How To Do The Stiff-Leg Deadlift And Strengthen Your Hamstrings

Woman performing stiff-leg deadlift with barbell
(Image credit: bojanstory / Getty Images)

How many deadlift variations do you need in your life? It’s a question that everyone who lifts weights regularly should ask themselves, and the answer is at least three. The standard deadlift should, of course, be on the workout schedule of every serious gym-goer. The other two deadlifts to consider are the Romanian deadlift and the stiff-leg deadlift. 

These two exercises look similar, and both put more focus on the hamstrings than a regular deadlift, but they differ in how much you bend your knee and the flexibility required to execute them correctly. 

The stiff-leg deadlift, as its name suggests, involves less bending of the knee, and so provides a greater test of hamstring strength and flexibility, with less recruitment of the glutes. For that reason, it’s often used as an accessory lift to enhance range of motion, rather than to shift as much weight as possible, as is the case with the standard deadlift. 

To scrutinize this excellent hamstring exercise further, we spoke to certified personal trainer Jeff Dobos, regional manager at renowned global fitness company Ultimate Performance. He’s provided a stiff-leg deadlift form guide, as well as highlighting common mistakes and variations that will help you master this move. 

What Are The Main Benefits Of The Stiff-Leg Deadlift?

The main benefit of the stiff-leg deadlift, says Dobos, is that the exercise starts from the floor, and returns to the floor each rep. Unlike the Romanian deadlift, which involves lowering a barbell from a standing position to mid-shin and up again, resetting from the floor means the stiff-leg variation will “require slightly less internal stabilization of the core and pelvis”, he explains. 

That’s because touching the barbell plates to the floor—or a weight rack or blocks if required due to limited range of motion—provides external stabilization, or consistency, to the exercise. “A Romanian deadlift, conversely, forces you to control the deceleration of the weight in the downward phase, before accelerating it back up, without any external stabilization,” says Dobos. 

As a result, you can focus almost entirely on working through the hamstrings’ full range of motion, and use the floor to reset the exercise each rep rather than having to rely on your core and pelvis to keep the bar level.

How does the stiff-leg deadlift differ from other deadlift variations?

For starters, it involves keeping your knees fixed to avoid letting them flex throughout the move. That means it will provide a sterner test of your hamstring flexibility and range of motion than most other deadlift variations. 

Another key point of difference is in how much load you lift, compared with the standard deadlift. “The goal with a stiff-leg deadlift is almost always to provide tension to the posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, erectors, lats) without as much consideration being given to chasing PBs,” Dobos explains. 

As such, the stiff-leg deadlift is almost always considered to be an accessory lift. “Bending the knee slightly more would enable more recruitment of the glutes and enable a larger load to be moved, but the goal here is to challenge the hamstrings in their full length, and that certainly has its place,” says Dobos. 

How To Do The Stiff-Leg Deadlift

The set-up

As with the standard deadlift and unlike the Romanian deadlift, the stiff-leg deadlift should start from the floor, but only if you’re able to lift the bar from the floor with your knees almost straight and without your back rounding. If your hamstring range of motion doesn’t allow this, you can set the bar up on small lifting blocks or pins in the squat rack.

Next, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and the barbell in contact with your shins. Rather than locked straight, your knees should be ever so slightly bent. The aim is to maintain this slight flex throughout the exercise. Push your hips back and hinge forward to grasp the bar with an overhand grip (palms facing you). 

The lift

If the bar has been set at the right height for your range of motion, your back should remain flat in this starting position. From here, move your shoulder blades back and down to engage your latissimus dorsi muscles, and inhale to brace your core. With your weight in your heels, drive your hips forward to lift the bar off the floor until standing straight.

As with other deadlifts, “breathe and brace” before you initiate the lift, says Dobos. Taking a deep breath ensures your lungs are full of air and helps engage the transverse abdominis muscle to provide core stability. “Maximizing this intra-abdominal pressure provides extra spinal support and helps maintain tension in the target muscles,” says Dobos.

The return

At the highest point of this lift, your knees should still be slightly bent rather than locked. While keeping your knees set in place, push your hips back to slowly lower the weight to the starting position. Keep the bar touching your body throughout and avoid jerky movements—keep it slow and controlled.

“A second cue that is more specific to the stiff-leg deadlift is to consider pushing your hips back,” says Dobos. Because the knees must remain fixed so as not to flex, the act of pushing your hips back will help maintain a neutral spine while your chest is able to fall forward towards the floor.

Common Stiff-Leg Deadlift Form Mistakes

The most common pitfalls associated with the stiff-leg deadlift relate to a limited range of motion and an unsuitable set-up. 

Poor bar path

“For every variety of deadlift, the bar should always remain over the center of the base of support, meaning that it should always be directly above the midfoot,” says Dobos. With the stiff-leg deadlift, however, it’s common to see people getting caught up with keeping their knees locked in place but forgetting to keep the bar close to their shins. 

Instead it will drift away from their midline, heaping extra strain on the lower back. “This forward translation of the bar multiplies the force being placed on the spinal erectors and will ultimately reduce the challenge exerted on the hamstrings,” says Dobos. 

