The deadlift by itself is an exceptional exercise, which is why its variations don’t fall far from the tree. The stiff leg deadlift is a solid example, but sometimes the exercise itself is misunderstood. With so many similarities between different deadlifts, a lot of information and training potential can get lost in translation. In this article we’ll go over the stiff leg deadlift, how to perform it, and some other great exercises that will help to strengthen and sculpt the muscles of the legs.
What Is A Stiff Leg Deadlift?
So let’s get past the obvious. The stiff leg deadlift is classified (like most deadlifts) as a hip hinge exercise, or a movement in which the hips travel backwards horizontally rather than vertically like the squat. Now this answers the question in a general sense, but what defining features separate it from the other deadlifts? It all comes down to technique and limb placement, and if you’re not focused on the details, you could end up performing the wrong kind of deadlift.
The characteristics of a stiff leg deadlift are as follows:
- The legs are slightly bent at the knees
- The hips are higher than the standard deadlift (in the starting position)
- The shins are almost completely upright (vertical)
- The bar doesn’t make contact with the shins.
Keep in mind that this exercise is also a strict pull exercise-meaning each rep begins and ends with the barbell on the ground, bringing your body and the bar’s movement to a full stop.
How to perform the stiff leg deadlift
How To Perform The Stiff Leg Deadlift
- Set the barbell directly in front of your feet with about two or three inches between your shins and the bar.
- Keep your feet shoulder width apart and your hands resting close to either side of your hips.
- Reach for the bar by sliding your hips back and extending both arms down next to both knees. As you grip the bar, straighten your back so there’s no arching in the lower or upper back. Your neck, back, and hips should be aligned with no curvature.
- Allow your knees to bend slightly so that your hips and back are about parallel with the floor. Make sure that with this slight bend in your knees you feel the stretch in your hamstrings, essentially keeping your legs “stiff”.
- Your shins should be almost completely vertical with the inside of your arms flushed against the side of your knees. This will be the starting position.
- When ready begin pulling the barbell upwards by driving your hips back into the upright position. The barbell should travel along the shins and up the thigh until the body is completely erect. Keep your back straight at all times and your shoulders back at the top of the movement.
- Once locked out at the top, squeeze the glutes and hold this position briefly.
- Allow the barbell to descend back to the floor in a controlled drop. As the weight travels down, continue to keep a slight bend in your knees and keep your back straight.
- Let the bar come to a full stop on the floor for a brief moment and then immediately repeat the process for reps.
Stiff Leg Deadlift Form
All versions of this exercise serve the same function for the muscle/body, but the technique may be slightly different depending on which type of equipment you choose. Below are just a few differences for you to be aware of when choosing the type of weight for the exercise.
Stiff Leg Dumbbell Deadlift
The stiff leg dumbbell deadlift like it’s name suggests utilizes the dumbbell instead of the barbell. Because the arms aren’t restricted by a bar, the dumbbell is great if you prefer more natural movement due to the arms’ free range of motion. As far as form is concerned, this version allows you to bring your arms closer to either side of your body at the top of the movement. As the dumbbells travel up your leg, simply internally rotate your hands so that both palms are facing the side of your thighs.
Keep in mind you’ll likely use less weight with the dumbbells than the barbell, so focus more on form, technique, and contraction.
Stiff Leg Cable Deadlift
This variation isn’t often used, but it is excellent for switching up your routine. The stiff leg cable deadlift is very reminiscent of the romanian deadlift, however the major form difference is in the line of pull from the cable machine. Because of the way the cable machine is oriented, the attachment can’t be pulled from directly in front of the body like most deadlifts. This means that from the bottom of the movement you’ll pull the handle at a diagonal angle.
This doesn’t really present any real disadvantages compared to other deadlifts. You’ll likely lift less weight than the standard versions, but the focus should be on keeping the knees slightly bent in order to trigger a deep stretch in your hamstrings and glutes.
What Muscles Does This Exercise Work?
As a compound exercise, deadlifts in general (and stiff legged specifically) work several muscles throughout the body. Most of these muscles make up part of the posterior chain (the back of the body), however research has found that it also activates the quadriceps (1).
When it comes to muscle activation and the deadlift, the muscles most observed are the bicep femoris, gluteus maximus, vastus lateralis, and the erector spinae. While just a small detail, it’s important to note that the deadlift doesn’t work all of these muscles equally. Within the structure of the hamstring, the the semitendinosus seems to stimulate slightly greater muscle activation than the bicep femoris.
Stiff Leg Deadlift vs RDL
To most of us, it’s easy to get the stiff leg deadlift and the romanian deadlift (RDL) mixed up. While both exercises look virtually identical, that main difference between them is the starting position.
The stiff leg deadlift begins and ends with the barbell on the ground, similar to the conventional deadlift. The romanian deadlift begins at the top of the movement, and the weight never touches the floor until the end of the set.
One factor both exercises need for success is the position of the knees. In the starting position, the knees should be flushed against the inside of the arms. The shins should also be nearly vertical with only a slight bend at the knee. If your knees are behind the arms, it might be that your hips are too high. And if your knees are in front of the arms, your hips might be too low.
