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NO WELL-ROUNDED WORKOUT WEEK can be considered complete if you’re not doing some form of deadlift. For starters, building the type of strength that allows you to pull heavy weight off the floor is what drives many people to the gym in the first place, and the classic barbell deadlift does just that. That’s just one benefit of the movement—you’ll also build major muscle in your lower body (along with your hips, traps, core, and grip strength) and reinforce proper hinge mechanics. It’s one of the most comprehensive compound movements you can do.
While the standard barbell deadlift is one of the marquee strength training exercises, it’s far from the only deadlift variation lifters have in their arsenal. These include versions using other implements and slight shifts in form—so you’ll be forgiven if you’re not sure which deadlift is best for your specific training goals. Consider another variation that uses a barbell, the Romanian deadlift. The exercise is a posterior chain powerhouse, with plenty of benefits like its classic counterpart.
Few well-informed exercisers would disagree that deadlifts are an essential movement for your training plan. But what many do argue about is which deadlift variation deserves the top spot in your exercise arsenal. Thankfully, our experts—Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., and Kurt Ellis, NSCA, of Beyond Numbers Performance—are here to break down both exercises to determine which one might be best for you.
The Standard Deadlift vs. The Romanian Deadlift
What Is the Difference Between the Standard Deadlift and Romanian Deadlift?
The primary difference between these two quintessential exercises is the placement of the load (barbell, dumbbells, etc.) at the start of each rep and the range of motion you’ll work through. In the classic deadlift, you pull the bar off of the ground as you rise to a standing position.
The RDL really begins after you’ve picked up the bar, standing with the bar hip-level. Then, when you lower the load down, you’ll stop around mid-shin height (depending on your mobility), never letting it touch the ground before returning to the starting (standing) position. Also, your hips remain higher and your knees remain straighter in the RDL, which is why it is also sometimes referred to as the straight-leg deadlift (although your legs are never completely straight).
Both deadlift variations engage all of the muscle groups mentioned above—but not equally. Because the classic deadlift drops the hips lower and involves more of a knee-bend than the RDL, it engages the quads to a greater degree. The RDL, meanwhile, hammers the hamstrings and glutes more for the very same reason. But no matter what variation you perform, you can be sure that you’re working almost your entire posterior chain, which is key for improving both power production and overall athletic performance.
The Case for Romanian Deadlifts
The Romanian Deadlift Is Safer
Working toward a one-rep max is not the primary objective when it comes to the Romanian deadlift. With this version, the focus shifts to controlling the weight not from the ground position, but from the hinge and upward. When it comes to using weight, a challengingly heavy load—but not ridiculously ego-driven poundage—should be the goal. “When we think of the Romanian deadlift, I think it’s a safer bet for a lot of people,” Ellis says. “You’re able to control the movement more, and you’re able to essentially load it up how you see fit, and match it to meet your needs.”
The Romanian Deadlift Targets Your Glutes and Hams
Why do people deadlift? Besides the need to pull heavy weight, most of us are in the gym to build muscle, and when it comes to prioritizing posterior muscles—primarily your glutes and hamstrings—the RDL does this arguably better than any other exercise. Since you’re not focusing on heavy weights over everything else, you can turn your full attention to creating some quality time under tension, which will give you that desired backside stretch.
“Personally, I’m a big fan of the Romanian deadlift. I think it’s a better movement for developing your backside hamstrings, glutes,” Ellis says.
The Case for Standard Barbell Deadlifts
The Standard Barbell Simulates Real Life Movement
The standard barbell deadlift is more similar to the movements you make in real life. An in-law slips and falls, and it’s up to you to pick them up off the ground. That’s one example of how the classic deadlift can prepare you for real-world, real-strength situations by having you work on not just knee movement and hip hinge patterns, but by having to utilize your core muscles properly to complete a heavy lift sometimes at unexpected moments.
“The Romanian deadlift is a really, really cute starter lift for anybody,” Samuel says. “But at some point, you’ve got to master that from the ground deadlift so that you can really understand real-world carryover.”
You Can Lift Heavy With Standard Deadlifts
If you want to get strong, you simply need to be including the conventional deadlift in your routine. The time under tension necessary for maximizing your RDL prevents you from actually maxing out on this lift. A standard deadlift from the ground up requires ground to top explosiveness to pull three, four, even five or more plates on each side. And don’t forget: Lifting heavy weights will also help get you jacked.
Which Deadlift Variation Should You Do?
From Samuel and Ellis’ perspective, the Romanian Deadlift gets an edge in regard to longevity.
From an injury, load and muscle building standpoint, the experts believe that the RDL is your best all-around bang for your buck. This movement puts you in a better position over the long term to work on aesthetics and mechanics. The load can still be challenging, just nowhere near the plate-stacking poundage needed for the classic deadlift. Believe it or not, not everyone needs to lift 500 pounds off the ground.
All that said, on-ground movements like the classic deadlift should also hold a key spot for them as well in your routine.
Whether you’re using dumbbells or a barbell, kettlebells or resistance bands, the classic and Romanian deadlifts (and all of their countless variations) are excellent additions to any training program, whether you’re a seasoned lifter or just beginning your fitness journey.
The key is to sprinkle those variations across your weekly routine. Each one has its strengths, and rotating a few at a time through your program will help increase yours. When you want to push major weight and focus on full-body strength, the standard dead will be your best bet. When you want to focus in on glute-ham development and scale down the weight, the RDL will be the choice.
Trevor Thieme is a Los Angeles-based writer and strength coach, and a former fitness editor at Men’s Health. When not helping others get in shape, he splits his time between surfing, skiing, hiking, mountain biking, and trying to keep up with his seven year-old daughter.
Jeff Tomko is a freelance fitness writer who has written for Muscle and Fitness, Men’s Fitness, and Men’s Health.