You want to increase your lower body pull volume, but you’re not sure which deadlift variation to turn to. The Romanian deadlift and the stiff-leg deadlift are both muscle-building versions of the deadlift. Either lift can help boost your strength and target different deadlift sticking points.
While both of these deadlift variations can help you bust through a lifting plateau, the Romanian and stiff-leg deadlift are different lifts. The Romanian Deadlift starts at a standing position and is a hinge motion in which the implement does not touch the floor. The stiff-leg deadlift starts on the floor, and is performed identically to a regular deadlift — except you keep your legs stiff throughout the movement. Unlike in the Romanian deadlift, the implement does touch the floor between reps.
Both movements are used to target lower back strength, teach and reinforce a firm hip hinge position, and increase loading to the glutes and hamstrings. In this article, you’ll learn the distinct yet subtle differences between the Romanian deadlift (also known as the RDL) and its stiff-leg counterpart (sometimes written as stiff-legged). You’ll also learn when to use the RDL versus when to use the stiff-leg version, the benefits of both lifts, and how to perform both of them.
Differences Between the Romanian and Stiff-Leg Deadlift
Though both versions are undeniably a deadlift, the RDL and the stiff-leg versions have some pretty hefty differences between them. Principle among them is whether the weight plates actually touch the platform between reps — and that translates into a range of other differences.
Range of Motion
The biggest difference between these two deadlift variations is their range of motion. Romanian deadlifts are designed to have the bar stop around shin level — the plates aren’t supposed to touch the ground in between reps. Stiff-leg deadlifts, on the other hand, come to a dead stop on the platform between each rep. That means that RDLs have a shorter range of motion than stiff-leg deadlifts.
It might be easy to assume that because the Romanian deadlift features a shorter range of motion than the stiff-leg version, it is an inferior lift. But because there is no dead stop between reps with the Romanian deadlift — i.e., the bar never touches the ground — this lift provides a greater amount of time under tension. With RDLs, you have to maintain full control of the bar throughout the whole lift, with no reprieve from the ground.
Generally speaking, you should be able to pull both of these deadlift variations at 50-70% of your back squat max. Still, unless you have very long arms or very flexible hips and hamstrings, you might find it easier to move heavier weight with the Romanian deadlift than the stiff-leg deadlift. That’s because, with the RDL, you keep your knees unlocked and slightly to moderately flexed during the movement — just like you do with a regular deadlift. This is more forgiving to your hamstrings, and might translate into you being able to pull more weight than you can with your legs completely stiff.
Specificity to Competition Lifts
For weightlifters and competitive pullers (snatches, cleans, and deadlifts), there is an optimal amount of knee flexion (bend) during the initial pulling of the ground. As a lifter transitions throughout the snatch or clean, you need both tension and proper timing to scoop yourself back under the barbell. This often happens after the bar passes your knees, as you approach the drive/power phase of the Olympic lift and/or lockout of the pull.
The Romanian deadlift requires you to start in the bent-knee position, allowing you to develop the necessary timing and tension development you need in Olympic lifts. Meanwhile, the stiff-leg deadlift has a lifter start in a fully extended position, only slightly bending as flexibility and hamstring tension mounts. This makes the stiff-leg deadlift slightly less specific to the formal Olympic lifts and even deadlifts.
Similarities Between the Romanian and Stiff-Leg Deadlift
Just because they feature a different range of motion and between-rep process doesn’t mean that the RDL and stiff-leg deadlift don’t have anything in common. These hip hinges can be programmed similarly and will teach you some of the same skills.
Hip Hinge Training
Regardless of your knee position, you’ll be using a hip hinge to initiate and drive both the RDL and stiff-leg deadlift. Because of that, both of these deadlift variations will help you develop a strong hip hinge movement pattern. If you’re looking to practice your hinge and want to add lower body pulling volume to your routine, either of these lifts can suit your needs.
Unless you have a very specific training purpose, it’s unlikely that either of these lifts will become your primary form of deadlifting. Instead, you’ll probably program both of these lifts as deadlifting accessories, to be performed on a non-heavy deadlift pull day.
