Q: What’s your opinion of straight-leg deadlifts?
A: It depends on what you mean by “straight.” If you’re talking about having your legs hyperextended, I believe the straight-leg deadlift is an exercise that can only end badly.
One popular theory involves the iliotibial, or IT, band, a band of fibrous tissue that extends down the outside of the thigh and is attached to the gluteus maximus. If you feel alongside the outside of your knee, you’ll find that as you flex your knee, the IT-band tension increases. The theory is that the stress on the lumbar vertebrae increases with the glutes out of the picture. That makes sense, but the simple fact is that with the knees straight you create a longer lever arm, which by itself increases stress on the vertebrae. By bending your knees, you shorten the lever arm, which in turn reduces the stress on the vertebrae; what’s more, the stress is distributed over a greater number of structures.
Confusion abounds regarding the safety of straight-leg deadlifts because the seated toe touch is considered a standard measurement of hamstring flexibility in United States school systems. With that test the legs are straight and the back is allowed to flex; obviously, individuals with a long torso and long arms will have an advantage. It’s the same position assumed when athletes stand up and touch their toes. If toe touching is a standard physical fitness test that’s considered safe for children, then shouldn’t an exercise that simulates the movement, such as the straight-leg deadlift, be just as safe? Well, no. First, the test is not administered with the spine under load, and the fact is, one of the reasons it’s a popular test is that it‘s easy to administer with large groups.
Performing a deadlift with a rounded back shifts much of the stress away from the muscles to the vertebrae and ligaments—it’s often described as “hanging by your back ligaments.” The problem is compounded when an athlete stands on a platform to increase range of motion, as is often recommended by those who endorse the exercise. What’s more, people often use momentum to force themselves into a greater range of motion, a range that they could not achieve otherwise.
Generally, I prefer bent-leg deadlifts. To achieve a greater range of motion, you can do them on a low platform and also use a wider grip. The wider grip makes it significantly harder to hold the weight, so that would be one of the few times that I would say that straps are permissible. You don’t want your grip strength to reduce the amount of work you can do on the posterior chain.
Another good exercise is the hex bar deadlift, as your weight is positioned in line with the center of mass, rather than in front. This design increases the involvement of the quads. Also, because your shoulders are back, it’s much easier to maintain the optimal lifting posture when performing this exercise.
Editor’s note: Charles Poliquin is recognized as one of the world’s most successful strength coaches, having coached Olympic med-alists in 12 different sports, including the U.S. women’s track-and-field team for the 2000 Olympics. He’s spent years researching European journals (he’s fluent in English, French and German) and speaking with other coaches and scientists in his quest to optimize training methods. For more on his books, seminars and methods, visit www.CharlesPoliquin.net. IM