November 23, 2021 10 min read

Along with the squat, bench press, and overhead press, the deadlift is one of the most fundamental lifts for strengthening our bodies and growing muscle mass.

But the deadlift is just that—fundamental. This means that there are tons of variations to pick and choose from to better suit your needs and goals.

One of these variations is the straight leg deadlift, also called the stiff leg deadlift. By not allowing your knees to bend in the traditional deadlift, the movement introduces some new ways of targeting your leg and lower back muscles.

However, to reap its full benefits, proper form must be learned and utilized. With the right workout routine, programming, and lifestyle, you’ll soon be sporting a pair of tree-trunk legs.

Deadlifts with a barbell, legs straight

The Conventional Deadlift vs. the Straight Leg

As the name suggests, the straight leg deadlift is a deadlift performed with straight legs—or at least straighter than in the regular deadlift. Although you are meant to keep a slight bend in your knees throughout the movement, the stiff leg deadlift requires you to use a lot more of your lower back, hamstrings, and glutes to get the weight moving. This also causes the range of motion to be shorter since you’re not going to be hinging at the knees.

The shorter range of motion is also caused by the starting position of the straight leg. Some people recommend starting the lift standing up, or starting with the bar on supports. Whichever you opt for, the only difference will be the starting position. Lastly, your flexibility will also dictate how far you can take the straight leg deadlift.

Benefits of the Straight Leg Deadlift

On the surface level, the straight leg deadlift only adds a small difference to the conventional variation. However, this results in several different benefits that make the straight leg deadlift an exercise that most people could use within their workout programs. In fact, when it comes to deadlifts, the three most popular types are the regular deadlifts, the Romanian deadlift, and the straight leg. We’ll take a closer look at the Romanian version further down below.

Stronger Leg Muscles

Stronger leg muscles are a given with a lower-body exercise, but the straight leg deadlift hammers them differently than the regular variation. It’s your glutes, hamstrings, and calves that are the stars of the show in this lift (and mostly the former two). Since your knees aren’t able to hinge to pull up the weight, this disengages your quads to a greater degree. This makes the straight leg deadlift a “leg” focused variation of the classic deadlift, which is why most people program it into their leg days rather than their back days.

Stronger Posterior Chain

A stronger posterior chain is developed in two ways with the straight leg deadlift. For one, you’re going to be relying much more on your lower back muscles to initiate the movement. That’s why it’s important not to overdo it, at least at the beginning stages of using this lift in your program.But the regular deadlift also acts like a sort of leg press—at least at the beginning stages of lifting the bar. With the stiff leg, you’re going to be activating the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back to a much greater degree.

Strengthening this area (the posterior chain) is a recipe for better performance in a wide range of activities, both functional and athletic. The hip hinge is an important movement to develop, and finding a variation of deadlifts that works for you is important for keeping this part of your body in good working order. By de-emphasizing the quads, the straight leg deadlift is a great option.

Cross-Over Strength

However, this isn’t to say that the traditional deadlift and squats take a back seat to this variation. By strengthening your glutes, hamstrings, and calves, you’ll see much better performance in these other lifts. Even though the straight leg deadlift doesn’t specifically target the quads, developing the muscles for your other lifts will indirectly allow you to better engage and train the quadriceps.

And since this is a powerful lower body exercise, you can also expect a large performance boost in other athletic activities. Particularly sports and anything that includes jumping or running will see a performance increase.

If you’re looking to increase your vertical jump, for example, the straight leg deadlift is a great lift to add to your repertoire.

Functional Injury Prevention

Practicing the hip hinge and doing any resistance exercises, in general, is a good way to guarantee the longevity of your muscles and mobility. For one, resistance exercises that push the limits of what your body is able to do not only strengthen your muscles but will also strengthen your bones and joints (if performed correctly). Deadlifting not only offers fantastic muscle and strength gains, but also the development of mobility.

Deadlifts (and particularly the straight leg variant) will also help you avoid knee injuries.

While the primary cause of knee injuries is a weak quad, the secondary reason is due to weak hamstrings.