If you’re training for hypertrophy, you’ll train each lift with a load that will bring you close to failure in the six to 12 rep range. If you’re looking to develop more endurance, go lighter and on the higher end of the rep scheme. Since neither of these lifts are likely to be your primary form of deadlifting, there will rarely — if ever — be a need to train them at maximal intensity.
Romanian Deadlift Vs. Stiff-Leg Deadlift Technique
Herein lies the primary difference between these two hip hinge lifts. While the basic shape of the lifts is similar, your degree of knee flexion will be much different. Therefore, the angles you’re lifting from will change, as will the muscles emphasized by the lifts.
Knee Bend (Flexion)
While there is a very small degree of difference between these two movements regarding knee flexion (bending), the impacts are still significant. When performing the Romanian deadlift, a lifter fixes their knees in the bent position. If you’re used to snatching, cleaning, or deadlifting, this knee flexion is often at the exact angle used during the first and second pulls of the snatch and clean or during the deadlift. This generally allows for increased range of motion and less dependency on lower back strength and hamstring flexibility.
On the other hand, the stiff-leg deadlift has you assume a fully extended position at the start. Your knees will be only slightly bent at the point at which hamstring and lower back tension are at maximum. potentially making the stiff leg deadlift a more hamstring and lower back intensive lift which can be programmed for hypertrophy specific purposes or postural control.
The RDL allows similar flexion angles to your regular deadlift. This places a greater emphasis on the hips, glutes, and hamstrings as a whole.
Because of the smaller degree of knee flexion, the stiff-leg deadlift places greater emphasis on lower back strength and hamstring flexibility and strength. This makes it a potentially greater movement for isolation to those muscle groups.
How to Do the Romanian Deadlift
Set up just like you do for your conventional deadlift. Approach the bar so that your feet are about hip-width apart, with the bar above your midfoot. Stiffen your torso and hinge at the hips with a soft bend in your knees. Grab the bar with a flat back and your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
With your core braced, maintain a rigid torso, engage your lats, and press through your feet. Drag the bar along your shins, lifting with your hips and hamstrings. When the bar passes your knees, let your glutes, upper back, and core contract to bring your body back to standing.
Instead of returning the bar to the ground between repetitions, let the bar slowly lower close to your body. When the bar reaches shin height, bring the movement to a halt and return to standing. Rinse and repeat.
Benefits of the Romanian Deadlift
- Allows you to deadlift a fairly heavy amount of weight while emphasizing your glutes, hips, and hamstrings.
- Increases focus on sports-specific components of the deadlift, translating into stronger competition lifts for powerlifters and weightlifters.
Romanian Deadlift Variations
You don’t need a barbell to practice RDLs. You can use a wide range of different implements to similarly target your hamstrings for strength and muscle growth.
Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
You can use a kettlebell or a dumbbell for the single-leg Romanian deadlift. You’ll hold the bell in one hand, plant the same foot, and hinge at the hips. You’ll let your opposite leg drift back behind you as you hinge, adding a unilateral balancing challenge to this hamstring-dominant lift. Move slowly and use light weights for these, especially until you get the hang of this one.
Trap Bar Romanian Deadlift
Using a trap bar to perform your Romanian deadlifts can be a great asset to your accessory programming. You’ll have to work carefully to balance the center of mass of the bar, making this an extra challenging move for your grip strength.
And because you’ll have to move slower to keep the bar balanced — especially because you’re not touching the ground throughout your whole set — you’ll be increasing your time under tension even more. That can lead to greater levels of hamstring hypertrophy and core strength.
How to Do the Stiff-Leg Deadlift
Set your body up as you would for a conventional or even a Romanian deadlift. Place your feet about hip-width distance, with your shoelaces under the bar.
When you hinge at your hips, keep your knees as straight as possible. A little bit of softness is okay — you don’t want your knees locked out — but the goal is to place emphasis on hamstring flexibility and a strong hip hinge to help you reach the bar.
