Deadlifts will legit change your life. Okay, maybe that seems like a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s the truth. Deadlifts are one of those game-changing exercises that work the entire body when done correctly and develop strength and a stunning physique. There are also many forms and variations of deadlifts you can do.
One of the major debates that arise because of these variations is the effectiveness of conventional deadlifts and Romanian deadlifts (RDLs) compared to the other. Tons of valid arguments for each exercise is available on the internet, but we’re going to peel back the layers to find out which deadlift is king of the weight room.
Let’s get started.
The regular, or conventional, deadlift is one the greatest movements you can do for every single part of your body. The deadlift has you lift the weight off the ground and lower it down smoothly to the starting point by engaging the back and lower body.
Although the deadlift sounds simple in words, it is much more challenging when you actually have the weight in your hands. One of the reasons the deadlift can be difficult is that it requires a clean lift without rounding the back. The lower back has to be neutral the entire time you perform the movement.
The “dead” in deadlift comes from the way you are lifting “dead” weight off the floor. The barbell or dumbbells that you are picking up are starting at the lowest point. This is different from other exercises like a clean and press or a squat, where the weight is already held or loaded. From the starting point of the deadlift, you work all the way from bottom to top and down again.
Muscles Worked With Conventional Deadlifts
Since the deadlift is not a squat, it doesn’t target the lower body as much. The deadlift is a push against the floor that drives the hips, pulls a weight off the floor, and works to straighten the spine up to a correct standing position. In other words, you work your back first and foremost.
Here are the muscles worked with the regular deadlift:
Erector Spinae – The spinal erectors extend down the entire length of the back, from the base of the skull to the bottom of the vertebrae. This is why you have to maintain your flat, neutral back.
Latissimus Dorsi – Works in conjunction with the erector spinae.
Arms – You work the forearms and finger muscles (like the flexor digitorum profundus and finger flexors).
Shoulders – Deadlifts target the trapezius.
Abdominals – Every muscle in the core is targeted, such as the rectus abdominis and the obliques.
Glutes – Works the hamstrings and gluteus maximus.
- Legs – Since you are working the posterior chain, the hamstrings are targeted.
How To Do a Conventional Deadlift
Here is how to perform a conventional deadlift with proper form:
- Approach the bar and strand with the middle of feet under the bars. Your shins should not touch the bar. The heels are hip-distance apart but narrower than it would be with squats. Toes are on a 15-degree angle.
- Bend over but without bending the knees and grip the bar about shoulder-width apart. The arms are vertical.
- Now, you can bend the knees, bringing the thighs nearly parallel with the floor. Drop into a deep position where the shins are grazing the bar, and do not let the bar move away from you. If it moves, you should start over.
- As you begin to lift, the chest moves first. The back remains straight. Do not change the angle of your back and pelvis. The shoulders are down and back, squeezing into the spine.
- Inhale and stand up, lifting the weight with you. Keep the bar in contact with your legs. As you straighten the spine, the bar will eventually stop around the top of the knees.
- Lower back into the starting position.
The Romanian Deadlift is a common variation that is often confused as the conventional deadlift—except you are lowering down, not picking up the dead weight from the floor. In other words, the Romanian deadlift begins at the top of the deadlift position. The RDL is a multi-joint exercise that puts emphasis on the hips and knees. When you carefully examine the Romanian deadlift beside a regular deadlift, you will see that the RDL is more isolated.
The ISSA says the Romanian deadlift is “one of the most effective, most overlooked, and on the rare occasion it is performed, most poorly executed exercises.”
The reason the Romanian deadlift is done less perfectly than the conventional deadlift is that you need optimal back positioning and strength in the hamstrings.
Muscles Worked With Romanian Deadlift
Since the Romanian deadlift is a variation on the conventional deadlift, it will work some of the same muscles, such as the trapezius, forearms, and posterior chain. However, because you are keeping the knees bent throughout most of the movement, you are engaging the hamstrings and glutes much more and working the back less.
The muscles that make up the hamstrings—semimembranosus, biceps femoris, and semitendinosus—are targeted.
The glutes are involved during the hip extension when standing, and the erector spinae help maintain posture.
Now, compared to the conventional deadlift, the RDL develops a lot of strength through the posterior chain, because you maintain a rigid and long spine throughout the entire exercise. Since you lower down rather than pull up, you need to engage the core and lower extremities. The back must work harder at resisting flexion in the spine and rounded shoulders.
