November 22, 2021
Do you deadlift? I hope so, as it’s easily the single best exercise you can perform to build pure brute strength. Sure there are some who disagree with that but hey, not everyone can be right all the time. The deadlift’s pureness comes from its simplicity. There’s something heavy on the ground and you need to pick it up; it is the definition of functional fitness. However, what if I were to tell you that the deadlift is actually an extremely versatile movement?
The conventional deadlift will always be king for pure strength, yet there are also multiple variations that you can use to train for different goals. Romanian deadlift, sumo deadlift, and rack pulls are just a few examples of how a slight alteration can drastically change the function of the lift. All of the variations are great, but in this post, we want to talk about the “straight leg deadlift,” also known as the “stiff leg deadlift.”
The straight leg deadlift can seem daunting as the biomechanics are quite different from conventional deadlifts. It looks a bit weird and trainees are known to perform this movement with a grimace on their face. This isn’t an entirely false notion, as the stiff leg deadlift will make your hamstrings scream!
Regardless, you need to learn to embrace the suck and get these in your next workout. In this article, you’ll learn:
We want to first discuss proper straight leg deadlift form before talking about what muscles are used. This is because the specific way you perform this deadlift variation will significantly affect the muscles used.
To start off, the straight leg deadlift is an exceptionally unique variation of all the deadlifts as it is actually a single joint, isolation exercise; or at least it should be if performed correctly. As the name implies, this deadlift is performed with virtually zero knee bend resulting in fully extended legs. Therefore, the vast majority of the movement is going to occur with hip flexion and hip extension. When examining the biomechanics, the straight leg deadlift is very similar to barbell good mornings except that instead of placing a barbell on your back, you hold it in front of you.
Below are the steps to perform the straight leg deadlift:
1) You’re first going to set up your barbell with your desired weight. Next, grab the barbell with a double overhand grip shoulder-width apart. This grip is the same as you do for traditional deadlifts. Last, perform a deadlift until standing erect. This is your starting position.
2) Before you lower the weight, form a slight bend in your knees. Very light. The bend in your knees should be minuscule and only there to allow you to bend over. Next, push your hips back slightly (again, slightly!)and begin to flex your hips, allowing your torso to come forward.
3) While coming down, maintain a rigid back. Concentrate on pulling your shoulders back and retracting your scapula. Your arms should be freely hanging for the entire movement. This means they will be quite far from your body which is where they should be. If you are unable to maintain a tight back, you will need to work on mobility before you perform this movement.
4) Continue coming down until you feel your form start to break. You do not need to reach the floor but will want to bring the bar down until about mid-shin. Once you reach this part, you will pause for a second and come back up.
5) As you rise, concentrate on squeezing your glutes and driving your hips forward. Drive all the way until you are fully erect. Continue with your assigned number of reps.
Here are some of the best tips to optimize your training with the straight leg deadlift.
1. Use Your Mind-Muscle Connection: Really focus on contracting your hamstring and glutes when performing the straight leg deadlift. Some trainees can rush the movement and use crappy form, resulting in a faulty movement pattern to get the weight up. You want to be assertive when training so you can get the most out of the straight leg deadlift.
2. Go Slow And Controlled: While you’re concentrating on the hamstring and glutes, you also want to move slow and controlled. This is not a movement to “rep out”. Moving slowly with intent will further the effectiveness of the exercise and mitigate the chance of injury. Remember, you will have substantial hip flexion during the straight leg deadlift, placing a heavy load on the back. Obviously, rushing this movement is asking for a hurt back.
3. Load The Hamstrings: The last tip is to “load the hamstrings”. This means you want to let a lot of tension build in the posterior chain, specifically the hamstrings. As you go down during the eccentric, you want to be sure that your hamstrings get tight. Some trainees will bend their knees a bit or push their hips back to relieve this which is the exact opposite of what you want. Loading the hamstrings means letting that pressure build and not relieving it until you come up during the concentric portion.
The straight leg deadlift is going to work similar muscles as the conventional deadlift. However, differences will be seen in the level of activity. Performing the movement with such slight knee flexion makes the straight leg deadlift a pure hip extension movement. This means you are going to work your posterior muscles to a much greater extent which has been shown in multiple studies. Be ready to give your hamstrings, glutes, and erector spinae an intense workout.
The hamstrings are composed of 3 muscles that sit on the posterior of the upper leg. Together, these muscles work to perform 2 primary functions.
Because there is no knee flexion during the straight leg deadlift, the hamstrings’ primary function is to work together with the surrounding muscles to extend the hips. In fact, the hamstring is the primary muscle used and is often what is “felt” during the movement.
The glutes are a strong hip extender. This powerful set of muscles will work alongside the hamstrings to help extend the hips during the concentric portion of the movement. However, trainees tend to see more activation in the hamstrings so in order to target the glutes, focus on squeezing them as you come up.
