December 31, 2021
Everyone needs to deadlift. It's the single best exercise that demonstrates pure brute strength in the gym. Plus, deadlifts are about as simple as you can get; there's something heavy on the ground and you need to pick it up. You can't get more functional than that! What could be better?! What if we told you there's actually more than one way to deadlift and that every method has certain advantages and benefits? Not worse. Not better. Just different and awesome in their own way. In this article, we want to go over the sometimes downplayed (for some reason) but totally bad-ass "sumo deadlift".
In reality, this deadlift variation is quite different from the conventional deadlift. Being so, a host of specific nuances need to be addressed as to why you may want to (or not want to) start including the sumo deadlift in your training program. In this article, you'll learn:
Until just a few decades ago, the vast majority of lifters simply used the conventional deadlift. This method of deadlift uses the form we're all used to with a narrow stance and hands placed outside of the legs. It wasn't until around the 1970's when a new form of picking heavy ass weight off the ground was seen; the sumo deadlift. While there were many other large hip-hinge movements, such as the silver-dollar deadlift, this new form looked distinctly different.
This new deadlift form had lifters using an excessively wide stance with legs externally rotated with the lifter holding the bar in between their legs. Further, the torso is exceptionally upright with greater flexion in the knees. In fact, the stance very much resembles that of a sumo wrestler hence the name “sumo deadlift”.
While a tad slow to be accepted, the sumo deadlift is now one of two accepted deadlift styles in powerlifting organizations and is a major component of strength and conditioning on all levels. This brings us to a common question which is;
No, the sumo deadlift is not cheating. Considering that it's a widely accepted form of the deadlift in powerlifting organizations, this question seems quite silly. Some lifters may give it a hard time because, technically, the range of motion is significantly smaller (more on this below). However, it's a legal method so until that changes, it's legal. Further, if the sumo deadlift was easier, then why not just pull sumo? Fact is, it's not. It’s just that different styles are better suited for different anatomies; however, we can still consider that the heaviest raw deadlift (no suits or straps) ever pulled was done with a traditional deadlift (Benedikt Magnusson, 1,015lbs), not sumo (Chris Duffin 1,001lbs w/straps).
And to be clear, this article isn't saying one deadlift variation is better than the other either; we're just saying that the fact the sumo is legal makes claims of "cheating" rather silly.
As mentioned above, the deadlift form looks drastically different from any other form of deadlift, even variations such as the trap bar deadlift. In reality, the sumo deadlift sits alone with its form. Because it is so different, many people have a minimal idea of performing it other than to imitate what they see on Youtube videos. Being so, we'll break down the sumo deadlift so that you have perfect form every time.
First, you will need to set up the barbell in the same exact fashion as you would with a deadlift; basically, load plates and rest the barbell on the ground. You'll then want to walk up close to the barbell so that it hovers over your foot midway. Next, you will take an exaggerated wide stance. The width will vary for people based on anthropometrics. Still, your legs will likely approach the outer rings on the outside knurling. Finally, point your toes out slightly. Again, this varies for people but consider that due to the fact your knees are bending, your toes should align with your knees.
Next, bend down and grab the barbell. There are a few methods of doing this, but the grip width will be the same, whichever one you choose. When grabbing the bar, your arms should basically be straight down. This is because this will effectively lessen the range of motion while also keeping your shoulders in a safe position. If you want to address this as you become more accustomed to the lift, you can change what you feel is strongest for you. However, maintain this grip when you begin the sumo.
That being said, here are the four choices of grip for the sumo deadlift:
Now that you're all gripped up, you need to get your body in position. This can be the most challenging part for most lifters as it requires greater mobility, especially in the hips and groin. You want to bend at the knees while pushing them out as you come down. What you are actually doing is externally rotating your hips so that your knees and hips can adequately track.
Then, pull your hips down and forward while allowing your shoulders to come back. Pretend as if you're pulling your crotch into the bar as close as possible. You'll notice that your posterior muscles are going to feel tight, real tight. Again, it takes some mobility work and time to get in the proper position to go light when you start lifting.
You'll notice that your knees have considerably more flexion when you get into position, and your hips will come down much farther. The distance will vary from person to person, but most people are between a ½ squat and ¾ squat. Like the conventional deadlift, the exact distance doesn't really matter, though, assuming the other parts of the body are in the correct position, which we'll go over now.
You want your shins to remain as vertical as possible as you come down. A slight forward lean could be acceptable, but the straighter, the better. Still, the knees will generally come forward a bit more than conventional. Next, your shoulders should be slightly in front of the bar so that your arms can come straight down. However, as the torso is more upright than during the conventional deadlift, the components will be more parallel with your body, so the shoulders' forwardness will be less.
