Stiff-Leg Deadlift: Muscles Worked & Proper Form

Stiff-Leg Deadlifts

Muscles Worked in the Stiff-Leg Deadlift

Muscles worked by stiff-legged deadlifts exercise

Primary muscles worked:

Secondary muscles worked:

How to Do Stiff-Leg Deadlifts

  1. Step up close to the bar, so that it is about over the middle of your foot. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Inhale, lean forward with only a slight bend in your knees, and grip the bar.
  3. Hold your breath, brace your core slightly, and lift the bar.
  4. Pull the bar close to your body, with a straight back, until you have reached a standing position.
  5. Lower the bar back to the ground with control, still keeping your legs straight.
  6. Take another breath, and repeat for reps.

Commentary

The stiff-leg deadlift (or straight-leg deadlift) is a variation of the traditional deadlift, where you have almost entirely shifted the work to your posterior chain.

This exercise requires good mobility to be performed without rounding your back excessively, and an alternative is to raise the bar up on blocks, plates, or a rack in order to decrease the range of motion slightly.

Stiff-Leg Deadlift vs. Conventional Deadlift

As the name implies, the main difference between stiff-leg deadlifts and conventional deadlifts is that in the former, you keep your legs almost straight (“stiff”) throughout the entire range of motion. This turns the exercise into almost a pure hip hinge, which reduces the involvement of your quads and shifts more of the work to your posterior muscle groups: your back, glutes, and hamstrings.1

stiff-leg deadlifts
Stiff-leg deadlifts are done with almost completely straight legs.
Deadlift
Conventional deadlifts are done with more bent legs, especially in the starting position.

The difference is most evident in the starting position, where the knee-bend is the greatest in the normal deadlift. Depending on your body type and your mobility, it can be difficult to reach the starting position in the stiff-leg deadlifts while maintaining a straight back, or a slight arch in your back. If this is the case, you could begin by placing the barbell on low blocks or a couple of weight plates so that you can reach it more easily. Then, if you want to, you can lower the barbell as you gain proficiency and mobility.

Stiff-Leg Deadlifts vs. Romanian Deadlifts

Another popular deadlift variation is the Romanian deadlift, which is very similar to the stiff-leg deadlift in technique. The key difference is that stiff-leg deadlifts usually begin and end with the barbell on the floor. In the Romanian deadlift, this is not necessary; you can reverse the rep before you hit the floor, and only put the bar back on the floor (or in a rack) when your set is finished.

stiff-legged deadlifts
Stiff-leg deadlifts are usually done from floor-to-floor.
Romanian deadlift exercise
Romanian deadlifts are usually done from top-to-top, without necessarily touching the floor in between reps.

Stiff-Leg Deadlift FAQ

Here are the answers to some common questions about the stiff-leg deadlift.

Do Stiff-Leg Deadlifts Help Deadlifts?

Yes, stiff-leg deadlifts can help your regular deadlifts because they work the same primary muscle groups in a similar movement pattern. Lower back strength is a key factor for heavy deadlifts, and stiff-leg deadlifts work your lower back along with your hamstrings and glutes.

They are especially useful if you know that you are stronger in your quads than you are in your posterior muscles, as they allow you to work on the weakest link in your chain.

How Much Should I Lift in a Stiff-Leg Deadlift?

Most people can lift 75–85% of their regular deadlift weight in the stiff-leg deadlift, although individual variation can be large due to variations in body types and prior training experience. If you can stiff-leg deadlift 90% or more of your deadlift 1RM, it might be an indicator that your quads are your weakest link in the deadlift. And conversely, if you can only stiff-leg deadlift 70% (or less) of your deadlift 1RM it might be an indicator that your lower back, glutes, or hamstrings are your weakest link.

Are Stiff-Leg Deadlifts Bad for the Knees?

No. Compared to standard deadlifts, stiff-leg deadlifts put less load on your knees. Therefore, if you have achy knees or simply want to increase your lower body strength without loading your knees, the stiff-leg deadlift is a great alternative.

How Should I Grip the Bar in Stiff-Leg Deadlifts?

Generally, a normal overhand grip is the easiest to start with as it feels the most natural. However, after a while, you will probably find that your grip becomes a limiting factor. At that point, you might want to switch to using lifting straps, a mixed grip, or a hook grip. You can read about the pros and cons of these grip techniques in our article How to Grip the Bar When You’re Deadlifting.

Does The Stiff-Leg Deadlift Work the Upper Back?

While your upper back muscles aren’t primary movers in the stiff-legged deadlift, they still have to work hard to keep your torso and shoulder blades in position as you lift. The most important muscle for this is your trapezius muscle, which gets worked as a stabilizing muscle in this exercise.

Should the Straight Leg Deadlift Hurt My Lower Back?

No, apart from normal muscle soreness after a workout, stiff-leg deadlifts should not hurt your back. If you feel discomfort in your lower back after deadlifting, it might be because one of these two factors:

  1. Technique. You’ve lifted with a technique that your body doesn’t tolerate well. Most people should strive to lift with a slightly arched lower back. Review your technique, experiment, or maybe ask someone to help you with your technique.
  2. Too much, too soon. It might be that your technique is fine, but you need to take things a bit slower. Make sure to start with a light weight and very low volume and see if your back tolerates that well. If so, slowly build on that over the following weeks and months, adding weight and sets as you build up the resilience of your back.

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Text and graphics from the StrengthLog app.

References

  1. PLoS One. 2020 Feb 27;15(2):e0229507. Electromyographic activity in deadlift exercise and its variants. A systematic review.