When it comes to burning fat, building muscle, and improving strength, few exercises rival the deadlift. However, the conventional deadlift is not the only, or in my opinion the best, variation to tap into the myriad benefits of deadlifting. Given the choice of one, I would use the stiff-leg deadlift.
Much like the conventional deadlift, the stiff leg variation targets your posterior chain, developing hamstrings, glutes, and erectors that everyone from Hercules to your gym friends would be envious of. (Oh, and they also make your butt look really good.)
Like most deadlifts, the stiff-leg deadlift falls into what is known as a “hinge” movement pattern. A hinge refers to any movement pattern where the torso and thighs move towards a perpendicular angle as a result of hip flexion. In other words, the hip joint hinges, hence the name. Although they may seem the same, this is different from the squat movement, where hip flexion couples with knee flexion.
In a stiff leg deadlift, the legs remain, well, stiff. You start off with a slight knee bend and maintain that even as you descend. As a result, stiff leg deadlifts require the hip extensors (glutes and hamstrings) to take more of the work than conventional deadlifts.
The stiff leg deadlift targets hamstrings, glutes, and the spinae erectors (lower back muscles). When done correctly, the erectors contract isometrically to maintain a neutral spine, while the hamstrings and glutes contract eccentrically as the bar is lowered, and then produce a strong concentric contraction to bring yourself back to a standing position.
Aside from making your ass look great in your new jeans, the glutes and hamstrings also play a crucial role in balancing out your posture. Because we sit all day, our hip flexors tighten, inhibiting our glutes and hammies. Training hinge movements like the stiff-leg deadlift strengthen those inhibited muscles, helping restore healthy pelvis positioning. This helps avoid low back, hip flexors, and other common pain problems.
Think of secondary muscle groups as the type of bread you use to make a pb&j sandwich (or in my case, a pb&m sandwich). You can probably still make a decent sandwich if you don’t have your favorite bread, but it doesn’t hit home the same.
In this case, the secondary muscle groups stabilize your body as you go through the entirety of the lift. Your abs, obliques, lats, and traps will contract in order to keep your core braced and back straight. Your glute medius and minimus (side glutes) will help stop your hips from swaying side to side, especially if you use a unilateral variation. The forearm flexors and muscles of the hand will take on some work to make sure you don’t drop the weight mid-lift and embarrass yourself in front of your gym crush.
I’m sure you’ve been told to keep your weight on your heels before, right?
Let’s avoid doing that…
Instead, focus on having your big toe, little toe, and heel all in contact with the ground at all times. This will force you to push into the ground at 3 separate points for each foot, keeping the combined weight of yourself and the bar in a more stable, neutral position.
When we exhale, our diaphragm relaxes, and because it’s an antagonist muscle to the deep abdominals (yes, the diaphragm is a muscle), we can recruit our abdominal muscles more by taking deep exhales. This is a staple of what makes Final Phase Abs an effective ab training program. In this context, before your set take one deep exhale and contract your abs. This sits your pelvis in a better position and will allow you to get a deep glute and hamstring contraction while protecting the lower back.
Here comes the hardest part… actually hinging.
After you’ve set your core, grab your implement. For a barbell, line up evenly on the spiky “knurled” section of the bar.
In order to set the shoulders and further prevent your back from rounding, pinch your shoulder blades and bring your shoulders as far away from your ears as you can.
This “butt back” motion will cause you to naturally hinge. Have you ever seen somebody twerk? First they have to stick their butt out. That’s the confidence and energy you want to embody here.
Our bodies like to make us think we’re better at things than we actually are, so I would recommend filming yourself from the side or asking your gym buddy (perfect opportunity to approach your gym crush here too) to make sure you’re doing this part correctly.
If you go beyond this point, the tendency is to get away from a hip hinge, so don’t worry about getting all the way to the ground.
Stand all the way up so you engage your glutes.
