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September 24, 2022
The traditional deadlift, also known as the conventional deadlift, is the king of all weight lifting exercises. No other move stresses the entire body the way it does, making it a staple in any strength training program. But it's not the only deadlift on the block. In fact, there are numerous deadlift variations, each providing its own set of unique benefits.
Among the variations, the Romanian deadlift just may be the most popular. We don't like to look at this as a Romanian deadlift vs deadlift debate, as they're both awesome exercises, but there are several key differences worth knowing and understanding. The article will compare the deadlift and Romanian deadlift to help you decide which one to use and when.
This post will discuss:
So, when it comes to comparing the Romanian deadlift vs deadlift: What are the differences and when does it make sense to do each?
When speaking about the deadlift and its many variations, it's important to distinguish what a deadlift is.
Originating from 6th century Greece, the deadlift is arguably the oldest exercise in the weight lifting game. This is likely due to its simplicity. In a time with no machines or even a thorough understanding of traditional weightlifting, picking objects up off the ground was the easiest way to show strength.
A very basic definition of a deadlift is that it's a movement in which a lifter picks an object off the ground until they are standing erect. Essentially, you must pick "dead weight" up off the ground.
While the traditional barbell deadlift is the most common deadlift variation, there are countless versions, like the sumo deadlift vs. conventional, for example. Interestingly, even events like Atlas Stones seen in the sport of Strongman are a type of deadlift.
Some other common variations include:
And, let's not forget about the Romanian deadlift, which we'll discuss more in depth in this post.
The conventional deadlift is typically the primary version that one performs in sport. Examples of how it's used include:
In addition, it's also the strongest lift you can perform with a barbell. The ability to lift so much weight is one of the reasons it's considered the king of exercises.
Conventional deadlift form is extremely important due to how much weight is used in the lift. It can make a drastic difference in both performance and overall safety.
While proper form is important for any exercise, it's even more critical with the conventional deadlift.
Let's go over step-by-step instructions for proper deadlift form.
The Romanian deadlift is a very popular deadlift version that isolates the posterior chain muscles. While it's called a "deadlift," it's significantly different from the traditional deadlift or any other deadlift variation you might do.
The biggest difference is that the barbell never touches the ground. Further, as the exercise begins in the standing position, the move starts with an eccentric contraction.
While a highly effective hip extension movement to train the posterior chain muscles, it's not a real deadlift as the barbell isn't moved from a dead stop and begins in the standing position.
Because it does begin with an eccentric muscle contraction, it takes advantage of the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC).
Follow these step-by-step guidelines for performing Romanian deadlifts.
The set-up for the Romanian deadlift is significantly easier than the conventional deadlift. The only decision is if you want to start with the barbell on the ground or elevated. We suggest using a starting position with the barbell raised on blocks or a squat rack. If you do, have the barbell at a height slightly above your knees.
While these are both deadlifts, the biomechanics differ drastically. This is seen in a few variables, including hip flexion, knee flexion, and range of motion.
During the Romanian deadlift, there is significantly less knee flexion. As a result, there is less quadriceps activation for knee extension, making it less of a quad exercise.
While there is less hip flexion as well, the difference is to a smaller degree. And though some may conclude that this results in less posterior muscle activation (i.e., gluteus maximus), this isn't the case.
As mentioned, the quadriceps are less involved due to the greater knee extension. As a result, the posterior muscles are left to do all the work. Studies have shown this results in greater activation. This is why you'll often see the RDL as a favorite glute exercise.
In addition, the greater flexion in the hips and knees during conventional deadlifts results in a greater range of motion¹.
The last portion concerning biomechanics is the hand grip. When performing conventional deadlifts, you have 3 options: underhand, overhand, and mixed.
When performing the Romanian deadlift, you must use the overhand grip. Without the use of lifting straps, this will limit the load you can use.
The muscle groups used in both the deadlift and Romanian deadlift are very similar. Differences emerge when examining to what extent these muscles are used.
The upper body muscles are used in an isometric fashion in both the conventional and Romanian deadlift. The muscles include:
Both variations make for good trapezius exercises. A study shows that the middle trapezius is more involved in deadlift variations with greater knee flexion (traditional deadlift), while the upper traps have higher activation in deadlifts with less knee flexion (Romanian deadlift)².
However, because the load is so much greater in the traditional deadlift, it will result in greater muscle growth and strength gains compared to the RDL.
Because the torso is bent forward more during the conventional deadlift, the erector spinae experiences significant stress. When you add the heavier loads, it's clear that conventional deadlifts see significantly greater muscle activation levels, making it one of the best erector spinae exercises. Multiple studies have confirmed this³.
