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September 07, 2021 10 min read

The deadlift is an absolute juggernaut of an exercise. When it comes to the raw act of weightlifting, there’s pretty much nothing purer than the deadlift—simply picking something up and then putting it down again. It’s for this reason that the deadlift is so popular with Olympic weightlifters, bodybuilders, and general gym-goers alike.

The ubiquity of the deadlift has also bred  a lot of variations, some of which are more useful than others. The Romanian deadlift is one of these, and the benefits it bestows are unique enough to be directly compared to the conventional deadlift.

Knowing your fitness level and overall goals will help you choose which one’s the lift for you—along with the guide below.

The Key Differences

When discussing the “deadlift,” we’ll mainly be talking about the “conventional deadlift,” or “traditional deadlift.” The Romanian deadlift can also be shortened to the “RDL.” Although both are deadlifts, they differ in some key areas that change the biomechanics of the lift.

Beautiful woman performs Romanian deadlift in gym

The biggest difference is in the starting positions. We’ll get more into form down below, but for now, we should keep in mind that while the deadlift starts with the weight on the ground, the RDL begins with the barbell in your hands while you’re in a standing position. This leads to different motions being utilized by either lift.

For example, the RDL will emphasize the downward motion of the lift (eccentric) while the conventional deadlift will emphasize the upward motion (concentric). While both will use the same major muscle groups, the traditional deadlift will place a greater focus on the quads while the RDL will utilize more of the glutes and hamstrings.

The movement patterns of the lifts also influences the way you should be thinking about these lifts: the RDL should be seen as pulling from the hips and the regular deadlift is seen as a push from the ground using the knees.

Deadlift Benefits

The greatest benefits of doing the deadlift are the same as for weightlifting in general, but cranked up to eleven.The deadlift is meant to be done heavy, which means it’s perfect for strength training and powerlifting. It’s a compound exercise that requires several different muscle groups working in sync with one another to pull off. As a full-body exercise, the deadlift is great for strength and hypertrophy.

These factors compound on one another to make the deadlift doubly effective in growing muscle and keeping you shredded. Since such a wide range of muscles is used, it signals to your body that testosterone and growth hormone should be released, and in turn, this allows you to break through plateaus and consistently develop your strength and physique over the long term.

If you’re looking to become jacked with a ton of explosive power, look no further than the classic deadlift.

Muscles Worked: Deadlifts

Deadlifts are all about working your posterior chain and back. This includes all of the muscles that go along the spine—from your upper back, to the back of your legs, to your heels. For people that are guilty of mainly training their flashy front muscles, the deadlift is a necessary first step in developing a strong foundation for your gains.

Lower body muscles involved include the quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, and inner thighs. These help to drive the hips in the hip-hinge movement, press into the ground on the way upward, and keep your knees stabilized and while maintaining a good bar path.

Your erector spinae is also important. Found on either side of the spine, they play two roles when deadlifting. First, they help in back extension when moving your body from a bent-over position to a more upright position. These muscles also help in one of the most important parts of the deadlift: keeping your spine neutral from start to finish.

If you want to be able to avoid injury and reap as many gains as possible from the deadlift, you’re going to need to properly engage your erector spinae. Your lats, trapezius, and rhomboids are all going to play an important role in your back and upper back area. They’ll help to keep the bar close to your body and stabilized on its correct path.

It’s important to keep your shoulders in the right position to prevent rounding, and these muscles are going to do that for you. Your forearm muscles are also used but to a lesser extent. Your arms should be thought of as hooks rather than actively engaged in the lift. Nevertheless, you’re still going to need to be able to carry it.

How to Barbell Deadlift

Before you begin to deadlift, it’s important to first warm up. Furthermore, you should be sure of your form before going into using heavier weights. This will depend on your starting fitness level, but more caution is always better than less.

The fact that the deadlift usually utilizes very heavy weights means that your risk of injury is that much higher.

  1. With the barbell set up on the ground in front of you, step up to it with your feet about hip-width apart. The bar should be just above the middle of your feet, with the bar nearly touching your shins.
  2. Engaging your abdominals and making sure your chest is high, hinge at your hips and grab the bar with an overhand grip. Your hands should be just outside of your legs.
  3. Continue by bending the knees and pushing your hips further back, keeping your back straight and spine neutral. In this position, the bar should be almost touching your shins and your shoulders will be barely in front of the barbell. There should be activation in your core and glutes.
  4. After you inhale, initiate the movement by pressing through your feet into the floor. You want to think of pressing the floor away from you, rather than pulling the bar upward—this should help you avoid using your upper body which is a big no-no. Remember to keep your chest up.
  5. As the bar moves upwards and passes your knees, you’ll want to press your hips forward without hyperextending your back at the top of the movement. At the top of the lift, you’ll be standing straight, with knees locked and hips pressed forward into the bar.
  6. Reverse the movement back into the starting position, or you can also drop it if it’s the last rep in your current set. Repeat for the desired amount of reps.

Deadlift Tips

The deadlift is a complex weightlifting exercise with a lot of potential for injuries to occur—either immediately or over the long term. Form is always important, but it’s especially important when performing deadlifts. Proper deadlift form comes down to optimizing the path that the bar takes, from the floor to the top of the movement.

The bar should be just by your shins throughout most of the exercise, and if it’s too far in or out, you’ll be forcing your upper body to take more work than it’s supposed to. Not only will this lead to fewer gains in the muscles you’re supposed to be focusing on, but it can also potentially lead to injuries.

In consideration of avoiding injuries, it’s also very important to keep your back straight. The load placed on a curved back will, in time, lead to some sort of injuries. You should also think of your hands as hooks and your upper body as relatively passive in this exercise. Although your forearms and lats do come into use, the job of your arms is to be in full extension and to simply hook the weight.