Rounding back – Make sure that your core is braced and shoulders are set before beginning the lift in order to keep your back from rounding. Although slight rounding of the back may not be as dangerous as previously thought, having a straight back is still your best bet for keeping yourself injury-free.
Bending knees too much (don’t squat your deadlifts) – It can be very easy to fall into a squat pattern when learning to deadlift as that is what feels natural for most individuals. Keep your legs stiff as possible and repeat a mantra of “butt back, butt back, butt back” as you complete your set.
Knee valgus (especially with single leg variations) – Valgus is the term used to describe the knees shifting towards the middle of the body. Ever heard the term “knock kneed?” That’s valgus. When the knees shift in, excessive amounts of stress can be placed on the structures that keep the knee joint healthy. This valgus position ultimately puts you at greater risk for acute and chronic injury. Try to keep your foot, knee, and hip aligned throughout the deadlift to keep your knees healthy and stable.
Grip width – A narrow grip (inside shoulder width) leads to internally rotated shoulders and rounded backs, while a wide grip (outside shoulder width) usually makes the lift significantly harder by putting more tension on your lats. Most likely you’ll want to stay neutral, about shoulder width.
Shoes – Converse, Vans, or other skate shoe brands are your best friends. Deadlifting (or any lifting) in shoes that have a bunch of foam or gel makes it next to impossible to drive into the ground from a stable position. Remember trying to balance on a pillow when you were a kid? That’s what it’s like trying to deadlift in foam-bottomed shoes. These shoes also have no artificial heel lift, so it more closely mimics a “barefoot” movement pattern and can improve our calf mobility.
Core engagement so you feel your glutes and NOT your back –
Even though your erectors are doing a lot of work during the stiff leg deadlift, they should not be the muscles doing all the work. To avoid this, make sure that your core is braced as if you were about to take a punch to the abs. This increase in intra-abdominal pressure should keep your back straight and force you to complete the lift by squeezing your glutes instead of your erectors. This is why we take a deep exhale before our sets.
The benefits of lifting with a single leg are enormous. So much so that I’ve written a whole article on the benefits of single-leg training before. As a brief summary, here are some of the reasons that lifting unilaterally can be immensely beneficial:
We’ll get into more single-leg variations later, but here’s the baseline, DB SLDL
Here’s a video with an explanation:
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Now that we’ve covered some of the benefits, here are some of the drawbacks of unilateral stiff leg deadlifts:
If you just tried to get a few practice reps in, you may have realized your hamstrings didn’t want to stretch very far… No need to worry, here are a few alternatives you can use to make things a bit easier or just shake it up a bit.
Lifting with a barbell brings its own challenges and learning curve. A simple kettlebell deadlift allows you to focus on the movement, especially the hinge, with lighter weight and in a more comfortable position.
These are also a great precursor to learning how to kettlebell swing, because the central component of the KB is the hip hinge.
I’m putting this here because a common question I get is “What’s the difference between a stiff-leg deadlift and a Romanian deadlift?” They’re the same, just different words. I prefer the term stiff-leg because I’m trying to get away from non-descriptive exercise names (although the Turkish get-up well have to stay until we come up with a better alternative).
Some will argue that there’s a slightly different knee bend in a Romanian deadlift vs stiff-leg deadlifts, others talk about how the difference is whether you go to the floor or not, but that’s a discussion of semantics.
The dumbbell stiff leg deadlift is the exact same movement pattern as the barbell version but provides a bit more freedom in terms of where you would like to hold the weight. This can be a good variation for those with shoulder pain. The single dumbbell version will limit the amount of weight you can use, allowing you to focus more on the hinging technique, while the double dumbbell version will allow for as much load as your grip can handle.
If completing the lift with a single dumbbell, place the weight between your legs and stand it up on one end. Once you’re set up, hinge at the hips and place a hand on either side of the dumbbell in order to complete the lift.
For the 2 dumbbell version, grab the weight in each hand, let your arms lie where they naturally would when standing and go to town. Be free shoulders, be free.
