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How to Perform Spine-Strengthening Stiff Leg Deadlifts With Zero Back Pain

3 men performing stiff dead leg lifts in competition arena.

If you’re new to the gym–like we’ve all been at one point–you know what “gym intimidation” feels like. Everyone around you seems like they know exactly what they’re doing…especially the people located at the barbell stations. They load up the bars with daunting amounts of weight, and they hoist it with ease. 

But deadlifts don’t have to be scary. In fact, adding deadlifts into your workout routine can be a major factor in getting faster results and looking ripped. What I’ve seen hold people back from trying deadlifts the most is fear of form. And I’ll just say: it’s a healthy fear. I’ve had my fair share of back injuries, and you certainly don’t want to compromise your back in any way by performing an exercise with poor form. Deadlifts are notorious for doing exactly this for people who haven't been trained. 

So here, we’ll be talking specifically about the Stiff Leg Deadlift and how to feel confident and…dare we say it…even kind of cool…as you perform this exercise both in front of other people at the gym and also in your head–knowing you’ve got your form looking pristine and doing zero damage to your back! 

NOTE: I recommend pairing this article with an awesome personal fitness trainer. From my experience, it is so helpful to have someone there in person to tweak up your positioning and give helpful cues as you figure out the move. 

Wait…What IS a Stiff Leg Deadlift and What is Good Stiff Leg Deadlift Form? 

So glad you asked. There are lots of deadlifts, and the stiff leg deadlift is different than a regular deadlift where you’re bending your knees with the downward motion toward the floor. As its name implies, with this move, you’re keeping your legs stiff with this exercise. 

To ensure good stiff leg deadlift form, you’ll need to follow the steps below. 

Stiff Leg Deadlift How to: 

  1.  At a barbell station, unrack the bar, place it on the ground, and add the desired weight to it. 
  2. Keeping your feet shoulder-length apart, walk under the bar, so it is just above the middle of your feet. 
  3. Lean forward to grab the bar. Your knees should bend just slightly as you complete this motion. 
  4. Bracing your core, lift the bar, keeping it close to your body. Your back should remain straight throughout this motion, and you’ll end up back in a standing position with the bar up by your hips. 
  5. Now return the bar slowly back to the ground, keeping your legs straight. 
  6. And that’s a rep! 


So, What Muscles Does a Stiff Leg Deadlift Target? 

Oh, you’ll feel it.

But let’s make sure you’re feeling it in all the right places. When you keep your legs “stiff” or straight during a deadlift, the exercise becomes a hip hinge rather than a squat, reducing quad activation and instead lighting up your posterior muscles, such as your back, hamstrings, and glutes. 

Hamstrings: You’ll feel a major stretch in your hamstrings as you perform a stiff leg deadlift. The hamstrings are primarily responsible for hip extension and knee flexion. 

Man stretching hamstrings, flexibility importance for stiff leg deadlift

Glutes: The hip extension downward will engage your glutes, but you’ll also feel them involved in the upward motion of the move. 

glute muscles highlighted, muscles used for stiff leg deadlift

Erector Spinae: These are muscles that can be found along your spine, including the iliocostalis, longissimus, and spinalis muscles. These muscles will help you keep a straight spine during the performance of this exercise. 

Adductor Magnus: These are inner thigh muscles that probably won’t like you during your stiff leg deadlifts. 

In addition to these muscles, the calves and core are also highly engaged during the stiff leg deadlift motion. 

What Are Mistakes Most People Make in Their Stiff Leg Deadlift Form? 

The Knee-Bend: Because this is an underrated exercise, and most people are used to a regular deadlift with bent knees, many people tend to bend their knees. This basically will give you more of a quad workout rather than working your back muscles the way a stiff leg deadlift does. 

Rounding the Lower Back: It’s all about the straight back with this move and keeping a neutral spine. Any rounding to the lower back could end up stressing out your lumbar. 

Hyperextending the Back:  When you come to the top of this motion, it’s super easy to hyperextend your back by flaring out your shoulder blades or pushing your butt up (instead of out) too far. This could also potentially cause damage to your spine. 

