Do you do deadlifts when you train? If so, why not? Deadlifts are a compound movement that works multiple muscle groups at the same time. Few exercises work more muscle groups than this popular exercise. Although squats top the list of the most effective strength-training exercises, deadlifts work the muscles in the upper body more than squats do. So, deadlifting is a full-body exercise and one that builds functional strength by improving how your muscles work together.
Now that you know how important they are for building strength and muscle size, which approach should you use? You can do deadlifts with a single barbell across your shoulders or with a dumbbell in each hand. In fact, there are several variations on the conventional deadlift, one of the most popular forms of deadlift. But another popular option is the stiff leg deadlift where you keep your legs almost straight. Does one have advantages over the other in terms of strength and muscle development?
The Stiff Leg Deadlift vs. Conventional Deadlift
First, let’s look at how to do a conventional deadlift:
- Place a barbell on the floor in front of you.
- Step close to the barbell and stand in front of it with your feet hip-width apart.
- With your hands about shoulder-width apart, just outside your feet, hinge your hips, bend your knees, and grab the barbell with both hands. Use a grip where your palms face you.
- Keeping your back straight and your core tight, lift the bar off the ground and pull it upward.
- Once the bar reaches knee height, thrust your hips forward into a standing position.
- Reverse the movement and return to the starting position.
How about the Stiff Leg Deadlift?
The stiff leg deadlift is similar to a conventional deadlift, but you raise the bar without bending your knees. Here’s how to do one:
- Place a barbell in your hands with your palms facing you and your hands shoulder-width apart.
- Your back should be straight, but your knees should be soft and slightly bent throughout the movement.
- Bend forward at your hips as you lower the barbell in a controlled manner toward the floor.
- Keep lowering the barbell until you feel your hamstrings stretch.
- Now, slowly return to the starting position.
As you can see, you’re not bending your knees when you do the stiff leg deadlift. However, your knees are in a slightly bent, not locked, position throughout the movement. For deadlifts, it’s important to keep your back straight and the barbell close to your body but your back will slightly round when you do a stiff-leg deadlift but limit the amount you allow your back to flex when you do the movement. For this reason, use a barbell or dumbbells that are a bit lighter than you use for a conventional deadlift to avoid straining your back. As with all exercises, do both in a controlled manner without using momentum.
What Are the Differences in Terms of Muscle Activation?
The stiff leg deadlift places more emphasis on the posterior chain relative to a conventional deadlift. When you deadlift with your knees almost straight, you activate the muscles in your hamstrings and glutes more than with a conventional deadlift. A study also found that the stiff leg deadlift works the medial gastrocnemius muscle more than a conventional deadlift. That can lead to greater medial calf strength.
Despite more emphasis on the posterior chain, there are disadvantages to doing stiff leg deadlifts too often. If you make them your main deadlift variation, it places more stress on your lower back and lumbar spine. The key to reducing the stress on your lower back and spine is not to lock your knees during the movement. Keep them soft with a slight bend in them.
On the plus side, doing stiff leg deadlifts is superior for strengthening the muscles in your lower back and making them more resistant to injury. Always start with a light dumbbell and work your way up as your form becomes more proficient and your strength increases. When you first start, practice all deadlifts without resistance until you master the mechanics of the exercise. Then, progress to a load that allows you to complete a moderate number of reps. Don’t go too heavy at first. If you lack flexibility, the stiff-leg deadlift may be more challenging for you.
Both Deadlifts Have Multiple Fitness Benefits
In case you need a reminder of why you should deadlift. Here are the benefits you gain when you do any form of deadlift:
- Boost strength in multiple muscle groups in the upper and lower body
- Boost bone density
- Enhance Your Posture
- Improve posture
- Increases bone density
- Enhance functional strength
- Improve jumping height
- Improve performance on other lifts
- Burn calories
Take Advantage of Both
There’s no reason you can’t do stiff leg and conventional deadlifts. During one training cycle, do conventional deadlifts and switch to stiff legs deadlifts in the next. Each form of deadlift works your muscles differently, and cycling between them will help you get the benefits of both. With stiff leg deadlifts, you’re giving your back and hamstrings a more focused workout whereas conventional deadlifts also work your posterior chain but place less emphasis on your hamstring muscles.
The Bottom Line
The stiff leg and conventional deadlift both work the muscles in the posterior chain, but the stiff-leg version places more emphasis on your back and hamstrings relative to the conventional deadlift. You should also lighten up on the weight when you do the stiff-leg version to lower the risk of straining your lower back. These aren’t the only deadlift options available to you; there’s also the Romanian and sumo deadlift. You might decide to include all four in your strength-training routine or focus on the ones you feel most comfortable with or will help you best meet your training objectives. Whatever you do, keep deadlifting!
- com. “Squat Vs. Hip Thrust Vs. Deadlift Study Predictions”
- PLoS One. 2020; 15(2): e0229507.Published online 2020 Feb 27. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0229507.
- Martín-Fuentes I, Oliva-Lozano JM, Muyor JM (2020) Electromyographic activity in deadlift exercise and its variants. A systematic review. PLoS ONE 15(2): e0229507. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0229507.
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