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Deadlift vs. Romanian Deadlifts | Form, Muscles Worked, & Other Differences

Deadlift vs. Romanian Deadlifts | Form, Muscles Worked, & Other Differences

Both deadlifts and Romanian deadlifts are compound exercises that involve lifting a barbell from the ground, but what are the differences between the two exercises? Today, we will compare the deadlift versus Romanian deadlifts to see which one you should use to reach your weightlifting goals. 

We will look at each exercise’s purpose, walk you through how to do both lifts, and give you our thoughts on why you should choose the deadlift or Romanian deadlift. Let’s get started! 

What are the Main Differences Between Deadlifts & Romanian Deadlifts?

When comparing deadlifts and Romanian deadlifts (also known as the RDL) , the primary difference is how you begin each repetition and the extent of muscle engagement involved. In the conventional deadlift, to start the rep, you lift the barbell from the ground while rising to a standing position. In contrast, the Romanian deadlift begins after picking up the bar and placing it at hip level. As you lower the load, you stop around mid-shin height (depending on flexibility), without allowing it to touch the ground before returning to the starting upright position. Notably, in the RDL, your hips remain higher and your knees remain somewhat straight, which is why it's sometimes called the "straight-leg deadlift," even though the legs maintain a slight bend.

Due to the change in starting position, deadlifts have an upward range of motion since they begin on ground level. Romain deadlifts have a downward range of motion since the movement starts from the hips and you’re bringing the barbell down.

Both deadlift variations engage the same muscle groups, but there are some variations. The conventional deadlift involves deeper hip descent and more knee flexion, leading to increased activation of the quadriceps. Conversely, the RDL focuses on the hamstrings and glutes since the specific mechanics of a Romanian deadlift engage these muscle groups more than a deadlift. 

Similarities Between the Romanian Deadlift and Deadlift

The Romanian deadlift (RDL) and traditional deadlift share certain resemblances. They are both compound exercises that entail a hip hinge motion while clutching the weight in front of you. Both the deadlift and Romanian deadlift exercise the back, glutes, and hamstrings and each routine contributes its own to enhancing grip strength. You can expect these exercises to promote the development of core stability, engage the posterior chain, and facilitate better posture.

How to Do a Deadlift

Doing a deadlift is straightforward if you follow the steps below:

  1. Position your feet about shoulder-width apart, ensuring your toes are beneath the bar. Your feet can be pointed straight ahead or slightly angled outward. Keep your heels flat on the ground. As you lift, the bar should move close to your shins, potentially brushing against them. Maintain a neutral spine throughout.
  2. Brace your abdominal muscles and descend into a squat, bending at the knees. Keep your back straight or slightly arched, avoiding rounded shoulders or spine.
  3. Secure your grip just outside the knee line, using an overhand or mixed grip.
  4. Lift the bar by pushing upwards with your legs from the knees. Exhale as you exert force. Be cautious not to lift your hips first. This will cause your trunk to lean forward and your back to round out. Avoid attempting to hoist the bar with your arms and keep your arms extended, gripping the bar, while your legs propel the movement upwards. Visualize your legs and shoulders rising in harmony to help with the movement. 
  5. Maintain the bar's proximity to your shins, allowing it to rest around thigh level when reaching full height. Retract your shoulders as far back as possible without arching your back excessively.
  6. Lower the bar back to the floor using the reverse motion, ensuring your back remains straight.
  7. This is one rep.

Muscles Worked

The deadlift is compound exercise, which means that it targets multiple muscle groups at once. As we mentioned above, the deadlift and Romanian deadlift share certain similarities in muscle groups engaged. Here are the muscles worked when doing a deadlift: 

  • Trapezius:This sizeable, triangular muscle spans from the skull's base to the middle of the back. It plays a pivotal role in both stabilizing and mobilizing the shoulder blades when bringing the barbell upwards.
  • Glutes: Comprising the prominent muscles of the buttocks, the glutes take center stage. They are instrumental in hip extension during the deadlift movement.
  • Hamstrings: Situated on the posterior side of the thigh, the hamstrings flex the knee and extend the hip, helping to maintain a strong base during the deadlift. 
  • Core:This encompasses the abdominal and lower back muscles. Working in tandem, these muscles provide critical stability to the spine as the weight is lifted.
  • Hip: The culmination of muscles and ligaments forming the hip joint allow your hip to extend and flex. This is critical for executing the deadlift since you need to be able to hinge your hips during the movement. 
  • Lats: Both the upper and lower back muscles collaborate to maintain spinal stability throughout the lift. The latissimus dorsi (commonly known as lats), two substantial triangle-shaped muscles flanking the spine, significantly contribute to this stabilization process.