Grasp the bar in the same way you do for a conventional deadlift or an RDL. Pay extra attention to keeping your torso rigid, since your hinge will likely be much more exaggerated than it is in a regular deadlift. Brace your core, engage your lats, and drag the bar along your shins to standing. Engage your glutes and low back to help you lock the bar out.
Reverse the movement, slowly lowering the bar all the way back to the ground. Keep your legs stiff throughout, resisting the temptation to bend your knees more generously. Once the bar settles on the ground, re-establish tension and repeat.
Benefits of the Stiff-Leg Deadlift
- This version can help your conventional deadlift, especially when your low back is failing at lockout.
- Stiff-leg deadlifts can reinforce a perfect hip hinge and flexible hamstrings. You’ll have no choice but to lift from your hips while keeping your knees relatively straight.
Stiff-Leg Deadlift Variations
Kettlebell Stiff-Leg Deadlift
Whether you use one or two kettlebells for your kettlebell stiff-leg deadlift, this variation might make the lift a little more accessible. If you’re using a suitably heavy kettlebell, the shape of the bell might help it touch the ground a little more easily than a dumbbell.
This slightly shorter range of motion will maintain the integrity of the stiff-leg lift while making it a bit more accessible to those with less flexible hamstrings.
Trap Bar Stiff-Leg Deadlift
Performing a stiff-leg deadlift with a trap bar can help develop your proprioception in a really big way. Since you’ll be balancing the trap bar to keep the bar path steady the whole time, your grip and core strength will skyrocket. Plus, because you’ll be using a trap bar, you’ll likely be able to load a bit heavier than you would be able to when performing the barbell version.
The Romanian Deadlift Vs. Stiff-Leg Deadlift — When To Use Each
Even though the RDL and stiff-leg deadlift are both effective deadlift variations, there are different times and places for both of them in your program. Depending on your experience level and goals, you’ll often have to evaluate which lift is most effective for you during a given training cycle.
Because you can generally move more weight with the Romanian deadlift, this variation might be more efficient for you when building maximal strength. But that doesn’t mean the stiff-leg deadlift has no place in a program geared toward strength.
Since the stiff-leg version puts more emphasis on your lower back, think about whether your low back is a weak point in your deadlift. If it is, you might choose to integrate the stiff-leg deadlift to help you eliminate that sticking point and build maximum strength.
For Muscle Growth
If you’re trying to build muscle in your lower body, the type of deadlift accessory you use depends on exactly where you want more mass. If you want to grow your hamstrings and glutes, try programming more RDLs into your program.
Stiff-leg deadlifts also place a strong emphasis on your hamstrings, but you’ll be moving less weight, so they might be less effective for hypertrophy there. If you’re looking to increase muscle mass in your low back, however, stiff-leg deadlifts might be a stronger option for you.
For Sports Performance
Romanian deadlifts have a similar knee position to conventional deadlifts and to the initial pulls in snatches and cleans. Because of this, there is a lot of direct sports-performance crossover from the RDL for powerlifters and weightlifters.
However, if you know you need more flexible hamstrings for your sport — that can include powerlifting and weightlifting — the stiff-leg deadlift might be a good option for you. Similarly, if you need to build a stronger, more resilient lower back for Strongman events, the stiff-leg deadlift will surely come in handy.
If you’re truly a beginner in strength sports, it’s likely that you’re still developing proper conventional deadlift technique. To reinforce regular deadlift positioning and technique, beginners should probably stick to Romanian deadlifts. On top of that, many beginners just don’t have the hamstring flexibility or technical finesse needed to pull off a successful stiff-leg deadlift.
The Bottom Line
Both the Romanian and stiff-leg deadlift are solid choices when you want to develop more strength in your hamstrings, hips, glutes, and lower back. But the lifts call for different degrees of knee flexion, and RDLs don’t even touch the ground between reps. Because of these different ranges of motion, each lift excels at improving different parts of your deadlift and overall strength game. Paying attention to these differences can help you refine your training and help you get that much closer to your lifting goals.
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