The Stiff-Legged Deadlift Must Die

By Dan Wagman, PhD, CSCS

I’m glad that Al’s article on the Romainian Deadlift (RDL) and Stiff-Legged Deadlift (SLDL) mentioned the dangers of the SLDL. Everything about the SLDL is contrary to proper lifting technique, biomechanics, and physiology-and as such increases injury risk immensely. And since we’re talking about the back, an injury there can be life changing and lifting career ending. Please let me explain…and I’ll do this as briefly as possible and in a step-by-step sequence.

A properly executed RDL reduces the risk of injury over the SLDL many fold. For one, a properly executed RDL allows the lifter to simply deadlift the barbell off the ground; this means that proper lifting technique can be employed before you even start doing a RDL. Then, as you commence the RDL, the barbell is slid down the thighs, over the knees, and about half way down the legs, while at all times remaining in contact with the body. This is achieved by keeping the back in a neutral position (flat) and by shifting the center of mass back toward your heels as much as possible. If you find yourself losing balance backwards and your toes popping up a bit, then you’re doing a proper RDL. By keeping the back flat and keeping the center of mass as close to the coronal plane* as possible, the shearing forces upon the lower back are minimized. Research on the squat has demonstrated clearly and unequivocally, how the more the center of mass moves away from the coronal plane (forward), by as an example doing a low-bar sq compared to a high-bar sq, shearing forces on the lower back increase many fold. (Certain dl comparison studies have demonstrated this, too.)

So what about shearing forces? Whenever you lift something, joints move, and shearing forces exist. But by observing proper lifting technique, grounded in sound biomechanics, these shearing forces are something your body can handle and adapt to so that they become a non-issue. And so in the low-bar squat, even though the shearing forces upon the lower back are greater than in the high-bar squat, since proper lifting technique can nevertheless be maintained, these forces don’t add up to an increased injury risk. Not so in the SLDL!

Some of the technique strategies necessary to reduce shearing forces upon the lower back when you lift is to bend the knees, keep the back in neutral, and keep the center of mass as close to the coronal plane as possible. This can all be achieved with every pull off the ground-except the SLDL. And what makes the SLDL particularly insidious is that execution of this lift requires you to violate all principles of proper lifting. And that’s why this lift must die…

  • Whenever the center of mass moves forward…you’re increasing shearing forces upon the lower back; you can’t do a SLDL with the bar close to the body.
  • Whenever you lift something with locked knees…you’re increasing shearing forces upon the lower back; this is one of the chief aspects resulting in a barbell away from your body.
  • Whenever you round your back, you’re taking the curvatures out of your spine, thus reducing the structural strength of the spine, thereby increasing forces upon all vertebrae of the spine…and you’re also increasing shearing forces upon the lower back; you couldn’t lift with neutral spine (flat back) even if you tried when your knees are supposed to remain locked.
  • Whenever you lift more weight…you’re increasing shearing forces upon the lower back; but in the SLDL this occurs due to poor technique that places anatomical structures (tendons, ligaments, discs, muscles, etc.) at additional risk by ostensibly weakening them.

Up until now I’ve withheld personal opinion and just shared scientific fact. But based on these scientific facts, my personal opinion is that if the IAWA Worlds had the SLDL as a contested lift, I’d only do a token lift with the minimum amount possible, even if that meant losing the worlds by 10 pounds. And not trying to pick on Al here, I would like you to consider that him having done SLDL’s for 20 years without injury is simply a function of luck. If I were him, I’d consider the facts of biomechanics and I’d stop doing SLDL’s now and thank Lady Luck every day that I made it through the mine field intact.

So now some of you might be thinking that, “Yeah, well, but the SLDL does help my deadlift by giving me more strength off the ground.” Guys, let’s be honest here, that’s just conjecture based on what came out of the “Golden Age of Lifting.” It can be argued that these guys gave rise to the field of exercise science. And now that it has advanced, we should not hold on to old and unproven myths, but embrace the advances in knowledge these guys laid the foundation for. So, sure, you might think that SLDL’s will help you get the barbell of the ground, because that’s what you feel. But what you’re feeling there is just an acute sense of what’s going on due to a new exercise-it’ll fade…and the feelings are not a reflection of reality. Research has shown that in an effort to get the barbell moving off the ground, you need more speed-not a violation of good lifting form and enough luck to survive that. So you’d be much better off training high pulls than SLDL’s to increase your pull off the ground. There’s a reason weightlifters tend to be great deadlifters…and it’s not because they do SLDL’s.

Overall, there is absolutely no reason to do the one lift that violates all principles of proper lifting. And as to being a contested lift in IAWA and USAWA…who cares. Is it worth the risk? At the end of the day, that’s your decision. I can only hope that you’ll be able to take the above as useful evidence to derive at a more informed decision. As for me, SLDL RIP.

*Imagine looking at a person from the side and dividing that person into equal halves front and back. The center line that divides front and back is the coronal plane.

Stiff Legged DL’s vs. Romanian DL’s

by Al Myers

Ed Schock performing a 210 KG Stiff Legged Deadlift at the 2007 USAWA National Championships in Lebanon, PA. Ed is one "of the few" lifters that have done a stiff legged deadlift of over 500 pounds in USAWA competition.

This is the question that often gets asked in the gym – which is better – stifflegged deadlifts or Romanian deadlifts?  That’s a question that is quite debateable as some don’t like either,  while some prefer one over the other, and gives passionate reasons.  Much like asking a guy if he prefers blonds or brunettes.  You’ll end up with someone saying they prefer redheads. 

