The deadlift is considered the king of all full body compound exercises and arguably the greatest measure of total body strength, recruiting the majority of the body’s skeletal muscles. There are two predominant variations of the lifts that are most commonly performed – the conventional and the sumo position. This article aims to give an in depth synopsis of the research of both movements, including differences in muscle activation, joint angles and forces, with the goal of providing the reader a better insight into which position may suit them the most.

‘The sumo deadlift is cheating!’

I think the best place to begin is to dispel some of the myths that are frequently espoused, starting with the claim that the sumo deadlift is somehow easier compared to the conventional deadlift. The main explanation for this assertion is that deadlift range of motion is shorter with a sumo stance than a conventional stance, thus the athlete simply does not have to work as hard to finish the lift as they do not have to move the bar as far. This appears to be sound logic, however it falls apart under scrutiny. We can refute this claim when we look at the physiology of the bodies energy systems. Yes, research has indeed found that range of motion is less in sumo pulls than conventional pulls, corresponding to an athlete requiring 25-40% more vertical bar displacement and mechanical work to finish the lift (Escamilla et al, 2000). However, this will likely make little to no difference during a maximal deadlift attempt. This is because most 1RM deadlifts do not take more than 5-7 seconds to complete, and an individual has enough stored ATP and phosphocreatine to ensure that maximal energy production can be exerted for 8-10 seconds (Gastin, 2001). In other words, an athlete will have more than enough time to put maximal force into the barbell in either stance, negating any benefits of a shorter range of motion during 1RM attempts.

However, the shorter range of motion may play into an athletes favour during higher repetition sets with lower percentages of an athletes’ 1RM, as these sets generally last for a longer duration. In this instance, a lifter may be able to perform more repetitions with the sumo stance. This potential increase in total training volume may result in more strength adaptations long term, which may be an advantage for utilising the sumo deadlift as a preferred stance. However, the sumo deadlift may not necessarily optimise an athlete’s musculature strengths, which ill get into later in the post.

Another myth that is perpetuated around the strength world is that sumo deadlifts are easier because they require less hip extension torque to complete the lift. Because the bar is closer to the hips, it is theorised that the hip extensor moment arm (force x distance) is less, thus less effort is required from the hips to achieve the lockout position in the sagittal plane (front to back). This makes intuitive sense, however ignores the fact that in the sumo deadlift position, the hips are also externally rotated, which means that hip extension occurs not only in the sagittal plane (front to back) BUT ALSO the frontal plane (left to right). Thus, the total demands on the hip are not necessarily less in the sumo position when taking this into account. Research has validated this theory, finding that in a 3D analysis of both lifts, at no point in the movement is there a significant difference in hip extension demands between the sumo and conventional stances (Escamilla et al, 2000).

Now some of the myths are taken care of, lets look at the differences between lifts…

Sticking points differences between the lifts

The ‘sticking point’ is commonly understood as the position in a lift in which a disproportionally large increase in difficulty is experienced (Kompf & Arandjelović, 2016). The sumo deadlift lockout may be easier for many. However, as anyone who has pulled a heavy sumo deadlift will know, it can be excruciatingly difficult to initially get the bar moving off the ground. An athlete has to show huge discipline and patience to keep pulling hard on the barbell for what can seem like an eternity before this sticking point is overcome. In any case, this does not feel any easier than a conventional deadlift, and certainly doesn’t feel like cheating. Sumo deads are rough off the ground, easier at lockout. Conventional deadlifts are easier off the ground, rough at lockout. If you are in the process of transitioning to sumo deadlifts, don’t be disheartened by the bar moving slower off the floor – You may not be weaker, it is just the nature of the lift. Be patient, and the bar will eventually budge.

Muscle activation

EMG studies have previously analysed muscle activation between the sumo and conventional stances. Quadricep activation has been shown to be higher in the sumo position due to the larger knee extensor moment (Escamilla et al, 2002). Additionally, the erector spinae muscles have been shown to be twice as active in the conventional deadlift than the sumo deadlift due to the more inclined torso angle that is generally adopted in the conventional stance (Cholewicki et al, 1991). No significant differences have been found between activation of the hip extensors (hamstrings and glutes) between the two stances, validating the previous argument made about no differences in hip extensor effort between the lifts (Escamilla et al, 2000).

Forces on the lumbar spine

An important point to make is that shear forces to the L4/L5 lumbar vertebrae have been shown to be reduced 10% in the sumo deadlift compared to conventional (Cholewicki et al, 1999). From an injury prevention/rehabilitation perspective, sumo deadlifts may be the go-to choice for someone recovering from a lower back injury or tweak. However, in a healthy individual, there is no reason why performing conventional deadlifts warrants large amounts of risk, as long as the lift is performed safely (maintaining lumbar extension throughout the entire movement). The sumo deadlift just can’t replicate the spinal erector strength developed in the conventional deadlift, so it shouldn’t be neglected altogether unless an athlete is currently carrying a lower back injury. Even if an athletes’ sumo deadlift is their preferred stance in competition, the conventional deadlift can be an indispensible training tool to develop increased spinal erector strength.

