Romanian Deadlift vs. Stiff Leg Deadlift: Which Is Best For Muscle?

August 31, 2021

I used to be confused about the difference between the stiff leg deadlift (SDL) and the Romanian deadlift (RDL). I mean, they are essentially both deadlifts with the legs slightly straighter right?

The stiff leg deadlift starts from the floor and is initiated from a dead stop position. The Romanian deadlift starts from the hip and is only lowered to just below the knee to maximize hamstring development.

With these slight differences between the exercises, is one better than the other? Let’s go for a deep dive into the subtle nuances between the SDL and RDL.

What’s The Difference Between The Romanian And Stiff Leg Deadlifts?

I’m going to run through the key differences from the starting position through to the finish position for both the RDL to SDL.

Starting Position

SDL starting position

RDL starting position

One of the major differences between the SDL and RDL is where the exercise starts. For the SDL, the exercise starts from the floor. Whereas the RDL starts from the hip. Similar to the lockout position of the traditional deadlift.

To perform the stiff leg deadlift correctly, your knees will be slightly bent. Never will they be completely locked out. That is a recipe for injury. To get to the bar, perform an RDL but continue to lower yourself even when your hips stop moving backward.

Create tension through your hamstrings, glutes, and back by grabbing the barbell and pulling the slack out of the bar. Your back should be relatively straight with your eyes and head directed a few feet in front of you toward the floor.

The barbell won’t be directly against your shins like in the traditional deadlift. Rather, the bar will be a couple of inches away.

The RDL starts when you are standing tall. So, you can either deadlift the weight to the starting position or take it out of the rack. To set correctly, keep tight lats so the barbell stays close and a big chest.

Bend your knees slightly when you initiate the movement. They should never be fully locked out.

The Movement

One common misconception is that the SDL has near straight legs while the RDL has very bent legs. However, this isn’t completely accurate. 

The knee angle will be the same between both exercises. However, you can change your knee angle based on if you want to target more hamstrings or glutes with the RDL.

Slightly straighter knees will target the hamstrings while knees that are more bent will target the glutes.

To initiate the SDL, squeeze the hamstrings and glutes as you push through your feet. Your body weight should be toward your heels. Maintain the back position and keep the lats tight. The bar will move closer to your body as you pull. Thrust your hips forward as early as possible. Usually when the bar just passes the knees.

To initiate the RDL, start by pushing your hips backward. The bar should travel down your leg with no space between your legs and the bar. You need to keep your lats tight to achieve this. Only lower down to the point your hips stop moving backward. Any further and your lower back will start to bend taking extra load.

The position where your hips stop moving backward will likely correspond to the barbell being just below the knee. If you are getting halfway down your shin or to the floor, I can guarantee you are going too far.

You should feel such an intense hamstring stretch by the time you get the bar to your knee you need to reverse the movement.

Finish Position

SDL end position

RDL end position

To finish the SDL, you need to lower the barbell down exactly as described in the RDL section above. However, you will not be stopping once your hips stop moving backward. You will continue until the plates are back on the floor.

For the RDL, once the bottom position is reached, return to the starting position by thrusting the hips forward.

Muscles Worked

Both the Romanian deadlift and stiff leg deadlift extensively target the hamstrings and glutes. However, the SDL places more stress on the lower back giving you those big erector spinae (the columns of muscle running up either side of your spine).

Depending on how much knee bend you have, you can target more hamstrings or glutes in the RDL. Interestingly, the RDL is often prescribed as an accessory lower back exercise. However, the RDL hasn’t been shown to improve lower back strength [1].

Stance width also influences muscles worked. A wider stance activates more glutes while a narrow stance targets the multifidus, a deep lower back muscle [2].

Is The RDL or SDL Better For Building Muscle?

In my experience, both the RDL and SDL are great for building muscle on the back of the legs. But if you want to target more of the lower back, opt for the stiff leg deadlift. 

If you want to target the glutes, use the RDL with a wider stance and knees that are generously bent. To nail the hamstrings, use the SDL or the RDL with a normal deadlift stance and knees that are slightly bent.

References

1. Fisher, J., Bruce-Low, S., & Smith, D. (2013). A randomized trial to consider the effect of Romanian deadlift exercise on the development of lumbar extension strength. Physical therapy in sport, 14(3), 139-145.

2. Koderi, K. L., Tan, K., Azzfar, M. S., Abd Malek, N. F., Mohamad, N. I., & Nadzalan, A. M. (2020, April). The effects of stance width on muscle activation and performance during Romanian deadlift exercise. In Journal of Physics: Conference Series (Vol. 1529, No. 2, p. 022026). IOP Publishing.

About the Author

I am a professional strength & conditioning coach that works with professional and international teams and athletes. I am a published scientific researcher and have completed my Masters in Sport & Exercise Science. I've combined my knowledge of research and experience to bring you the most practical bites to be applied to your training.

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