Written by Dave Thomas
The deadlift is one of our foundation movements at Performance360. We know the movement fairly well, having helped sixteen men reach PRs of 500# or more, and fifteen women 300# or more, not to mention the hundreds of everyday folks we’ve helped consistently hit big lifts and stay plateau free.
Despite the fact the sumo variation dates back to the ancients, and is approved of in Dr. Fred Hatfield’s, “Powerlifting: A Scientific Approach”, published in 1981, some communities continue to shun it.
We once posted a Facebook ad with a picture of one of our members performing a sumo pull, and because the internet is the worst place on Earth, we saw a flood of, “What am I looking at?”…”Why are her feet so wide? That’s not a deadlift”. It was a real how-to on ways to display a lack of knowledge base. But what it really did was turn on my light bulb that perhaps some
public mocking education was in order.
The biggest knock you hear about the sumo deadlift is that it doesn’t enhance General Physical Preparedness (GPP) like the conventional deadlift, a grossly overused term and an argument I couldn’t more fervently disagree with.
Look. In either pulling stances, you’re engaging the three most important power muscles: the lats, the glutes and the hams. You’re also engaging the stabilizing erectors and all parts of the arm. If anything, you might even be getting more from sumo as you also see adductor work. But most of all, it’s the absurdity of saying any form of deadlift doesn’t lend transferability.
Call me silly but I believe pulling maximal loads gets you pretty damn “generally prepared”.
This is a con people use who are either to obsessed with CrossFit mantra, or simply don’t know the stance well enough to teach it, so they put it down.
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of it I can tell you that no version is inherently superior than the other. Both are globally acceptable in sanctioned powerlifting meets. Both have pulled over 800 pounds in meets. Both get great results. Both build massive strength.
This is not going to delve into too much technique. For that, I’d refer you to Jordan Syatt’s referenced article below.
It is important you find the one that’s best for you if you truly want to reach your potential. We’ll help you determine which is best for you but ultimately, I recommend you get a good dose of both styles as each brings different benefits and improvements to training.
The Conventional Pull
The conventional pull is the narrow stance set-up where our feet are lined up right around chest width. It is commonly instructed to be shoulder width apart, however that will likely result in inverted knees on a heavy pull, or hands that are too far out of the shoulders, so the alignment of the chest works much better.
Get into a position of an extremely tight grip, lats are engaged and your torso is slightly elevated above the hips. Our toes should be pointed straight ahead or slightly toed out. In some powerlifting circles the movement is taught toes out to engage the quads. If you want to toe out slightly, that is acceptable but focus on keeping them more forward than any other direction.
Your hands should be just outside of your shins as to keep everything as close to our area of base as possible.
Chin is held neutral as to maintain neutrality in the cervical spine.
Typically, a conventional deadlift is going to target slightly more of the backside (glutes, hams and erector muscles).
How is the set-up different than the sumo deadlift?
- The feet are inside of the hands.
- The toes are pointed forward-ish.
- The torso is a bit closer to parallel to the ground (but not parallel!)
- The hips are slightly more elevated.
- Pre-lift tension is felt most in the hamstrings.
Who conventional best suits?
- Longer Arms. If you have short arms, you will have to over reach for the bar and likely position your torso below your hips.
- Those Not targeting Olympic Lifting Goals. If you are cycling in lofty goals in either cleans or snatches, I would avoid mixing that with the conventional pull as there are a lot of contradictions in the technique.
- Brute Force Over Technique. Those who thrive on a quick set-up and explosive pull over a deliberate technique focused on detail.
- Muscle Growth & Range of Motion – Because the bar has to travel a greater distance to the lockout, it means it has greater range of motion. Combine that with the huge endocrine response by our bodies and the conventional deadlift it great for hypertrophy. (This is the main argument most use against sumo, however we’re splitting hairs where they don’t need to be split.)
- More Energy Expenditure Potential (fat loss) – Increased range of motion means increased energy expenditure, making the conventional deadlift a better choice for higher rep pulls. However, I’d argue that the deadlift is not best suited to be performed within the confines of a fat loss style, high-paced circuit. It’s best performed as a slow jam, isolated and heavy. In that instance, the difference between sumo and conventional is negligible.
- Easier On The Hip Joints – Because of the position of the feet in relation to the hips (narrow stance), it is easier on your hips over time.
- Greater Shear Force – Shear force is one that acts parallel to a surface, so for the deadlifts it’s the act of pulling weight off of the floor in a position of significant hip flexion, aka picking something up while you are bent over. Because the hips must hinge more in the conventional pull, the shear force is greater on the spine which can elevate the risk of injury.
- Potential Disturbance of Spinal Neutrality – Again, because of the bigger hip hinge it can be harder for beginners to learn and maintain the importance of a neutral lumbar spine.
