When you need to build up your back muscles, the deadlift is one of the best exercises you can do. The stiff-leg deadlift is a variation on the deadlift that may have been forgotten in the weight room, but it could be one of the best ways to target your hamstrings and build strength in your lower back.
The stiff leg deadlift is not a new exercise, and it may not even be the best hamstring exercise you can do, even though Arnold used to do them when he was at the top of the bodybuilding world during the Golden Era. Many people who go to the gym today don’t know how to do this move or usually choose the more popular Romanian deadlift instead.
The stiff leg deadlift won’t help you get a new 1RM like the standard or sumo-style versions, but Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., says that stiff-leg deadlifts can still be a good part of your workout.
“I like to think of it as an emergency hamstring exercise,” says Samuel. “If you only have barbells or dumbbells and no other way to work your hamstrings, you might do the stiff-leg deadlift to work those muscles.”
Muscles Worked with Stiff Leg Deadlifts
- Lower back
Who Should Perform Stiff Leg Deadlifts?
The stiff leg deadlift doesn’t let you use a tonne of weight and has a more specific goal—working the hamstrings—than the regular version, so it’s not really a deadlift that everyone should do. Samuel thinks of the move as a “emergency exercise” that he can do when he can’t do any other hamstring-focused moves.
This is a good exercise for people who have a hard time finding ones that really work their hamstrings.
What Is the Difference Between the Stiff Leg Deadlift and Conventional Deadlift?
The name “stiff leg” isn’t quite right. Don’t use the fact that your legs won’t be locked the whole time as a major cue. Still, you will be in a position where your knees are more straight than when you do a regular deadlift.
That’s the main difference between the two: with stiff leg deadlifts, you try to do the move with as little knee bend as possible. Since you’re starting from a “stiffer” position, your hips will be higher, so your torso will need to be more parallel to the ground.
From this position, you’ll see three things:
Since your knees will be more straight than in regular deadlifts, you won’t be working your quads as much. This gives the muscles in the back more work to do.
During the stiff leg deadlift, your lower back will act as a lever as you push your glutes back. You’ll be in a flat “table top” position, which can put a little more pressure on your lower back than other variations. This is a big reason why you’ll need to use lighter weights and why the exercise will help you build some lower back strength.
With the stiff leg deadlift, your hips and knees also get longer because you work your hamstrings from a more stretched-out position. This makes it a little harder for the hamstrings to straighten up at the top of the deadlift.
How to Do the Stiff Leg Deadlift
The setup for the stiff leg deadlift is similar to what you’ll do for a conventional deadlift.
Stand in front of the barbell with your feet at shoulder-width apart. The bar should be close to your body, almost touching your shins, with your feet under the bar.
Push your butt back, then lower your torso to reach down and grab the bar. Your knees can bend, but keep them as straight as you can.
With your shoulder blades slightly squeezed, and a slight, natural bend in the knees, brace through your abs as you begin to pull the bar from the floor. You don’t need to be as aggressive in the pull as you would with the conventional deadlift (but don’t pull it softly either).
From here, think of the move as a Romanian deadlift—you’re going to push your butt back as you lower the weight down to the floor, taking two to three seconds on the descent. Pause, then lift the bar back up.
How to Use the Stiff Leg Deadlift in Your Workouts
Samuel says that leg curls, Nordic curls, and even the regular deadlift may work better for most people than stiff leg deadlifts. But you can do this as an extra exercise to work your hamstrings if that’s what you want.
Just make sure you don’t put too much weight on the bar. Samuel says to aim for about half (or even less) of the weight you’d normally use for a deadlift. Since you’re lifting less weight, you can do more sets and reps. Start with three to four sets of eight to ten repetitions. Focus on pushing your buttocks back, bracing your core, and keeping your knees as stiff as possible with each rep.
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Brett Williams, a fitness editor at Men’s Health, is a NASM-CPT certified trainer and former pro football player and tech reporter who splits his workout time between strength and conditioning training, martial arts, and running. You can find his work elsewhere at Mashable, Thrillist, and other outlets.