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Your question: Is there a difference between the stiff-legged deadlift and the romanian deadlift, or are they basically the same exercise?
Although they look similar to the untrained eye, the stiff-legged and romanian deadlifts differ in both execution and results. First let’s consider how to properly perform each.
Stand with your feet about hip- to shoulder-width apart with a slight bend in your knees. Grasp a barbell with an overhand, shoulder-width grip, your arms extended in front of your thighs. Lean forward from your hips, pushing your glutes back and maintaining the arch in your lower back as you guide the bar down the front of your legs until it comes to about mid-shin. The bar should always be in contact with your legs. Extend your hips to return to the start position.
With a hip- to shoulder-width stance, hold a loaded barbell in front of your thighs with an overhand, shoulder-width grip. Bend at the waist, keeping your knees straight as you lower the bar toward the floor; it should remain a few inches in front of your legs. Pause briefly before extending your torso to return to a standing position.
The difference: Based on these descriptions, it’s easy to spot a few major differences between these two exercises. During the romanian, you maintain the arch in your back and hinge forward at the hips while keeping the bar in contact with your legs. This minimizes the involvement of the lower-back muscles (erector spinae) while maximizing the use of the hamstrings and glutes.
With the stiff-legged version, you bend forward at the waist (flexing the spine) and keep the bar farther out in front of you. This maximizes the use of your spinal erectors, and lessens the involvement of the hams and glutes.
For discussion: Although the names stiff-legged deadlift and romanian deadlift are often used interchangeably, the moves are distinctly different. Due to the biomechanics involved in the romanian deadlift, it’s the best version for developing the hamstrings and glutes. The stiff-legged deadlift, on the other hand, is best for developing the erector spinae muscles.
Another difference is the amount of weight that can be used for each. Because you extend at the hips, and use the large ham and glute muscles for romanians, you can use considerably more weight. And because you have more flexion of the spine during stiff-legged deads, you should use lighter weight and higher reps to prevent back injury.
Final thought: Your best bet is to perform the romanian deadlift on leg day to target the hamstrings and glutes. Do 3-4 sets of 6-12 reps at the start of your ham workout. The stiff-legged deadlift, meanwhile, should be performed at the end of your back workout (or other routine in which you train your lower back) to target the erector spinae. Do 2-3 sets of 10-20 reps.