Deadlift vs. Romanian Deadlift: Learn the Best Way to Hit Your Posterior Chain

When it’s time to target your posterior chain — glutes, hamstrings, and lower back — many lifters can be spoiled for choice when it comes to choosing effective exercises. Two of the most popular movements that end up in the spotlight are the classic deadlift and its slightly more focused twin, the Romanian deadlift (RDL).

Both of these exercises use a “hip hinge” movement to build muscle while developing the kind of practical, real-world strength that makes you the go-to person when your friends need help moving. Both exercises also have unique characteristics that could make each one an effective choice under certain conditions and training contexts.

person in gym bending forward with barbell in hands
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There is no “right” or “wrong” answer when it’s time to choose your deadlift. You simply need a better understanding of what these two hinging movements can offer. So if you’re in a certain “one deadlift rules the world” camp, your eyes are about to be opened to a new way of thinking about these powerful pulls.

Deadlift and Romanian Deadlift

Exercise Differences

For consistency’s sake throughout the article, “the deadlift” refers to the conventional deadlift, while the Romanian deadlift refers, clearly, to the Romanian deadlift variation. If you’re curious about sumo deadlifts, sorry, but they’re not part of this conversation. However, they do share many of the same characteristics as the conventional deadlift.

Muscle Activation

Both the deadlift and Romanian deadlift involve hip extension, your glutes and hamstrings are activated and trained effectively. However, the deadlift starts from the floor and involves a more significant knee bend aka knee flexion.

This factor alone makes a huge difference because it’s what gives you more leverage to lift more weight with the classic deadlift. This is also why it’s a preferred stance for competitive powerlifters.

Powerlifter performing deadlift in contest
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The improved leverage increases quadriceps activation, making the deadlift one of the most comprehensive lower body exercises by involving the glutes, hamstrings, and quads as one unit. The relatively heavy load and overall stability requirements also increase the demands on your core and back muscles.

Contrastingly, the Romanian deadlift is performed without significant knee flexion. This limits your leverage while involving many of the same muscles — except for the quadriceps. This is why the RDL is often considered a primary hamstring exercise. (1)

Eccentric Emphasis

The Romanian deadlift starts from the top, while you are standing upright, and it focuses on controlling the lowering phase (eccentric). This controlled eccentric emphasis is what gives you relatively more control over the movement.

Generally speaking, many people do not control their eccentrics during conventional deadlifts. They typically lift the weight explosively before dropping the weight nearly as quickly. This drop is often (and unfortunately) accompanied by a celebratory scream after each successful lift regardless of gym etiquette.

This difference in the eccentric emphasis, or lack of, can make the cadence and overall effect of the exercises quite distinct. With the higher degree of eccentric control, Romanian deadlifts may be better for training muscular deceleration (crucial for athleticism) as well as hip and hamstring flexibility-related adaptations.

Range of Motion

In a deadlift, the added knee flexion reduces the necessary range of motion at hip extension — because you’re bending at your knees, you can lift the weight without bending significantly at your waist. This also limits the range of motion for your glutes and hamstrings, especially in their stretched position (at the bottom of the exercise).

The goal of a Romanian deadlift is to push your hips back and not perform any large degree of knee flexion. Combine this with the eccentric control mentioned earlier and you get a much longer range of motion with your glutes and hamstrings, especially in the stretched position which recent research is finding to be incredibly anabolic. (2)

Strength Potential

Between the two movements, the deadlift is often more popular because its nature and overall technique allow you to lift relatively heavier weights. That’s why it made the list as one of the three movements performed in competitive powerlifting.

For non-powerlifters, conventional deadlifts can simply feel invigorating and motivating because of the sheer strength-building potential they offer.

Long-haired person in gym holding barbell
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Romanian deadlifts allow for less absolute load because of their mechanics. No knee flexion means fewer muscles involved and less loading potential. They’re still a potentially heavy exercise, but Romanian deadlift PRs are not bragged about nearly as often. When people ask how much you deadlift, it’s safe to assume they’re talking about conventional deadlifts from the floor.

Fatigue

This is one of the main differences that many people overlook. Not only is the level of fatigue different, but the type of fatigue is different between the two movements.

Because deadlifts involve more muscles and are often performed heavier, they’re generally more fatiguing. Whether you train with relatively higher reps or low reps, you can often count on feeling pretty beat up after doing deadlifts.

Especially as you get more advanced, one or two sets of deadlifts with a challenging weight or significant volume can leave you fried. This is often described as “systemic fatigue,” where your whole body is affected. Anecdotally, some people also tend to feel more joint stress with deadlifts.

Romanian deadlifts are typically performed with relatively lighter weights, so they trigger less joint stress and are less systemically fatiguing. This makes Romanian deadlifts generally easier to recover from. However, they can produce more fatigue and muscle soreness in the local muscles specifically involved in the exercise.

Romanian deadlifts also involve lots of eccentric stretching. This type of stress through a longer range of motion inflicts a higher degree of muscle damage. After you’ve pushed yourself with Romanian deadlifts, you can feel a clear difference where your glutes and hamstrings may even feel like they’re tearing. This causes your glutes and hamstrings to be more sore.

Exercise Similarities

Both exercises have differences that can be a factor, depending on your goal. However, they also share fundamental similarities and crossover. Most people in the gym, aside from competitive powerlifters, would likely not notice a drastic difference in long-term progress if they were to substitute one for the other.

Hip Hinges

The deadlift and Romanian deadlift are both “hip hinges” — your body primarily moves by bending at the hips. This action trains many muscles throughout your body by coordinating strength, force transfer, and stability from your lower to upper body.

Bald person in gym doing barbell deadlift
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This comprehensive effect allows you to build strength, muscle, and athleticism. Fulfilling these roles is often more important than some of their unique differences.