A simple fix is to “push your hips back” when lowering the bar, as Dobos noted above, and to keep your weight in your heels throughout the move to keep the bar grazing your shins as you start and finish the lift. As with most deadlifts and Olympic lifts, that’s why shin-length socks come in especially handy.

Lifting from the floor when hamstring ROM is limited

The second common error Dobos points to is when someone insists on performing a stiff-leg deadlift from the floor, even when their hamstring flexibility isn’t up to it. 

If that describes you, don’t take it as failing. Some of us are tall, some are short, some have a broad range of motion in our posterior chain, some don’t. “Despite this,” Dobos continues, “the barbell is always the same distance from the floor with standardized bumper plates.” In other words, you should always customize the set-up for the stiff-leg deadlift to match your unique physical capacity. 

“Always assess your range of motion before performing this move and adjust your set-up accordingly,” says Dobos, noting that if your back starts to round as you lower the bar you should reduce the distance it needs to travel. 

“You can still enjoy all of the same benefits of this move when practicing it to small lifting blocks, or to pins in the squat rack, if that’s what is required to lift safely,” he says. 

Stiff-Leg Deadlift Variations, Progressions and Regressions

Because of the unique requirements of the stiff-leg deadlift, progressions and regressions are limited to using dumbbells instead of a barbell, or practicing this on one leg rather than two. That said, there are plenty of alternative exercises you can use to challenge the hamstrings. 

Stiff-leg deadlift with dumbbells

This exercise can be performed with dumbbells or kettlebells, but will require even greater range of motion when you start with the weights on the floor because you’ll need to lower them further than you would with a barbell loaded with bumper plates. Again, it can be performed from small blocks if required. Using dumbbells, as opposed to a barbell, will help to iron out any imbalances in the muscles on either side of your body.

Stiff single-leg deadlift

This is a great single-leg exercise to boost strength for runners and people who play team sports, because it trains your legs in the manner they are used when running. You’re not moving forward with two-footed leaps, right? You can use a barbell, or two dumbbells, or even just one dumbbell but whichever you opt for, keep the weight fairly light. 

Start in the normal stiff-leg deadlift position, holding your chosen weight close to your thighs. Bend forward, taking one leg off the floor behind you as you lower the weight. Keep the raised leg straight and your pelvis level rather than allowing it to rotate. Once you feel the stretch in the hamstring of your grounded leg, reverse the movement to return to the start.

Romanian deadlift

Another variation on the deadlift, this exercise provides a greater challenge for the hamstrings. Stand holding the bar with feet hip-width apart and hands shoulder-width apart, shoulder blades packed back and down to engage your lats and spine in a neutral position. Take a deep breath to brace your core, then sit your hips back to let the bar travel down your thighs to just above or below your knees, depending on your flexibility. You should feel a deep stretch in your hamstrings at this point. Pause, then press the floor away and drive your hips forward as you exhale to stand tall. Pause, squeeze your glutes hard, then repeat.

Rack pull

Load a barbell in a squat rack, set to mid-thigh height. Stand with quads touching the bar, sit your hips back and hinge forward to grasp the bar with a shoulder-width grip. Keep your spine in neutral, eyes on the ground just in front of you, and move your shoulder blades back and down. Avoid flexing or extending your mid back. From here, take a deep breath in to brace your core, then powerfully press the floor away as you exhale to lift the bar out of the rack and stand tall. Pause, lower the bar to the start position slowly, pause to reset, then repeat.

Sumo deadlift

This wide-stance variation of the deadlift will challenge the adductors on the inner thighs as much as your hamstrings. Stand with feet wider than shoulder-width apart and your toes pointing out at a 45˚ angle, rather than straight ahead. Sit your hips back, hinge forward at the hips and bend your knees slightly to lower so you can grasp the bar. Keeping your chest facing forward, drive through your heels and extend your knees and hips as you exhale forcefully to lift the bar to mid-thigh height, keeping your arms long. Pause, slowly lower under control and repeat.

About Our Expert

Jeff Dobos

Jeff Dobos is a highly experienced NSCA-certified personal trainer and a regional manager for renowned fitness business Ultimate Performance, based in Washington DC. He has worked in the fitness industry since graduating from Adrian College, Michigan, with a Bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science in 2011. He currently holds certifications with NSCA (CSCS), Poliquin Group (Biosignature Levels 1 and 2), Stretch to Win Institute (Fascial Stretch Therapy Levels 1 and 2) CanFitPro (PTS), Darby Training Systems (DTS Level 1, Intro to Powerlifting), and Precision Nutrition Level 1. 

Sam Rider

Sam Rider is an experienced freelance journalist, specialising in health, fitness and wellness. For over a decade he's reported on Olympic Games, CrossFit Games and World Cups, and quizzed luminaries of elite sport, nutrition and strength and conditioning. Sam is also a REPS level 3 qualified personal trainer, online coach and founder of Your Daily Fix. Sam is also Coach’s designated reviewer of massage guns and fitness mirrors.

With contributions from