If you’re going to be a strength athlete — even a weekend warrior — sooner or later, you’re going to have to pull. The Romanian deadlift and the conventional deadlift are often top contenders for the big barbell pulling spot in strength programs. But how to choose?
The deadlift is a powerhouse that builds tremendous strength, muscle mass, and pulling power. Its cousin the Romanian deadlift (RDL) has a different start and end point — but it’s still a rockstar of a pulling exercise. While the conventional deadlift starts and ends on the lifting platform, RDLs only descend to shin height before the lifter pulls the bar back up.
Different strength sports have different requirements and competition lifts. The Romanian deadlift, admittedly, is not a lift you’ll be asked to perform at a meet. On the other hand, the deadlift most certainly is a competition lift in powerlifting and is a mainstay at strongman and CrossFit events alike. But that doesn’t mean that both types of deadlifts can’t play a powerful role in your training. Depending on your goals, the RDL or the traditional deadlift might work better for you. It’s up to you — with the guidance below, of course — to figure out when to pull conventional and when to pull Romanian-style.
Differences Between the Romanian Deadlift and Deadlift
First things first — the RDL and the deadlift are both pulls that lifters can perform pretty heavily. But that doesn’t make them the same. Here are the key differences.
Range of Motion
The most significant difference between the RDL and the deadlift is the lifter’s range of motion. Romanian deadlifts stop around shin height, whereas conventional deadlifts go all the way back to touch the platform between each rep. This crucial adjustment may not seem all that significant on paper, but it is the cornerstone of every difference between these lifts.
The RDL is generally not a lift that you’ll use to build maximal strength. For brute strength, you’ll more often than not turn to the powerhouse of pulls — the traditional deadlift. Tearing a loaded barbell off the platform and bringing it up to standing is a much different maneuver than bringing a weight off the floor, controlling it back down to shin height, and then repeating — without ever touching the ground.
Because of that dead stop (or bouncing reps, if that’s more your thing), you’ll generally be able to heft a lot more weight with the deadlift. That starting position recruits a load more muscles in the traditional deadlift than in the RDL, so you’ll be able to really hammer in those overall strength gains.
Let’s not get it twisted — both the deadlift and the RDL activate your entire posterior chain. Your back, glutes, hamstrings, and even your quads are involved to some extent in both of these lifts. As far as recruiting your lower body muscles go, you’re not skimping on gains by choosing either of these two exercises.
That said, if you’re targeting your back for strength and size, the conventional deadlift seems to activate your erector spinae, quads, and glutes more than the RDL. (1)(2) Conversely, research suggests that the RDL is better than the regular deadlift at engaging your hamstrings. (1) That doesn’t mean that the traditional deadlift doesn’t work your hammies at all. The RDL is just more of a hamstring specialist.
Similarities Between the Romanian Deadlift and Deadlift
The RDL and the deadlift might not look the same, but they’ve still got some key similarities. Here are the big ones.
While the specific mechanics of each move will be a bit different, the overall movement pattern is the same. Both the RDL and the deadlift are hip hinges where the lifter locks out a barbell in a standing position. In that sense, you’ll be building your pulling strength with both lifts.
Posterior Chain Strength
Even though the RDL and the deadlift emphasize different muscles, they both still fundamentally work your posterior chain. Though the deadlift may work your back and glutes harder by comparison, the RDL still activates and uses your erectors and butt.
Even though the RDL works your hamstrings slightly harder, traditional deadlifts definitely require strong involvement from your hammies. Both lifts also require a great amount of core and grip strength to stay stable and keep the bar well in hand.
Romanian Deadlift Vs. Deadlift Technique
Though the technique for the RDL and the deadlift are at the end of the day quite similar, they’ve still got a couple of hefty differences between them.
Shins Vs. Floor
With a deadlift, you’re starting (and ending) each rep on the floor. No ambiguity, no buts about it. You might be doing dead stop deadlifts or you might be going rogue with bouncing reps, but either way, the idea with the deadlift is to hit the floor between each rep.
Not so with the RDL, where you’ll start and stop the lift around shin height. The bar will be in your hands the whole set without any rest of breaking tension on the ground. You’ll have to be very much in control of your movements so you can control the bar’s descent and stopping point.
How to Do the Romanian Deadlift
- Stand with your feet hip- to shoulder-width apart and your toes forward. Position the barbell over your shoelaces, or midfoot.
- Hinge down to grab the bar with your hands slightly wider than hip- or shoulder-width, depending on your foot stance. Keep your back neutral and your shoulders back and down. Come up to standing.
- Brace your core and push your hips back once again. Keep your knees aligned over your ankles.
