What are Stiff leg deadlifts? (A useful guide for bodybuilders)

what are stiff leg deadlifts?

What are stiff leg deadlifts?

The stiff leg deadlift is a variation of the traditional deadlift that targets the hamstrings and glutes without putting any serious stress on the quads. As with a traditional deadlift, the stiff leg deadlift does activate muscles in the entire posterior chain, making it a great compound movement. 

The stiff leg deadlift is a fantastic movement for bodybuilders as it promotes hypertrophy in the gluteal muscles and hamstrings without requiring too much resistance. 

Strength trainers can also increase their pulling movements by strengthening these muscles with a variety of movements including different forms of deadlifts as accessory exercises. 

Which muscles are targeted by a stiff leg deadlift?

The primary targets are the hamstrings and gluteal muscles when performing a stiff leg deadlift. As it is a compound movement, a lot of other muscles are activated as secondary movers and stabilisers.

The hamstrings.

hamstring used with stiff leg deadlift
The hamstrings are a group of four muscles at the rear of the upper leg. They are responsible for flexing the knee joint and curling the leg. A stiff leg deadlift activates all of the hamstring muscles as they all work in tandem with each other. 

The Glutes.

stiff leg deadlift and glutes

The glutes are made up of three muscles. The major muscle is the Gluteus Maximus with the Gluteus Medius and Gluteus Minimus situated above and behind it. All three muscles in the gluteal area are activated with stiff leg deadlifts, with the primary mover being the Gluteus Maximus.

The Spinal Erectors.

The third group of muscles that act as primary movers with a stiff leg deadlift are the spinal erectors. These are a group of muscles that run from the lower back and are responsible, as the name suggests, for straightening the spine.

 stiff leg deadlift spinal erector

Strong and developed spinal erector muscles do not help bodybuilders with hypertrophy goals but are great for strength trainers and athletes. They also promote good posture and prevent back injury.

Secondary muscles targeted with stiff leg deadlifts. 

There are a lot of other muscles that contribute to the movement of a stiff leg deadlift. The calves and quads are responsible for stabilising the legs and keeping them stiff. 

The abs and obliques help to stabilise the bar and the forearms contribute to the grip of the bar. 

As with a traditional deadlift, the stiff leg deadlift activates muscles in the mud back and well as the trapezius muscle in the upper back. 

With all of this muscle activation, you can imagine that it has a large effect on the central nervous system, so it is probably an exercise to perform towards the beginning of your workout or before a rest day.

What are the benefits of performing a stiff leg deadlift?

The stiff leg deadlift does not allow you to lift as heavy as you would with a traditional deadlift, but, with correct form, the benefits can be just as good. 
  1. Stiff leg deadlifts are a great way for bodybuilders to promote hypertrophy in the hamstrings and gluteal muscles. You can get the same benefits as you would from a traditional deadlift but with a lower weight. This means that you do not have to spend as much energy leaving you ready to hit other areas.
  2. Strength trainers will find stiff leg deadlifts beneficial for developing strength in the posterior chain muscles including the hamstrings, gluteal muscles, and spinal erectors. These are all essential muscles for performance lifts such as traditional deadlifts and squats. 
  3. If you are a strongman competitor, adding stiff leg deadlifts are a great way of developing strength in the back and hamstrings. Using them as an accessory movement alongside your heavy lifts will help with pulling movements.
  4. Athletes often struggle with torn hamstrings, which leave them sidelined for weeks at a time. The stiff leg deadlift is a great way of strengthening the hamstring and preventing injury. It is also useful for helping with explosive athletic movements such as sprinting or jumping. 

How do I do a stiff leg deadlift?

The stiff leg deadlift is fairly similar to a regular deadlift which you are probably familiar with. It can be performed with a barbell or smaller weights such as dumbbells and kettlebells. 

