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 describe two somewhat similar but ultimately very different exercises.
Why is it Called a Romanian Deadlift?
Let me start with a 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 ask, why do we traditionally call it The Romanian Deadlift or RDL?
As the story goes, the Romanian Olympic Lifter Nicu Vlad was seen doing the movement in the Olympic Training Hall prior to either winning a medal, setting a world record or both. He is credited for having done something in the realm of 300 kg/660 lbs in the lift.
Since he was Romanian, the movement got dubbed the Romanian deadlift and it’s simply stuck around. We can quibble whether the name is right or wrong but that’s not really that important in my opinion. At this point, the movement is called the RDL by basically everyone and that’s what I’ll call it.
Muscle Targeted in the RDL and SLDL
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.
In contrast, due to the rounding and un-rounding (flexion and extension) that occurs in the SDL, the spinal erectors are trained more dynamically in the SLDL. However, the consequence of this is also a great deal more stress on the low back and spine (including the spinal ligaments and disks); I’ll address this below.
A Comparison of the RDL and SLDL
Both the RDL and SLDL start in basically identical positions. Both movements start from the top with the bar held with straight arms and the torso upright. A double overhand, mixed, or hook grip can be used, straps can and should be used if grip becomes limiting. I’d note that both movements can be done with dumbbells as well although I’ll only demonstrate the barbell version here.
From the start position, the movement differ significantly.
In the SLDL, the bar moves out in front of the body (the legs generally stay locked and the hips don’t move) and the bar is generally brought quite low, usually to the instep of the shoes. This usually necessitates standing on a high platform so that the plates don’t hit the ground (in the picture below, the lifter isn’t on a block since there were no weights on the bar).
The back will be very rounded at the bottom of the movement due to the protracted range of motion. Lifting the bar is simply a reversal of the lowering, the low back unrounds as the lifter’s torso comes back to the upright position.
I should mention that there is an SLDL variant (not shown in this article) that does not take the bar to the instep although the knees stay locked and the bar remains out in front of the legs. In my experience, most do the SLDL to the point that the low back rounds which is why I’ve only presented that variation here.
In contrast, with the RDL the back remains flat or slightly arched, the knees are typically bent slightly (about 10-20 degrees) and the hips move backwards with the shins staying more or less vertical. The weight should remain on the heels throughout the movement. As you’ll see in the pictures below, the bar doesn’t go nearly as low in the RDL as in the SDL as a consequence of the low back not rounding.
A side by side comparison of the bottom position of a typical SLDL (left) and RDL (right) appears below. Note that, if there were plates on the bar, the SLDL would require standing on some type of high platform (a flat bench is typically used) so that the plates don’t hit the floor. Again, there is a variation of the SLDL where the back remains flat, but the bar is still swung out front without the hips moving.
Romanian Deadlift Technique
In the RDL bar is only lowered as low as the lifter can go without rounding the low-back, for most people this usually puts the bar just below the kneecap. However, I have seen the very occasional person with freak hamstring flexibility or exceedingly long arms go lower than this and keep their back flat but for most just below the kneecap is about the limits.
In my experience, even with 45 pound plates or bumpers on the bar, the plates will rarely touch the floor in a properly done RDL unless the lifter is unusually flexible or has very long arms. Lifters who bend their knees excessively at the bottom may also have the plates hit the floor In that case, the lift will have to be done standing on some sort of raised surface (e.g. an aerobics step) so that a full range of motion can be achieved.
Extremely inflexible lifters will stop higher and the RDL can actually be used as an excellent hamstring stretch in and of itself. With a moderate weight, the bar should simply be lowered to the limits of the lifter’s hamstring flexibility (with the back kept flat/slightly ached) and that position held as the body is pulled slightly deeper.
The weight of the bar will gradually pull the lifter into a deeper position, stretching the hamstrings in a very functional pattern. Over time, the range of motion of the RDL should increase until the proper bottom position (again, bar slightly below the kneecap) is reached.
The upper back should be set and locked during the entire movement with the lats flexed (this will improve low back stability) and the shoulder blades pulled back and down, the bar should basically slide down the legs and over the knee. As the bar is lifted, it slides back up over the knee and then back up the thighs. That bar is essentially dragged up and down the thighs and should never ‘swing out’ from the body.
The below two pictures show a proper depth RDL (left) with the lifter having gone a little bit too low (right). Note how there is flexion in the lower back area in the right picture with no change in hip position. That is to say, the extra depth is accomplished by rounding the back, there is no additional movement at the hip.
One easy way to avoid rounding the low back is to keep the head up (and neutral to your torso, don’t hyper-extend your neck) with the movement done in front of a mirror. If you can still see yourself in the mirror, your head is up and your back won’t be rounded.
In contrast, if you can’t see yourself anymore, you’ve dropped your head and have rounded either your upper back, lower back or both. If you feel the tension come off of your hamstrings and into your low back, you’ve probably rounded your back as well. It’s also possible that you’ve bent your knees which will also take tension off of the hamstrings.
The RDL vs. the SLDL in Training
For the most part, I’m not a big fan of the SLDL except as a light stretching or warm-up exercise. The problem is this: as the low back rounds beyond a certain point, the low back muscles (spinal extensors) become inactive due to an inhibitory reflex. This throws all of the stress onto the ligaments of the spine. As well, spinal flexion under load can be damaging to spinal disks in the long-run, increasing the risk of disk herniation.
While I know many have done heavy SLDL’s over the years, I can’t recommend this based on what we know about spinal health. In a future article, I’ll detail what I think is a better way to train the spinal muscles dynamically, which is various types of back extensions.
Basically, I think that the RDL is the superior movement here. Olympic lifters use it as an assistance exercise (to mimic the second pull) and it can be done with either a clean or snatch grip, athletes and powerlifters use it to strengthen the posterior chain to improve squats and their deadlift lockout, and bodybuilders can use it to hammer their hamstrings and glutes. Basically, I think it’s safer (from the standpoint of spinal health) and a more effective movement in the long-term.
Programming the RDL and SLDL
As far as programming the movement, both the RDL and SLDL are generally better used for moderate reps (5-8 or higher), unless a lifter is very technically skilled. I have had lifters do triples in the movement but only when they have an incredible amount of focus and experience with the movement. I see no reason to go below three repetitions on the movement and I would never have a lifter test their 1 rep maximum.
For most lifters, sets of 5-8 are generally the best way to go for most lifters and the RDL/SLDL is usually used as a secondary leg exercise following squats or deadlifts. Higher reps can be done but lifters have to be aware of signs of upper back fatigue and form breakdown. With the RDL this causes rounding and a loss of proper technique.
I’d note that RDL’s do involve a lot of low back even though the spinal erectors aren’t being used dynamically. If a lifter has exhausted their low back with heavy deadlifts or power style squats, RDL’s may be a real problem technically as the low back will give out. Keeping the weights lighter or picking a movement that doesn’t involve so much low back may be a better option here with the RDL being done in a different training session.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that RDL’s are notorious for causing some incredible hamstring soreness. The hamstrings are often prone to soreness in the first place and the high stretch component of the RDL tends to exacerbate this. Just something to keep in mind when you introduce the movement (or re-introduce it after a long-lay off). Always start light and work up gradually over the first few workouts or weeks or you will pay a painful price.