Stiff-legged deadlifts 101: Steps, Proper Form, and Common Mistakes

Stiff-legged deadlifts (or SLDL) - fitzabout
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Updated: February 9, 2023

The stiff-legged deadlifts (or SLDL) is probably a more familiar exercise in most gyms, as a result of the fact that so many people do the deadlift wrong, and it ends up looking like this by mistake.

The SLDL is essentially an RDL off the floor – without the stretch reflex but with the higher hips, more horizontal back angle and more vertical shin angle of the RDL.

What is Stiff-legged deadlifts (or SLDL)?

Stiff-legged deadlifts (or SLDL) - fitzabout

The stiff-legged deadlift, also known as the SLDL or straight legged deadlift, is an isolation movement and variation of the deadlift performed with straight legs—or at least straighter than the traditional deadlift. This means you have to have a slight bend in the knees throughout the movement, with stiff-legged deadlifts requiring you to use more of your lower back, hamstrings and glutes to propel the weight. This also reduces range of motion because you won’t be bending at the knees. Talking about the muscles involved in the straight leg deadlift, it mainly targets the hamstrings, glutes, lower back and calves.

How to do a stiff-legged deadlifts (or SLDL)?

Because the SLDL begins on the floor, it involves a longer range of motion than the RDL, which must stop at the point where the low back is unlocked due to limitations in hamstring extensibility.

Most people can’t do a strict RDL all the way down to the floor with a bar loaded with 17-inch plates; That’s why you have to do SLDLs with enough knee bend to get your back in a good position to start. The amount of knee flexion will obviously depend on individual flexibility.

The point of the exercise is to have stiff legs – knees extended as much as possible and hips higher than in deadlifts1, with a low back in the starting position – so use as few knees as possible.

Assume your regular deadlift stance, placing the bar directly over your mid-feet. For the RDL, use a regular double-overhand clean grip for the reasons stated above. Unlock your knees and set them in a tight position, as straight as your flexibility allows. Lift your chest, take a long breath and stretch.

This means that the bar leaves the floor just above mid-foot, but is still in the air in front of the shins.

When the bar is just above your knees, it comes over your feet, and the bridge is locked at the top like a regular deadlift.

Again, each rep is replaced on the floor, reset, and pulled from the stop; It’s a deadlift, not an RDL, and each rep starts with a dead stop.

Both the SLDL and the RDL are versatile exercises and can be implemented into your training in a number of ways.

They can be performed in different rep ranges, depending on the desired effect. Sets of five work well when they’re used as a substitute for deadlifts on a light day; In fact, SLDLs and RDLs can be used for the opposite set of deadlifts, as they do not produce the tension that the full heavy movement is known for.

For back-off work after deadlifts, they can be used for sets of 8-10 reps to accumulate additional volume. And high-rep sets of 20 RDLs can be an interesting addition to your training regimen.

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Despite the fact that both RDL and SLDL can cause excessive hamstring pain in the short term that can interfere with the normal movement of the knees; Both exercises provide a great way to increase hamstring extensibility over time.

They are fantastic stretches and are often used with lighter weights as a warm-up for deadlifts and squats.2

1. Proper form

Step-1: Correct stance and down position

  • SLD is performed by placing the hands directly under the shoulders. The feet should be a comfortable distance apart, and the toes should be pointing straight ahead.
  • From the bottom position, the knees are slightly bent—not locked—and the lower back should be in a flat or slightly arched position and kept tight throughout the lift.

Step-2: The slow and controlled approach

  • The movement should be initiated in a slow and controlled manner, with the bar kept close to the feet throughout the movement.
  • In fact, the bar should never be allowed to have annular tears, the nuclear material will be contained without significant bulging.
  • Although the athlete will not suffer immediate ill effects, prolonged prolapse accelerates degenerative changes and dehydration of the affected disc, resulting in degenerative disc disease.
  • Disc dehydration is a major component of chronic disc pain syndrome in middle-aged adults. 3

Step-3: Taking the bar away from the leg

  • The shoulders should be kept tight along with the scapulae to stabilize the thoracic spine.
  • This helps maintain proper form and prevents the shoulders from rounding at any point during the lift. This is accomplished through isometric contraction of the rhomboids.
  • In incorrect form, the bar moves away from your leg, and all movement should occur at the hips—not the knees. 4
  • The arms are kept straight and should be pulled back throughout the lift without bending the elbows.

