The stiff leg deadlift is ‘an overall power exercise that involves more muscles than any other exercise in your routine, including the lower back, upper back, trapezius muscles, the buttocks, and the legs,’ (The Encyclopaedia of Modern Bodybuilding).
Arnold Schwarzenegger goes on to tell us that a ‘strong back’ is of paramount importance as it serves to stabilise us when performing pretty much all other exercises.
It’s for these benefits, and the few more outlined below, that you should start including the stiff leg deadlift into your training routine. But, before we consider the benefits and technical application of this powerful exercise, it’s worth reviewing safe lifting principles.
Stiff leg deadlift | Safety first
Of all the deadlifting variations, the stiff leg deadlift requires more consideration when applying the technique. This is because additional emphasis is placed on the hips and lower back.
As Delavier warns in Strength Training Anatomy, ‘people with back problems should perform this exercise with caution because of the high amount of stress on the lumbar spine.’
With the standard barbell deadlift, the load is more equitably distributed over a wider range of muscle groups: quads, glutes, lower and upper back. It’s for this reason that it’s safer to go heavier with the barbell deadlift.
However, when stiffening the legs, the entirety of the load is supported by hip extension alone. Consequently, if you are practicing this deadlifting variation for the first time, you should start with an unloaded bar (preferably a broomstick) and ensure to execute perfect form.
Stiff-leg deadlift benefits
The ‘stiff-leg deadlift involves all the muscles of the spinal erectors,’ (Strength Training Anatomy). This makes it one of the best exercises for developing lower back strength and rectifying anatomical and postural imbalances.
It’s not uncommon for trainers to neglect their lower back and focus on developing their abs (aka the ‘six pack’). A ubiquitous training error that can result in an overly strong anterior and weak posterior. For example, trainers who focus primarily on their anterior muscles can develop the classic ‘hunched’ posture.
The hunched posture results from prioritising training the anterior deltoids, pectorals, and abdominals. These muscles become so strong and stiff that they concave the skeletal system.
Such an imbalance can cause postural problems while also increasing injury risk in weak areas. The deadlift can help rectify part of this imbalance by strengthening posterior muscles – the erector spinae and trapezius.
Furthermore, stiff-leg deadlifting improves hamstring flexibility. Tight hamstrings are one of the leading causes of lower back pain. And while this condition is often mistaken for something more sinister, such as sciatica or ruptured discs, it is easily rectified by improving flexibility in the hamstrings and strengthening the muscles of the lower back.
Related reading: The Complete Guide to Back Rehabilitation
Benefits of the stiff leg deadlift
Increased strength in the glutes and lower back
Activated posterior chain
Improved flexibility in the hamstrings
Rectifies strength imbalances
Improves postural alignment
Muscles targeted by the stiff leg deadlift
As previously identified, the stiff leg deadlift improves muscular strength in the glutes, erector spinae, and trapezius.
How to do a stiff leg deadlift
To reiterate the warning advanced in Strength Training Anatomy, ‘people with back problems should perform this exercise with caution because of the high amount of stress on the lumbar spine.’
In extension of this warning, trainers who are practicing the stiff-leg deadlift for the first time should do so with an unloaded barbell.
Standing in front of an Olympic barbell, position your feet so that they are spaced shoulder-width apart. It’s essential to form a solid base from which to execute the lift.
To get the bar into place, perform the first phase of a standard deadlift.
Now standing tall, bar resting against the top of thighs, prepare to execute the lift: lock the legs out ensuring that there is a slight bend in the knees.
Proceed to perform a stiff leg deadlift by slowly hinging forward at the hips.
When the bar dips beneath the knees, pause monetarily before returning to the start position.
Key stiff-leg deadlifting teaching points
To get the Olympic barbell into position, execute the first phase of the standard deadlift.
Adopt a shoulder-width stance.
Lock a slight bend in the knees.
Under control, hinge forward at the hips until the bar is level with the upper knee.
When practicing for the first time, perform a partial rep by stopping at the top of the knee. As your confidence grows, gradually increase the range of movement (ROM) until the bar is level with the midpoint of your shins.
Pause momentarily, then return to the upright position.
As you stand erect focus on executing a smooth movement.
How to modify the stiff leg dead lift
Beyond increasing the load, another method of modifying the stiff-leg deadlift is by standing on a raised block. A modification reserved for advanced lifters, by standing on a raised block you can progress through a greater range of movement.
Don't forget that this exercise can be performed with other resistance equipment other than an Olympic barbell. Deadlifting with dumbbells, kettlebells, and even training bands, offer a safer alternative.
Stiff leg deads dos and don’ts
Do make sure that you have thoroughly warmed up prior to attempting the exercise.
Don’t go heavy – practice the key technique points with an unloaded barbell.
Do maintain control throughout the movement.
Don’t snatch the bar from the floor.
Do keep the muscles of the core actively engaged throughout the lift.
Don’t lean back at the top position.
Do use deadlifting shoes as they improve the stability of your base.
Don’t ratchet the bar up your quads – the movement from start to finish should be smooth and continuous.
Do keep your back perfectly straight.