From Dork to Diva: Deadlift and stiff-legged deadlift

July 17th, 2008  |  Published in From dork to diva  |  30 Comments

The deadlift is one of the best exercises (second only to squats and the Olympic lifts) for overall development, particularly in the lower body. In addition, it’s a very functional lift. We often squat down to pick something up: groceries, a laundry basket, a child, the ratty couch that your deadbeat friend is making you move again, some guy with a gambling problem that your boss asked you to whack, etc. The deadlift, more than most other lifts, prepares you for “real life”. The premise of the deadlift is simply squatting down to pick something (a “dead weight”) off the floor.

It’s very important to get good form down on the deadlift, because doing it incorrectly, and/or with too much weight at the outset, can damage your lower back. Some gyms have a deadlift platform (which I am on; you notice that there are hooks at waist height to set the weight on) with some kind of rack apparatus to put your bar on when you are loading or unloading plates. If your gym doesn’t have one, just do these from the floor. It helps to have a partner who can steady the bar as you put your plates on.

Smaller plates are easier to manipulate, but do bear in mind, however, that the size of the plate will affect the height of your pull. The smaller the plate, the lower down you’ll have to squat to get into proper position. If you’re short, like me, this isn’t a huge deal. It’ll be a big advantage, in fact, when you do begin pulling with 45 lb. plates, because the bar will begin around mid-shin and you won’t have to pull it up very far. If you have difficulty squatting down properly with smaller plates, try either changing your stance, or gradually increasing your range of motion by starting with the pull higher, and progressively working your way down. You can do this by pulling the bar off the safety pins in a power cage, or you can simply put plates flat on the floor, underneath the plates on your bar, and elevate them slightly that way.

DORK

To the right, we have the classic bad deadlift.

Notice the rounded back, the shoulders pulled forward, the head down, and the hips up high. There’s a lot of pressure on the lower back here, and since the leg involvement has been minimized, it means this exercise is not only unsafe but highly inefficient. After all, the legs are much stronger than the lower back, and they should be the ones doing the work.

When the spine is rounded (flexed), the muscles that support and stabilize it are unable to do their job. They go off and have a nice coffee break, maybe even a little snooze. The load is then shifted to the connective tissues: the ligaments and tendons are forced to hold everything together. They’re strong, but much stronger when working as a team with the muscles, and eventually they’ll give out as the vertebrae are pulled apart from the shearing force.

This is the back injury equivalent of walking into a biker bar wearing a tutu, with your wallet taped to your chest, and insulting someone’s momma. You’re asking for it.

DIVA: CONVENTIONAL STYLE

DIVA: SUMO STYLE

There are two general styles of deadlifting: conventional and sumo. The left-hand pictures in each row show the starting position for both conventional and sumo deadlifts respectively. While there are general rules which apply to both, there is no right style of deadlift. It depends largely on your own comfort and individual biomechanics. Try both and see which you prefer.

Conventional: feet are placed about shoulder width apart. Hands are outside knees.

Sumo: feet are placed wide, toes pointing slightly out. Hands are inside knees, with grip slightly narrower than shoulder width.

In both cases, I’m using an alternating grip. You don’t have to, but it’s something that makes holding the bar easier. Just grab the bar with one hand overhand and one hand underhand. This minimizes the problem of the bar rolling around. Notice that in both cases, my hips are low, my back is straight with shoulders pulled back, and I’m looking forward.

The centre picture shows the mid-point of the ascent (or descent, depending on whether you’re an optimist or pessimist). Hips are still low, back is slightly arched, shoulders are still pulled back, and I’m still looking up. The leg muscles are providing the upward drive here, not the back. It helps to think of your hands as hooks from which the weight hangs, nothing more. You’re not pulling the bar up, you’re pushing yourself up. Try to drive your heels through the floor. Notice also that I’m not leaning too far forward, and that the bar stays close to my body. The farther out that bar is from you, the harder it is to bring it up. This is where the difference between sumo and conventional deadlifts really shows itself. If you have a short back and long legs, you’re more likely to take off your kneecaps trying to do a conventional deadlift.

The picture on the right in both cases is the top position of the deadlift. Notice that my hips are pushed forward, shoulders are still back, and knees are not locked. To bring the weight up through the top part of the deadlift, push the hips forward (really squeeze the glutes and contract the hamstrings to do this). When your hips extend in this way, your back just naturally comes up.

