Romanian Deadlift vs Stiff Leg Deadlift

The Romanian deadlift and stiff leg deadlift are two exercises that look nearly identical. In fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’re the same thing!

However, there are some critical differences between Romanian and stiff leg deadlifts that you should know about before using them in your training program.

For that reason, I put together a complete guide to the Romanian deadlift vs stiff leg deadlift. So you can know which one is best for your goals and how to master the proper form.

Romanian Deadlift vs Stiff Leg Deadlift

Romanian Deadlift vs Stiff Leg Deadlift Similarities

The Romanian deadlift (RDL) and stiff leg deadlift (SLDL) have a lot in common. So let’s start by covering the similarities between these two exercises.

Starting Position

The RDL and SLDL begin in the standing position while holding a weight in front of your legs. Then you initiate the movement by pushing your hips back and bending at the waist.

Back Posture

For both exercises, you must maintain a neutral spine throughout the movement. In other words, keep your back flat, so you’re not bending or curving your spine forward.

In addition, you want to keep the weight as close to your thighs as possible. This posture helps maintain the load on your posterior chain muscles instead of your spine.

Romanian Deadlift vs Stiff Leg Deadlift

The RDL and SLDL start to look a little different once you begin lowering the weight. So now let’s look at the differences between these two exercises.

Romanian Deadlift vs Stiff Leg Deadlift Differences

The main difference between the Romanian deadlift and stiff leg deadlift is the amount of knee bend. Moreover, the varying degrees of knee bend affect the range of motion and muscles worked in each exercise.

Amount of Knee Bend

As the name suggests, the stiff leg deadlift involves almost no knee bending and the only joint that moves during the exercise should be your hips. Also, keep in mind that you should use less weight for isolation movements.

By comparison, the Romanian deadlift involves a more pronounced knee bend. That means it’s more like a compound movement involving the hips and knees.

In reality, most people aren’t flexible enough to keep their legs perfectly straight during the SLDL (me included) and it’s okay to bend your knees slightly. The main thing is that you don’t extend your knees to help lift the weight.

Romanian Deadlift vs Stiff Leg Deadlift Form

Range of Motion

Another subtle difference between the Romanian and stiff leg deadlift is the range of motion. In other words, how far you lower the weight.

With the RDL, you only lower the weight to just below your knees. Whereas you may lower the weight all the way to the floor during the SLDL if you’re flexible enough.

As a result, you get more stretch through the hamstrings and glutes when performing the stiff leg deadlift.

Muscles Worked

Both the Romanian deadlift and stiff leg deadlift are posterior chain exercises. That means they work the muscles on the backside of your body including the hamstrings, glutes, and spinal erectors.

Romanian Deadlift vs Stiff Leg Deadlift

Yet, there are some differences in muscle activation due to the body mechanics of each exercise.

Studies suggest the Romanian deadlift is better for activating the hamstrings. While the stiff leg deadlift appears to engage the glutes to a greater extent1.

However, there was no significant difference in activation of the spinal erector muscles of the back.

Romanian Deadlift vs Stiff Leg Deadlift for Hamstrings

Romanian deadlifts activate the hamstrings more than stiff leg deadlifts. Adapted from Coratella et. al.

Romanian Deadlift vs Stiff Leg Deadlift for Glutes

Stiff leg deadlifts activate the glutes more than Romanian deadlifts. Adapted from Coratella et. al.

Romanian Deadlift vs Stiff Leg Deadlift: Which Is Better?

When comparing the stiff leg deadlift and Romanian deadlift, you might be tempted to ask which one is better. But one is not necessarily better than the other. Each has benefits and limitations.

Romanian Deadlift Pros
  • Good for targeting hamstrings

  • Able to lift relatively heavy weights

  • Great for overall posterior chain development

Romanian Deadlift Cons
  • Not as good for developing hamstring flexibility

Stiff Leg Deadlift Pros
  • Isolates glutes better than multi-joint movements

  • Excellent for increasing hamstring flexibility

Stiff Leg Deadlift Cons
  • Not great for building overall power and strength

How To Romanian Deadlift vs Stiff Leg Deadlift

Next, I will show you how to do the Romanian deadlift and stiff leg deadlift exercises with proper form.

How To Romanian Deadlift

For the Romanian deadlift, you’ll begin with a barbell sitting on the floor. Then, step up to the bar and plant your feet shoulder-width apart.

Now bend forward and grab the bar with an overhand grip outside your shins. Then lift the bar to your hip level like a conventional deadlift.

Push your hips back from this starting position and bend your knees slightly as you lower the bar. Keep the bar as close to the front of your thighs as possible.

Once the bar passes just below your knees, squeeze your hamstrings, and drive your hips forward to raise the bar back to the starting position. Repeat for the desired number of reps before setting the bar back on the floor.