Deadlift with stiff legs

  1. Load up a barbell with your desired weight, clip on the collars, and stand over the bar with your feet in a neutral stance just shorter than shoulder width.
  2. Grab the bar at shoulder width with an overhand grip. Keep a straight spine and bend slightly at the leg.
  3. Without bending the leg too much, erect the spine in a controlled motion. You should be able to feel the hamstrings and gluteal muscles engaging.
  4. Keep a straight back throughout the lift. When at the top of the movement, breathe in as you slowly lower the weight back down in the same motion.
  5. Repeat for the required number of reps and sets.

Tips of a better stiff leg deadlift.

  • Use a belt if you can. A good lifting belt will support the lower back and help to prevent injury.
  • If you struggle with grip strength, use lifting straps. This way you can focus on muscle connection rather than not dropping the weight. 
  • Do not arch the back. Keeping a straight back is essential to activate the target muscles and prevent injury
  • Bend the legs slightly. It is called the stiff leg deadlift, not the straight leg deadlift. Striving to keep the leg straight when lowering the weight can cause a hamstring injury.
  • Start with a low weight and pyramid up to your working sets. 
  • Focus on good form, repetitions, and time under tension rather than lifting heavy for a personal best.
  • I do not have the mobility to lift the bar from the ground, put it on blocks or use the safety pins on a rack to lift it slightly.

Dumbbell stiff leg deadlift.

This is essentially the same as a barbell stiff leg deadlift. Instead of using a loaded barbell, use a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells. 
dumbbell stiff leg deadlift

There is no real advantage to using dumbbells apart from the fact that you can use a much lighter weight. If you have never performed a stiff leg deadlift, it may be an idea to start with dumbbells or an empty bar to get used to the movement. 

kettlebell stiff leg deadlift

The kettlebell, like the dumbbell, is also a great option for beginners for the same reasons. If you belong to a functional fitness gym, you will usually have a tree of kettlebells in front of a mirror. 

Starting like this allows you to train with a light weight and keep an eye on your form before moving up to a barbell stiff leg deadlift. 

Using kettlebells or dumbbells is also a good way to warm up the posterior chain before using a heavier barbell. 

Single stiff leg deadlift.

This is a way of performing a stiff leg deadlift using just your body weight. By isolating one leg at a time, you can replicate the resistance exercise without using a barbell or dumbbells.

single stiff leg deadlift
Using bodyweight, single stiff leg deadlifts is a great way to activate the posterior chain if working out at home or if you do not have resistance equipment at your gym. It is also a great way to warm up for other deadlift movements as well as promote good balance and stability. 

Alternatives to the stiff leg deadlift.

There are a few other movements that activate the same muscles as the stiff leg deadlift. 

Romanian deadlift.

The Romanian deadlift is often called an RDL. It is very similar to a stiff leg deadlift as it activates the same muscles in a very similar way. The only difference is that there is slightly more hip flexion bringing the quads into play.
romanian deadlift or stiff leg

Bulgarian split squat.

Bulgarian split squats are a great alternative to the stiff leg deadlift for developing the gluteal muscles. They can be performed with just bodyweight or resistance can be added by placing a loaded barbell on the shoulders.

bulgarian spit squat or stiff leg deadlift

Bulgarian split squats are one of the harder exercises to perform as they require a good deal of balance and stability. It is advisable to start with just body weight until you are familiar with the movement before loading up the weights. 

The smith machine is a good way to progress the movement if you struggle with balance and stability. 

Glute ham raises.

Glute ham raises can be used as another alternative to the stiff leg deadlift as they also activate the hamstrings, glutes, and spinal erectors. 

glute ham raises or stiff leg deadlift

Glute ham raises are performed on a dedicated bench with just bodyweight or a weight plate held to the chest. 

Rack pulls.

Rack pulls can be used as an introduction to stiff leg deadlifts or are great as a stand-alone exercise. You will need a squat rack with safety pins and a loaded barbell. It is effectively a partial movement of a traditional deadlift that focuses on the top part of the movement.

rack pulls or stiff leg deadlift

The hamstrings and gluteal muscles are activated, but the spinal erectors are really put under tension when training heavy. If you are new to deadlifts or do not have great mobility, start with rack pulls to build up your back strength. 

Take away

We hope that you have found this article useful and that we have answered the question - what are stiff leg deadlifts?

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