What is a stiff or straight leg deadlift?
Unlike some exercises with exciting origin stories, the stiff (or straight) leg deadlift doesn’t have one. The movement’s name comes from the fact that you have to keep your legs straight as you do it. Historically, athletes would do the stiff leg deadlift with a rounded lower back for a better hamstring stretch. Today, we exercise with a neutral back, so stiff leg and Romanian deadlifts seem like the same exercise.
Doing deadlifts with straight legs is incredibly beneficial for activating your posterior chain – the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back. The exercise stretches all of these muscles as you lower the barbell and leads to a powerful contraction as you stand up. Strengthening the posterior chain is beneficial for overall athleticism, injury prevention, and balanced muscular development. A strong posterior chain protects your spine and improves your performance in activities like running and jumping.
Building your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back can also benefit your daily life. For example, each time you bend down to pick something off the floor, you use your posterior chain.
How to do a Stiff or Straight Leg Deadlift
- Prepare your barbell and stand in front of it.
- Position your feet underneath the barbell. As you look down, it should seem like the barbell is cutting your feet in half.
- Have your feet at hip-width distance and toes pointing slightly out.
- Bend down and grab the barbell with an even overhand grip. Maintain a slight bend in your knees.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades to bring your chest out and straighten your back.
- Engage your abs and take a breath.
- Pull the barbell in a straight vertical line.
- Lift the weight and drive your hips forward at the top. Don’t hyperextend your lower back as you finish the repetition.
- Lower the barbell in the same straight line while staying braced. As you go down, resist the urge to bend your knees like you would on a conventional deadlift. Keep them slightly bent at all times.
Note: You’ll know you’re in the correct position to pull when your knees are just behind your elbows. In essence, you’re doing a conventional deadlift, but your legs are straighter, and your hips are higher – almost at shoulder level. Technically, this position puts you at a mechanical disadvantage that allows you to train your hamstrings and glutes better.
What muscles do stiff leg deadlifts activate?
Stiff leg deadlifts primarily train your hamstrings. According to research, this deadlift variation is excellent for activating the upper hamstring, where the movement originates from (1). As you pull the barbell from a dead stop with your hips in a higher position, your hamstrings are the first to initiate from their stretched position.
Your hamstrings are also heavily involved during the eccentric (lowering) portion of the lift. As you lower the barbell to the floor, your hamstrings lengthen, which keeps them activated and further contributes to their growth and development. Similarly, your glutes play a substantial role in allowing you to lift the barbell off the floor, drive your hips forward, and stand tall at the end.
Your entire back works hard to keep your spine in a neutral position and assist with hip extension. Your erector spinae, lats, rhomboids, and trapezius benefit highly from this movement (2). Your rectus abdominis and transverse abdominis provide support for your torso and keep you in position.
We also can’t overlook the shoulders, biceps, and forearms that work to hold onto the weight as you perform the movement.
What is the difference between a deadlift and a stiff leg deadlift?
Deadlifts and stiff-leg deadlifts are essentially the same. The primary difference is the starting position, which dictates the mechanics of both exercises.
As you prepare for a conventional deadlift, your knees are more bent, and your hips are in a lower position. The position allows you to take advantage of your quadriceps more, forcing them to produce knee extension and contribute to hip extension (3). Working more muscles makes the movement more complicated but allows you to lift more weight.
As mentioned earlier, stiff-leg deadlifts have you start each repetition with your knees almost straight and hips at a higher position. This position prevents your quadriceps from contributing much to the exercise and essentially puts you at a mechanical disadvantage. As a result, you can’t lift as much weight, but you get to emphasize your posterior chain muscles more.
Both exercises offer their unique challenges and benefits. The two deadlift variations are not interchangeable, so you might want to consider doing both for optimal lower body and back development.
Variations and Modifications of the Stiff/Straight Leg Deadlift
1. Pause Stiff-Leg Deadlift
The pause stiff-leg deadlift is a neat variation that forces even greater glute and hamstring activation. To do this, begin the movement as you usually would. But instead of lifting the barbell from start to finish, add a slight pause. Specifically, initiate the pull, raise the barbell a few inches off the floor, and pause for a second just as the bar is below your knees. Then, pull a second time and complete the repetition.
2. Stiff-Leg Deadlift With Bands or Chains
Doing stiff-leg deadlifts with bands or chains is excellent for improving your lockout strength and emphasizing your back and glutes more. One option is to secure resistance bands on the floor (such as by wrapping them over heavy dumbbells) and placing both barbell ends underneath. As you pull, the bands will lengthen and make each repetition progressively more challenging.
Alternatively, you can place a pair of heavy chains on both ends of the barbell. As the barbell goes up, more of both chains will lift off the floor, progressively adding weight and making it increasingly difficult.
Mistakes to Avoid
The most common mistake to look out for is to confuse Romanian with stiff-leg deadlifts. The primary difference is, Romanian deadlifts start and finish at the top (as you’re upright), whereas stiff-leg deadlifts begin off the floor.
Another issue to watch out for is lifting too much weight. Since you’re at a mechanical disadvantage, you won’t be able to deadlift as much weight. Going too heavy can lead to poor technique and a rounded lower back, both of which can result in injury.
You also need to be careful not to bend your knees as you lower the barbell. It can be tempting to do so because it feels natural, especially if you do conventional deadlifts often. But remember that this is a stiff-leg deadlift. Your legs have to be almost entirely straight at all times, allowing for better hamstring and glute activation.
Similar Exercises to the Stiff Leg Deadlift
Romanian Deadlift (Dumbbell)
Romanian and stiff-leg deadlifts have essentially the same movement pattern, which means both exercises train our muscles identically. The primary difference is, Romanian deadlifts are more of an accessory movement that starts and ends at the top. In contrast, stiff-leg deadlifts begin off the floor, similar to other variations of the exercise.
Conventional deadlifts are identical to stiff-leg deadlifts because the premise is the same: you have to pick a heavy barbell off the floor. As such, both movements emphasize your posterior chain – hamstrings, glutes, and entire back. The primary difference is, stiff leg deadlifts begin with straight legs and hips at a higher position. As a result, the variation better emphasizes the hamstrings. In contrast, conventional deadlifts also include knee extension, which involves your quadriceps.
Hip Thrust (Barbell)
Hip thrusts are not a deadlift variation, but the movement is more similar to stiff-leg deadlifts than people imagine. Despite having different movement patterns, both exercises emphasize three primary muscle groups: the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back. Both activities also offer an excellent overloading potential and are great for building strength.