- Keep the bar close to your body as you hinge. Stop around shin height, when the bar is perhaps a few inches below your knees.
- Come back to standing.
Make sure you stay in control of your descent at all times.
How to Do the Deadlift
Performing the traditional deadlift looks a lot like doing the Romanian deadlift, with one key difference — hitting the platform.
- Stand with your feet about hip-width apart. Twist them apart slightly to root them into the floor. Keeping your shins fairly vertical, hinge over to bring your shoulders over the bar as your butt goes back behind you.
- Grab the bar with your hands slightly wider than your feet. Brace your core. Bring your shoulders back and down to help activate your lats.
- Drive through the floor with your feet and legs. Keep the bar close to your body as you bring it up to standing. Lock out your hips by squeezing your glutes.
Make sure to push down with your legs and keep your hips back in the hinge to help make sure your lower back isn’t doing all the work. It will also help to focus on keeping your shoulders back and down to engage your upper back’s help in securing the bar.
When to Do the Romanian Deadlift Vs. Deadlift
All things being equal, there’s no reason that both of these lifts can’t make their way into your program. But if you’re looking to figure out which one you should prioritize, get in touch with your goals to design the best program for you.
For Maximal Strength
Pound for pound, you’re likely able to lift more with the traditional deadlift. If you’re looking to build brute strength, the deadlift is likely going to be your major go-to. Because of its sheer strength-building potential, it’s going to be the one you program most often when you want to max out your pulls.
The RDL can be an excellent tool to supplement your pursuit of max strength. It helps train your entire posterior train without the overload factor that the deadlift gives you. This means you can perform it more as an accessory lift without accumulating as much fatigue. You’ll also be able to more specifically target your hamstrings, which might be a lagging factor in your traditional deadlift.
For Muscle Growth
If you’re looking to grow your glutes and low back, the deadlift might be your best bet between these two lifts. But if your main concern is growing your hamstrings, opt for the RDL.
That said, the RDL is generally a solid choice for muscle growth and development. Yes, the deadlift will help pack on the muscle pounds as you pack weight on the bar, but the RDL is a more targeted exercise for your hamstrings. And because the RDL puts relatively less emphasis on the back, it may allow lifters to pull submaximal loads with less strain. This can lead to an easier time recovering from hypertrophy-focused sessions.
For Many Strength Athletes
Since the deadlift is the exact lift needed for competition, the traditional deadlift is a must for strongwomen, strongmen, and powerlifters. CrossFitters will also often see the conventional deadlift in competition, and need to prepare accordingly.
That doesn’t mean that the RDL doesn’t have any place in these strength athletes’ competition prep. Romanian deadlifts help build stronger hips, hamstrings, and erectors without excessively overloading lifters’ backs and overall bodies. This makes it a great option for hypertrophy and as an accessory lift to build more powerful deadlifts.
For Bodybuilders and Weightlifters
Bodybuilders and weightlifters might benefit more from the Romanian deadlift than their fellow strength athletes. Since the deadlift is not required for competition in either sport — and because it places such intense loads on the back and full body — the RDL might be a better option.
Lifters might be able to recover faster from the RDL’s submaximal loads. Bodybuilders may benefit from this because they can spend more energy on the nitty gritty of muscle-building. Weightlifters might reap the additional benefit of RDLs having a little more in common with the nature of snatches and cleans than the traditional deadlift.
Learning to properly perform a hip hinge takes time and a whole lot of effort. For beginners, starting with the RDL might be a better option. Its reduced range of motion means that a lifter can build confidence with the hip hinge pattern without needing to maintain form all the way down to the platform.
Romanian Deadlift or Deadlift — Who Wins?
Powerlifters, weightlifters, CrossFitters, and strongwoman and strongman athletes alike are bound to pull loaded barbells off the ground in competition. Building pulling prowess is non-negotiable as a strength athlete — how you develop that strength is up to you.
The Romanian deadlift and the deadlift are both fabulous choices for developing your posterior chain. When you want to target your hamstrings, hit up the RDL. For more back, quad, and glute strength, opt for the deadlift. If you want to maximize your gains all around, remember that both can be very, very good.
- Martín-Fuentes I, Oliva-Lozano JM, Muyor JM. Electromyographic activity in deadlift exercise and its variants. A systematic review. PLoS One. 2020 Feb 27;15(2):e0229507.
- Lee S, Schultz J, Timgren J, Staelgraeve K, Miller M, Liu Y. An electromyographic and kinetic comparison of conventional and Romanian deadlifts. J Exerc Sci Fit. 2018 Dec;16(3):87-93.
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