The straight leg deadlift is one of the most effective hinge variations in hinge movement category for both strength and hypertrophy. In this article I will talk through how to perform it, why to perform it and how it differs from the conventional deadlift and finally provide 6 different variations you can use in your training programme.
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The name of this exercise really doesn’t help either coaches or practitioners. Why would we name an exercise that requires a slight bend in the knees a straight leg deadlift? It’s most likely because the straight leg deadlift needs the knees to remain “straighter” than in the conventional deadlift.
It is essential that we do perform a bend at the knees, without this bend in the knees we will not be able to create an arch in the lower back which will result in a rounding of the spine. This will prevent the exercise from putting emphasis on the hamstrings and make it completely ineffective. If the legs remain straight we will not be able to perform the correct hinge technique, so the initial bend in the knees and the hips is one of the most important aspects of getting your technique correct in this exercise.
The major difference between the straight leg deadlift and the conventional deadlift is the hip positioning and the amount of knee flexion. The deadlift is an attempt to lift the maximal weight possible from the floor. This results in us using all of our legs and back to lift the weight, the hips are therefore positioned much lower in the starting position, allowing engagement of the entire body. The straight leg deadlift is very similar, but after the initial bend in the hips, the hips stay very high, isolating the hamstrings specifically. This is why it is so much easier to lift much heavier weights on the conventional deadlift compared to the straight leg deadlift, because we use a lot more muscle fibres rather than isolating the hamstrings.
The main use of the straight leg deadlift is its ability to create a hypertrophy stimulus in the hamstrings. When we are aiming to grow the hamstrings, using both conventional deadlifts and straight legs deadlifts in conjunction with each other can be an extremely effective. When thinking about the weekly volume required to create adaptation, between 8-12 sets of hamstring work per week will likely be enough to create growth in most beginner to intermediate individuals, the straight leg deadlift can make up a large part of this volume (4-6 sets per week).
The lumber spine needs to stabilise a great deal of weight in order for the hamstrings to take the majority of the load. If this stabilisation is done correctly, the lumber spine can benefit greatly in both strength and stability. In a lot of individuals the stabilisation of the lower back can be the limiting factor of the amount of weight lifted or the amount of repetitions completed. Do not continue to perform repetitions when you have lost lower back positioning, it instills bad habits.
The increase in size and strength of the hamstrings with the increased in lower back stability all result in helping increase your deadlift. If you are trying to improve your powerlifting total or just want to set a personal record on the deadlift, the straight leg deadlift can be an excellent tool that you should use.
The straight leg deadlift is a great tool for coaches to use to help clients understand the hinge movement pattern. The hinge movement pattern includes both the straight leg deadlift and the conventional deadlift, the straight leg variation is the more “pure” hinge movement however, because when we think of a hinge joint we can easily see how the straight leg deadlift resembles the movement of a hinge joint. Once we tie together the pelvic position of the hips, the tight upper back, the arched lower back and then moving through the hip motion, we really start to understand the movement of the hinge.
The straight leg deadlift requires a great deal of technical control and should therefore be performed with precision, moving through the desired range of motion slowly with control of every aspect of the movement. This can help build a mind muscle connection with the hamstrings.
This is a hamstring exercise, therefore when performing it, the goal should be to pull the weight with the hamstrings and try and isolate them as much as possible. This is hard to describe, but when you are performing the exercise it is important to not shift the load to other muscles, especially if your hamstrings are weak in comparison to other muscles in your legs.
Doing straight leg deadlifts after a tough work block on deadlifts probably isn’t a good idea. You will likely have already gained a lot of adaptations from the conventional deadlifts as well as generated a lot of fatigue. The extra adaptations gained from the straight leg deadlift probably will not be worth the extra fatigue generated.
When we are trying to grow muscle, as we would be if using the straight leg deadlift for hypertrophy purposes, it is better to put emphasis on performing high volume (8-20 repetitions) than using very heavy weights that challenge you in terms of strength. If the weight you select is too heavy it will challenge your positions too much and cause technical breakdown. Put emphasis on performing high volume rather than lifting heavy weight when using the straight leg deadlift to gain muscle.
Not bending at the knees and the hips will prevent the movement from being performed either correctly or through a full range of motion.
When attempting to lower the weight too close to the floor, we round the back. This is because we go past the range of motion of the hamstring and then use the rounding of the back to move closer to the floor. When I have clients with poor flexibility, I tell them that they need to stop at the end of their range of motion, meaning when they feel a pull in the hamstring. If they attempt to mimic someone with good range of motion in the hamstring, they will certainly round at the back.
Good positioning in the deadlift and the straight leg deadlift starts with a tight upper back, it sets the tone for the rest of the movement. The shoulder blades should be lightly pinched together and remain in this fixed position throughout the movement.
When performing single leg straight leg deadlift, it can be extremely challenging to keep the hips inline. It is important that the hips stay square throughout, otherwise we will not be able to pull on the hamstrings and if we cannot pull correctly on the hamstrings then there is not point in performing the exercise.
There are both single leg (uni-lateral) and bilateral straight leg variations. The reason you are performing the straight leg deadlift will play an important part in your decision around which variation you select. For pure hypertrophy purposes, bi-lateral are probably most effective. Whereas for athletes or general population clients who are also looking for improvements in hip stability and control, balance, core strength as well as hypertrophic adaptations then using a single leg variation might be more appropriate.
Here are 6 Examples of different straight leg deadlift variations that you can use in your training.
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This resource was written by Sean Klein. Sean Richard Klein has thousands of hours of coaching experience and a BSc in Sports Science with Management from Loughborough University. He owns a gym in Bayonne France, CrossFit Essor, which runs group classes and a Personal training studio.