Tips for Practicing a Deadlift

Of course, doing a deadlift requires you to do multiple things correctly in order to ensure you complete the movement with the right technique. Here are some tips to keep in mind so that you do the deadlift right every time:

  • Begin by positioning the barbell directly over your foot's midline. This strategic placement ensures that the load remains centered around your body's mass, enhancing your stability and control. To identify your strongest stance, consider jumping vertically and note where your feet naturally land.
  • This is optional, but you can also consider taking off your shoes before your deadlift. Deadlifting barefoot allows you to connect with the floor, helping you to stay balanced and lift more weight. However, this comes with its own caveats since lifting barefoot subjects you to freak accidents like weights landing on your toes. Sometimes, we lift barefoot and sometimes we don’t. It also depends on what we’re trying to accomplish that day, so look at the benefits and costs ofbarefoot deadlifts to see if it’s something for you. 
  • Throughout the entire movement, keep the barbell as close to your body as possible. This approach facilitates a neutral alignment for your mid and upper back, minimizing the risk of rounding.
  • Utilize your quadriceps to initiate knee extension off the floor. This action not only generates increased speed and power but also provides a robust foundation for kickstarting the movement.
  • Rise from your initial sturdy position, and as you lower the barbell, employ a hinging motion. Remember that the descent is characterized by a hip-initiated hinge rather than resembling a squatting motion.
  • As you perform repetitions, avoid hurrying through your bottom position. Maintain a slight shoulder alignment over the barbell, and ensure that your core and lats are engaged before initiating each rep.
  • Activating your glutes near the end of the deadlift is critical but it doesn't entail thrusting your hips excessively forward or leaning back. Correct execution means that when you stand up, the barbell should naturally rest against your quads, negating the need for further extension.
  • Wearing a lifting belt anddeadlift straps are instrumental to keeping your joints and muscles safe during the movement. While they’re not optional, they can help you lift more weight while keeping your wrists and spine stable. You can alsouse wrist wraps, but there are keydifferences between lifting straps and wrist wraps that you should know about. For example, wrist wraps are meant for keeping your wrist in one place whereas lifting straps give you additional grip strength to help you hold the barbell. Regardless of which equipment you use, make sure to not overdo it or you could harm your overall development. 

If you decide to wear a lifting belt, make sure you choose the right size and thickness. Thepurpose of a lifting belt varies by type so if you get the wrong one, you might not be able to use it. The most common for exercises like the deadlift and squat are10mm and 13mm belts. Read up on the advantages and disadvantages of both types of belts before making a purchasing decision. 

Common Mistakes

There are some common mistakes that all lifters, including us, deal with when doing a deadlift. Next time you’re practicing this movement, be on the lookout for these faults that could come up:

  • Rounding out Your Back:This often results from overloading the barbell with excessive weight. You never want to do this, because this sets you up for a lower back strain or, even worse, a spinal injury. 
  • Early Hip Rise: Swift hip elevation upon starting can stem from inadequate engagement of your quadriceps for initial knee extension. Prioritize lifting your shoulders and hips concurrently to ensure balanced movement initiation. Start by building tension in your hamstrings and glutes from the outset. Channel your energy into driving your heels into the floor and employing your upper back strength for the lift.
  • Drifting Away From the Barbell: Allowing the barbell to stray from your body might result from either an off-centered starting position or underdeveloped lats that lack control throughout the lift. Emphasize setting up with the barbell in proximity to your body's midline and concentrate on cultivating lat strength to maintain optimal barbell positioning.
  • Weak Grip: A firm grip is paramount. Regardless of your leg and back strength, inadequate hand and forearm strength can hinder progress. Optimal foot placement, combined with a grip just slightly wider than hip-width, about 2-3 centimeters, ensures a robust foundation for the exercise.
  • Shins are Leaning Too Far Forward: To maximize muscle engagement, ensure your shins remain as vertical as possible during setup. Avoid the inclination to angle them forward akin to a squatting position. This alignment discrepancy impairs efficient activation of the glutes and hamstrings, core targets in the deadlift. Misalignment also leads to an altered bar path, necessitating correction and placing undue stress on your lower back.