Does an individuals’ structure matter?

Research from Hales in 2010 created a system of quantifying whether an individual possesses ‘long’ or ‘short’ arms, and a ‘long’ or ‘short’ torso, in order to decide whether an individuals structure is best suited to pulling conventional or sumo. However, as pointed out by Greg Nuckols (link following this article) what the study fails to take into account for is an individuals’ hip structure, which can vary substantially person-to-person. Some people’s femur inserts further forward or further back on the pelvis, hip sockets can be shallower or deeper etc. Without X-ray imagery of your individual hip structure it’s pretty difficult to say with confidence which style of deadlift will best suit an individual based upon torso and arm length. Even with all this information, it still doesn’t necessarily give a lifter an indication of which style will allow for the production of maximal force, as it fails to include individual muscular strengths. However, it may give you a rough guideline of the position that may suit you. If you currently pull conventional but fit into the sumo category, it may be advantageous to give the sumo position a shot, and vice versa. If you fit into the ‘both’ category, your decision will be probably solely based upon muscular strengths. In any case, trial and error is the most effective way of determining your preferred style.

Flexibility

There is no doubt that the flexibility requirements are superior in the sumo deadlift. If a lifter does not possess adequate hip abduction/external rotation, they will just not be able to get into the most mechanically advantageous position to lift huge weights sumo. Yury Belkin is a perfect example of someone who probably possesses perfect hip structure for the sumo position, with the addition of the requisite flexibility in the hips. His sumo deadlift technique is as close to technical mastery as I’ve ever seen, and the strength he has developed as a result is mind-blowing:

With more hip abduction, a lifter can maximize adductor (particularly adductor magnus) tension to aid in strong hip extension. Additionally, enough hip external rotation allows large amounts of torque at the hip, which will keep the torso up-right allow a lifter to maintain their hip position when initiating the pull. If one doesn’t possess this mobility, either the knees will cave in or the torso will fold over, both of which will inhibit a lifters ability to exert force against the barbell.

The position on the right (more hip external rotation/abduction) allows an athlete to maximise his/her force

Takeaways

  • Contrary to popular belief, the sumo deadlift is not easier than the conventional deadlift from a biomechanical perspective
  • Although the lockout tends to be easier sumo, it can be incredibly difficult to break the initial inertia on the bar off the floor. This should be taken into account when learning the sumo deadlift. PATIENCE!
  • Conventional deads work your spinal extensors to a greater degree, whereas sumo deads work your quads harder
  • Lumbar shear forces are higher in the conventional dead. Sumo deads may be a good choice if you are recovering from a back injury
  • Individual limb/torso lengths do not guarantee a lifter will be stronger in one stance over the other. Hip structure/muscular strengths seem to play a larger role
  • Flexibility in the hips (abduction/external rotation) is vital in executing the sumo deadlift optimally
  • The answer? Try both! Both the sumo and the conventional deadlift are viable options that have their own strengths and weaknesses. Incorporating them both in your training program will build exceptional pulling strength
  • It is suggested that conventional deadlifting has much more carry over to sumo deadlift strength than vice versa. Therefore, if the sumo position is your go-to choice, incorporating conventional deadlift variations is a necessity for overall strength development.

Try both lifts for a period of time, building volume with submaximal weights (70-85% 1RM). After becoming proficient at both, see which lift allows you to lift the most weight, and make it your choice for competition. If you feel weaker in a certain stance initially, but it feels more comfortable, chances are that you just need to practice the movement pattern more and strength will eventually begin to climb. Good luck, and happy lifting!

 

References: 

Cholewicki, J., McGill, S.M. and Norman, R.W., 1991. Lumbar spine loads during the lifting of extremely heavy weights. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 23(10), pp.1179-1186.

Cholewicki, J., Juluru, K. and McGill, S.M., 1999. Intra-abdominal pressure mechanism for stabilizing the lumbar spine. Journal of biomechanics, 32(1), pp.13-17.

Escamilla, R.F., Francisco, A.C., Fleisig, G.S., Barrentine, S.W., Welch, C.M., Kayes, A.V., Speer, K.P. and Andrews, J.R., 2000. A three-dimensional biomechanical analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 32(7), pp.1265-1275.

Escamilla, R.F., Francisco, A.C., Kayes, A.V., Speer, K.P. and Moorman, C.T., 2002. An electromyographic analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 34(4), pp.682-688.

Gastin, P.B., 2001. Energy system interaction and relative contribution during maximal exercise. Sports medicine, 31(10), pp.725-741.

Hales, M., 2010. Improving the deadlift: Understanding biomechanical constraints and physiological adaptations to resistance exercise. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 32(4), pp.44-51.

Kompf, J. and Arandjelović, O., 2016. Understanding and overcoming the sticking point in resistance exercise. Sports Medicine, 46(6), pp.751-762.

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