How To Do a Romanian Deadlift
Here is how to do the Romanian deadlift with ideal form:
- Load up your barbell and stand with the feet about shoulder width apart with the arches of the feet positioned directly under the bar. In this position, the torso is upright, the arms are straight (not locked), and the shoulder blades are dropped down and back.
- Hinge. Bend down slightly, grabbing the bar with a wide grip and slightly bend the knees. The back is flat, nearly parallel with the floor.
- Use the glutes, hamstrings, and core to stand. Keep the barbell close to the body. It can come as high as mid-thigh. Engage the lats if you have a hard time lifting.
- Avoid overextending the spine.
- Lower the barbell down towards the ankles and then return to standing. The butt should move away from the hips, and you will notice that there is a stretch in the hamstrings.
- Flexibility of the hips and hamstrings is the main determiner of how low the barbell goes. You don’t have to set the bar down in between repetitions. Most people reach the bottom of the knees. Others can go father.
Which Is Better? Conventional Deadlift or Romanian Deadlift?
So, now the answer to your question about which deadlift variation is better is becoming more clear. Both deadlifts have benefits, such as:
- Increasing muscular hypertrophy
- Increasing strength and stability in the hips, hamstrings, and lower back
- Safeguarding against injury by working the core and low back
- Enhancing athletic performance
But, conventional deadlifts and RDLs both have advantages and disadvantages. Let’s look at some applications where a specific variation outweighs the other.
You’re a Beginner
When you compare conventional deadlifts and Romanian deadlifts, you might notice that one appears easier than the other. For most movers who are just starting out at the gym, the Romanian deadlift is going to be the first deadlift you ever work on. It is a great place for working on maintaining a flat back, building hamstring strength, and learning how to perform a hip hinge.
Working with a trainer? You might notice that they introduce you to RDLs first, because they want you to build up muscle in the hips and hamstrings—two mechanics needed for a conventional deadlift—before moving on to more difficult things.
You Want to Build Mass
Of course, most weightlifters and exercisers who are opting to build mass aren’t going to be fresh off the street and completely new to lifting. That means you probably have a good understanding of technique and come do a Romanian deadlift with ease. This is where the conventional deadlift becomes your best friend. Conventional deadlifts work everything in the body, from the lats, traps, erector spinae, hamstrings, quads, calves, chest, arms, and backside. You lift heavier and with less volume.
You’re a Strongman/Strongwoman Lifter
Since powerlifting requires you to know how to do the conventional deadlift, you are going to want to use the traditional deadlift more often than RDLs. Furthermore, the benefits of the conventional deadlift, like building strength, speed, and muscle mass, are necessary for such competitions.
You Have an Injured Back
In the same way a beginner will stick to Romanian deadlifts, so too should the person coming back from a low back or hip injury. Romanian deadlifts put less pressure on the upper and mid back while allowing for strength gains in the hips and hamstrings. Since Romanian deadlifts can be done with dumbbells, kettlebells, or with just a barbell, it is excellent for modifications.
The conventional deadlift can put incredible strain on the body and should be avoided until your injury has healed.
Crossfit and WODs
Competitive fitness, much like the Strongman and powerlifting, have found ways to incorporate the traditional deadlift and multiple variations. The reason is that the deadlift is so versatile. The conventional deadlift will build muscular strength and endure and even give you a more aesthetically pleasing physique.
Athletes will often utilize both conventional deadlifts and Romanian deadlifts; however, when you consider how well RDLs do at enhancing your posture without overloading the back and central nervous system, you might find that Romanian deadlifts are better for Crossfit and Workouts of the Day (WODs) than conventional deadlifts—if only by a very small margin.
So, which deadlift type is better? It depends on what you’re doing and what your goals are. When looking solely at muscles, the conventional deadlift does a better job at promoting hypertrophy throughout the entire body, while RDLs are far more localized in the lower body.
For those who are just starting out on their fitness journey, the Romanian deadlift is going to teach you more and benefit your body a lot more than a conventional deadlift. But if you’re ready to tackle more difficult challenges, lift heavy, and maybe even compete in powerlifting, Crossfit, or other sports, the conventional deadlift while improving your performance and strength dramatically.
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