Stiff Leg Deadlift Guide

The deadlift is a classic exercise gaining popularity along with its many variations. But sometimes, it’s hard to know the difference between all the deadlift types.

This article shows you how the stiff leg deadlift compares to conventional and Romanian deadlifts. As well as how to do the SLDL to target your hamstrings and glutes.

Stiff Leg Deadlift

What Is a Stiff Leg Deadlift?

The stiff leg deadlift (SLDL) is an exercise where you start from an upright standing position and lower the weight to the floor (or near the floor) before raising back up. And it’s in a category of exercises called hip hinge movements.

However, unlike the regular deadlift, you perform the stiff leg deadlift while keeping your legs nearly straight. For this reason, this exercise is also called a straight leg deadlift.

Stiff Leg Deadlift Muscles Worked

As with all hip hinge movements, the stiff leg deadlift is a posterior chain exercise. That means it works the muscles on the backside of your body.

But the straight leg body position isolates the hamstrings more than other deadlift variations.

Stiff Leg Deadlift Muscles Worked

Stiff Leg Deadlift vs Deadlift

The starting position is one key distinction between the standard deadlift and the stiff leg deadlift.

With deadlifts, you start each rep from the floor. But with stiff leg deadlifts, you pick the bar up from the floor then start each rep from the standing position.

Another key difference is how much your knees bend. Standard deadlifts use significantly more knee bend than stiff leg deadlifts.

Stiff Leg Deadlift vs Deadlift

Romanian Deadlift vs Stiff Leg Deadlift

The Romanian deadlift (RDL) is another hip hinge movement specifically targeting the hamstrings. And the movement pattern is very similar to the SLDL.

Both exercises work the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back muscle groups. However, the RDL involves a slightly more knee bend than the SLDL.

Also, you lower the bar only to your shins during the RDL. In contrast, you lower it to the floor during the SLDL.

Therefore, your back doesn’t bend as far forward, and you can usually do more weight with the RDL.

Romanian Deadlift vs Stiff Leg Deadlift

Stiff Leg Deadlift Benefits & Limitations

The stiff leg deadlift is like the isolation version of the deadlift because it makes it a two joint exercise into a single joint exercise. And this has pros and cons.

One benefit is that it essentially removes the quads from the equation since there is little to no knee bend. But it also puts more load on the lower back.

So the best way to use the stiff leg deadlift is as a lighter weight exercise to target the hamstrings and strengthen the lower back.

Pros

  • Removes quadriceps from the deadlift movement
  • Isolates the hamstrings
  • Increases hamstring/hip flexibility
  • Strengthens lower back

Cons

  • Must use a reduced load
  • Can put more stress on the back

How To Do a Stiff Leg Deadlift

There are multiple ways to do a stiff leg deadlift, which I will cover later. For now, I will show you how to do the most common variation using a barbell.

First, approach the bar and stand with your feet roughly shoulder-width apart. Next, grab the bar just outside your shins and lift it as if performing a conventional deadlift.

Push your butt back and bend at the hips from the standing position while keeping your legs nearly straight. Make sure you do not curve your back forward, maintain a neutral spine.

Next, raise the bar by pulling your hamstrings and driving your hips forward. Finally, squeeze your glutes as you straighten up at the top.

Repeat for the desired number of reps, then set the bar back on the floor.

To recap, here are the step-by-step directions:

  1. Pick up the bar as if doing a conventional deadlift
  2. Bend at the hips while keeping your legs nearly straight
  3. Lift the bar with your hamstrings and drive your hips forward
  4. Maintain a flat back throughout the exercise
  5. Repeat for the desired number of reps and place the bar on the floor

Barbell Stiff Leg Deadlift Video

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Stiff Leg Deadlift Form

The stiff leg deadlift looks like a straightforward exercise. But there are actually many moving parts to consider, and it’s easy to use improper form.

Here are some of the most common SLDL mistakes:
  • Locking or hyperextending your knees

  • Bending your knees too much

  • Rounding your back

  • Letting the bar travel away from your body

Locking your knees is not necessary during the SLDL. And if you’re double-jointed, you don’t want your knees going backward.

