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Comparing Stiff Leg Deadlifts And Romanian Deadlifts

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Did you know that stiff leg deadlifts and Romanian deadlifts are two different exercises?

These deadlift variations are often seen as the same lift, but they are not. There are minor, but important differences regarding how each variation is performed.

Let’s take a deeper look.

Stiff Leg Deadlifts

Performing the Stiff Leg Deadlift

Unrack a barbell with a double overhanded grip and position your feet with a comfortable and natural spacing. Toes may be pointed slightly outward. Do not force them in or out.

Tighten your lower back and lock your legs and knees. Now, proceed to slowly lower the barbell towards the ground. Keep your lower back tight, and do not allow it to round.

Continue to lower the bar until you feel your lower back wanting to round. At this point, return to the standing position, and repeat for the recommend number of reps.

It should also be noted that during stiff leg deadlifts the bar is not lowered or raised close to the legs like the Romanian deadlift. It is kept several inches in front of the legs, at a natural distance.

Common Stiff Leg Deadlift Questions

Lower Back Rounding – Can you round your lower back while performing the stiff leg deadlift? Yes you can, but I do not believe it is necessary, nor safe.

The purpose of the stiff leg deadlift is to stretch (and tax) the hamstrings as much as possible, forcing them to respond by getting bigger and stronger. You certainly could round your lower back to reach a more extreme stretching position, but know that you will be placing extra stress upon your lower back.

The added spinal flexion, and resulting retraction that comes with lower back rounding places much more stress on the spinae erectors. While this stress may currently feel manageable, you might start to pick up some lower back strains and pains as the weight on the bar becomes heavier and heavier during the coming months and years.

Use you best judgment when it comes to lower back rounding. As with most things in the strength training and muscle building realms, there is no blanket right or wrong answer as to whether lower back rounding should be utilized.

Stiff leg deadlift with a rounded back.

Left to right. Harry Johnson, Mr. America 1959. George Shandor.

Deadlift Off A Block – Can you perform the stiff leg deadlift while standing on a block, so that you are able to lower the barbell down further? Yes. This is a perfectly acceptable method of performing the stiff leg deadlift.

Some of you are more flexible than others. You may need to stiff deadlift off of a block so that you can reach a quality depth.

Knees Slightly Bent – Can you perform the stiff leg deadlift with your knees slightly bent? Good question. Yes, you can perform the stiff leg deadlift with a little bend in your knees.

Many lifters prefer to lock their knees while lowering the bar, as they feel this gives them a quality hamstring stretch. This variation is officially called a straight leg deadlift.

The only technical difference between a stiff leg deadlift and a straight leg deadlift is the locking of the knees. The legs are kept stiff throughout the movement for both variations.

Romanian Deadlifts

Performing the Romanian Deadlift

Unlike the stiff leg deadlift, the Romanian deadlift is performed by lowering the barbell along the legs.

Unrack a barbell and start in the same position as you would with stiff leg deadlifts. Keeping your lower back tight, force your butt backwards while slowly lowering the barbell down your legs.

As soon as you feel your lower back wanting to round or break, return to the standing position. Repeat for the required number of reps.

You do not want to perform the Romanian deadlift with your legs perfectly straight and locked. Bend the knees slightly when performing each rep.

So, when performing Romanian deadlifts think:

Force your butt back back while riding the bar down your legs.

It should also be noted that when standing back up, you want to continue to ride the bar along your legs.

Common Romanian Deadlift Questions

Using Romanian Deadlifts – Why would use use Romanian deadlifts as opposed to stiff leg deadlifts? While both exercises target and utilize most of the same muscle groups, the Romanian deadlift is not performed strictly to build the hamstring muscles. It involves more hips and glutes.

The Romanian deadlift is good for the hamstrings, but it is primarily used as an assistance exercise to help build deadlifts, cleans and Olympic lifts.

While rounding of the back is tolerated during stiff leg deadlifts by some in the lifting community, you will never round the lower back when performing Romanian deadlifts.

Heavy Weight – Do you recommend heavy singles and doubles when performing Romanian deadlifts? No. I have found that when you start training the Romanian deadlift at near maximal weight, you increase the likelihood that you will over-tax or strain your lower back.

The benefit of singles and doubles, in my opinion, is overshadowed by the risks. The Romanian deadlift is an exercise that can sneak up on you. You are able to move more weight because of the stretch reflex, but at some point your lower back may reach a tipping point.

As with most things in the lifting realm, this is a guideline and not a rule. Use your best judgement.

High Rep Sets – Do you recommend Romanian deadlift sets over 8 reps? Yes, but only if you have decent form and a reasonable amount of lower back strength. If you feel your lower back is a weak body part, or you are not confident with Romanian deadlift form, stick to sets between 5 and 8 reps.

Along the same lines, lower rep sets, such as triples, should only be utilized by someone with a strong lower back and good form. Stick to a moderate, sensible rep range until these areas are improved.

Origin – What is the origin of the Romanian deadlift? The Romanian deadlift was supposedly created by Bulgarian Olympic lifter Nicu Vlad. Rumor has it that Nico was able to use up to 660 pounds on the lift.

Muscle Growth – Is the Romanian deadlift a good lift for hamstring growth? Yes, but is it as good as the stiff leg deadlift for hamstring? Probably not.

With that said it’s still a quality tool to call upon when you need a change or solid muscle building option.

My Experiences With Still Leg Deadlifts And Romanian Deadlifts

Stiff Leg Deadlifts

I didn’t stumble upon the Romanian deadlift until 2007. Before that point, and during my muscle building years, I occasionally used stiff leg deadlift. My go to hamstring exercise of choice was generally leg curls, but I would perform stiff leg deadlifts every now and then on a whim.

To be honest I never felt comfortable using stiff leg deadlift. I always felt like I was chasing a stretch rather than a maximal contraction.

But don’t let my mental prejudices dissuade you from trying the stiff leg deadlift for hamstrings. We each have our own preferences. I encourage you to try the lift for yourself.

Romanian Deadlifts

As I mentioned, I began using Romanian deadlift in 2007 when I turned towards powerlifting. During my first 3 years of strength training, I used Romanian deadlifts nearly every week.

I set the Romanian deadlift aside in early 2011 when I decided to try some new programming options.

The most I have ever tried to Romanian deadlift in the gym was 645 pounds. I performed this RDL with relative ease, and looking at the video, noticed that the bar came within a couple inches of the ground.

I learned two things from this heavy Romanian deadlift rep:

  1. I was going deeper with a stiff back than I had thought.
  2. My lower back didn’t like super heavy Romanian deadlift reps. I threw my lower back out slightly, and it took 3 weeks to return to 100%.
It would be nice to eventually try more than 660 pounds just to say I out-Romanian deadlifted Nico Vlad. One day, when I have plenty of recovery time ahead, I just might make that attempt.
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5 comments

  1. Nicu Vlad is DEFINITELY not Bulgarian ;).

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  2. What’s your experience with straight leg deadlifts and knees? They tend to twinge my knees a bit, even if I do put a microbend in them as opposed to lock them.

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  3. Hi Steve,
    Once a lifter is getting up to heavy weights (350-400+) for reps using the Romanian DL, do you recommend using a belt? Or is this assistance exercise best performed belt less? I actually use this lift to strengthen my lower back specifically.

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