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The Straight Leg Deadlift, should you bend your knees or keep them locked?
By Greg Shepard
Published: Spring 2000

Steven Van De Zande, assistant strength and conditioning coach at Jacksonville University wrote the following letter:

I noticed in two recent articles in the BFS Winter 1999 Journal full straight leg dead lifts were advocated. It is my professional opinion that the technique shown are potentially dangerous to athletes. Full lumbar flexion, which is increased by standing on an elevated surface unnecessarily endangers an athlete’s lumbar spine.

At Jacksonville University, we have found that each athlete has an ideal range of motion based on his/her individual flexibility. By virtue of the Straight Leg Dead Lift (SLDL), this range of motion increases over time as flexibility increases, but the process should take place at the athlete’s own pace. We teach our student-athlete’s to go as low as possible with a perfectly straight, locked back and slightly bent knees. A recent article in the NSCA Journal echoes this method of instruction. Both my head coach and myself enjoy reading your publication and wanted to clarify this issue for the younger population that may read it. Thank you for your time in this matter.

Steven Van De Zande


Coach Van De Zande has a great point and I thank him for his well thought-out letter. We have called the SLDL a top priority auxiliary exercise for at least 15 years but have not really discussed it thoroughly for awhile. We do however explain our position in detail in our Auxiliary Video and have Stefan Fernholm demonstrate his SLDL technique. Stefan should be regarded as the fastest big man in athletic history as he ran a 4.3 forty many times weighing 270 pounds.
Thirty years ago when I was into competitive Power lifting my lower back would get quite sore, especially after contests. The regular Dead Lift was the third and final event which meant you went all out and hoped you’d recover in a week or so. I discovered that the SLDL was, for me, a lifesaver. I went light at first and then just kept adding weight until I would do sets of five reps with 505 pounds. I kept my knees locked which worked the lower back muscles. I found that I could then do between 600 and 700 pounds in a contest and not suffer any low back pain. The only difficulty I had was the stress it put on the back of my knees. I tried the SLDL with my knees slightly bent like some lifters suggested but it did not seem to strengthen my lower back quite as well. What was my objective? To win the power lifting contest and to Dead Lift as much as possible without lower back strain in order not to disrupt my training.
What is an athlete’s objective? To win the football game or the volleyball match, etc. Therefore, as a strength coach, the idea of doing heavy SLDL or even heavy Dead Lifts without a spot was not what I recommended. I really focus on winning. That’s what I want for my athletes. As a result, I did what Coach Van De Zande and the NSCA have suggested. I had my athletes do light to moderate SLDL with the knees slightly bent taking care to keep the chin up and locking in the lower back as much as possible. This was my philosophy in the 1970's. Then I met Stefan Fernholm.
Stefan taught me the secret of the Straight Leg Dead Lift. “Think of it as a stretching exercise,” said Stefan. He further explained, “Use a very light weight. What you want to do is stretch and strengthen the hamstrings and glutes at the same time.”
“But what good will that do?” I asked with skepticism.
He just smiled, “Do you want to knock a couple of tenths off your forty?” That got my attention! Stefan demonstrated that keeping the knees locked was absolutely essential. You can’t bend your knees and stretch the hamstrings. The knees must be locked. Of course Stefan had heard about the argument of creating too much stress on the lower back. What was his answer? Keep the weight very light. An athlete who can do a legitimate Parallel Squat of 500 pounds should only train with about 135 pounds on a SLDL and never do more than 40% of a true Parallel Squat. You don’t break records or ever max out. You just always keep it very light. Beginning high school athletes or college athletes start with only 65 pounds.
Stefan felt the lock-kneed SLDL was one of the very most important lifts for developing speed. He said the greater your hamstring flexibility, the more fluid of a running movement you can achieve. It’s like adding a high grade oil to the pistons of your engine. I personally tested Stefan’s flexibility. He could stretch, with locked knees, 9.5 inches past his toes. That partially explains his 4.3 times and his 40-inch Vertical Jump from a stand.
We have been endorsing and teaching Stefan’s method for the last 15 years. I know without a doubt this is superior way. I have done it both ways. The results, in my mind, are not even close. There is no danger to the lumbar spine area simply because of the very light weight involved. When we trained the Utah Jazz, the players really liked the feel of our method. They felt the SLDL was their second most favorite lift.
As far as endangerment to an athlete’s spine with our method, our research shows that it is non-existent because of the light weight that is always used. Our BFS Clinicians have collectively trained perhaps as many as 20,000 student-athletes over the last ten years using our SLDL with zero problems. Our BFS SLDL is probably the safest lift we teach. The Hex Bar may be used on the SLDL to even further increase safety.
Those of you who have not tried our method, why not give it a shot with yourself and with some of your athletes? You should get some spectacular results. Thanks again to Coach Van De Zande for an 11-type inquiry. Good luck!

What about the Straight Leg Dead Lift Platform?

BFS suggests to begin doing Straight Leg Dead Lifts from the floor and then as athletes become more flexible, instead of increasing the weight, they can try it from a box or platform. This will allow athletes to get the maximum stretch possible which, according to Stefan, is the whole idea of this great auxiliary exercise that can be done quickly, in any weightroom with excellent results.

The BFS Straight Leg Dead Lift Platform is available from Bigger Faster Stronger for only $79. It is very solid and stable. It also is constructed of solid steel with a diamond tread top plate to prevent slipping. It is painted with a wrinkle black paint.

Tagg Bozied (#1) and Collin Blackburn (#2) doing SLDL’s off of a platform. These two photos appeared in our Winter 1999 Issue which Coach Van De Zande wrote us about.
Stefan Fernholm introduced BFS to the SLDL in the mid- eighties.
Here the WNBA’s Utah Starzz Megan Copain does the SLDL with perfect form.
The BFS Hex Bar makes for an excellent training bar for doing SLDL’s
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