And finally, the top position requires you to press your hips forward to lock out and stand tall. This also means you shouldn’t push your hips too far and hyperextend your back. All you want to do is press your hips into the bar and not any further, else you risk injuring yourself. This can be avoided by not leaning your shoulders backward at the top of the lift.

Romanian Deadlift Benefits

The story goes that the name “Romanian deadlift” comes from the 1990 Olympics when American lifter Jim Schmitz saw Romanian lifter Nicu Vlad and his personal trainer using a lift that he hadn’t seen before. When Schmitz learned that they didn’t have a name for it, he proposed calling it the “Romanian” deadlift.

These days it’s one of the most popular variations of the deadlift, and for good reason. When it comes to the muscles it works, all of the major ones are the same. It works the posterior chain, your back muscles, and several smaller muscles in your arms and core area. You also don’t need as heavy as a weight to do it, with dumbbells or kettlebells even being a good option.

The RDL places a larger focus on the hamstrings and glutes rather than the quads.

One of the  big benefits of the RDL is that it places much less stress on your lower back and on your knees. For people who have a history of knee or back pain, this is good news. Not only can you overload these important muscles more safely with the RDL, but you also don’t need to use as heavy of a weight to reap more gains.

The RDL can also be used as a warm-up for the regular deadlift, or as a way to improve the latter portion of your deadlift. This all comes down to goals and starting fitness level.

How to Romanian Deadlift

The Romanian deadlift will use slightly lighter weights, but that doesn’t mean you should approach proper form any less seriously. Once again, remember to warm up and get your form as perfect as you can before using a heavier load.

  1. Begin with the barbell already in your hands, using a palm-down (pronated) grasp that’s about shoulder-width apart on the bar. You want to maintain a very slight bend in your knees with your feet planted at about hip-width apart. You can also use dumbbells for a dumbbell Romanian deadlift—the only difference will be in how you hold the weights. For the barbell, the bar should begin by resting on your thighs.
  2. Keeping your chest up, pull your shoulder blades back and hinge at the hips while maintaining a neutral spine. Tucking your chin into your neck will also help you maintain this position with your back.
  3. Making sure that your back is kept straight (and lengthened), initiate the movement by slowly lowering the bar down towards the floor. It’s crucial that you’re not rounding your back in this stage.
  4. Continue the downward motion until you feel tension in the back of your thighs. Where the bar ends up will depend on your flexibility, but it should come down to somewhere between your knees and mid-shin. You should be facing the floor so that your spine is properly aligned. If the mirror proves too tempting to look into, it’s best to move away from it.
  5. Pushing into the ground through your heels, press your hips forward much like with the standard deadlift. Maintain a neutral spine as you return the barbell back into the starting position—across your thighs. Repeat for the desired amount of reps.

Romanian Deadlift Tips

Like the deadlift, the RDL has its own potential for serious injury if you’re not careful with the form. You’ll be going through a shorter range of motion and avoiding touching the floor, which allows for its own benefits and potential mistakes.

One of the most important points is to keep your chin tucked. Avoid looking in the mirror, as we’re all so prone to do. A good cue to remember is by either thinking of holding an egg or a tennis ball between your chin and your neck. Thinking of this position will help to ensure that your cervical spine is in a safe position and that your gaze is held neutral.

Since you won’t be lowering the weight all the way to the ground, you’re going to need to pay some special attention to your upper back. This can be done by ensuring that your shoulder blades are pulled back—a good cue for this is to think of tucking your shoulder blades into your back pockets. This will help brace your upper back against the weight.

Speaking of the upper body, you want to keep your forearms as “hooks” rather than actively engaged in the lifting. Your upper arms, on the other hand, are going to be actively engaged in pulling the bar up at the top of the lift. And finally, at the top of the lift, you don’t want to extend your knees fully.

Rather, keep a slight bend in them throughout the whole movement, from start to finish. When coming back up and reversing the movement, focus on pressing through the heels while keeping your feet flat on the floor.

single-leg variation can also be done for more specific benefits and gains.

The Lift for Your Training Program

At the end of the day, which variation you choose is going to come down to your starting fitness level and your fitness goals for the future. However, the same can be said for almost anything when it comes to fitness and workout routines, so let’s break it down a bit more.

If you’re just starting out in the gym or are relatively new to deadlifting, the RDL may be a better option for you. The main reason is that it allows you to develop the proper mechanics for good deadlifting, which is very important. A lot of beginners haven’t properly mastered the hip hinge movement before going on to deadlifting, and this can cause serious problems down the road.

This RDL benefit is compounded by the fact that the lift usually uses lighter loads as well. This means an overall better landscape to practice in. Another reason that the RDL may be better for general gym-goers is that it will build up hamstring, hip, and lower back strength. These areas tend to be weak and often ignored.

Not only are these muscle groups important in daily activities, but they also tend to have major carry-over benefits to other lifts in the gym, and will help you avoid injuries. Lower back issues will also make the RDL a better option for you, since the lift is more targeted towards the back, hips, and hamstrings, unlike the conventional deadlift.

And again, the RDL uses a lighter load which will be easier on the low back area. But when it comes to the traditional deadlift, there’s not much better you can get if you’re looking for the development of raw, explosive power. The lift is a juggernaut, and it’s useful for anyone that’s serious about developing their strength and muscle mass.

Ultimately, both lifts are going to fill their niche very well, and everyone can benefit from including both in their routine. If you have to choose between one or the other, it’s best to consider the benefits and drawbacks outlined above and make your decision. Or, shop around for the many deadlift variations that are out there.

Keep your goals in sight, plan your lifestyle accordingly, and you’ll slowly carve out the  jacked physique that turns heads.