Do the reverse of this motion to lower the bar under control. Don’t just drop it at the end of a set unless you’re one of those lucky people who trains in a REAL gym with platforms, rubber weights, and all. Don’t allow your form to relax on the descent.

When learning the DL, begin with light weight—even just a broomstick—and learn the form first before adding too much resistance. Again, think of it as a squat that involves picking something up from the floor. You can do this movement with dumbbells if you like, and it’s up to you whether you hold them outside or inside your knees.

stiff-legged deadlift

Sometimes incorrectly called the straight-legged deadlift, the SLDL involves the spinal erectors (lower back), glutes (butt) and hamstrings (back of thighs), and to a lesser extent, the grip, forearms, and upper back. Since this is a compound movement but is less complex than squats, put this after squats in your workout.

A cautionary note about this exercise. This is the exercise that gave me the back injury that still challenges me today. Years ago, at the end of a long workout when my back was fatigued, I decided on the final set of SLDLs to increase the weight. This, as it turned out, was a Really Dumb Thing To Do. At about rep number four, a stabbing pain shot through my low back and down my right leg. I found out much later that this was probably a disc herniation at the L5 vertebra.

There are some important lessons here. First, never do this exercise as a maximal lift. Do not test your 1 rep max, do not go to failure, and do not use a 100% effort. Treat it as a light endurance and conditioning exercise only, rather than a go-hard-or-go-home movement like I did. Focus on using the glutes and hamstrings to drive the movement. And if you have a history of back pain and injury, especially a disc herniation, pass on this movement. There are many other options for glute and hamstring training.

DORK

To the left is a bad stiff-legged deadlift.

Aside from the fact that I’m cracking up in the picture (my lovely and talented photographic assistant was making me laugh):

  • my back is rounded
  • my shoulders are pulled forward
  • I’m looking down
  • worst of all, my knees are locked and hyper-extended

Since women tend to be able to hyper-extend their joints with ease, this is a problem we should take care to avoid.

This position puts a lot of pressure on my lower back.

DIVA

The picture on the left shows the starting position for a stiff-legged deadlift. My feet are shoulder width or narrower. My knees are slightly bent, the bar is close to my shins, my back is straight and my shoulders are pulled back. I am looking up, which helps to keep my back in the appropriate position.

In this position, I contract my hamstrings and glutes and straighten from the hips to bring the weights up, as in the centre picture. Although there is lower back involvement in this exercise, the drive should come mainly from the contraction of your hams and glutes. When you first learn this exercise, begin with very light weight, and concentrate on feeling the sensation of squeezing your hams and glutes.

The picture on the right (astute readers will notice that it’s the same pic as the top of a regular deadlift, which is kind of cheating coz it incorrectly shows my feet too far apart and hands too close together, but if you’re smart enough to read this you’re probably smart enough to figure out the difference) shows the top of the SLDL movement. I have used the contraction of my glutes to push my hips forward which helps to bring the weight up. My knees are still slightly bent and I never lock them. Shoulders are back and chest is up and out.

Responses

  1. Casey says:

    March 10th, 2009at 10:46 am(#)

    Hi krista!

    could you please explain how a traditional (versus stiff-legged) deadlift is different from a squat in regards to benefits? Just to be an annoying smarty-pants, i am going to guess that the squat, when you eventually add weight, is like adding weight to your body, so it increases your “push” strength and your get up and go strength, while the traditional or sumo DL’s, relative to their corresponding squats, help with the get up and go, but engage the top of the glutes more and focus on lifting the object (baby, laundry, like you said) from floor to waist height?.
    oh but wait, i am looking at your pics and now i still can’t figure out how a squat is different from a DL. HELP! thanks, also love the redesign!

  2. Mistress Krista says:

    March 12th, 2009at 4:09 am(#)

    Well, first of all, don’t feel stupid, feel smart: they ARE similar. I group them into “squat type” exercises along with things like lunges. All involve some form of combined hip and knee extension (straightening). A DL is just a squat down to pick something up. The key factor that makes them different is the biomechanics of the weight placement.

    A squat loads the spine along its length, aka axial loading. If done properly to full depth it also involves the most knee and hip flexion (bending). This then requires more force to be generated to extend hips and knees at the farthest ranges of motion (ie when most bent).

    A DL requires holding the bar, which means more grip/forearm work and stabilization from arms. It also requires you to engage the midback more to prevent rounding of the spine, although there’s also lots of engagement from midback in a front squat. The spine is being pulled forward and down rather than compressed along its length, as in a back squat. Usually folks don’t squat as deeply with a DL; folks squatting sumo style will also engage hips/glutes much more.