A landmine variation is your best bet for learning to add heavy loads to a single-leg stiff leg deadlift. The fact that one end of the barbell is jammed up against a sturdy surface means that you won’t need as much internal stability to get through your reps and avoid any embarrassing gym mishaps.
If you only want to focus on loading the planted leg, keep the leg closest to the bar on the floor as you go through the lift (left foot stays planted while holding the bar with your left hand). If you’re chasing more adductor and anti-rotation core work, grasp the bar with one hand and leave your opposite leg planted (left leg planted with the bar in the right hand).
This variation features prominently in our landmine training program creatively titled The Landmine Workout.
Side note: Getting a good grip on the bar can be an issue with these variations. I’ve found the best way to make sure the bar doesn’t slip out of your hands is to treat it like a giant detonator. Imagine that the sleeve (thicker, end portion of the barbell) is the handle and the end/cap has a detonator button on it. Throw your thumb on the detonator button, get a firm grasp on the handle and hold on for dear life. The thrill of pretending you’re Doctor Evil asking for one billion dollars is also an added benefit if you ask me…
The kickstand deadlift involves exactly what it sounds like: making yourself into a kickstand. Set up in a staggered, hip-width stance with the lead foot flat on the floor and the trail foot slightly behind. Lift the heel of the trail foot and hinge so that the knee on the trail leg comes into a tiny bit of flexion. The trail leg is now primed to act as a stabilizer as you move through a deadlift pattern. The kickstand is a great option to tax a single leg but aren’t ready for full single-leg variations as it provides additional stability through the trail leg.
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To start, grab a cable at about the height of the bottom of your ribcage with one arm. If you use your right arm, then reach your right leg back, getting as long as you can.
For those who struggle to not round their back as they come down, implementing a reaching variation like this one can teach you how to “get long.” Because of the angle of the cable, you can get a stronger glute contraction. This is a critical variation for beginners, but I also like it for variation for even advanced lifters.
Like the cable variation, this focuses on learning to get long and hinge at the hinge without rounding the back. I like this one in two situations:
The foam roller is not a necessity but it provides a target point to reach to, which in my experience improves technique.
If you’re trying to load up your stiff-leg deadlift, the hex bar, or trap bar, can be a more comfortable than a straight barbell. In my opinion, it also looks cooler.
For loading up the single-leg version, you can’t beat the Ubar. Unlike a barbell, the weight is centered directly underneath you, along with your center of mass.
If you plan on doing a lot of stiff-leg deadlifts, or really any unilateral leg training exercise, a Ubar can be a great tool for your arsenal. You’ll also see a similar bar called a “pentagon bar.”
Stiff leg deadlifts are often considered an accessory exercise. In strength sports such as powerlifting, they’re usually used to help increase a conventional deadlift. In most other instances, they are a staple for building athletic and aesthetic glutes and hamstrings.
If you’re anyone other than a powerlifter, completing 3-5 sets of 6 – 12 reps 1-2 times per week is a surefire way to build that booty and posterior chain. They should NOT be considered an accessory but can be one of the main hip hinge movements in your program.
Here is a sample 16 week stiff-leg deadlift progression to get you started:
Note for powerlifters: Reversing this order is a great way to progress as you will get increasingly sport-specific as you inch closer to meet day.
Should my knees be bent?
Your knees should be slightly bent. Keep this angle as you descend into the deadlift.
Where should I look?
I like to find a spot on the ground about a yard in front of me and focus on that the entire time. This forces your head to stay in a relatively neutral position throughout.
How fast should I do them?
Stiff leg deadlifts should generally be slow and controlled. Hinge down slowly until you feel a stretch in the hamstrings, then use your hammies and glutes to pull you back up.
Where should I hold the weight for a single leg stiff leg deadlift?
It depends. If you’re new or really want to challenge the hamstrings of the planted leg, hold the weight on that side. If you want a bit of a core challenge in addition to the deadlift, holding the weight in the opposing hand is the way to go.