Benefits

Now, if you’re not sure why you should do a deadlift, then you’ll want to take a look at the benefits. The reason we like to incorporate deadlifts into our weekly split is largely due to what you can take away from the exercise. Here are the benefits: 

  • Increased Vertical: Deadlifts have been proven to enhance maximal jump performance. The power generated from deadlift training directly translates to improved jumping ability, benefiting sports and activities that demand explosive lower body strength (e.g. football, basketball, etc.)
  • Stronger Core: Deadlifts develop your core by engaging muscles that stabilize your spine, such as the external oblique, rectus abdominis, and erector spinae. Integrating free-weight exercises like deadlifts into your routine can enhance overall core strength and stability.
  • Safety: The practicality of deadlifts extends beyond research-backed benefits. With the ability to lift substantial weights without positioning them directly above you, deadlifts offer a safer option for training heavy. In case of a failed repetition, you can safely drop the weight, minimizing the risk of injury.
  • Accelerated Metabolism: Resistance training, including deadlifts, not only accelerates calorie expenditure during workouts but also promotes muscle growth, leading to increased calorie burn at rest.
  • Combat Lower Back Pain: Research indicates that deadlifts can be an effective strategy for addressing mild mechanical low back pain. However, precise technique with a braced, neutral spine is essential if you don’t want to aggravate your injury and see the results you want. Always consult a healthcare professional before integrating deadlifts into a pain management plan.
  • Increased Bone Desntiy: Targeting the legs and hips, deadlifts and weight-bearing exercises increase bone density, ultimately reducing the risk of fractures and mobility-related issues among older adults.
  • Activate Key Muscle Groups: Deadlifts are a powerhouse for activating your hip extensors, including the gluteus maximus and hamstring complex. These muscles are not only vital for functional movements but also contribute to an aesthetically appealing physique when properly engaged.

How to Do a Romanian Deadlift

Doing a Romanian deadlift isn’t complicated if you know the steps. Here’s the step-by-step guide on doing a Romanian deadlift:

  1. Position yourself with feet around a hip-distance apart, maintaining a gentle knee bend. Place the barbell in front of you.
  2. Initiate a controlled forward hinge at the hips. Keep your spine elongated and straight as your upper body reaches towards the floor.
  3. Grasp the barbell with both hands at a shoulder-width distance. Roll your shoulders back and downward to stabilize your spine, while engaging your core. Align your gaze downward and slightly forward to prevent overextending your neck.
  4. Activate your glutes, hamstrings, and core muscles. Drive your feet firmly into the ground as you rise, elevating the weight to approximately upper thigh level. At the peak, emphasize glute contraction and ensure full hip extension.
  5. Lower the weight with controlled motion, placing it between your knees and toes, based on your flexibility. Maintain a parallel torso to the ground, prioritizing a flat back, slight knee bend, and continuous core engagement.
  6. This is one rep. Continue doing so for the desired number of reps. 

Muscles Worked

As mentioned before, the deadlift and Romanian deadlift both work similar muscle groups. When you take a look at the muscles that RDLs work, you’ll see some similar areas being engaged. However, a Romanian deadlift has a different starting position so you’ll see an emphasis on other muscles that deadlifts don’t cover as extensively: 

  1. Grip: As the load intensifies, your grip strength is equally put to the test. Because you start in a standing position, RDLs require you to be able to grip onto the barbell to keep the weight up before moving downwards. 
  2. Back: Your back muscles are also used since they keep the torso in check during the Romanian deadlift. These muscles include the traps, rhomboids, and lats but they play a smaller role compared to the glutes and hamstrings. 
  3. Calves:Within the posterior chain ensemble, the calves assume a supportive role during the Romanian deadlift. Though secondary in function, their active contribution to upholding the fixed knee position provides a strong base for you to perform the exercise without falling under the weight. 
  4. Glutes: By strategically adjusting hip positioning, the Romanian deadlift effectively targets the glutes. To optimize glute engagement, propel your hips rearward, creating separation between hips and heels. Bolstered by a controlled knee bend, ensure your shins retain a perpendicular alignment to the floor.
  5. Hamstrings: A prime focus of the Romanian deadlift, the hamstrings reign as the chief movers. Extending along the posterior of the thigh, these dynamic muscles experience elongation during the lowering phase and orchestrated contraction upon returning to an erect posture.

