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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 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.

Stiff Legged Deadlift (SLDL) Bottom Position
SLDL Bottom Position
Romanian Deadlift Bottom Position
RDL Bottom Position






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.

Romanian Deadlift Correct Bottom Position
RDL Correct Bottom Position
Romanian Deadlift Too Low at Bottom
RDL Too Low at Bottom






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.

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15 thoughts on “Romanian Deadlift vs. Stiff Legged Deadlift

  1. Lyle, what do you think of the Dr Ken style SLDL? I.e. – keep a slight bend in the knees without changing the angle during the lift, hold the bar as close as possible to the body throughout, keep the head in neutral position (don’t look at the floor), and stand on a platform and go down to where the shoe laces are tied. I switched from regular deadlifts to these recently as the regulars kept giving me lumbar pain. So far it seems to feel a bit better despite being done with a rounded back.

  2. JR,

    I’m not a huge fan although I know many have gotten away with it for years. Going that deep for 99% of people will mean rounding the low back and, when that occurs, stress is thrown off of the spinal erectors and onto soft tissues (e.g. ligaments). There is also an increased risk of herniation.

    But, as noted, it can certainly work for many people.


  3. While there are infinite variations, I’ve never seen the round backed version of the SLDL recommended. I’ve always considered locking the back in an arched position as a given for back safety and the principle difference in the continuum from SLDL to Deadlift being how much the knees bend, with the RDL hovering around the halfway point from SLDL to Deadlift.

  4. I may be showing my age a bit, the round backed style SLDL used to be a pretty popular movement. And even if it wasn’t recommended, I sure saw it a lot in commercial gyms. Still do from time to time.

  5. I did this yesterday–hamstrings starting to feel sore today.

  6. First I gotta say that I love RDL’s! That’s a great exercise both for novice and advanced athletes. It also helps to achieve pretty impressive posterior chain development, which transfers to almost any movement in the weight room you do on your legs.

    A little tip to have in mind regarding proper technique: ALWAYS end the rep with your glutes and NEVER witth your lower back. If you ended the rep with lower back this means that: a) your butt is toast and you should terminate the set immediately (and this tends to happen in the end of the set); or b) you wasn’t concentrating enough on your form and you should correct this on the next rep.

    Hope this helps 😉

  7. aye this lift is the one I was taught when learning deadlifts, and it has resulted in incredible development of my posterior chain. I use it with a double bicycle grip so that acts as a bit of a safety bottleneck but have approached weights of 300 pounds with decent form using this grip.

    for what it’s worth, i’m a skinny guy with long limbs and a shorter torso, so maybe this lift favours my biomechanics.

    Also heard this called the keystone deadlift.

  8. Nice article. I agree wholeheartedly that the RDL is a safer execise of the two. My lumbar cannot handle SLDLs at all, but I love RDLs and do them regularly. I’m pretty flexible and sometimes use a snatch grip to get keep the plates off the floor. Also, I think it’s important to “feel” the movement in the hamstrings (as I do in bent leg Good Mornings). Making RDLs basically a hip tuck; keeping the majority of tension away from the torso/trunk.

  9. Awesome article! Thanks for the pictures, this cleared a lot of things up. Thanks!

  10. Great explanatins! Very helpful…especially with the pictures. Thank you very much for writing this article!

  11. Interesting description… ExRx also has a ‘stiff legged stiff backed’ deadlift. To me, that means if you round the lower back, we should call it a ‘stiff legged rounding back’ deadlift and used stiff-legged to describe both exercises collectively.

  12. Dear Lyle;
    I learned a lot with this article. Understanding that the hamstrings will do the effort, is it normal to feel some discomfort in lower back after? Also, does the exercise require incremental weight or can be done with moderate weight for safety purposes? Than you.

  13. Not a bad article, but it’s not true that you should keep your head up to see yourself, otherwise you’re upper or lower back is rounded. I keep my back from the back of my head, yes, to the neck, to the mid, and low back FLAT. I do not round my back at all.

    The RDL methods online, are so wide, and many that there are no clear rules or right rules. Everybody’s body is different. I perform, high reps 15, explosively at a 135lbs, I’m 160lbs, for 3 sets. Same with upright shoulder rows. People say it’s horrible for you, yet I do high reps, of high weight, and with a wide-grip, straight from the bottom, in a straight line up to the chin for years, and have never had a problem, not even an ache or tingle. Everybody’s body is different.

    If you start of with light weight and focus on technique, you should be fine. This article actually is better than most. It’s pretty scary how people post videos on how-to do RDL’s an act like their professional coaches or make a living teaching this stuff. There’s really only two rules imo. Keep your back FLAT, at ALL times, not even a little rounding, you can easily go from a little rounding to injury, when you add ego or adrenaline. And, keep the bar close to you at all times.

  14. in the days of my ignorance which lasted up until today’s afternoon when i found and read this lovely article I unknowingly tended to be in love with the romanian deadlift. stiffed legged DL looks scary in this pic! i guess i was going in the right direction! yay!also, i always kept my rep range within 6-8. it was mostly due to the load. i try to grab something heavy enough, like 110lbs.and 8 reps is enough to burn me. and yes, my hams streeeeeetch and get soooooore so bad sometimes that i wake up at night and massage them. but hey, they are rock hard. and it’s an awesome pay off.and thanks Lyle for the great comparison.

  15. Using both deadlifts is beneficial as they target separate muscle groups. I can’t come up with a time that numerous trainers favor one over the other.

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