To recap, here are the step-by-step directions:

  1. Step up to the bar with feet about shoulder-width apart
  2. Grab the bar with an overhand grip just outside your shins
  3. Lift the bar from the floor to your hips like a conventional deadlift
  4. Push your hips back and bend your knees slightly to lower the bar
  5. Keep your back flat as you lower the bar just past your knees
  6. Squeeze your hamstrings and drive your hips forward to raise the bar
  7. Repeat for the desired number of reps

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How To Stiff Leg Deadlift

First, approach the bar and stand with your feet roughly shoulder-width apart. Next, grab the bar just outside your shins and lift it as if performing a conventional deadlift.

Push your butt back and bend at the hips from the standing position while keeping your legs nearly straight. Make sure you do not curve your back forward, maintain a neutral spine.

Next, raise the bar by pulling your hamstrings and driving your hips forward. Finally, squeeze your glutes as you straighten up at the top.

Repeat for the desired number of reps, then set the bar back on the floor.

To recap, here are the step-by-step directions:

  1. Pick up the bar as if doing a conventional deadlift
  2. Bend at the hips while keeping your legs nearly straight
  3. Lift the bar with your hamstrings and drive your hips forward
  4. Maintain a flat back throughout the exercise
  5. Repeat for the desired number of reps and place the bar on the floor

When To Use Romanian Deadlift vs Stiff Leg Deadlift

As you can see, there are advantages and disadvantages to both exercises. So when to use the Romanian deadlift vs stiff leg deadlift depends on your training goals and workout schedule.

For Overall Posterior Chain Muscle & Strength Gains

When training for strength and size, it’s generally a good idea to include heavy compound exercises, and the Romanian deadlift fits into that category. Also, the RDL is a better choice when building your hamstrings in particular.

For Isolating Glutes & Improving Mobility

On the other hand, you may want to use the stiff leg deadlift if you’re trying to target your glutes. Also, the SLDL works better if you’re working on mobility and flexibility.

Programming RDL vs SLDL

Another factor to consider is your weekly workout schedule or training split. Some common splits are total-body, push/pull, push/pull/legs, or the bro split.

Bro Split Workout

The Romanian deadlift and stiff leg deadlift can be used in a total body workout as a hamstring exercise. However, I would focus on one or the other depending on your goals.

Another option is using RDLs or SLDLs with a push/pull split on your pull day. And for a push/pull/legs split, you could include either exercise on your pull day or your leg day.

Lastly, the bro split is where you train one or two muscle groups per workout. With this split, you would use either RDLs or SLDLs on your leg day.

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Romanian Deadlift vs Stiff Leg Deadlift Variations

So far, I’ve shown you how to do a barbell Romanian deadlift and stiff leg deadlift. But several other exercise variations use different equipment. Below are a few examples.

Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift

One of my favorite variations is the dumbbell RDL. With this movement, you have more control over the movement path because a barbell does not restrict you in front of your thighs.

In addition, I like to make this exercise more challenging on the hamstrings by placing a weight plate under my toes!

Landmine Romanian Deadlift

The landmine RDL is a less common variation using a barbell anchored on one end. Then you hold the free end of the bar between your legs and perform the RDL movement as you usually would.

Make sure you start with your hands touching your thighs with this variation. Otherwise, you’ll tend to move the weight too far in front of your body.

Smith Machine Romanian Deadlift

The Smith machine Romanian deadlift is an excellent alternative to free weights for beginners. The guide rails offer the stability of a machine with the feel of a barbell.

Also, the Smith machine puts more load on the hamstrings and glutes since you don’t have to stabilize the bar. So it’s great for advanced lifters working on hypertrophy.

Cable Stiff Leg Deadlift

Another way to do the stiff leg deadlift involves the cable apparatus. First, place the pulley low to the floor and stand facing the cable with enough room to bend forward. Then perform the SLDL while holding a cable attachment.

Dumbbell Stiff Leg Deadlift

With the dumbbell stiff leg deadlift, each hand can move independently. So this exercise variation requires a little more stabilizing, and you might need to use a lighter weight at first.

Single-Leg Stiff Leg Deadlift

You can change things up by performing the SLDL one leg at a time. This variation requires the most balance, so start with your body weight. Then add resistance by holding a dumbbell, kettlebell, or weight plate.

Romanian Deadlift vs Conventional Deadlift

Now you know the differences between the Romanian deadlift vs stiff leg deadlift. But how does the RDL compare to the traditional deadlift?

To answer that questions, I wrote a complete guide to the Romanian deadlift vs deadlift. So you can see which one is better for your training goals.

Romanian Deadlift vs Deadlift
RDL vs Deadlift

With this information, you’re well on your way to optimizing your workouts for greater gains. And if you found this article helpful, check out some of my other great content below!

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