Romanian Deadlift vs. Stiff Legged Deadlift

Having previously examined proper technique for the Clean Style Deadlift, I want to look at two related (and often confused) movement that are somewhat related to the deadlift.Those two movements are the Romanian Deadlift (RDL) and the Stiff-legged deadlift (SLDL).  Many in the field tend to use these two terms interchangeably but they actually describe two very different exercises.


What’s in a Name?

Before looking at them in any detail, however, I should make one rather pedantic note.  The RDL is often referred to more generally as a flat-backed, semi-stiff legged deadlift, a description that will make more sense after I demonstrate how it should be done.  So you might be wondering where the name RDL came from.

As the story goes, the Romanian Olympic Lifter Nicu Vlad (who is credited with doing ~300kg, yes that’s 660 lbs., in the exercise) was seen doing them in the Olympic training hall at some point prior to either winning a medal, setting a world record, or possibly both.

Since he was Romanian, the movement got dubbed the Romanian deadlift. Whether that name is ‘right’ or not is ultimately not of much importance in my opinion, RDL is the name most people know the movement by and that’s what I’ll call it.

Muscles Targeted

Both the RDL and SLDL target the same primary muscles which are the glutes, hamstrings and low back (additional work is done by the upper back and gripping muscles). In this context, one of the primary difference between the RDL and SLDL is that the RDL only works the spinal erector muscles statically, as there is no movement in the spine itself.


Cable Row Technique

The mid-back (and lats) make up a considerable amount of muscle mass in the body and training those muscles groups effectively should be a key part of any good training program. In terms of maintaining good shoulder health and posture, along with developing musculature that contributes significantly to overall mass; training the back properly is key. Unfortunately, many trainees either pay little attention to the back or train it so ineffectively as to make that training, well…ineffective.

Today I want to look at some common cable row variants noting that most of the comments I’m going to make can be equally applied to barbell or dumbbell rowing or even various rowing machines. So don’t get hung up on the fact that I took pictures of a cable using specific attachments, it’s the mechanics of the different movements that is the key.

Muscles Targeted in the Cable Row

Cable rows can hit a variety of different muscles depending on the specific variant performed.  Lats, mid-back (teres/rhomboids), traps, biceps, rear delts, and spinal erectors can all be hit in one fashion or another depending on the type of row done.  Even the triceps long-head (which is involved in shoulder extension) gets some work from certain types of rows.  Basically, as one of the ‘big’ compound movements, rows can work a lot of stuff in a very small amount of time.

Basic Technique in the Cable Row

First I want to show the basic starting and ending position for a parallel grip row. In the start picture (left) note that the torso is leaned only slightly forwards with the knees bent and the back held straight. I want to comment that some rowing variants include flexion (bending at either the upper or lower spine) so that, with extension, there is more dynamic work thrown onto the spinal erectors.


Clean Style Deadlift Technique

Having examined Bench Press Technique fairly recently, I wanted to cover another important (and usually improperly done) exercise and that is the clean style deadlift. And while deadlifts are certainly less likely to be seen at the average commercial gym, when they are seen it’s usually a biomechanical horror that makes your back hurt to watch.

And just as I was talking about a very specific style of bench press in the previous technique article, I want to make it clear that this piece is only detailing the clean style deadlift.

I mention this in that, in recent years, other deadlift techniques have become somewhat more common. Rounded upper backs and more of a stiff-legged type of DL are being seen. This seems to be especially true in geared powerlifting and among super-heavyweight lifters. But those are very specific styles of deadlift for every specific purposes.

However, some very very big weights have been moved in a style at least similar to what I’m going to present. A clean style deadlift is the style used specifically by Olympic lifters and, while there are slight differences between that and a clean grip power style deadlift, they are fairly minor. The biggest difference is what happens into the second pull as the bar passes the knee, Olympic lifters are using the initial pull to set up for the explosion in the second pull, powerlifters are just trying to lock the bar out.

Like the generic raw power bench press, the clean style deadlift is what I’d teach the average lifter looking for strength or size gains, even more so if at some point they were going to learn power cleans. Clearly, this article doesn’t address sumo technique either.


Bench Press Technique

It’s safe to say that, in the US at least, the bench press is one of the favorite exercises of most trainees (especially males). Let’s face it, if someone finds out if you lift, their first question is invariably “How much do you bench?”.

And, while it’s difficult to decide which movement is done more poorly in the average gym (let’s face it, 99% of people have atrocious technique), the bench is right up there. I’ve seen staggering amounts of truly amusing things done on bench press, usually by guys who want to lift more weight to impress their buddies and/or hit the minimum macho poundage (which ranges from 225 to 315 depending on what type of gym you’re in). Never mind that the bench is realistically more or less responsible for more shoulder injuries than any other lift, the reality is that trainees will want to do it. So they might as well do it correctly. And that’s what I’m going to describe here.

