Who Created the Romanian Deadlift?

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Chances are at some point in your lifting career you’ve done a few sets of Romanian Deadlifts.  From athletes to bodybuilders, thousands of muscle fanatics have used the exercise to bring up their hamstrings and lower backs. Given the popularity of the movement, you may be surprised to learn that this exercise is a relatively recent addition to weight training. Indeed, it was only discovered by the US in 1990.

Having previously covered the history of the squat and the bench press, today we’ll turn our attention to the Romanian Deadlift.

In 1990,  Jim Schmitz, U.S. Olympic Weightlifting Coach from 1980 to 1992, was in his Sports Palace gym in San Francisco with a number of his athletes attending a weightlifting clinic. Holding the clinic that day was the Romanian weightlifter Nicu Vlad and his coach Dragomir Cioroslan. At the time Nicu was an Olympic and World Weightlifting champion and had set numerous records in both the clean and jerk and the snatch.

He had by invited over by the USA Weightlifting team to demonstrate his training techniques to the American lifters. If they could learn just one thing from the revered Romanian, the clinic would be a success.

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Nicu was in training for the Goodwill Games that were being held that year in Seattle and Spokane.  As such his clinic was one part discussion and one part heavy training. After holding a Q & A with the American lifters about the various intricacies of the sport, Nicu then proceeded to train. Progressively adding more and more weight to the bar, Nicu astounded his hosts by clean and jerking over 215 kilos with ease. This however was to be expected. Even then Nicu  was regarded as one of the greatest weightlifters of his era, something later confirmed by his  2006 induction into the International Weightlifting Federation Hall of Fame.

Surprisingly it was what Nicu did afterwards that caught the eye of the Americans. Loading 250 kilos on the bar, Nicu proceeded to do several sets of triples in a manner resembling a crossbred between a stiff legged deadlift and a regular deadlift. Interested in knowing more, the US lifters asked Nicu what he was doing. Nonchalantly the Romanian replied that it was an exercise he and his coach had developed to make his back stronger for the clean and jerk. The photograph below, taken from Scott Herman’s excellent youtube video on the subject demonstrates the difference between the two lifts. 

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Intrigued, the US lifters persuaded Nicu to demonstrate the lift again but with lighter weights and to explain in detail exactly what he was doing. Although tired from his workout, the Romanian graciously complied. There was just one problem. No one knew what it to call it.

Jim Schmitz quickly chimed in that it would be henceforth known as the Romanian deadlift in homage to Nicu and Dragomir. Schmitz would later inform his friends at Milo, a strength based sports journal, about the Romanian Deadlift who were so impressed with its potential that they began to publicise it en masse to their readers. Within two decades the lift would be seen in gyms scattered throughout the world.

Interestingly the popularity of the Romanian deadlift has also changed the way we perform stiff legged deadlifts. Returning to Scott Herman’s video above, you’ll note that Scott’s back is completely flat in both pictures. There’s nothing wrong with this per say but it is a departure from the way stiff legged deadlifts were done in the early days of bodybuilding. Back then, the stiff legged deadlift was done with a rounded back to increase the stretch on the hamstrings. The photograph below illustrates this quite nicely

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It appears that the popularity of the Romanian deadlift, which necessitates a tight lower back, has influenced the way we do stiff legged deadlifts. Indeed, nowadays the two terms have become almost exchangeable.

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