When picking the best variation for your back, there are two major takeaways to consider:
To be clear, we are NOT saying the conventional deadlift is bad for your back. We are saying that if you're already injured, the Romanian deadlift is a better option during rehab or recovery.
When describing how to perform the exercises, we mentioned that conventional deadlifts begin by pushing your feet into the ground. As a result, the quadriceps receive significant activation.
In comparison, the quadriceps play a minimal role in the Romanian deadlift. The Romanian deadlift is more of a pure hip extension movement, meaning that the posterior chain is the primary mover.
While there is a slight bend creating some knee flexion in Romanian deadlifts, it's minimal and plays a small role in helping drive the hips forward.
The hamstrings and glutes, including the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus, work the hardest of all the muscles for both deadlift variations. But there is a difference worth pointing out here.
The Romanian deadlift seems to be the best pick when it comes to hamstring activation, while the traditional deadlift works the glutes more. So if you're targeting butt lifting exercises, the traditional deadlift may be best for targeting those lower body muscles.
The conventional deadlift technique brings a lot to the table. Here are some of the top reasons you need to include it in your strength training program.
Perhaps the predominant reason one should put a conventional deadlift in their training program is to build muscular strength.
As mentioned, the conventional deadlift is the heaviest of all barbell movements and allows people to use the greatest amount of weight. As stressing the neuromuscular system is the primary driver of building strength, it's fair to say the regular deadlift has the potential to make you really strong.
The deadlift truly is a full-body workout. Even though the upper body is trained isometrically, it still receives a huge stimulus because, again, such a heavy load is used. It's also great for grip strength.
When you first start doing deadlifts, you may be a bit surprised when you wake up the next morning and your upper back is sore. This is because the torso must manage the entire load.
If we were forced to only pick one exercise to perform, it would definitely be conventional deadlifts.
In other words, if you improve your deadlift, you will likely see improvements in many of the other exercises you regularly do.
Here are the top benefits of the Romanian deadlift.
The Romanian deadlift requires a lighter load as less muscle mass is used. This is due to the biomechanics in which the quadriceps are significantly removed.
As a result, a lifter does not need to use as much weight to get optimal muscle activation.
We hate to use the term "safer" as it implies traditional deadlifts aren't safe. They are.
However, deadlifts are the most common cause of injury in the weight room. We could say this is due to faulty lifting mechanics and ego lifting, but regardless, injuries still don't appear as often with Romanian deadlifts.
Unlike the traditional deadlift, the Romanian deadlift utilizes an eccentric contraction (check out our article on concentric and eccentric contractions for more information). And when compared to other lifts, the eccentric portion is also performed slower.
This is important for muscle mass development as eccentric contraction is responsible for a higher percentage of muscle damage.
Again, because of the emphasis on the eccentric muscle contraction, the Romanian deadlift is generally seen as a movement to achieve muscle hypertrophy rather than strength. Of course, there's a crossover between these two variables, but you will typically perform the Romanian deadlift with higher reps and as an accessory to the conventional deadlift.
While both movements are hip hinge exercises, the Romanian deadlift is "purer" in that the primary joint involved is the hips. Again, while the knees have a slight bend, this is to allow the hips to be pushed back rather than involve the quadriceps.
As a result, this can be beneficial to use if needed to train that movement.
With the traditional deadlift, you need the barbell. Of course, we love the barbell; however, sometimes, you may find yourself in a situation where you have no access. If so, you're out of luck.
The cool thing about Romanian deadlifts is that you can use almost any implement, making it a great at-home workout. Of course, the barbell allows the heaviest load, which is one of several reasons why we love barbell training.
But if you don't have a barbell, you also have the option to use dumbbells, kettlebells, or just hold weight plates in your hand. In reality, anything you can hold works.
As a result, it's easier to do if you're in a situation with no barbell, like when you're on a work trip utilizing a hotel gym, stuck at home, or performing super sets with no barbell nearby.
Combine this with the fact you don't need as large of a load, and you have the perfect exercise to train anywhere.
We're now going to highlight instances in which each of these deadlifts works better. To be clear, this list is not saying one is better than the other. Use this as an easy way to see each move's benefits and the situations they're best for.
The following scenarios may call for the conventional deadlift.
On the other hand, this is when the Romanian deadlift is the optimal choice.
While the above list may seem like the Romanian deadlift has more situations in which it's the more ideal choice, this doesn't make it better. It's just a bit more versatile and can be used when the traditional deadlift can't.
Regardless, as you've seen, both the traditional and Romanian deadlifts are awesome. Rather than thinking "either-or," think, "I'm going to use both to improve my overall exercise performance and become insanely strong."
They're great complimentary exercises, and we strongly advise you to use both of them, assuming you're in good health, in whichever workout split you follow. After all, why pick one when you can do both?
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