Another common mistake is bending your back or slouching forward as you bend down. This might make it seem like you’re lowering the bar further, but it puts unnecessary stress on your spine.

Finally, try not to let the bar travel away from your thighs and shins as you lower it. This motion moves your center of gravity forward and loads your lower back.

Here is what you should focus on for proper stiff leg deadlift form:
  • Bend your knees only slightly

  • Initiate movement with your hips

  • Maintain a flat back (neutral spine)

  • Keep the bar close to your thighs and shins

Stiff Leg Deadlift Start
Stiff Leg Deadlift Mid
Stiff Leg Deadlift Finish

Despite the name, it’s okay to let your legs bend a little during the stiff leg deadlift. The key is that you don’t extend your knees to get the bar moving – try to initiate movement with your hips.

Also, think about having only one pivot point around your hips while keeping your legs and back fixed. Imagine one of those toy birds that drink out of a glass of water.

Lastly, you want the bar to stay close to your thighs as you lower it and raise it. To do this, you must focus on pushing your hips back to keep your center of gravity over your feet.

Stiff Leg Deadlift Form

Stiff Leg Deadlift Variations

As I mentioned earlier, there are multiple ways to do stiff leg deadlifts, even if you don’t have a barbell. Here are some of the most common variations.

Dumbbell Stiff Leg Deadlift

With the dumbbell stiff leg deadlift, each hand can move independently. So this exercise variation requires a little more stabilizing, and you might need to use lighter weight at first.

Smith Machine Stiff Leg Deadlift

The Smith machine stiff leg deadlift is similar to the barbell variation. The only difference is that the bar moves on vertical guide rails.

The guides create a fixed movement path that’s not quite as natural as free weights. But the stability makes it easier to isolate the hamstrings.

Smith Machine Stiff Leg Deadlift

Cable Stiff Leg Deadlift

Another way to do the stiff leg deadlift involves the cable apparatus. First, place the pulley low to the floor and stand facing the cable with enough room to bend forward. Then perform the SLDL while holding a cable attachment.

Single-Leg Stiff Leg Deadlift

You can change things up by performing the SLDL one leg at a time. This variation requires a good deal of balance, so start with your body weight. Then add resistance by holding a dumbbell, kettlebell, or weight plate.

Eccentric Accentuated Stiff Leg Deadlift

A final stiff leg deadlift variation involves focusing on the eccentric phase or lowering the weight. On the way down, try to lower the weight by taking 4-10 seconds. The slow eccentric or negative reps allow you to work the hamstrings with much lighter weight.

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Stiff Leg Deadlift Alternatives

Remember that the SLDL is not the only hip hinge exercise at your disposal. Below are some stiff leg deadlift alternatives you can use to mix it up.

Barbell Romanian Deadlift

As illustrated earlier, the barbell RDL looks almost identical to the barbell SLDL. The only difference is slightly more knee bend and a more upright back.

This exercise is a great alternative if you want to load up some serious poundage to shock your hamstrings and glutes.

Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift

The dumbbell RDL is another viable alternative to the SLDL. And you may be surprised how sore you get even when using less total weight due to the effort involved in balancing two weights.

Try a toe elevated dumbbell Romanian deadlift to further isolate your hamstrings.

Barbell Good Morning

The good morning exercise is almost identical to the Romanian deadlift, except the barbell is on your shoulders.

This bar position increases the moment arm, making the weight feel heavier. So you don’t need to put as many plates on the bar to get the same muscle activation.

Smith Machine Good Morning

If you’re not comfortable with free weights yet, try the Smith machine good morning. With this variation, the bar is guided for you, and it doesn’t require as much balance.

Hypertrophy Training Program

The stiff leg deadlift is a good exercise for isolating your hamstrings while working on flexibility. But to reach your overall fitness goals, you need a complete resistance training plan designed for muscle gain.

To maximize muscle growth (aka hypertrophy), you should adjust ten specific training variables. Check out my free hypertrophy training program to see how to optimize your workouts.

Hypertrophy Training
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