Another difference is the eccentric portion of the romanian deadlift. The stiff leg deadlift can be characterized as a strict pull from the floor leading to a controlled drop from the top. The RDL however uses the eccentric (or lowering) portion of the movement to create a deep stretch in the hamstrings. This process of lengthening and contracting the muscles continues without resting the barbell on the ground. As a result the RDL is usually performed with lighter weight and greater repetitions. The stiff leg, as it more closely resembles the conventional deadlift uses heavier weight and less reps.
Which Is Better? The RDL or SLDL?
So is one lift better than the other? To be honest the difference between the two as far as muscle activation are likely negligible. The truth for which is better (in my opinion) depends on the goals you want to achieve and how they play a role in the exercises you choose. Let’s say for example your goal is to periodically increase your strength over time with the standard lifts (squat, deadlift, and bench). You would likely incorporate the stiff legged deadlift into your programming, why? Because:
- It most closely resembles the standard squat in form and muscles activated
- The mechanics of the exercise allow for greater weight and less reps, which is better suited for improving strength.
You might choose the romanian deadlift when you want to emphasize or target a specific muscle like the bicep femoris. This exercise allows for greater focus on the contraction of the muscle during the eccentric phase. At the end of the day both are great exercises, but selecting one all depends on what you’re trying to achieve.
Stiff Leg Deadlift Alternatives
Good mornings are an excellent alternative on numerous levels. This exercise is also classified as a hip hinge movement, and has very similar mechanics to that of the stiff leg deadlift. During good mornings, the knees are also slightly bent, creating a similar hamstring stretch and leg “stiffness” like the SLDL.
However the most notable factor that separates the two is where the barbell is held. We already know the stiff leg deadlift places the bar in front of the feet and moves like a traditional deadlift. Good mornings rest the barbell over the shoulders throughout the entire set.
As you can imagine, trying to hinge your hips with weight on your shoulders can be pretty difficult (in some cases dangerous). With that being said, the good morning doesn’t require nearly as much weight as the conventional deadlift or even the stiff leg deadlift. What is most important is emphasizing the stretch in your hamstrings as you bring your hips back. Developing proper technique for good mornings will not only help grow the hamstrings and glutes, but also strengthen and protect your lower back from injuries.
- First choose the weight of your barbell. You’ll want to pick one that’s light enough to bend over with and not fall over. It should also be light enough to perform several reps with, yet heavy enough to make for a difficult set.
- Lift the barbell and rest it behind your back on your shoulders. Keep your back straight and your head tall so that your neck, torso, and hips are aligned at all times. Point your feet directly in front of you and space your legs hip width apart.
- When ready begin driving your hips back and leaning your torso forward. Keep a slight bend in your knees and your shins vertical.
- Feel the deep contraction in your hamstrings and glutes as you lean forward. When your torso has reached about a 70 degree angle- pause briefly and hold the stretch.
- After a moment return to the starting position by extending your hips. Repeat these steps for reps.
Tip: remember not to lean too far forward with this exercise. You just want to lean far enough to feel a nice stretch in the back of your legs. Going too far can put your lower back at risk of injury.
Single Leg Romanian Deadlift
If you’re looking for more of a challenge, single leg romanian deadlifts are an excellent progression in the deadlift family. This exercise requires a level of strength, focus, and coordination you won’t find during your typical stiff leg deadlift. Research has found that certain variations of the single leg romanian deadlift may have a beneficial effect on linear sprinting, jumping, and change of direction performance (2).
If you haven’t developed the necessary balance to perform this exercise, I recommend regressing to a simpler form of the deadlift. Even if you feel you’re ready, try starting with a lighter weight to develop a reliable movement pattern you can build off of. Remember for this exercise, it’s not about how much weight you lift but the contraction it creates due to good form.
Note: you can use a variety of different weights during the single leg deadlift. Some people two dumbbells or a single dumbbell in the alternate hand. Others prefer to use barbells, kettlebells, cables, or the flywheel. I’m going to explain the exercise using the barbell, but the technique can apply to any type of equipment. At the end of the day use what feels comfortable for you.
- Start by placing the bar in front of your feet.
- With both feet squared in front of you, reach down and grab the bar. Stand up straight with the barbell resting an inch away from your upper thigh.
- When ready, bend your right knee slightly and begin tilting your hips forward and down. To aid in this process, begin kicking your left leg up and back in the opposite motion of the torso.
- Feel the contraction in your right hamstring as your leg fights to balance both your upper and lower body. When your hips reach the end of their forward tilt, pause momentarily.
- Your arms should be supporting the dumbbells directly underneath the shoulders, while your back should be straight and aligned with your neck and hips.
- To return to the starting position, tilt your hips backwards and allow your torso to rise into its original stance. Slowly control your left leg back underneath your hips. Continue until you’re standing straight up and the barbell is hanging in front of your thighs.
- Repeat this process for numerous reps with the right leg, and once completed alternate legs until both have been worked equally.