Article By: Cassandra Strunk
Most people who start out in barbell lifting are familiar with conventional deadlifts. It’s typically the style of deadlifting we learn in traditional weightlifting gym setting, P.E., group fitness classes, and even rehabilitation settings to retrain hip hinge patterns. When it comes to sumo deadlifting, it is most commonly seen in the world of powerlifting. The question often gets asked, “should I pull sumo or conventional?” But to simplify this piece, we are actually not going to address that question here. What we want to cover in this piece, are considerations for new lifters to sumo, who have already decided they want to give sumo deadlifting a chance and are experimenting with sumo deadlift technique.
To kick off the discussion, the first thing to consider when switching from conventional deadlifts to sumo deadlifts is understanding that there is more to it than just widening your stance and trying to pull. Most people familiar with powerlifting already have this general idea, but a lot of people new to barbell lifting and sumo deadlifting tend to fall into this poor movement pattern, resulting in using the exact same mechanics and strategies to perform the lift as if they were pulling conventional… just with their feet a little wider.
Let us paint a picture; the most common technique fault we see with lifters going from conventional to sumo is bringing stance out wide (mostly hip abduction) without giving much thought to foot, knee, and hip angle, and bringing their grip really narrow. This position tends to lead to more upper back flexion requiring more effort to overcome that spinal rounding at the top of the lock out, which also ends up making hip extension difficult. As loads get heavier with this technique fault described, we see people struggling before lock out in an overly flexed, posterior pelvic tilt posture.
Now from a movement pattern standpoint, if the lifter adopted just a wider stance in attempts to pull sumo, we find that the lifter still ends up doing the exact same mechanics as if they are pulling conventional. Their torso position at the initial pull is at a more forward lean, their hips tend to shoot up and away from the bar earlier on in the lift, which results in increased demands in the erector spinae group (ESG) and a greater extensor moment at the lumbar spine to overcome the weight and lock out. This is a technique fault, because a sumo deadlift should actually decrease the extensor moment at the lumbar spine requiring less recruitment of the ESGs.
The most glaring characteristics that differentiate the sumo from the conventional deadlift aside from the change in stance, is a more vertical torso position requiring less trunk extension to complete the lift, and an increased demand on the hip joint to achieve an abducted and externally rotated hip. Because of these characteristics, one common reason why lifters consider switching to sumo deadlifts in the first place (aside from the obvious “maybe I’ll be stronger in that position”), is a history of low back pain. So if taking stress off of your low back is a goal by switching to sumo, finding a position that decreases the extensor moment in the lumbar spine by achieving a more vertical torso angle from start to finish is key.
So now you’re wondering, “what’s the difference?” While both the conventional and sumo deadlift generate knee and hip extensor moments, the sumo deadlift requires greater quadriceps recruitment. Because of the greater demand on the quadriceps, you should be in a position that allows you to build tension in quads in the beginning of the pull (whereas the conventional deadlift is much more dependent on building tension in the hamstrings in the beginning of the pull). Assuming you do not have anatomical limitations, an optimal sumo stance typically looks like this: a slight toe out foot position, external rotation of the lower leg, abduction and external rotation at the hip, with stance width aiming for whatever width you can achieve to allow knee to remain over the ankle at the start position. This will set you up for greater knee and hip extensor moments, as well as putting you in a position that allows you to pull with hips closer to the bar with a more vertical torso angle.
Once you have your start position down, then you can work on how to create tension and initiate the pull.
Lastly, there is a downside to sumo deadlifts; if you are someone who has a history of hip injuries, limited hip ROM, or struggles with sore and tight hips from wide stance exercises such as squatting, you may want to consider sticking with conventional deadlifts. However, we will leave you with a coaching tip: if hip injury or anatomical structure is not limiting you, but you are struggling with getting your hips and legs used to working in a sumo stance, find a couple mobility drills to do consistently, and try implementing sumo pulls from a reduced range of motion (such as a block sumo deadlift) as you work on improving your tolerance to hip external rotation and abduction.
-The Kabuki Strength Coaching Team