At this point, you'll be ready to pull soon. However, you need to watch out for a couple sumo deadlift cues:
Now that you're right, you will start your ascent. This will be done simply by standing up and dragging the bar up your shins. This doesn't mean you need to literally scrape your legs (but that is why they sell deadlift socks) but the bar should remain as close as possible, preferably grazing your legs.
As the bar goes from the floor to the knees, the primary movers will be from the legs. However, once the bar hits knee level, the lower back and glutes will kick in harder to finish the lockout and fully extend the hips. The most crucial variable is to have the bar travel as vertically as possible during this time. As your joints extend and propel you upwards, you want the bar to ride up the shins. Then, as your thighs come forward, the bar should meet them while continuing a straight path upwards. In reality, your shoulders should not come forward nor move back. The only movement they will have (ideally) is vertical, which is propelled by the extension of your knees and hips.
The sumo deadlift ends when the lifter is fully erect with the bar in their hands.
What goes up, must come down. The descent of any deadlift is always the most tricky as it's a bit awkward. While it seems simple to say, "just do the opposite", learning to control the descent takes some time. However, "doing the opposite of going up" is more or less a good description of what to do.
After you lockout the bar with a minimal pause, you're going to start pushing your hips back and flexing your knees to lower the bar. When lifters come down, they are more likely to roll their shoulders as they are coming down. Therefore, be sure to keep your scapula pulled back and maintain a straight back while you let your hips and legs do the lowering. Lower all the way until the bar is on the ground.
Many people ask about dropping the bar as this is commonly done. First, you need to be working at a reasonably heavy enough load before dropping it is justified. Second, you also need to be using appropriate weights and lifting on correct flooring. Assuming you meet all of the requirements, you still shouldn't just completely drop the bar. One method of dropping the bar is a controlled fall. Basically, you let the bar fall while you hold it and provide minimal resistance. You can do this all the way down to the ground or you can completely drop it a few inches off the ground and then use your hands to stop the bounce.
Now let's address some common errors seen in the sumo deadlift.
1. Bar to Far From Legs:
The first setup error occurs when lifters start with the bar too far away from their legs. You want the bar to be on the shins when you begin the lift as this is the closest location to the direction of force. Every millimeter the bar moves away from the legs will decrease your ability to apply force while adding strain to your lower back.
2. Hips Rising First
The second common sumo deadlift error is lifters allowing their hips to rise first during the ascent. This occurs because the lifter is too far forward at the start of the lift. To fix this, be sure to have your body positioned firmly with weight distributed evenly across the foot, if not slightly heel heavy. Also, be sure your shoulders aren't too far forward.
The second reason the hips may shoot up is due to improper bracing of the core. Therefore, when the hips drive up, the core is too weak, resulting in the shoulders dropping. If this is the issue, a fantastic cue is to think about driving your shoulders up. Doing so will cause you to shift your focus and "purpose," resulting in you pushing your shoulders up WITH hip drive rather than just driving your hips up.
3. Not Getting the "Slack" Out
One great sumo deadlift cue is to "get the slack out!" This means that before you start to ascend, first pull on the bar until it's tight. What happens is that often, the weight plates do not fit snug on the collars. Therefore, when you pull on the bar, you will get a bit of movement until the plates begin to lift. Still, the more significant issue is concerned with the bar's bend. After you put in some time with proper strength training, you will start placing a decently heavy load on the barbell. When this happens, the heavy load on the end of the bar will cause the bar to bend when you begin the lift. If you find this happening, you'll want to pull on the bar to get the "easy bend" out. What this means is you want to pull tight up on the bar until any type of give is has been eliminated. Therefore, when you finally pull, your force will go straight into driving the bar up.
Getting the slack out of the bar also has another major benefit - you will minimize being thrown off balance. If you were to pull with max effort right off the bat, you would accelerate extremely fast for a few milliseconds as the weight would be minimal. However, once the load catches, you'll abruptly stop. Not only is this the equivalent to hitting a speed bump and throwing you off balance, but you could also potentially tweak your back.
This brings us to another great tip. You want to pull " slow " even when the slack is pulled out, you want to pull "slow". This simply refers to gradually (albeit pretty quickly) increasing the force on the bar rather than pulling at 100% right away. Again, this will fully allow the transition the bar needs.
Before we discuss the benefits of the sumo, keep in mind that again, we are not favoring it over the traditional. We just recognize that it has some benefits specific to it, making it a better choice for some lifters. Here are the top sumo deadlift benefits.
1. Does Not Require As Much T-Spine Mobility
The conventional deadlift is also an extraordinary movement, but it requires certain levels of mobility in the thoracic spine. This mainly comes from bending over and maintaining a certain rigidness in the back while still keeping tightness in the entire body. However, maintaining this form is vital to performing the movement efficiently and safely.
Unfortunately, not everyone has the mobility required to perform traditional deadlifts. This makes the sumo deadlift a great alternative. The back of a lifter is much more upright and doesn't demand a higher degree of flexibility in the upper back.