Tips for Practicing a Romanian Deadlift

Practicing the Romanian deadlift comes with its own unique set of challenges. Here are some tips you can use to maximize each rep when doing an RDL: 

  • Hinge at the Hips:: Initiate the movement by hinging aggressively at the hips. Your hips should travel behind you as far as possible. This helps activate the glutes and hamstrings effectively.
  • Keep Your Weight Close: Depending on your height, your weight should stop somewhere between your knee and the middle of your shin. The taller you are, the closer the weight should be to your knee.
  • Engage Your Upper Back: Make sure to engage your upper back muscles. This prevents your shoulders from rounding forward toward the bottom of the lift.
  • Engage Your Lats:This adds on to our point of engaging your upper back muscles. Keep your lats (latissimus dorsi muscles) engaged throughout the movement. This keeps the barbell close to your thighs and prevents rounding of the low and mid-back.
  • Balanced Foot Position: Focus on "feeling the floor" with your feet. Ensure your body weight is on your heels to maintain balance as your hips drive backward.
  • Squeeze your glutes hard on the way up. At the bottom range, your hips will be quite far behind you and you’ll need to engage your glutes to extend the hips back to the starting position.
  • Maintain a Flat Back:A flat back position is key to performing a Romanian deadlift with good form, so avoid looking upwards (or keeping your gaze trained down) to keep your neck in line.

Remember, performing exercises with proper form is crucial to prevent injury and effectively target the intended muscle groups. It's also recommended to start with lighter weights and focus on perfecting your form before gradually increasing the load. If you're new to weightlifting or unsure about your technique, consider seeking guidance from a fitness professional or coach.

Common Mistakes

Romanian deadlifts require several things to happen for you to do the rep correctly. Avoid these common mistakes when doing an RDL: 

  • Locking Your Kneesn: It's vital to maintain a slight bend in your knees when reaching the highest point of the Romanian deadlift. Avoid locking your knees completely. This strategy facilitates proper hip hinging while minimizing strain on your lower back, making the exercise more effective and safer.
  • Excessively Bending Your Knees: Always keep a gentle bend in your knees during the Romanian deadlift. However, be cautious not to excessively bend them, as this might lead to unnecessary squatting. Striking the right balance in knee flexion is essential to engage your glutes consistently without overloading your knees.
  • Moving Out of Your Range of Motion: Limit the range of motion for the Romanian deadlift to just below knee level. This prevents the exercise from morphing into a conventional deadlift that requires significant knee bending to lower the barbell. By focusing on this specific range, you emphasize the engagement of your hamstrings and glutes effectively.
  • Not Keeping Your Barbell Close: An often-overlooked aspect of proper form is the proximity of the barbell to your thighs throughout the exercise. Keeping the barbell close minimizes the risk of rounding your mid-back and maintains the desired posture. Additionally, this technique distributes tension between your hamstrings and glutes, maximizing their engagement.
  • Rounding Your Spine: A crucial tip for maintaining proper form during the Romanian deadlift involves sustaining a neutral spine. Fix your gaze around two feet ahead of you during the entire motion. Initiate the movement with a lifted and proud chest as you lower your torso and shoulders. Simultaneously, lift the barbell while rising to prevent your shoulders from slouching forward. This alignment promotes a secure and efficient Romanian deadlift.

