he was responsible for the operational management and success of over 25 investments each averaging $2-5 million over 5 years yielding returns in excess of 1000%.

He served on the board of many businesses in the health and nutrition sector as well as the educational and certification industries, including the board of Nutrisystems and one of the largest licensing and certifying bodies in the US. Achieving a modest level of success he decided return to school to increase his scientific and technical knowledge and launch an investment company targeting startups in the health and fitness sectors. During this time he became one of Infusionsoft's first Certified Partners providing digital marketing consultation and implementation for many industries including the health, fitness and hospitality service sectors. Having custom developed some of the very first website to Infusionsoft CRM integrations, he implemented over 50 Infusionsoft installations and one of the first website membership systems providing targeted content to clients based on funnel tagging and online behaviors. While UltraFit Systems has incubated and exited several fitness concepts, he noted a need for better digital marketing and client management systems as well as analytical tools for health practitioners to use to chart a scientifically valid path to achieving their goals and objectives.

He is a founding member of Six Sigma Fitness (SSF), an online science and technology company with multiple distribution channels. SSF is a Cloud based SaaS health technology platform for Athlete Management and sub-clinical Health, Wellness and Fitness evaluations for the Health and Fitness industry. It is also a health practitioner educational resource that certifies practitioners in the SSF proprietary methods and business processes. He has created proprietary scientific algorithms, custom CRMs and integrated technologies using API integrations and behavioral logic for marketing and conversion strategies in the health sector. This platform and technology is currently being adopted and customized for a small muti-location mobile technology retail organization as well and B to B telcom provider.

A wrestler in high school and for a brief time in college until realizing the challenges of studying and playing sports at a high level while constantly having to cut weight, he decided to coach and master the challenges of health and fitness through weightlifting and martial arts while pursuing careers in consulting and eventually the venture capital and private equity business specializing in food and nutrition industries.

He is a multiple blackbelt having studied martial arts for over 30 years including kickboxing, Muay Thai, BJJ, Krav Maga, Kenpo Karate, Kung Fu, Northern (Longfist) and Southern Shaolin (Hung Gar Tiger and Crane), Tai Chi, Qigong, Traditional Weapons and Chinese philosophical studies including Taoism, internal arts and energy systems from an Eastern medicine perspective.

He has had the good fortune to train with and or under the direct lineage of some of the greatest martial artists in the world including Master Ed Parker, Master Jinheng Li, Kru Pol and Master Eddie Cha.

He is also the author of the Six Sigma Fitness™ Scholar Warrior Program which brings together the Eastern and Western sciences as well as the training of both traditional strength and conditioning with martial arts programming.

He is currently the Research Physiologist with UltraFit Systems, Physiologist/Consultant to many professional athletes specializing in combat sports, weight cutting and physiological adaptation. Authored and developed The Scholar Warrior Program for Six Sigma Fitness™ and The Six Sigma Fitness™ Methodology.

Past certifications are too numerous to list but more include Six Sigma Fitness™ Certified Practitioner, Certified Personal Trainer (C.P.T.), CrossFit Level 1, Precision Nutrition, Poliquin Biosignature, Poliquin PICP, BioForce HRV, BioForce Certified Conditioning Coach

He is available for consults, private self-defense training and speaking engagements.

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  • Nice post Scholar Warrior!

    As you mentioned, lots of people have heard about how great the RDL is and a lot of people do it wrong. Thanks for doing your part in clearing up misconceptions.

    What I love about this lift is the benifits it has for different kinds of lifters. A weightlifter, a powerlifter, and a CossFitter will all get different benefits out of the same lift.

    Keep it up.

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