Most hamstring injuries tend to occur in the biceps femoris part of the hamstring. Performing straight leg deadlifts is a great way to strengthen this part of the hamstring—especially when you consider the quad dominance that most athletes have. A well-rounded leg is a healthy leg.

The Muscles Worked

Speaking of the muscles engaged by the straight leg deadlift, here they are in more detail. The primary muscles in this lift are the hamstrings, glutes, lower back, and calves. The hamstrings actually consist of four separate muscles (the biceps femoris which are two, the semitendinosus, and the semimembranosus). Both the glutes and the erector spinae in your lower back consist of three different muscles each.

The gluteus maximus is most engaged with the stiff leg deadlift. Along with these primary movers, you’ll also be engaging your abdominals and the oblique muscles to maintain stability as you’re lifting. Other muscle groups include the traps, forearm muscles, and the middle back, which will all play a part in keeping the weight stable and on the correct pathway.

Any type of deadlift will always be a compound movement, requiring a complex synergy between many different muscle groups and joints. However, the straight leg deadlift is a good way to hone in on the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back.

How to Straight Leg Deadlift

 

Before you begin, it’s important to first warm up. You can either do this by simply straight leg deadlifting an empty bar or doing some other lower body movements. Some cardio is also always useful for getting your blood pumping and priming your muscles for a workout.

If this is your first time trying the straight leg deadlift, either opt for light weight plates or an empty bar. This will help you make sure that you’ve got the technique down before going for heavier weights and potentially hurting yourself. It should also be noted that you won’t be able to move as much weight as with the traditional deadlift.

  1. Place the barbell on the ground (or on a rack positioned low) in front of you. Step up to it so that your shoelaces are directly underneath the bar, and you have a hip-width stance. Your weight should be evenly distributed on the entirety of your feet, and they should be gripping the floor to aid in stability.
  2. You should allow your knees to bend very slightly, but not too much. They should maintain this amount of flex throughout the entire movement. Pushing your hips backward, hinge at the hips until your upper body is almost parallel to the ground.
  3. Grasp the barbell with an overhand grip, palms facing towards you and down with your thumbs wrapped around the bar. Your hands should be about shoulder-width width apart.
  4. Before you begin pulling, make sure that your spine is perfectly straight, and your shins are perpendicular to the floor. Your shoulders should also be at around the same height as your hips.
  5. Imagining yourself pushing the floor away, drive through your feet (without focusing on any particular area of the foot) and extend your hips and knees. Your hips should be doing the majority of the extending. Keep the bar as close to your body as possible as you near the top of the position.
  6. Once you’re at the top your hips should be fully locked out by pushing them forward. Give your glutes a good squeeze at the top of the lift while maintaining a neutral spine position.
  7. Pause at the top before reversing the movement and slowly lowering the bar back down. You want to once again hinge at the hips, allowing your knees to maintain a slight flex. Continue as far down as you’re able to with your flexibility.

Programming the Straight Leg Deadlift

Like other lifts, you can either use the straight leg deadlift for strength training or bodybuilding needs.Strength training will require heavier weights and lower rep ranges, such as 2 to 3 sets of 4 to 8 repetitions. This will tailor the workout for any strength goals in this area of your body. If you’re looking for muscle mass, ramp up the rep count to anywhere from 8 to 12.

By decreasing the weight (intensity) and increasing the reps (volume), you’ll get a bigger pump and elicit greater growth of muscle mass. Another aspect to consider is on which of your training days to implement the straight leg deadlift.The conventional deadlift is usually done on either back days or leg days, but the straight leg variation tends to be thought of as the leg-centric variant.

A good idea is to use straight leg deadlifts on your leg days or full body days, and the regular deadlift on your back days. This will ramp up your deadlift training frequency and allow you to better perfect the movement pattern and the targeted muscles.