In the same study above, the other muscle that stood out in muscle activation was the erector spinae. This long set of muscles sit on either side of the spine and run all the way down. Higher activation makes sense as the torso is bent over to a much higher degree than the traditional deadlift.
This will depend on your flexibility but unless it’s awful, you will get extensive flexion at the hips resulting in a more horizontal torso which is going to act as a lever. Because the weight is going to be farther away from the body, a greater amount of stress on the back musculature, specifically the lower back. This is actually why you keep the bar close during the conventional deadlift.
As mentioned, maintaining a rigid back is of utmost importance during the straight leg deadlift. While the erector spinae takes care of the lower back, you will need to use your upper back musculature to keep your upper back and shoulders from rounding. The primary muscle to perform this is your traps as they are the primary muscle used for scapular control. In order to maintain proper positioning, your traps are going to work overtime.
Here are the top reasons you need to be doing straight leg deadlifts.
1. Strengthen Your Entire Posterior Chain
As seen above, the straight leg deadlift is an awesome movement that trains the entire posterior chain. Because it’s an isolation movement, it will hit the erector spinae, hamstring, and glutes directly.
2. Optimize Your Hip Hinge
The hip hinge is a vital movement that everyone needs to be an expert at. Not only is it a fundamental part of healthy biomechanics, but it’s also going to significantly increase your mobility and the performance of other movements. Many trainees can have problems learning the body control required to perform a proper hip hinge as well as how to properly fire the muscles required, specifically the glutes.
The straight leg deadlift can help train the hip hinge because it uses a lower amount of load while having a greater range of motion with hip flexion and extension. This makes it an ideal movement to learn the hip hinge effectively.
3. Improve Your Grip
Every variation of the deadlift is going to naturally test your grip as you must hold the bar for the entire movement. Further, you use heavier loads while performing the deadlift furthering the requirement of a strong grip. However, the grip can often be a limiting factor because the weight is too heavy to hold to effectively train the other muscles. This isn’t the case with the straight leg deadlift, as it uses the lightest load.
4. Improve Deadlift Strength
As seen, the straight leg deadlift is going to improve everything you need for a stronger deadlift. In fact, that’s the specific reason many serious lifters actually train it; to get some higher deadlift numbers and set some PRs. Obviously, if you want to improve your deadlift, you’d benefit from using the straight leg deadlift on a regular basis
5. Decrease Chance Of Injury
The lower back can be susceptible to injury. It’s a fact of training that you must learn to accept rather than ignore. Therefore, a smart lifter will do what they can to specifically train this location to strengthen the muscle. A great choice to do this is the straight leg deadlift due to the elevated amounts of stress that is placed on the lower back. If you want an iron back, do skip out in straight leg deadlifts.
At first glance, the straight leg deadlift and traditional deadlift are significantly different. In other words, it’s pretty hard to confuse the two. Below are the major differences between the straight leg deadlift and the traditional deadlift.
1) The traditional deadlift is one of your big, foundational movements that make up your training base. It’s a compound exercise that allows you to use a ton of weight; actually, it’s most often your strongest lift. On the contrary, the straight leg deadlift is more of an accessory movement that is used to support the deadlift. Trainees use a significantly lower amount of weight and use higher reps for muscle hypertrophy and strength
2) The traditional deadlift has much more knee flexion than the straight leg deadlift yet has less hip flexion. This means that you are going to use more muscle mass to move the weight, specifically the quadriceps for leg extension. On the other hand, as mentioned several times, the straight bar deadlift has no knee flexion and a high amount of hip flexion.
3) During the traditional deadlift, the bar stays close to the legs the entire movement to optimize the mechanical advantage. The straight leg deadlift does the exact opposite and allows the bar to drift quite a far way.
4) The bar will start on the ground during the deadlift, while the straight bar deadlift begins with you standing, holding the bar.
Related: Conventional Deadlift Exercise Guide
The other similar deadlift variation is the Romanian deadlift. Unlike the traditional deadlift, the Romanian deadlift looks much more similar to the straight leg deadlift. Here are the main differences between the straight leg deadlift and the Romanian Deadlift.
1) If we compare traditional, stiff leg and Romanian deadlift biomechanics, the Romanian deadlift would be located in the middle. While the Romanian deadlift has less knee flexion than the conventional deadlift, it has more knee flexion than the straight leg deadlift. This same concept is seen with hip flexion as well, with the conventional having least, then Romanian, and the straight leg having the most.
