Stiff Legged DL’s vs. Romanian DL’s

by Al Myers

Ed Schock performing a 210 KG Stiff Legged Deadlift at the 2007 USAWA National Championships in Lebanon, PA. Ed is one "of the few" lifters that have done a stiff legged deadlift of over 500 pounds in USAWA competition.

This is the question that often gets asked in the gym – which is better – stifflegged deadlifts or Romanian deadlifts?  That’s a question that is quite debateable as some don’t like either,  while some prefer one over the other, and gives passionate reasons.  Much like asking a guy if he prefers blonds or brunettes.  You’ll end up with someone saying they prefer redheads. 

However, I do believe that MOST lifters really don’t know the difference between Stifflegged Deadlifts and Romanian Deadlifts. I often hear lifters saying they are doing one of these lifts, when in fact, they are doing the other.  So I’m going to take a “step back” here and explain both of these common accessory deadlift exercises.  If all this is stuff you already know, just look at the picture of Ed Schock, skip the rest of the story, and hope I  write something more interesting tomorrow.  But I CONSTANTLY hear stuff from lifters that tell me that there’s more confusion between these two lifts than admitted.   Some even think they are the same lift!  But they aren’t! 

STIFF LEGGED DEADLIFT

This lift is actually an official USAWA lift.  The USAWA rules are pretty simple for it: ” The rules of the Deadlift apply except that the legs must be straight and locked before the beginning of the lift and must remain so throughout the lift.  Any width of stance is allowed.  The arms are allowed to be inside the legs.”  Now this official rule is a pretty good explanation of a proper stifflegged deadlift, with one exception.  That is allowing sumo stance!  That completely neutralizes the strength-gaining purpose of a stiff-legged deadlift in training.  The SL deadlift should be done with a narrow stance.  I feel these principles define a stiff legged deadlift:

  • Narrow stance.
  • Legs straight throughout the lift, or maybe “just slightly” bent and remain in same degree of flexion throughout.
  • Toes should be pointed out slightly, just like your regular deadlift stance.
  • Hands should be positioned on the bar in an overgrip fashion. If you have a weak grip – hook grip the bar or use straps.
  • Shoulders “rolled over”, and the back rounded at the beginning of the pull.
  • Bar starts over toes.
  • Hips positioned over the feet throughout the lift.
  • Back goes from a point of flexion to extension during the lift.
  • Bar comes into contact with thighs during lift and remains close to the body from that point on.
  • Each rep done slow and under control.

The SL Deadlift  puts extreme pressure on the lower back, especially at the beginning of the lift.  The starting position, with the shoulders rolled over, is what Doctors for years have said is “the WRONG WAY to pick something up”!  But that is what makes it such a great exercise for developing that strong lower lumbar strength.  It takes the back from flexion to extension throughout the execution.  The SL deadlift develops sudden strength from the floor, and if you have problems getting your deadlifts started, this lift will enhance your starting strength in the deadlift. 

ROMANIAN DEADLIFT

The Romanian Deadlift, or RDL’s as they are often called, is a favorite accessory exercise for Olympic lifters. The story goes that a World Class Romanian Olympic lifter popularized this lift, thus it became named that way. It is a much more difficult exercise to learn than the stifflegged deadlift.   The following principles define a Romanian Deadlift:

  • A normal shoulder width stance is taken, with toes facing straight ahead.
  • The bar is gripped with an overhand grip.
  • Knees are in a state of flexion of around 20 degrees during the duration except at the finish, and in the beginning are even slightly more flexed.
  • Shoulders stay up and the back remains in a neutral flat state.  This is the biggest difference between a SLDL and a RDL.  The back must never flex forward or straighten.  IT MUST STAY IN THE SAME STAIGHT FLAT POSITION THOUGHOUT.
  • Hips are “pushed back” behind the heels during the lift.
  • The bar stays close to the body throughout.
  • Plates may not touch the platform, depending on the lifters flexibility.

Now for my editorial.  Both of these exercises work the hamstrings and lower back extensively. Both are intended to be done for repetitions (with the exception of the Stifflegged DL if it is done in an official USAWA competition).  I will say this – do the RDL’s if you are an Olympic lifter and the SL DL if you are a powerlifter.  The reason for this is that I do believe that “form carryover” exists, and that RDL’s will cause breakdown in your deadlift form (pushing hips too far back) and SL DL’s will cause breakdown in your clean technique (by not keeping the shoulders up).  This is my opinion of course.  Another argument you will hear on SL DL’s is that they are a very dangerous exercise to do.  The reasons given are the rounding and unrounding of the back puts excessive pressure on the spinal erectors and and vertebral discs.  But this excessive pressure is  ”the secret” as to why SL DL’s will build extreme lower back strength.  If you perform them slow and steady for repetitions, they can be done safely.  RDL’s have received complaints that they put extreme pressure on the hamstrings, and can lead to hamstring pulls/tears.  But that is the reason they are being done – to strengthen the hamstrings!  Again, if a lifter has poor hamstring flexibility start the RDL’s from the hang.  With time, you will notice your flexibility improves and the hamstrings get stronger. Starting from the hang also helps maintaining the straight back alignment with the shoulders erect.  Some lifters will do stifflegged deadlifts standing on blocks as to increase the range of motion.  I have done them that way before as well, but prefer to do them from the floor now.  I do NOT feel this added range of motion is adding anything to the benefits, as you will have to use less weight and thus not stimulate the muscles to the same degree as from the floor.   The purpose of even doing this exercise is to enhance your pulling strength, and have carry over to your max deadlift.  Having flexibility beyond what is needed to do a normal deadlift serves no purpose in increasing your maximum deadlift.

I have always been a bigger fan of the Stiff legged deadlift.  I have done them weekly for over 20 years and I have never sustained an injury doing them. I have at times worked up to 450-500 lbs. for reps of 3-8, with each rep paused on the floor. I’ll push them hard – but not to failure.   My max deadlift has ALWAYS directly corresponded to the weight I was training my SL’s with.  The higher the SL’s – the higher the DL.  But I have never been a trained Oly lifter, thus that is the reason I prefer SL’s.  My training partner Scott Tully has always liked RDL’s, mainly because his start in lifting was with Olympic  weightlifting.  We argue constantly over this, as I’m trying to convert him to SL’s, but for some reason he can’t keep his legs straight (LOL) from too many years of doing RDL’s.  Bottom line is this – both of these exercises are OUTSTANDING exercises and at least you should consider implementing one of them into your training program.

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