I teach HS weight training & often use the RDL in workouts. Our football strength coach, who works with many of the same kids after school, has them doing straight-legged deadlifts. He follows a more traditional bodybuilding type program (chest & back, shoulders, legs, bis & tris), so we tend to work against each other. A few weeks ago we had a “discussion” about the RDL vs. straight-legged deadlift, among other things. I believe the RDL, due to its hip involvement & feel that it’s safer on the back. I have read other’s opinions in the CF & USAW world, but would like to hear yours! I train football players, basketball players, soccer players, etc—both male & female. My focus is hip explosion & athletic movements, in addition to strength & Power Athlete influenced workouts.
The good ol’ straight leg deadlift vs. the RDL debate rears its ugly head once again. In all honesty, I always thought they were the same until I saw a guy at the gym doing what looked like a shitty RDL with a round back while standing on the bench press. I saw it and thought, “Ah, I got it now.”
Lets examine the movement pattern that involves picking up a heavy bar off the ground, regardless of the name you chose to associate with it. Most deadlift variations involve loading the hips in the “x-axis” plane of motion, also known as a bi-lateral hip hinge. Movement in the x-axis forces an athlete to stabilize their spine and pelvis under load while moving a weight from an open hip to a closed hip and back to a open hip.
What other movement patterns mimic this same pattern along the x-axis?
Good mornings, squats, kettlebell swings, the universal athletic position or any movement that involves moving your hips from open to closed or closed to open. This is our most basic movement pattern and thus why I refer to this movement in Power Athlete as a “primal movement”.
To perform a proper Romanian deadlift or RDL, you want to start with the bar from an erect position or closed hip. Your stance is going to place your feet under you hips in a narrower stance than you squat. Hands are going to be in your standard grip when cleaning the bar. Starting with the bar on the thighs and a slight bend in the knees, the movement is initiated by driving the hips back, loading the hamstrings and glutes allowing the torso to drop straight down. The bar needs to stay in contact with your thighs through the entire movement. If the bar drifts off your legs, you will feel the stress in your lumbar spine and not in the erectors, glutes and hamstrings. You want to maintain a good back position with a slight arch. Avoid the pitfall of creating excessive anterior pelvic tilt and maintain that slight arch. As you descend making sure to keep the movement in check. Your goal should be stretch those hamstring, so if you don’t feel in the hamstrings, you might not be driving the hips back far enough or not having a soft knee. Keep descending the bar till you hit your mid-shin and reverse the pull making sure you maintaining a good lumbar curve and dragging the bar up your shins.
The benefit of the RDL is the starting of the movement with the eccentric phase and using the stretch reflex, much like a squat. The movement pattern due to the path the bar takes it eliminates most of the quadriceps contribution and makes this primarily hamstring and glute dominant. This movement has been a staple of Olympic lifters and strength athletes for as long as I have been lifting weights and was the primary movement pattern I used when pulling a bar.
Legend has it; Jim Schmitz, who observed a Romanian Olympic lifter, named Nicu Vlad performing this movement and coined the name.
The stiff legged deadlift is similar to a conventional deadlift, where you start with the bar on the ground but with hips high and little to no knee bend. Think about pulling the bar tight to your shins with a flat back that could be mistaken for a coffee table where you could rest a ice cold Kill Cliff.
The athlete’s primary goal is to fight to maintain a neutral spine from start to finish. If during the movement, the bar drifts off the body, the movement will become increasingly difficult forcing the back to round. By fighting to maintain position during movement, the erectors and hamstrings are prioritized in the pull and you are on the road to building those loaves of French bread Zangas spoke about.
On a side note, a straight leg deadlift, in contrast, is done just this way. This variation requires the bar to come away from an athlete’s center of gravity, forcing a rounding of the back. With a bar being out in front you, going heavy will be extremely challenging; even though I have seen it done, it is most often times not executed well.
Also many times during this movement, lifters will take the bar down to the floor or even stand on a platform or bench to get a greater range of motion. This will almost certainly require an athlete to round their backs unless they have are a Level 99 Supple Leopard and have attained hyper-extreme hamstring flexibility.
I am not a fan of the straight-leg deadlift as it naturally puts the lifter in an awkward position and requires lighter loads. If you wish to use deadlift variation with a straighter leg, the stiff legged variation is your best bet.
Let me take the time to add in my thoughts on deadlift with a round back versus a flat back. Whichever position you start the movement in, is the one you finish in. If you start with a flat back and somewhere doing the movement your back rounds, that is not acceptable as that is a break in the posterior chain. If you start the movement with a round back, you better finish with the same round back or we have problems. If you watch the best pullers in the world, they start with a rounded a back, as it is a shorter pull. But always finish the movement with the same rounded back.
Remember, it is next to impossible to start a movement in a bad position in the hope under load you are going to miraculously get to a good position during the movement.
As I stated earlier, most of my college and NFL career, I did not pull a conventional deadlift. I pulled heavy RDLs as a way to prioritize my hamstrings, glutes and erectors after I squatted. While on my heavy back days I pulled stiff legged deadlifts along with a steady diet of one arm DB rows and weighted pull-ups. I believed I was getting more than enough work in the knee bent position with squats, plyos, sprint and technique work. I chose to prioritize movements that put me in less than advantageous positions, as on the football field you are rarely in the perfect position. I found the more work I did in these awkward positions, the stronger I was on the field and the less prone to injury I became. And why I believe I never had a significant back injury while playing in the NFL. This form of training is where my experiments with chaos training came from, but that is another TTMJ article…