2) Both the Romanian deadlift and straight leg deadlift are used as accessory movements. This means that the majority of the time, both use a similar rep scheme. However, more weight can be used with the Romanian deadlift
3) Because there is more hip flexion in the Romanian deadlift, most trainees tend to see better glute activation than compared with the straight leg deadlift. On the other hand, the straight leg deadlift seems to get higher hamstring activation
4) Both movements start standing up. During the descent, the hips are pushed back more during the Romanian deadlift. The bar will also be closer
Related: Romanian Deadlift Exercise Guide
The straight leg deadlift is the perfect exercise to create maximal growth in the posterior chain, specifically the hamstrings. It gets even better as there are other ways to perform this exercise to hit different goals. Here are the top straight leg deadlift variations
Dumbbell Straight Leg Deadlift
The first straight leg deadlift variation is going to have you swap the barbell for some dumbbells. Other than that, everything else is exactly the same between these two movements biomechanically.
Dumbbells do have some advantages though as they are easier to set up. Because the load used is significantly less than a traditional deadlift, there is no need to use a barbell to stack a lot of weight. Further, the dumbbell straight leg deadlift is generally used as a muscle hypertrophy movement that requires even less weight. This will obviously vary depending on the lifter and available dumbbell sizes but most lifters can use dumbbells effectively. Regardless, you are left with a movement that can easily be loaded with a pair of dumbbells.
The second advantage is that some trainees tend to use better form with dumbbells when first beginning. This is due to the arms having freedom to move as the torso comes down rather than being fixed on a barbell.
You can also do a straight leg deadlift with one dumbbell:
Snatch Grip Straight Leg Deadlift
Another great little trick is to use a snatch grip when performing the straight leg deadlift. Doing so will significantly increase your lat activation meaning significantly more muscle hypertrophy. Further, it snatch grip trains the lats in a functional manner that will translate into better deadlift performance.
While you can use a snatch grip with any deadlift alternative, using it for the straight leg deadlift has a unique advantage. The snatch grip deadlift is a very challenging grip strengthening and as mentioned above, the straight leg deadlift uses the smallest load when compared to other deadlift variations. This makes it the perfect choice as the grip won’t limit how much you are able to lift. When performing different variations with the snatch grip, your grip will often fail you far before your major muscles do. When using the snatch grip with the straight leg deadlift, you’ll get in great grip training without losing out on training your major muscles.
Single Leg Deadlift
The single leg deadlift is actually more like a single leg Romanian deadlift than a straight leg deadlift as it involves more knee flexion, but because it is such a great functional, athletic exercise, we thought we'd add it to the list.
Single leg deadlifts will not only allow you to hone in on your hamstrings in a unilateral manner, but due to the demand for balance and hip stability, it's going to work your hamstrings with different dynamics as well as target your side glutes more. This is a great hamstring exercise to throw into the mix for ironing out muscle imbalances, isolating the hamstrings, and working on balance and coordination. All it takes it a light dumbbell (or two) to really hammer down on your hammies.
There are other exercises than deadlift variations that can mimic the movement pattern and muscle activation of the straight leg deadlift.
The good-morning exercise has been mentioned several times in this piece already, so it’s an obvious choice to be a straight leg deadlift alternative. As mentioned above, the only real difference is that the barbell is placed on the back rather than held. Other than that, the movement is highly similar.
The Glute Ham Developer, or GHD, is another excellent straight-leg deadlift alternative. However, you need to perform the correct variation. To mimic the movement pattern, you want to target the hamstring rather than the lower back, so you need to set the pad so that it sits below your hips. This will allow you to bend at the hips and load the hamstring. If you don't have a GHD machine, there are plenty of good alternatives to the glute ham raise, some of which we've discussed in this post.
Studies show that the Nordic curl, or assisted Nordic curl, is the best bodyweight exercise to train your hamstrings. When examining the eccentric and concentric portions' role on muscle growth and strength development, the eccentric portion comes out as the primary player. The Nordic curl takes this fact and forms a straightforward yet effective exercise for hamstring strength.
It simply consists of anchoring your ankles, generally by a partner, and then slowly lowering yourself in a controlled manner. You can also get assistance from either another partner or use your arms to take some weight.
Due to the nature of this movement, the straight leg deadlift is used as an accessory movement to strengthen the posterior chain, increase muscle hypertrophy, and support the deadlift. This means you will want to use lighter loads of 70-80% 1RM with a moderate rep range. Further, it’s going to be found later in the workout as it is an isolation movement and you won’t be using heavy loads.
The straight leg deadlift is similar to the traditional deadlift in that it could go well on multiple days. Depending on how your program is set up, below are days to include the straight leg deadlift.
As you can see, you have a lot of options.
While it doesn’t need to be in your program consistently, it definitely needs to be part of a regular rotation. One common practice is to cycle the Romanian deadlift or good morning with the stiff leg deadlift as accessory movements. These 3 hip extension movements are very similar yet have enough variations making them ideal to swap out.
The straight leg deadlift is an often underused exercise despite its effectiveness. There’s really no reason for this as you are likely hurting your progress by not including it in your plan. Throw these into your next training session if you want to seriously shock your hamstring and glutes and see some serious growth. Just be warned, go light on your first day unless you want to walk crooked the next day!
Related: All-Time Best Hamstring Exercises
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