Tips for a Better Straight Leg Deadlift

The deadlift is a complex movement requiring several different muscle groups and joints to work together in sync. Therefore, there’s a ton to keep in mind when trying to perform the perfect stiff leg deadlift. This becomes doubly important when considering the relatively heavy weights that are used in deadlifting.But with good form and attention to detail, you’ll be reaping the rewards of a specialized deadlift variation.

Keep the Bar Close

With all deadlift variations, the bar needs to be close to your body.The further the bar drifts away from you, the more energy you have to spend to lift it up. You want as straight of a path as possible from the ground to the top of the position—not only does this better recruit the target muscles, but it’ll also make for more efficient workouts that get you better results over the long term. Although the bar should remain close in the stiff leg deadlift, the Romanian deadlift requires the bar to be even closer to your body.

Neck Positioning

You often get recommendations for where to look when performing a lift, but for this lift, it largely depends on the individual. Whether you’ll prefer tucking your chin down or looking slightly up will largely depend on your background.For example, if you come from an athletic background (and are more globally extended), you’ll likely prefer to have your chin tucked down into a neutral position.

On the other hand, those who have more flexion in their upper back will most likely perform better by looking slightly up, since this will add to the extension.

Hands and Arms

To better transfer power into the lift, try squeezing the bar hard. Not only will this prevent the bar from accidentally slipping, but you’ll also end up activating more muscles.Finally, your elbows should also remain locked throughout the entire movement. You’re not trying to flex your biceps or triceps, so keep in mind that the elbows need to remain neutrally aligned.

The Romanian Deadlift vs the Straight Leg

If you’re familiar with the Romanian deadlift (RDL), you might be thinking how similar the straight leg deadlift is to this other variation. In fact, most people perform one of these three variations (including the standard deadlift).The RDL also requires significantly less knee movement than the standard deadlift, but it still requires more than the stiff leg. Knees that are more bent allow for greater hip activation and flexion. Another difference is in the movement itself.

While the stiff leg goes all the way down to the ground, the RDL will have you stop the barbell once your torso has reached parallel to the floor. Both of these de-emphasize the quads in favor of the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back. However, while the RDL works the spinal erectors statically, the stiff leg deadlift will work them dynamically (because you’ll be moving all the way down to the floor).

And because there’s less bending in the knees with the stiff leg variation, they’re better for glute and hamstring activation. However, the stiff leg can be hard on your low back and is very difficult to do with bad mobility. This is why the RDL can be a better option for many people.

Variations of the Straight Leg Deadlift

 

Instead of using the barbell, you can opt for the dumbbells instead. This will not only increase your range of motion (therefore recruiting more muscle fibers) but will also address left/right muscle imbalances between your legs. Not only is this a good thing for mirror aesthetics, but it’ll also help you avoid training injuries.

Another option is the single-leg, straight leg deadlift. Although you’ll only be able to use a fraction of the weight, this will provide amazing training for those who are in sports that require running. Because you’ll be training your legs separately, this will closely mimic the forces and mechanics that occur when running or sprinting. These can either be done using just your bodyweight, or a kettlebell or dumbbell.

Power Up Your Legs to Power Up Your Body

The legs are an incredibly important aspect of a healthy and well-functioning body.Healthy and strong legs give you a stable base from which to move and carry out both functional movements and heavy lifts alike. The straight leg deadlift is one of the best ways to make your legs stronger, and therefore, make your body stronger as a whole.

But to eke out all the gains possible from the straight leg deadlift, you’re going to want to lead a lifestyle that makes that possible. Getting enough sleep and keeping your nutrition on track are the other key aspects in experiencing consistent and measurable gains. If you’re looking to max out your gains, consider taking a pre-workout supplement to give you that extra edge.

The straight leg deadlift is all about adding a small tweak to an otherwise untouchable lift. Although the difference is small, it leads to large mechanical changes that shape the way in which our bodies develop. Progressing through your fitness journeys is all about fine-tuning our workouts and our lifestyles—adopting what works and getting rid of what doesn’t for our specific needs and goals.

With your eye on the prize and a toolbelt of useful exercises, strong and chiseled legs will be yours soon enough!