Using Too Much Weight: Especially if you’re new to the weight training game, don’t push yourself too hard. Keep it gradual, and make sure your form is never in question due to the amount of weight you’re lifting in a stiff leg deadlift! 

Hip Hinge Issues: This is one of the hardest techniques for a newbie to master. When you hinge at the hips, you’re not just bending your waist. A lot of other body parts are engaging in this motion as well: your core is tight; your back is flat; and your butt should be pushing back as you hinge. Without all of this extra support from other parts of the body, the back can become injured. 

Pushing the Barbell out too Far: If you push the barbell out too far, it could also potentially cause damage. Be sure to keep the barbell close to your body as you lift it up and let it back down–not up against your body but just out from it. 

Is There Such a Thing as a Stiff Leg Deadlift Dumbbell Style?

Sure there is. Using dumbbells for stiff leg deadlifts can actually be an ideal option for a beginner! Here’s why: 

At-Home Capability: Performing a stiff leg deadlift dumbbell style makes it so you can more easily complete this exercise from home using your own dumbbells. This gives you time to master your form from the comfort of your home. 

Easier Handling: Stiff leg deadlifts with dumbbells are also just plain easier to handle because you don’t have to manage the bar from the barbell. As you’re learning form, not having the barbell in your way could make it simpler for you. 

Lighter Weight: Usually, if you’re performing a stiff leg deadlift dumbbell style, you’ll be using lighter weights than a full-fledged barbell. This lighter weight is ideal for those prone to back injury because the heavier the weight, the higher the risk of hurting your back.  

What’s the Difference: Stiff Leg Deadlift vs. RDL?

Woman performing stiff leg deadlift in gym.

So, what about those RDLs? Romanian deadlifts–or RDLs–as they’re commonly called–can look so similar to the stiff leg deadlift that it can be difficult for the untrained eye to discern. So, how can you tell the difference between a stiff leg deadlift vs. an RDL? 

Starting Position

  • Always start a stiff leg deadlift with the barbell on the ground. 
  • RDLs begin with the barbell already up and at hip level. 

Bar Angle

  • Stiff leg deadlifts require the bar to move vertically up and down from the ground to your hips. 
  • RDLs require the bar to travel in a slightly more diagonal fashion, following your thighs down to below your knees and then back up. 

Knee Flexion

  • With stiff leg deadlifts, it’s all about the hip hinge, and while your knees will bend just slightly, there’s not much else happening here. 
  • RDLs also require a hip hinge but with more bend to your knee. 

How Far the Bar Goes Down: 

  • With a stiff leg deadlift, the bar will come all the way down to the floor. 
  • The lowest you’ll bring the bar down in an RDL is just below the knee. 

Muscles Worked: 

  • Ultimately, if you compare a stiff leg deadlift vs. RDL, the stiff leg deadlift will activate your lower back and hamstrings. 
  • An RDL will also work your upper back, quads, and traps, emphasizing a greater range of motion. 


What if My Back Starts Hurting After Stiff Leg Deadlifts? 

Woman with hands on lower back, pain after stiff leg deadlift.

So, you read this article a few times. You got it all down. Your form was perfect. Still feeling that dull pain in your back? That’s where I recommend getting help from a professional fitness trainer. But we can also help! 

If you're experiencing back pain, and this is stopping you from being able to perform deadlifts and enjoy the rush after a great workout, don’t let an injury stop you from your fitness journey. When I injured my back, I found that carefully selecting exercises to specifically target my back pain worked wonders. 

That’s why I recommend Back Of Steel, our 15-minute per day, 3 day per week supplemental program designed to bulletproof your back with strength and stamina. Check it out below: 

Back of Steel

Also, why not try our at-home muscle massage tool, the QL Claw? This bad boy targets your back muscles in all the right places–basically providing you with an at-home massage. It sends your muscles messages that they can calm down by hitting trigger points for lower back pain. Check out the QL Claw here: 

QL Claw

Combine these two together for a powerful tonic against back pain. Good luck on those stiff leg deadlifts, and all the best to you on your fitness journey!



And now that you've read about stiff leg deadlifts, read up on how to Hulk Up Your Hamstrings by Mastering the Lying Leg Curl!

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