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Pulling strength is critical to all strength, power, and fitness sports, with numerous deadlift variations to choose from across weightlifting, powerlifting, and general fitness and hypertrophy training. By understanding the distinct differences between Romanian deadlifts and deadlifts (and how they correlate with your individual performance goals), you can maximize your training and exercise selection.
In this article we will discuss the differences between the deadlift vs Romanian deadlift, and what important aspects lifters need to address regarding their sport and training goals when selecting the best pulling movement for their individual success.
In the below video we look at the deadlift and how it is performed. As one of the most widely seen and performed barbell movements (as well as bench presses and squats), the deadlift is an All-Star exercise to build strength, muscle mass, and develop sport-specificity (powerlifters, functional fitness athletes, and strongmen and strong women).
Unlike the Romanian deadlift, the deadlift is a lift that serves itself, often the standard expression of maximal pulling strength. The Romanian deadlift, while still performed with notable loads, is a lift often performed to serve another purpose, such as positional patterning and strength to Olympic weightlifting lifts and/or targeted hypertrophy based training.
The Romanian Deadlift (RDL)
In an earlier article I discussed the origins of the Romanian deadlift, why they are important for nearly every athlete, and how they can be performed and integrated into every strength, power, and fitness athletes training regimen.
The Romanian deadlift differs from the traditional deadlift in that the movement is much more dependent on hamstring and hips strength, as well as optimal back positioning so that is can translate optimally to the clean and/or hypertrophy/targeted based training.
Below are five main power, strength, and fitness sports/activities, each breaking down which lift (deadlifts vs romanian deadlifts) reign supreme (even by the smallest margin) when considering the best application to sport.
While top end pulling strength is key to cleans and snatches, as well as general strength, many lifters lack the positional strength and control necessary to transition their top-end deadlift strength to the formal Olympic lifts. In an earlier article I discussed why the deadlift is not the same as a clean pull/clean deadlift, further making the case for more positional strengthening by way of the Romanian deadlift for most levels of lifters.
Romanian Deadlift demonstration from our official Equipment Supplier, Rogue Fitness
While I am not saying that weightlifters should not deadlift, I do feel that most pulling strength issues stem from the lack of positional strength that Romanian deadlifts and clean pulls/clean deadlifts build, rather than the traditional deadlift variation discussed above.
Strongman/Strongwomen and Powerlifting (Deadlift)
Since the deadlift is the exact lift needed for competition, strongman/strongwomen and powerlifters undoubtedly should prioritize the traditional deadlift to build technique, strength, speed, and movement-specific muscle mass.
Romanian deadlifts can still offer a large amount of benefit to most lifters who are looking to build stronger hips, hamstrings, and erectors without excessively overdoing loading that could otherwise negatively impact their central nervous system (especially in more advanced athletes).
Competitive Fitness (Deadlift)
Competitive fitness athletes often find strength tests and WODs to incorporate the traditional deadlift, making the deadlift very applicable to their sporting movements and workouts. Building strength, efficiency, and hypertrophy are key.
Many of these hybrid athletes must also be able to transition their pulling strength into more refined motor movements, such as Olympic weightlifting (snatches and cleans), making the Romanian deadlift as close finisher in the training hierarchy. To best maximize performance, especially as athletes progress, Romanian deadlifts can be used to build positional strength and muscle mass in many of the similar groups needed for traditional deadlifts without having the large impact on the lower back and central nervous systems (especially for higher rep based WODs and/or heavier test outs).
For most fitness enthusiasts and training clients, I highly recommend they prioritize Romanian deadlifts first, building up the hip, hamstring, and lower back strength and mechanics necessary to begin deadlifting. Many new lifters start deadlifting prior to being able to perform a flat backed hip hinged pulling movement, either from the knee, shin, or floor. Lack of proper progression and development in the posterior chain often leads to lifters pulling with their traps and erectors, leading to many often preventable injuries.
I do then feel many lifters should deadlift to increase muscle mass and strength, which has great impacts on bone density, metabolism, and quality of daily life for most individuals. Lastly, for individuals with lower back issues and contradictions, Romanian deadlifts can be a better option, as the loading is more targeted to the hamstrings, hips, and back, often at lower loads.
Both lifts offer many benefits to all athletes, however many fail to recognize the distinct benefits (and consequences) of performing one over the other. It is important to note that all athletes can benefit from both lifts, however at times when loading and training volume only allows for one to be prioritized, lifters and coaches must select the best movement based on their goals and needs, not their need and ego to recklessly pull loads without intent.
Editor's note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the author's and don’t necessarily reflect the views of USA Weightlifting. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.