    I’m not aware of any studies that directly compare force production in squat vs DL but that’s the basic idea.

  3. Casey says:

    March 16th, 2009at 7:16 pm(#)

    thanks for the response as always! :D

    Now…regarding the two squat-type deadlifts, are they redundant in a routine that already involves squats?

    and sort of an extension of that question: since all i can do at this point as far as squats are concerned is holding on to something in order to go to full depth without falling over, should i:

    a)instead of squats, deadlift with the idea of graduating to squats when i am stronger (assuming that the front-holding of the weight will help me from going backwards),
    or

    b)keep doing my beginner’s squats AND deadlift (because honestly i would prefer to be using a little weight with my squats, they aren’t hard enough exertion-wise, just form wise because i fall backwards whee!)

  4. Mistress Krista says:

    March 17th, 2009at 4:46 am(#)

    1. No, they are not redundant. I find especially that the sumo deadlift complements a regular squat nicely. Remember the involvement of the upper body and the somewhat different muscular recruitment in the lower body.

    2. Option B.

  5. Casey says:

    March 20th, 2009at 3:15 pm(#)

    thanks, Mistress! yeah, i kind of was leaning towards B, but you know how it is when you answer your own question: it’s always nice to have someone who knows better give you the okay :)

  6. Elizabeth says:

    July 2nd, 2009at 12:02 pm(#)

    Question: is it disgustingly gym-dork to do deadlifts in the power cage? I was thinking of putting the crash bars at the lowest setting and resting the bar on that so I wouldn’t have to stack plates underneath it.

    We do have platforms, with a separate set of plates that are larger in diameter, so once I can start putting even a little weight on the bar this shouldn’t be a problem.

  7. Mistress Krista says:

    July 2nd, 2009at 8:30 pm(#)

    It is never gym dorky to do deadlifts. Period.

  8. April says:

    July 25th, 2009at 1:07 pm(#)

    I did my first deadlifts, squats and stiff legged deadlifts today. Although it will be days before I am able to walk properly again . . . my form is apparently perfect, thanks to your great site.

  9. Tips for Building a Superior Posterior! « Fit Business Manifesto says:

    October 24th, 2009at 9:43 pm(#)

    [...] http://www.stumptuous.com/dork-diva-deadlift-and-stiff-legged-deadlift [...]

  10. Tracy DeCicco says:

    October 25th, 2009at 1:15 pm(#)

    Hi Krista- have been reading your stuff for years – your blog and information is OUTSTANDING. Thank you. I refer to your site in my latest post. As an aside, I think your theme is very clean and classic – Monochrome – is this one that is available to all on wordpress.com or one that needs to be hosted? Thanks for all the years of great material –

    Best,
    Tracy

  11. Mistress Krista says:

    October 25th, 2009at 4:43 pm(#)

    Hi Tracy, thanks for the note. I think that Monochrome is available only to hosted sites, not free ones.

  12. Jamie says:

    January 18th, 2010at 10:56 am(#)

    Hi Krista,

    Your diva deadlifts include bending the knees, whereas the examples on exrx.net (which I had found through your links) keeps the legs totally straight. As I’m doing deadlifts to help out a tweaky lower back, what are your thoughts on bent versus straight (but of course not hyperextended) legs?

    Also of note: my gym has Smith machines, but no barbells. That the machines hold a person to such a straight line of movement has proven frustrating (especially with squats, where I find myself struggling not to lean against the bar to push it up.) I’ve explored exrx.net for ideas, and will likely be doing deadlifts and squats with dumbbells in the future. Do you think this is an acceptable swap, or would you recommend just getting used to the Smith machines and making them work?

    Thank you so very, very much for the care and knowledge that you put into this site. I’ve been curious about weightlifting for years, but only at recent initiative have I started doing it regularly. Your guides and informative articles have been absolutely invaluable. Thank you so much!

    Jamie

  13. Tanie says:

    February 20th, 2010at 9:16 am(#)

    Thank-you Thank-you Thank-you, I live in a small town with a tiny gym and love love love lifting. This series has given me some really good tips on correcting my form. I am excited to go work out and experience the difference.

  14. Danny says:

    February 25th, 2010at 3:39 am(#)

    Krista,

    This is an outstanding website, well done for putting it together! However, i have a few comments and form pointers on your deadlifts, particularly the straight-leg.

