Conventional or Sumo Deadlift?

Someone say deadlifts? No? You sure? Coulda sworn we heard someone say deadlifts. It’s a little known fact that all you have to do is go into the bathroom with the lights off and say ‘deadlifts’ three times and a Coach from P360 will appear out of thin air telling you to get your hips through. The deadlift is a wonderful movement, and with it in our current cycle we thought we’d talk a little bit about optimizing it.

Thing with the deadlift is, it often gets a bad reputation that usually born from someone getting hurt doing it improperly. Now, when we say ‘improperly’ we don’t necessarily mean like the horrible “dog taking a poop” rounded low back videos. Those don’t really happen in real life that often. The more common culprits are the following:

  • Relying on your lumbar back as the prime mover, not the hamstrings and glutes.
  • Too much weight on the bar, too soon.
  • Subtle compensatory habits over time that develop improper activation. Like sitting on a chair all day, getting your glutes sleepy and then going to PR.

The good news is all of these can be reasonably negated by getting you into the right set-up. Before we get into the nuts and bolts of it we can tell you flat out that no version is inherently superior than the other. Our record board is littered with both versions. Wes deadlifted 620# in conventional, and three of the five top female deadlifts were pulled sumo. Both the sumo and the conventional set-up get great results. Both build strength and muscle along the posterior chain.

The critical takeaway from this article should not be whether you should deadlift. You should. It should be about finding the set up that’s best for you in order to set your body up for the most success and longevity with it.

The Conventional Deadlift

The conventional pull is what we most commonly see across the industry.  It is a narrow stance pull where our feet are lined up hips width apart and it is an absolute boss at getting you strong, improving your fitness, and developing muscle.

How is the set-up different than the sumo deadlift?

  • The feet are inside of the hands.
  • The toes are pointed forward.
  • The torso is a bit closer to parallel to the ground on the set-up (but not full parallel)
  • The hips are slightly more elevated.

Which niche population can benefit?

  • Longer Arms. If you have short arms, you will have to over reach for the bar and likely position your torso below your hips. A big no, no.
  • Shorter Torsos. A short torso means a short spine that can likely handle the shear force of deadlifting a big more.
  • Healthy Population, No Pre-Existing Issues. The conventional deadlift when learned properly is excellent for the vast majority of us.

Good Stuff

  • 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 anabolic endocrine response by our bodies when engaged in total body lifts, it makes conventional one of the better muscle building movements we can use.
  • More Energy Expenditure Potential – Increased range of motion = increased energy expenditure, making the conventional deadlift a better choice for higher rep pulls. Science suggests up to 25 – 40% more energy is expended in conventional pulls making it a better choice in a conditioning (gasp) format.
  • Easier On The Hip Joints – Because of the position of the feet in relation to the hips and the more narrow stance, it is easier on your hips over time. There is less friction at the femoral head.

Not So Good Stuff

  • Greater Shear Force/Higher Injury Risk – 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 and having your torso pulled towards the floor. Here is the truth – this position in general is not going to be for everyone under heavy load. We’re unique humans, not robots. 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. This is why it is so important to learn the deadlift at lighter weight and build up over time. You give your glutes time to not be desk-destroyed mush, but active players in the lift. This is huge.
  • 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. But that’s nothing a little lat and glute targeting can’t fix.

In Conclusion

The conventional deadlift is, and will always be, an excellent lift for a lot of people. While it has some slightly greater risk points in the lumbar for those not giving it the care it deserves, 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 Deadlift

The sumo stance is the wider set-up of the two, with the toes and knees both pointed out, hands inside of the thighs. It is an excellent option for those whose lower back gets beat up from the conventional deadlift, and for those whose hip structure naturally accommodates a toes out set-up.

How is the set-up different than the conventional deadlift?

  • The feet are outside of the hands. One common myth we 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.
  • The toes AND the knees are pointed outward.
  • The torso is more elevated.
  • The hips are slightly less elevated.

Which niche population can benefit?

The following body types and goals are best suited for a sumo pull.

  • #BadBack Crew – Do you feel like your body just doesn’t agree with the deadlift? Have you only tried the conventional set-up? If you answered yes to both of those questions then I implore you to try out the sumo stance on our next upcoming cycle (more on this below).
  • Open Toed – One easy way to see the natural positioning your hips is to just stand and find out if you externally rotate (duck footed). 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 in a significant way, you likely have naturally externally rotating hips/femur, in which case a toes-out sumo stance will feel very natural to you. If you try and force a conventional set-up, you may find that you have less drive off the ground because your feet are not in their natural position.
  • Long Legs, Short Arms (short torso) – If you have a very small torso you should absolutely consider the sumo stance, since you will likely 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. Folks with long legs who force the conventional will see a rounding of the spine at a higher rate. Also, by making yourself shorter in a wider stance, it offsets your short little T-rex arms having to reach down and put your back in a compromising position.

Good Stuff

  • Adductors (Groin / Inner hamstrings) The adductors are a largely under-trained muscle group and the sumo strengthens them quite well.
  • Less Shear Force and Less Injury Risk – The more upright positioning of the torso creates less shear force on the lumbar spine, typically making it a safer lift.  This also means it won’t beat up your lower back as much. I consider this to be personally indisputable.
  • Less Bar Travel Distance – Likely creating an easier lockout. This is where idiots started gathering that the sumo is cheating. It isn’t.

Not So Good Stuff

  • More Technical – It requires more time to set up and attention to detail in the footwork.
  • 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 less optimal choice for muscle growth than its conventional cousin (but still one of the top muscle builders overall). However, less range of motion always presents less possibilities of injury risk.

In Conclusion

The sumo can be a great option for those with hip alignment that points the toes outward and those who feel like they just can’t avoid beating up their back in the conventional. It won’t build quite as much muscle as the conventional deadlift, but it makes up for that by targeting muscles that the conventional doesn’t.

Use some trial and error and find what feels right. And don’t forget, we also have a trap bar that could be just the set-up for you, as well.

Talk to your Coach, and go forth and pull heavy.