Step-4: Arms straight and back straight

  • The back is flat and should not be allowed to round – especially in the lower depth of movement. However, rounding the back and shoulders is acceptable when using very light weights to target the intervertebral muscles.
  • The spinal erectors, gluteals and hamstrings are the muscle groups most responsible for movement in the lower body.
  • The adductors, gastros and abdomen play a major role in stabilization of the upper body, as do the latissimus dorsi and trapezius muscles. 4 5

Step-5: Hyperextension of the Lumbar Spine

Once the mid-thigh position of the bar is cleared, the legs can be straightened; However, be sure not to hyperextend the back at the top position.

Step-6: Lower the bar in an adequate and safe range of motion

  • Lower the bar in a controlled manner until you reach your intended end point, keeping your back tight and the bar close to your feet.
  • In most cases, an adequate and safe range of motion will be where the bar is about 6-8 inches from the ground, or about mid-shin.

Step-7: Slightly Extended Neck

  • With regard to upper body position, the neck should be kept in a neutral position or slightly extended when lowering the bar.
  • Never twist your neck during the lift, which can cause your back to round or throw you off balance.
  • The scapulae should be retracted as the bar is raised and lowered.
  • Unless one is targeting the intervertebral muscles, the shoulders should not be allowed to move as the bar is moved through the range of motion.
  • Correct form is the key to a safe lift, and technique is more important than weight!

Step-8: Mixed Grip

  • Your grip is also essential because if it is placed even a small amount off-center on the barbell, it creates an asymmetrical distribution of forces in the lumbar spine – where 85-90% of disc herniation occur. 5 6
  • A mixed grip, where one arm is pronated, and one arm is bent, is suggested with heavier weights. 7
  • However, once again, be aware of uneven weight distribution which can apply force unevenly when the lift begins and can lead to injury.
  • Improper form in this lift, which allows for any degree of lumbar flexion in conjunction with normal flexion-extension movement, can have dire consequences.
  • Consequences may include tearing of the facet joint capsule with associated swelling (sprain) or hyperextension of the sacral base of the L5 nerve root as it exits the intervertebral foramen (impingement syndrome). 3
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2. Movement

  • Push the hips back and lean forward until the torso is almost parallel with the floor.
  • Reach down and grab the bar using an overhand grip (palms facing down) or a mixed grip. You may need some wrist wraps if you are using a significant amount of weight.
  • Make sure the spine is neutral, the shins are vertical, and the hips are approximately at shoulder height.
  • Keeping the knees fixed and the back straight, bend at the waist and lower the barbell over the feet.
  • Keep reaching forward as if you were going to pick something up from the floor until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings. Inhale as you perform this movement.
  • Begin to straighten the torso again, extending the hips until you return to the starting position. Exhale while doing this action.
  • Repeat for the recommended amount of repetitions.

3. Tips

  • Amazingly enough, it has been advocated in the past by leading authorities in the fields of resistance training and bodybuilding that if a person does not have back or knee problems, they can perform SLDs with the legs completely straight.
  • The rounding of the back places undue stress on the ligamentous structures and muscles of the erector spinae. When rounded, the force on the lumbar spine triples.
  • Lifting with the lumbar spine in a rounded or “unlocked” position allows for posterior loading of the disc nucleus, even prior to the lifting motion.
  • Unless the person is using very light weights, an open spine performing an SLD increases the likelihood of injury to the posterior lateral aspect of the lumbar discs. These facts should underscore the importance of using correct form and keeping the back flat throughout the full range of motion.
  • A protective mechanism against rounding is to keep the lumbar back in lordosis. This concept is known as “setting back”.
  • This is done by isometrically contracting the muscles of the lower and middle back before lifting the weight. It should lock in the lordotic curve and protect the spine. Keeping the back tight stabilizes the lumbar spine, which prevents it from rounding.
  • In the bodybuilding arena, a person with a very strong and flexible low back may be able to tolerate the pressure of the disc at an extreme range of motion, but for most other individuals, this maneuver will invite injury.
  • The most extreme extent of spinal flexion is an anatomical end point that must be approached with extreme caution.
  • Just remember, you could be millimeters away from rupturing a disc—a major, debilitating injury.
  • So why risk the extremes of speed? Would the strength and flexibility potentially gained be worth the risk of a career-ending injury? Will those few extra inches of girth make you a better athlete or lifter? It is unlikely. You have to be the judge.
  • An alternative to full range of motion is to intentionally tilt the pelvis forward to pre-stretch the hamstring group. In this position, keeping the back tight, the bar should be lowered just below the knees.
  • This is known as the Romanian deadlift. A more conservative and safe approach to finding the proper range of motion is to always keep the knees slightly bent and lower the bar to the point of tightness in the upper hamstrings.
  • Range of motion is a personal preference and should be determined by the individual’s own subjective comfort zone. Be conservative to avoid injury, and always use sub-maximal resistances.
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Bottom line