    First, the difference between the squat and the deadlift. It’s all about knee vs hip extension. A squat, particularly a front squat, is much more about knee extension – the knee move through maybe 120 degrees, while the hip moves, say 100. In the extreme other end, the straight leg deadlift keeps the knee virtually static and its all hip. The regular deadlift is somewhere between the two, depending on your starting position. In other words, while they both target all of the leg muscles, the squat is essentially a front of body exercise (quads), while the deadlift is a back of body exercise (hams, glutes, lower back).

    For this reason, the SL deadlift is super-important, particularly when it comes to preventing knee injuries (e.g. ACL tears), which have been associated with weak hams, particularly in women who are at greater risk of ACL injury. Also, any sport which has a lot of sprinting (e.g. soccer, hockey) requires strong hams to prevent ham injury. (Sorry, I’m very into hams, both my partner and sister have had multiple knee ops!). You don’t get this benefit from leg curls – I might also comment on your leg curl page too when I get a moment!

    Form comments:

    1. Both variants. Because of the position of the bar cf. the squat, you can and should really drive the hips into the bar at the top of the movement. This should also work the lats and you should feel a powerful thrust at the top – the glutes really kick it, and you have the impression of pulling the bar down and into your thigh.

    2. SL. This really shouldn’t be started from the floor as this is an injury risk to both hams and back – far better to start with the bar on a low rack, or pick the bar up using a standard deadlift and start at the top. Then lower the bar and *critically* only go as low as feels comfortable – the limit will either be losing the straight back, or feeling a strong pull in the hams. E.g. your starting position in the photos has already got a slightly rounded back. Because the deadlift is primary working the hip and not the knee, you don’t need to go full range to get the benefit. Always have the knees slightly bend, except at the bottom when you can try to push you knee back a little for a strong stretch, and except at the top when you can fully extend. Remember also, the SL deadlift is an awesome isometric lower back exercise!

    3. Both variants. Once you’ve got the form down, it’s actually worth loading up the bar o the deadlift. The reasons is that most people attempt to shrug the bar, particularly at the top, and this is not good for your shoulders. Having a higher weight effectively prevents your shoulders from doing this – they have no hope of shrugging a heavier weight, so they give up! But you need perfect form first.

    Finally, it’s worth noting that a *really* good alternative exercise is the hyperextension, either on a swiss ball or hyperextension machine. In fact, it’s probably easier and safer to develop strength on the hyperextension first before progressing to SL deads.

    Great site, again!

    Regards,

    Danny

  15. ambivalent academic says:

    March 11th, 2010at 5:36 pm(#)

    Hi Krista – Thank you so much for this blog.

    I’m a relative beginner, but you have gotten me off the machines and I am LOVING lifting free weights.

    I’d like to start including deadlifts in my routine…but how much weight should I start with?

    To give you reference point: I’ve been squatting the 45lb bar for about a month now. I worked up from 3 X 10 reps (it was so hard to maintain good form all the way to the end at first) to 3 x 15 once or twice/week. I now feel that this is quite easy, but have been continuing with the unloaded bar so that I could focus on form before adding more weight. I’m very happy to say that my form now feels pretty awesome and I’m ready to start adding weight.

    How much to add to the squats?

    What would be a good starting weight for the deadlift?

  16. Mistress Krista says:

    March 12th, 2010at 6:27 am(#)

    Trial and error. Add a little weight, see how it feels. Add a little more if necessary. Keep doing this until the reps are challenging to do with good form. This may take a few workouts. Just keep trying and learning how it feels.

  17. Sherri says:

    May 14th, 2010at 12:37 pm(#)

    Hi Krista…Thanks for showing correct form on deadlifts. My question is when I do stiff legged deadlifts my knees automatically hyperextend and lock; are my weights too heavy, do I need a different stance or do I just need to concentrate on not locking my knees? Right now my feet are hip width apart and I have 40 pounds on the bar.

  18. Karina says:

    May 17th, 2010at 10:17 pm(#)

    hey krista,
    I woke up this morning with pain in my lower back and I’m pretty sure it’s cuz I did my straight legged deadlifts with shitty form (I’m usually good about proper form but I decided to increase the weight. I realize that was a pretty dumb move). The pain isn’t excruciating but it does hurt. Should I just avoid deadlifts and continue to do other glute/leg work or should I give the gym a break and visit the doc?