Posterior Chain Development

Your glutes and hamstrings, along with your low back, are all targeted with both the deadlift and Romanian deadlift. In other words, these exercises develop that backside many people are after.

You need some sort of basic hip hinge in your training program to efficiently target those eye-catching glute and hamstring muscles, while also strengthening your low back.

Building a powerful posterior chain has also been shown to help maintain strength and potentially decrease the general risk of injury and incidence of back pain. (3)

How to Do the Deadlift

The deadlift is often considered one of the foundational lifts that every beginner in the gym should learn. While that may or may not be true, the deadlift (as a hip hinge) remains a fundamental movement pattern that targets a variety of muscles from your hamstrings to your upper back.

This makes it an efficient and effective exercise for several goals, and mastering this exercise should likely be on the to-do list for the majority of gym-goers.

  • Stand before a bar with your feet hip-width apart and the bar lined up over the middle of your feet. Grab the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Adjust slightly to get your shins close to the bar.
  • Bend at your hips and knees, lowering yourself down while maintaining a neutral spine. Your shoulders should be slightly in front of the bar and your gaze should be focused on a spot on the floor a few feet in front of the bar.
  • Engage your core and lat muscles to stabilize your spine. Grip the bar hard, take a deep breath, and brace your core. Drive through your legs, while extending (straightening) your hips and knees simultaneously.
  • Keep your chest up and maintain the neutral spine position throughout the movement. The barbell should move in a vertical path, staying in contact with your legs as you stand up.
  • Drive through your heels until you reach a fully upright position. At the top of the movement, squeeze your glutes to achieve a strong lockout. Your hips and knees should be fully extended.
  • Hinge at your hips to lower the bar, pushing your hips back and bending your knees slightly. Avoid rounding your back or letting the barbell drift away from your legs. Lower the bar with control — don’t simply drop the bar.
  • Once the barbell is back on the ground, take a moment to reset your starting position and repeat the movement for the desired number of repetitions.

How to Do the Romanian Deadlift

The Romanian deadlift may have a reputation as being more “for muscle” rather than “for strength,” but that’s not really accurate. The increased glute and hamstring recruitment can definitely benefit muscle-building, but you can still gradually work up to relatively heavy weights in the lift if you choose to train for strength.

Alternatively, some lifters focus on the longer range of motion and increased stretching offered by the Romanian deadlift. In any case, it’s a versatile exercise that can be a key player in any workout routine.

  • Grasp a barbell with an overhand grip, with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, allowing the bar to rest against your upper thighs.
  • Engage your core and maintain a straight back throughout the exercise. Begin the movement by hinging at the hips, pushing your glutes backward. As you lower the barbell, keep a slight bend in your knees but avoid excessive knee flexion. Ensure your spine remains neutral.
  • Lower the barbell along the front of your thighs, allowing it to move downward while maintaining a tight grip. Continue to hinge at the hips until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings. Avoid rounding your back during the descent. Aim to achieve a position where your torso is almost parallel to the ground, with the barbell hovering between your knees and ankles.
  • Initiate the ascent by driving your hips forward and squeezing your glutes. Keep your back straight and focus on using your hamstrings and glutes to lift the weight. As you stand up, maintain control of the movement and avoid any jerky or sudden motions. Reach a fully upright position, ensuring you maintain tension in your hamstrings and glutes.
  • To complete one repetition, reverse the movement by hinging at the hips and lowering the barbell back down in a controlled manner. Continue the exercise for the desired number of repetitions, maintaining proper form throughout.

When to Program the Deadlift vs. Romanian Deadlift

For most people, I think the easiest way to program these is to switch from their conventional deadlift to the Romanian deadlift. The Romanian deadlift is often superior for building slabs of meat on your glutes and hamstrings which I would argue is more important than lifting heavy for most people.

Most people only do conventional deadlifts because their favorite influencer or powerlifter does them and quite frankly, this lift is often overused in most people’s program for years.

In general, if you’re looking to build max strength and you want a more comprehensive exercise, feel free to program the deadlift. However, the Romanian deadlift is a better hypertrophy exercise taking the glutes and hamstrings through a deeper range of motion involving anabolic stretch.

Both are demanding compound exercises that should be programmed early in your leg day, ideally as your first or second exercise. I would also avoid programming anything too demanding on the lower back the next day like reverse hypers or back squats.

Pick Your Heavy Hinges

The deadlift and Romanian deadlift are both highly effective hip hinges that will get you strong and build plenty muscle. While this might be oversimplistic, it’s not entirely wrong to think of the deadlift as a “high leverage lift that cuts range of motion to lift big weights” while the Romanian deadlift is a “more controlled, long range of motion muscle-builder for the glutes and hamstrings.” You can’t go wrong with either, but one might edge forward depending on your specific needs.

References

  1. Martín-Fuentes, I., Oliva-Lozano, J. M., & Muyor, J. M. (2020). Electromyographic activity in deadlift exercise and its variants. A systematic review. PloS one, 15(2), e0229507. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0229507
  2. Nunes, J. P., Schoenfeld, B. J., Nakamura, M., Ribeiro, A. S., Cunha, P. M., & Cyrino, E. S. (2020). Does stretch training induce muscle hypertrophy in humans? A review of the literature. Clinical physiology and functional imaging, 40(3), 148–156. https://doi.org/10.1111/cpf.12622
  3. Tataryn, N., Simas, V., Catterall, T., Furness, J., & Keogh, J. W. L. (2021). Posterior-Chain Resistance Training Compared to General Exercise and Walking Programmes for the Treatment of Chronic Low Back Pain in the General Population: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports medicine – open7(1), 17. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40798-021-00306-w

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