Low back pain is prevalent in our society today, and every possible safety measure needs to be followed to reduce its occurrence.

Lifting weights in the wrong way can lead to lower back injuries. The SLD is a common lift in weight training programs across the country and needs to be examined closely. Done correctly, this is an excellent exercise for increasing lower body strength and flexibility. However, using the wrong form can lead to devastating injury and chronic low-back problems.

Understanding the lumbar spine and its movements is key to knowing how the mechanical forces of SLD affect the spine. Back strength and flexibility should be good before doing SLD. Before incorporating SLD into one’s training program, one should always obtain proper medical clearance.

The mechanical form used for the lift is very important. Strict form allows proper and safe execution of the movement. Range of motion should be conservative to avoid injury. The spine experiences large forces during this lift and has poor mechanical leverage—therefore, should not attempt to accelerate with the weight.

To ensure that the SLD remains a productive lift for individuals striving to gain greater hamstring strength and flexibility, understand the mechanics of the lift, use good judgment, and ensure that everyone lifts within their ability.8

Sources

  1. Giuseppe Coratella, Gianpaolo Tornatore, Stefano Longo, Fabio Esposito, and Emiliano Cè. “An Electromyographic Analysis of Romanian, Step-Romanian, and Stiff-Leg Deadlift: Implication for Resistance Training,” Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2022, 19(3), 1903; doi: 10.3390/ijerph19031903.[]
  2. Source: Starting Strength – Basic Barbell Training by Mark Rippetoe. Available here: https://amzn.to/3V1OHXK[]
  3. Hamada E. Seif, Aqeel Alenazi, Sahar Mahmoud Hassan, Shaji John Kachanathu, Ashraf R. Hafez. “The Effect of Stretching Hamstring, Gastrocnemius, Iliopsoas and Back Muscles on Pain and Functional Activities in Patients with Chronic Low Back Pain: A Randomized Clinical Trial,” Open Journal of Therapy and Rehabilitation. Vol.3 No.4, November 2015. DOI: 10.4236/ojtr.2015.34019.[][]
  4. Florian Schellenberg, William R. Taylor, and Silvio Lorenzetti. “Towards evidence based strength training: a comparison of muscle forces during deadlifts, goodmornings and split squats,” BMC Sports Sci Med Rehabil. 2017; 9: 13. doi: 10.1186/s13102-017-0077-x. PMCID: PMC5513080. PMID: 28725437.[][]
  5. Federico Nigro and Sandro Bartolomei. “A Comparison Between the Squat and the Deadlift for Lower Body Strength and Power Training,” J Hum Kinet. 2020 Jul; 73: 145–152. doi: 10.2478/hukin-2019-0139. PMCID: PMC7386153. PMID: 32774546.[][]
  6. Haff, Greg, and N. Travis Triplett. “Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning.” Ed. Greg Haff and N. Travis Triplett. Fourth edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2016. Print.[]
  7. Yessis M. Kinesiology of Exercise : A Safe and Effective Way to Improve Athletic Performance. Indianapolis Ind: Masters Press; 1992. https://archive.org/details/kinesiologyofexe00yess. Accessed December 17 2022.[]
  8. Gardner, P. J.; Cole, Don E. “The Stiff-Legged Deadlift,” Strength and Conditioning Journal. 21(5):7, October 1999. Available here: https://journals.lww.com/nsca-scj/citation/1999/10000/the_stiff_legged_deadlift.1.aspx[]

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