These two deadlifting variations are commonly used as synonyms for one another in many weightlifting, powerlifting, and functional fitness programs, despite there being some key differences between the two lifts.
At face value, both movements are used to target lower back strength, teach and reinforce a firm arching position, and increase loading to the glutes and hamstrings. The distinct yet subtle differences between the Romanian Deadlift also known as the RDL) and its stiff leg counterpart should be understood and recognized fully to best maximize performance and minimize confusion between coaches, lifters, and readers.
Therefore, in this article I will go through the distinct differences between these two movements and how each can be used to enhance performance.
[Want more info? Check out our ultimate guide to the Romanian Deadlift here!]
Below are two seperate videos, each demonstrating the correct positioning of the Romanian deadlift and the stiff leg deadlift. Be sure to pay attention to the starting positions of the knees in both versions.
The Romanian Deadlift
The Stiff Leg Deadlift
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 (often at the exact angles used during the first and second pulls of the snatch and clean, or during the deadlift), which generally allows for increased range of motion and less dependency on lower back strength and hamstring flexibility.
The stiff leg deadlift has a lifter assume a fully extended position at the start (knees), slightly hinging and allowing the knees to slightly bend only at the point at which hamstring and lower back tension is at maximum, potentially making the stiff leg deadlift a more hamstring and lower back intensive lift which can be programming for hypertrophy specific purposes or postural control.
Loading in the Romanian Versus Stiff Leg Deadlift
Generally speaking, the loading between both of these deadlift variations is very similar, with loads ranging from 50-70% of a lifter’s back squat max. Reps are generally kept within the low to moderate range to either increase hypertrophy, strengthen sport-specific positions (cleans, snatches, deadlifts), or aid in movement patterning applicable to other lifts.
With that in mind, many lifters may find it easier to move higher loads and strengthen an overall position when training the Romanian deadlift primarily because the knees are kept unlocked and slightly to moderately flexed during the movement. By allowing similar flexion angles to one’s clean/snatch/deadlifting lifts (see below), greater emphasis is placed upon the hips, back, and hamstrings as a whole with often heavier loads being able to be withstood. The stiff leg deadlift can also be used in similar manner, however the stiffer knees (especially with full extension at the top) places greater emphasis on lower back and hamstring flexibility and strength, making it a potentially greater movement for isolation to those muscle groups.
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, clean, and even deadlift, there is a tension and timing needed to then scoop oneself back under the barbell (often after the bar passes the knee) as they approach the drive/power phase of the Olympic lift and/or lockout of the pull.
The Romanian deadlift requires a lifter to start in the bent knee position allowing the lifter to develop the necessary timing and tension development needed to have a better application to those specific lifts. Meanwhile, the stiff leg deadlift has a lifter start in a full extended position, only slightly bending as flexibility and hamstring tension surmounts, making the stiff leg deadlift slightly less specific to the formal olympic lifts and deadlifts when looking for more technique driven movements. It is important to note that both movements offer benefits to the lifter, and both can and should be programmed with specific outcomes in mind.
While both movements have small, yet distinct differences and applications, coaches and athletes should understand that these are both viable options to be trained in assistance sections of a workout for most athletes (weightlifters, powerlifters, track athletes, and functional fitness competitors). Coaches and athletes should not get too concerned with these minute yet significant differences when programming, yet should stay aware of the knee flexion, loading, and how both can relate (or not relate) to a particle lift and/or activity.
Featured Image: @mikejdewar on Instagram