Benefits

  • Muscular Growth: Muscular hypertrophy isn't just a fancy term – it's the powerhouse behind building strength, power, and overall athletic prowess. Since your time under tension is higher while doing RDLs, your muscles are engaged for a longer period of time. This growth factor is crucial, and we’ve previously underscored its importance for athletes across the spectrum, particularly Olympic weightlifters and fitness enthusiasts.
  • Olympic Weightlifting: The Romanian deadlift isn't just another exercise; it's got Olympic weightlifting applications that directly align with movements like the clean and jerk, clean pull, and even the snatch. Its roots go back to a notable figure in weightlifting, Nicu Vlad, who made waves at the Olympics, claiming gold, silver, and bronze medals. This exercise solidifies key positions required during the clean and snatch.
  • Accessory Exercise for Deadlift: Similar torack pulls, RDLs are an accessory exercise that pumps up your hamstring, lower back, and hip strength in perfect sync with the conventional deadlift. For those striving to break through your plateau, RDLs can help you hone in on your weak points. 
  • Carryover to Other Exercises: If your workout split involves deadlifts, cleans, or snatches, you're in for a treat. These exercises share a common denominator: they rely on hip extension and posterior chain power which is what Romanian deadlifts target. It also refines movement patterns and safeguards against injuries from lower back stress.
  • Prevent Injury Injuries are the bane of athletes, often rooted in poor form or weak areas. Romanian deadlifts rectify lumbar control, beef up hamstring and glute strength, and teach you to hinge your hips properly. If you've ever struggled with maintaining form when doing a deadlift, RDLs can help you identify when you’re deviating away form your neutral stance. It also significantly slashes the odds of lumbar strain and stress, giving you the green light for progressive overloading.

Deadlifts vs. Romanian Deadlifts: Which Should You Do?

The choice between deadlifts and Romanian deadlifts depends on your fitness goals and physical condition. If you want to identify which type of lift is better for you, take a look below to see why we like Romanian deadlifts and deadlifts.

Why You Should Do RDLs

There are two main reasons why you should do Romanian deadlifts over conventional deadlifts. First, RDLs target your posterior muscles (the glutes and hamstrings) more intensely than the conventional deadlift. Secondly, since you’re not focused on maximizing weight, Romanian deadlifts are also a safer alternative. 

RDLs Target Your Posterior Muscles (Glutes & Hamstrings)

Striving for your one-rep max isn't the ultimate goal when doing the Romanian deadlift technique. This variation shifts the spotlight from conquering heavy lifting right off the floor to maintaining control as you hinge and rise. The key here is to introduce a weight that's demanding but not so much so that you’re ego lifting. By limiting your weight, you’re focusing more on movement control and maintaining your form throughout the entire lift. 

While you won’t get the satisfaction that comes with hitting a 1RM, this is a great accessory exercise to help you reach that goal. 

Romanian Deadlifts are Safer

The truth is, most of us go to the gym to build bigger muscles and this is usually done by focusing on primary muscles like the arms, chest, and shoulders–all of which can be targeted my the deadlift. When the spotlight turns to your posterior muscles, particularly the glutes and hamstrings, the Romanian deadlift is a better lift than the regular deadlift. Since this exercise does not focus on maximizing your weight, there is a less likely chance that you strain your back or damage a muscle group trying to lift more load than you can handle. 

Why You Should Do Deadlifts

Deadlifts also have a great argument for why you should do the exercise. For one, they’re a functional exercise, meaning that they can help you mimic real-life movements that you’ll use for the rest of your life. Additionally, since deadlifts are a compound exercise, they’re one of the essential exercises you need if you want to get stronger in the long-run. 

Functional Exercise (Real-Life Movement)

Deadlifts are a functional movements, which means they closely mirror the motions you do during your everyday activities. Imagine a scenario where you need to pick trash up off of the ground. This real-life situation underscores the parallel between the classic deadlift and the demands of actual strength-related challenges. Beyond engaging knee movement and hip hinge patterns, the deadlift compels you to effectively engage your core muscles. This holistic engagement becomes vital when executing a substantial lift, especially during those unexpected and unscripted moments that call for immediate strength application.

Lift More Weight With Regular Deadlifts

Deadlifts are non-negotiable if you want to get stronger. They’re a full-body exercise that strength both your upper and lower body. With deadlifts, you’re not focusing on time under tension, so you can maximize the weight to continue building strength.

So, Deadlifts or Romanian Deadlifts? 

In all honesty, both deadlifts and Romanian deadlifts are great exercises to incorporate into your workout split. If you’re a casual lifter looking to get stronger all around, we recommend using Romanian deadlifts as an accessory exercise to your regular deadlift.

This will help you focus on any weak points in your regular deadlift and improve upon it as you continue your lifting journey. There are times where you should do RDLs instead of deadlifts and vice-versa, but this all depends on what you’re looking for.

Figure out what muscle groups you want to target and what you’re trying to get out of the exercise. That’s always helped us figure out whether we need to do deadlifts or RDLs. Happy lifting!

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