Now, let me say right up front that I am going to be detailing a very specific variation on bench pressing, which is the raw generic power bench press. Lemme explain those terms. Raw means no gear as in no bench press shirts. Yeah, a lot of guys belt but, unless you’re using the belt to hold down your bench shirt, it’s pretty pointless. And I guess you could consider wrist wraps gear, I can’t say I’ve seen many non-powerlifters use them. But raw in this context means no bench shirt.

My use of the phrase generic power bench may confuse some people. I’m using the term generic to delineate that this is the generic form I’d teach a beginning/non-competition athlete trainee under most circumstances. Yes, there are exceptions. With a bodybuilder, I might do something a bit different, for a powerlifter, it would depend on their fed and their gear.

Basically, what I’m going to describe is what would be old-school raw powerlifting style bench press.


Woodchop and Reverse Woodchop

A while back I got the following email:

“I’ve seen so many f-ed up ways of people doing Woodchops/Reverse Woodchop movement for trunk/abs/core muscles that I dont even know if Im doing it right. I cant seem to find a single video of someone doing it with a cable x-over or similar cable apparatus, mostly some sort of medicine ball lunge-twist. Can you do a “Exercise of the Newsletter” type thing (like you did w/Split-Squats a few weeks ago) with Woodchops/Reverse Woodchops?” – Paul

Well, I finally got a chance to shoot some video and want to take a day’s break from the steady state versus interval cardio series to address it.

The woodchop and reverse woodchop actually exist in two very distinct forms; perhaps more interestingly they do basically opposite things. This is probably some of the source of the confusion. That’s in addition to the fact that most people seem compelled on this exercise to use wayyyyy too much weight which makes their form awful. They end up making it sort of this weird pseudo-rotational bench press with a lot of upper body and arm to move the weight.

The original forms of the woodchop and reverse woodchop were aimed at training the core muscles (rectus adbominus/obliques for woodchop, low back muscles for the reverse woodchop) dynamically in a rotational pattern. Such movements tend to be important for any athlete who has a lot of rotational motion in their sport. Think a baseball pitcher, a batter, tennis player, that sort of thing.

And yes, while most of the power for these movements comes from the legs, the woodchop/reverse woodchop patterns help to couple the leg drive with what happens in the upper body to finish the movements. It doesn’t matter how much power your legs can produce if you lose it all because of a weak torso.

However, in recent years, there’s been a shift away from a lot of dynamic rotational motions due to the fact that rotation and the lumbar spine is not a good combination. A focus on stability in that area along with the ability to stabilize against rotation has become more important for a lot of coaches and a lot of sports.

In the videos below, I’ve shown both the dynamic and anti-rotation woodchop in one video and the same for reverse woodchop in the second.

Woodchop: Note that the cable stack starts high and off to the side and there is basically a full body rotation going on from start to finish (my feet pivot and hips rotate along with the torso movement).

Let me note that there are actually many more ways to do woodchops than this depending on what muscles or patterns you want to train or eliminate. They can be done seated to take the legs out of the movement and isolate the rotational core muscles, they can be done kneeling for similar reasons, on one knee, on both feet without the lower body/hip movement, or done in the fashion I’ve shown them which is basically a full body ‘integration’ exercise.

Note that the arms stay mostly straight (I cheated a bit in the video) and the movement is coming from my legs, hips and torso. I’m not using a bunch of arm to press or push the weight across. The arms are just hooks and the movement is coming from the torso and lower body.

Now, the second movement is the stability anti-rotation version. Note on this that my torso stays completely still (facing directly forwards) while I use my arms to pull the handle down and across my body. Since the cable stack is trying to pull my torso out of alignment, this is training stability and anti-rotation. Does that make sense?

I’d note that, in the anti-rotation version, often what fatigues is the upper body and shoulder musculature from pulling the weight across.


Now, the reverse woodchop is basically the opposite. Now the cable starts down and to the side and I am going from torso flexion/rotation to full extension. This is also a nice way to get some extension in the thoracic spine (upper back area), make sure and reach tall at the end of the movement to achieve this.

As with the woodchop, this one can also be done seated, kneeling, on one knee, etc. depending on what you are trying to accomplish.

Again, the second movement is the anti-rotation version, the torso stays straight and I pull the handle across my body, fighting against the cable’s trying to pull me towards it.


A few programming comments

1. I think it’s important to include both movements in training to avoid creating any kind of imbalance front to back. Of course, the exception would be an athlete who already has an imbalance that you’re trying to correct. Woodchops/reverse woodchops would generally be done at the end of the workout but they wouldn’t necessarily be the only movements done for abs. Dynamic abdominal/low back work (weighted crunches, back extension), along with other stability work (side and front planks) might also be done depending on the athlete and the sport.

2. Like all movements, these can be done for high reps for muscular endurance, low reps for strength, or explosively for either dynamic rotation or anti-rotational stability. Generally speaking, start from the muscular endurance end and work towards the explosive end of things depending on the goal/needs.

3. I’ve generally found that strength on the reverse woodchop movement is a bit lower than on the normal woodchop. You’ll need to drop the weight slightly under most circumstances.