- Can be “Squatty” – It can be difficult for beginners to learn conventional because most are hard wired to start a movement with knee flexion. Another big no no in the deadlift. You run into similar issues teaching the Russian kettlebell swing, only the game is a bit more serious with the deadlift.
- Greater Distance to Lock Out – Because the bar must travel a greater distance (you are standing taller), it may present a more challenging lockout for those with sticking points past the knee. If you have weak glutes, you may be able to lock easier in sumo.
I rarely see beginners who can execute this set-up without setting off at least one red flag. If you come from a desk all day, you’re going to have a very difficult time maintaining the spinal extension needed for this set-up.
While it has some slightly greater risk points in the lumbar, in turn it provides excellent strength by putting you in a tight, condensed pulling position and excellent muscle growth and energy expenditure by creating a nice, long range of motion.
The Sumo Pull
Empirically speaking, every time I have adjusted one of our member’s stances to sumo, they’ve gone from high level to higher level. In almost every instance.
The sumo pull is the more technical of the two options, however it is the easier of the two for beginners to learn proper hinge in my personal opinion teaching hundreds of people how to deadlift.
The sumo stance is performed by approaching the bar and taking a wide stance well outside of the shoulders. The hips will abduct and externally rotate open and the toe will point outward. Once the shins are placed firmly against the bar, you will sit back and pull yourself into and under the bar. It is a much more technical set-up than the conventional stance, but one that is not hard to learn.
Where the conventional pull largely ignores the adductors, the wide stance of the sumo pull involves them quite substantially.
From there, the principles of the lift are about the same as the conventional pull. It’s all in the difference of set-up.
One common myth I would like to debunk. Many people think that he hands are much more narrow on a sumo pull but that is just an optical illusion. In reality, your grip distance should stay just about the same; hands just about perfectly underneath the shoulders. They just appear far more narrow because of the aggressively wide foot stance.
How is the set-up different than the sumo deadlift?
- The feet are outside of the hands.
- The toes are pointed outward.
- The torso is more elevated from the hips.
- The hips are slightly less elevated.
- Pre-lift tension is felt most in the adductors.
Who sumo best suits?
- Open Toed – One easy way to see the natural positioning your hips is to just stand. Literally just stand upright in your normal position as if you were talking to someone. Take notice of your feet. If your toes point outward (duck footed), you likely have naturally externally rotating hips/femur. If they point straight ahead, you are a bit more neutral. If they are pigeon toed, you likely have internally rotating. Again, likely. This is an oversimplification but the sumo stance will feel very natural to those who are naturally open toed.
- Long Legs, Short Arms (short torso) – If you have a very small torso you should absolutely be in the sumo stance for the purposes of leverage. You will be able to maintain the proper torso to hip angle in this position. Remember, the more parallel your chest to the floor the more shear force put on the lumbar spine.
- Off the Floor Sticking Points – Even if you primarily pull conventional, because of the targeted work on the hams and adductors, the sumo can be a great accessory for those who stick off the floor.
- More Muscles – The adductors are a largely under-trained muscle group and the sumo strengthens them quite well.
- Less Shear Force – The more upright positioning of the torso creates less shear force on the lumbar spine, typically making it a safer lift. This means it won’t beat up your lower back nearly as much.
- Less Bar Travel Distance – Likely creating an easier lockout.
- Less Energy Expenditure – Leaving more in the tank for the rest of the workout, potentially (however, less opportunity for body composition change).
- More Technical – It requires more time to set up and attention to detail in the footwork. This makes it a poor choice for touch and go or anything higher rep.
- Irritating on the Hips – Over time, this wide stance can cause hip irritation if performed for too long without a break.
- Less Range of Motion – Because of the shorter bar travel distance, it makes it a slightly inferior choice for optimal muscle growth.
The sumo can be a great option for those with hip alignment that points the toes outward, beginners to learn with less risk and those who are constantly beat up in the lumbar from conventional pulling.
It is a bit more technical, however it can be an easier movement for beginners to learn due to the near impossibility of “squatting” the deadlift in the wide stance position. It’s great to help with sticking points and will likely provide needed training of the adductors. If you settle into the sumo pull as your preferred option, be sure to change up it every so often to keep the hips fresh.
If it ain’t broke, don’t go fixing it. As Hatfield concludes in his chapter on deadlift technique, “It is important to remember that you are an individual”.
If you are pulling big weight and continuing to progress then don’t start toying with that for no reason. Both are great. So don’t fret. Use some trial and error and find what feels right. There is nothing wrong with including a dose of both, either. Figure out where you feel most comfortable and implement a 3:1 system. For every three days you pull in your preferred stance, you counter it with one day in the opposite stance. Your preferred stance should be the set-up you take for any PRs or anything near maximal. Use the opposite stance to simply provide complimentary work.
I have included some additional reading below from competitive powerlifters, CrossFit coaches and world record holders.
Go forth and pull.
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