  19. Mistress Krista says:

    May 18th, 2010at 3:33 am(#)

    Karina: See here:
    http://www.stumptuous.com/back-pain-1-introduction
    Ice, avoid deadlifting for now, see a doc — ideally a sports doc rather than a GP.

  20. Preeti says:

    July 26th, 2010at 8:07 pm(#)

    Hey Krista,
    Is there an advantage to doing deadlifts with barbells as opposed to dumbells? I’m trying to tailor my workout to complement krav maga training and am specifically trying to make my kicks more powerful. Barbells seem like they’d be better for heavy weight/low reps but I don’t have access to them.

    -Preeti

  21. Mistress Krista says:

    July 27th, 2010at 4:04 am(#)

    Preeti: Once DBs get heavy enough, they can get quite awkward for regular deadlifts. You’ll quickly outgrow small DBs — the average woman should be able to at least deadlift her body weight, and typically more.

  22. Preeti says:

    July 28th, 2010at 10:01 am(#)

    Yeah DBs have been awkward for quite some time now. Also, when I train for krav maga (3-4x a week) the instructor has us warm up with push ups and has us do more push ups throughout the class, so do you have any suggestions as to how to train my chest via bench pressing when I actually go to the gym? Should I just skip the chest all together and allow my class to take care of that?

  23. caroline says:

    September 1st, 2010at 1:18 pm(#)

    Great site! I don’t know why, but I’ve plateaued on my DLs at 240, whereas a friend I have who has only been doing them 2 months is already at 225. I’m sure it’s something with my form, but I still love them and will keep working!

  24. paul hillman says:

    November 5th, 2010at 11:00 am(#)

    I, too, injured my back doing the stiff legged deadlift. Last set, last rep weight was 2 inches from the ground and my back went out like a rubber band.

    It has been 10 years since the accident and although it has gotten better I am quite limited on what I can do (no more sports, no more home improvement projects). So be careful out there.

    My question to anyone else who has experience this sort of injury: what has worked for you to get your life back? surgery? physical theraphy? inversion table? I have 4 bulging discs and 1 of those discs is partially herniated. I think I need to determine if it is muscle/tendon damage causing the pain or if its disc related therby requiring surgery. I look forward to your comments. Thanks!

  25. Yosef says:

    November 22nd, 2010at 12:09 pm(#)

    I am very sorry to hear that Paul, I hope it will get better.

    That said, I believe firmly nobody should be doing stiff-legged deadlifts, ever. There is just too much at stake.

  26. Day 10: Grip strength « the lady lifts says:

    January 27th, 2011at 11:45 am(#)

    [...] and they do help a bit. During the deadlift, I tried a technique I saw on Stumptuous – using an alternating grip – which definitely helped for that exercise, but I still feel pretty weak. How quickly does [...]

  27. deadlift form question - 3 Fat Chicks on a Diet Weight Loss Community Weight and Resistance Training says:

    February 1st, 2011at 4:48 am(#)

    [...] to find some action shots online and realized that most of them actually show a different stance to Krista at Stumptuous. She shows more of a squatting or crouching stance, with a low pelvis and pretty upright back, [...]

  28. Nell says:

    September 12th, 2011at 10:13 pm(#)

    Hi there,

    Just wondering what a good weight is for a beginner with a weak grip. I can’t hold the bar for the weights I know my butt/hams can manage – I feel it in my back, arms & shoulders. I did 40 reps of 75 lbs, and still didn’t feel much happening in my glutes. Top half was crying. I did try to use proper form, but of course, may have failed.

  29. Mistress Krista says:

    September 13th, 2011at 6:57 am(#)

    @Nell: There is no “good weight” — it’s all individual to you. Start off with no grip assistance. Do as many reps as you can, with good form, and a secure grip. Once your grip starts to fail, then use some lifting straps to help.

    Another option is a single-leg stiff-legged or Romanian deadlift or a single-leg Bulgarian split squat (but step further forward than the model here, so that your shin is about perpendicular to the floor), which is like a one-leg deadlift. Because you use one leg, you use less weight. This will help your grip catch up.

    Thus:

    1. Do a set or two of heavier DLs till grip fails.
    2. Then go with either

    a) lifting straps or
    b) 1-leg work.

    If you’re looking for more glute involvement, single-leg work is better anyway.

  30. Judy says:

    December 7th, 2011at 1:35 pm(#)

    Thanks for sharing!!!! The hubby just talked me into deadlifting with him! He explained it fairly well, but he’s a boy. Thanks for including the video so I can make sure my form is right!


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