However, I do believe that MOST lifters really don’t know the difference between Stifflegged Deadlifts and Romanian Deadlifts. I often hear lifters saying they are doing one of these lifts, when in fact, they are doing the other.  So I’m going to take a “step back” here and explain both of these common accessory deadlift exercises.  If all this is stuff you already know, just look at the picture of Ed Schock, skip the rest of the story, and hope I  write something more interesting tomorrow.  But I CONSTANTLY hear stuff from lifters that tell me that there’s more confusion between these two lifts than admitted.   Some even think they are the same lift!  But they aren’t! 

STIFF LEGGED DEADLIFT

This lift is actually an official USAWA lift.  The USAWA rules are pretty simple for it: ” The rules of the Deadlift apply except that the legs must be straight and locked before the beginning of the lift and must remain so throughout the lift.  Any width of stance is allowed.  The arms are allowed to be inside the legs.”  Now this official rule is a pretty good explanation of a proper stifflegged deadlift, with one exception.  That is allowing sumo stance!  That completely neutralizes the strength-gaining purpose of a stiff-legged deadlift in training.  The SL deadlift should be done with a narrow stance.  I feel these principles define a stiff legged deadlift:

  • Narrow stance.
  • Legs straight throughout the lift, or maybe “just slightly” bent and remain in same degree of flexion throughout.
  • Toes should be pointed out slightly, just like your regular deadlift stance.
  • Hands should be positioned on the bar in an overgrip fashion. If you have a weak grip – hook grip the bar or use straps.
  • Shoulders “rolled over”, and the back rounded at the beginning of the pull.
  • Bar starts over toes.
  • Hips positioned over the feet throughout the lift.
  • Back goes from a point of flexion to extension during the lift.
  • Bar comes into contact with thighs during lift and remains close to the body from that point on.
  • Each rep done slow and under control.

The SL Deadlift  puts extreme pressure on the lower back, especially at the beginning of the lift.  The starting position, with the shoulders rolled over, is what Doctors for years have said is “the WRONG WAY to pick something up”!  But that is what makes it such a great exercise for developing that strong lower lumbar strength.  It takes the back from flexion to extension throughout the execution.  The SL deadlift develops sudden strength from the floor, and if you have problems getting your deadlifts started, this lift will enhance your starting strength in the deadlift. 

ROMANIAN DEADLIFT

The Romanian Deadlift, or RDL’s as they are often called, is a favorite accessory exercise for Olympic lifters. The story goes that a World Class Romanian Olympic lifter popularized this lift, thus it became named that way. It is a much more difficult exercise to learn than the stifflegged deadlift.   The following principles define a Romanian Deadlift:

  • A normal shoulder width stance is taken, with toes facing straight ahead.
  • The bar is gripped with an overhand grip.
  • Knees are in a state of flexion of around 20 degrees during the duration except at the finish, and in the beginning are even slightly more flexed.
  • Shoulders stay up and the back remains in a neutral flat state.  This is the biggest difference between a SLDL and a RDL.  The back must never flex forward or straighten.  IT MUST STAY IN THE SAME STAIGHT FLAT POSITION THOUGHOUT.
  • Hips are “pushed back” behind the heels during the lift.
  • The bar stays close to the body throughout.
  • Plates may not touch the platform, depending on the lifters flexibility.

Now for my editorial.  Both of these exercises work the hamstrings and lower back extensively. Both are intended to be done for repetitions (with the exception of the Stifflegged DL if it is done in an official USAWA competition).  I will say this – do the RDL’s if you are an Olympic lifter and the SL DL if you are a powerlifter.  The reason for this is that I do believe that “form carryover” exists, and that RDL’s will cause breakdown in your deadlift form (pushing hips too far back) and SL DL’s will cause breakdown in your clean technique (by not keeping the shoulders up).  This is my opinion of course.  Another argument you will hear on SL DL’s is that they are a very dangerous exercise to do.  The reasons given are the rounding and unrounding of the back puts excessive pressure on the spinal erectors and and vertebral discs.  But this excessive pressure is  ”the secret” as to why SL DL’s will build extreme lower back strength.  If you perform them slow and steady for repetitions, they can be done safely.  RDL’s have received complaints that they put extreme pressure on the hamstrings, and can lead to hamstring pulls/tears.  But that is the reason they are being done – to strengthen the hamstrings!  Again, if a lifter has poor hamstring flexibility start the RDL’s from the hang.  With time, you will notice your flexibility improves and the hamstrings get stronger. Starting from the hang also helps maintaining the straight back alignment with the shoulders erect.  Some lifters will do stifflegged deadlifts standing on blocks as to increase the range of motion.  I have done them that way before as well, but prefer to do them from the floor now.  I do NOT feel this added range of motion is adding anything to the benefits, as you will have to use less weight and thus not stimulate the muscles to the same degree as from the floor.   The purpose of even doing this exercise is to enhance your pulling strength, and have carry over to your max deadlift.  Having flexibility beyond what is needed to do a normal deadlift serves no purpose in increasing your maximum deadlift.

I have always been a bigger fan of the Stiff legged deadlift.  I have done them weekly for over 20 years and I have never sustained an injury doing them. I have at times worked up to 450-500 lbs. for reps of 3-8, with each rep paused on the floor. I’ll push them hard – but not to failure.   My max deadlift has ALWAYS directly corresponded to the weight I was training my SL’s with.  The higher the SL’s – the higher the DL.  But I have never been a trained Oly lifter, thus that is the reason I prefer SL’s.  My training partner Scott Tully has always liked RDL’s, mainly because his start in lifting was with Olympic  weightlifting.  We argue constantly over this, as I’m trying to convert him to SL’s, but for some reason he can’t keep his legs straight (LOL) from too many years of doing RDL’s.  Bottom line is this – both of these exercises are OUTSTANDING exercises and at least you should consider implementing one of them into your training program.