2. Does Not Require As Much Ankle Mobility
The ankle's mobility is minimal because the legs are externally rotated with such a wide stance.
3. Provides Less Force On The Lower Back
Spoken above briefly, sumo deadlifts produce significantly less force on the lower back and spine in general. Again, this is due to the sumo deadlift requiring a more upright torso which results in the direction of the spine being more in line with the load force vector (straight down)
We discussed some of the differences in the biomechanics between the sumo deadlift and traditional deadlift above. Therefore, here's a nice little graph you can use for quick reference to identify the differences.
1.5 Hip Width
Aprrox ¾ down
Approx ½ down
Now let's explore what muscles are used in the sumo deadlift. At the end of the day, the sumo deadlift is an actual full-body exercise as it requires every fiber in your body to fire. However, the primary muscles used during the sumo deadlift will be similar to the conventional deadlift. The main difference is the magnitude of their firing.
Flexion in the knees is one of the two most significant differences between the sumo deadlift and conventional. As seen in the graph above, the difference is substantial as the sumo deadlift will have people squat ¾ down. This means you will have significantly more activation in the quadriceps due to a greater range of motion in the knees. Specifically, the sumo deadlift will target your inner thigh and inner quadriceps, the vastus medialis. Again, this is due to your hips' exaggerated wide stance and external rotation.
The entire quadricep is still going to get a fantastic training session, though.
The glutes will receive high activity levels during the sumo deadlift. Studies have shown that exercises with externally rotated hips and higher degrees of hip abduction generate higher EMG readings in the glutes. Since the sumo has both, expect to feel it strong in the butt.
If you're trying to get a killer hamstring session in, then the sumo deadlift just isn't right for you. As stated above, due to the higher knee flexion, the sumo deadlift is more quad-dominant. Further, there is less hip flexion which eliminates the two movements the hamstrings are responsible for. You'll still use them to a lesser degree when compared to other deadlift variations.
The erector spinae is a set of muscles that basically run all the way up your back along the spine. These muscles are vital for protecting the spine and overall core stability. They will definitely get a workout during the sumo deadlift. However, as the torso is more upright, these muscles will contract to keep stability rather than actively pulling for hip extensions.
During deadlifts, the upper back musculature (particularly the traps and rhomboids) maintains proper form and protects the spine. During the sumo deadlift, your arms hang more vertically with the body, meaning that the load is pulling down rather than pulling forward (bent over barbell row). Therefore, while you won't be required to pull as much to maintain a retracted scapula, you're still going to have to fight your ass off to keep proper form.
Well, you've probably heard that some lifters are better suited for the sumo deadlift, so who are those lifters? First, anyone can perform the sumo deadlift and perform the conventional deadlift. This section merely gives generalities and is by no means what you should do.
The sumo deadlift is always performed with a barbell unless otherwise noted. That being said, here are two excellent sumo deadlift alternatives that use a similar form.
1. Kettlebell/Dumbbell Sumo Deadlift
This variation can be performed with either a kettlebell or single dumbbell, but the setup is exactly the same. If using a dumbbell, place it on one end to stand up. You'd then grab the end with both hands. If using a kettlebell, just grab the handle with both hands.
After, you will then perform a sumo deadlift with legs spread wide and toes pointed out slightly.
2. Landmine Deadlift
Landmines are fantastic and so is their deadlift variation. Set up a landmine and rest the plate end on the ground. Next, come up the bar with your legs in the same position as the sumo and grab the end of the barbell.
Related: Deadlifts Guide & Variations
Below is a list of exercises that aren't the same as sumo deadlift biomechanically but offer similar benefits.
1. Trap Bar Deadlift
While still a deadlift and a hip hinge, the trap bar deadlift is very different from the sumo, except for one crucial aspect. The trap bar deadlift is also performed with a high, upright torso, thus making it less stressful on the back. The trap bar deadlift is a superb exercise to add to your program if you want to use a hip hinge to lift heavy weight, all while taking it easy on the back.
2. Belt Squat
The belt squat can be performed with a belt squat machine OR you can use a dip belt and stand on two boxes. Either way, the belt squat allows you to use significant weight on the lower body in a similar motion to squatting. However, as the load is transferred to your waist, you save your back similarly to the sumo deadlift.
3. Safety Squat Bar
The safety squat bar is a badass lower body movement that lets you use a heavy load while keeping your back safe. Due to the design of the safety squat bar, your hands can control the weight out front while maintaining a more vertical torso. It's not called a safety squat bar for nothing.
Alternatives to the sumo deadlift that work similar muscles as the sumo deadlift:
Above is all you need to know about the sumo deadlift. It’s one of the best hip hinge movements that you can do and will likely benefit everyone. While the sumo deadlift doesn’t have to be your primary deadlift variation, including it will only make you stronger in more positions making you a better athlete. Or who knows, the sumo deadlift may just be your new deadlift!
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