Conventional or Sumo Deadlift?
By Dave Thomas
Someone say deadlifts? No? You sure? Coulda sworn I heard someone say deadlifts.
If there’s a movement we know at Performance360, it’s the deadlift. We’ve helped dozens of men and women pull over 500#/300# respectively, not to mention the hundreds of everyday folks we’ve helped consistently hit big PRs and avoid plateaus.
One of the most common questions we receive is, “which set-up should I do?” There are two options in the deadlift. The conventional set-up, or the sumo set-up and the stance in which you settle is absolutely critical for your progress.
This is not going to be a “why you should deadlift” article. If you read our stuff, you get it. We’re also not going to drown ourselves in detail of technique. That stuff should be done in person, anyways. What we hope to do today is either introduce the sumo pull to you (if you’re CrossFit gym doesn’t let you pull sumo, switch gyms) or offer some broad stroke education on which style is best suited for your body type and skill set.
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of it I can tell you flat out that no version is inherently superior than the other. Both are acceptable pulls in powerlifting meets. Both have pulled over 800 pounds in competition. Both get great results. Both build massive strength.
However, it is very important you find the one that’s best for you if you truly want to reach your potential and it all depends on body type, training goals and just overall feel. Ultimately, we 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 what we most commonly see across the industry. It is a narrow stance pull 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 hips works much better. Get into a position of an extremely tight grip, lats are engaged and your torso is slightly elevated above the hips. Your toes should be pointed straight ahead. In some powerlifting circles the movement is taught toes out to engage the quads or with weightlifting shoes for the same reason. If you want to toe out slightly or wear shoes, 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 down as to maintain neutrality in the cervical spine. Typically, a conventional deadlift is going to target 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.
- 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 is it for?
The following body types and goals are best suited for conventional pulling.
- 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.
- 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 anabolic endocrine response by our bodies when engaged in total body lifts like the squat and the deadlift, it makes conventional one of the better hypertrophy movements we can use.
- 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. Science suggests up to 25 – 40% more energy is expended in conventional pulls (via Syatt Fitness sumo versus conventional article). Note: this only matters in a circuit.
- 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. There is less friction at the femoral head.
- Greater Shear Force/Higher Injury Risk – Spinal compression is not a major area of concern in the totum poll of spinal loading positions. 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. I won’t lie, this position in general is not going to be for everyone, and it’s certainly not for beginners going anywhere near “heavy”. 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. Empirically speaking as a coach, I’ve witnessed more conventional injuries than sumo injuries.
- 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.
- 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.
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, 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, I cannot recall one of our athletes not hitting a PR after I switched them to sumo. 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. The sumo stance is performed by approaching the bar and taking a wide stance, a good 12″ or so 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. Where the conventional pull largely ignores the quads and adductors, the wide stance of the sumo pull involves each with significant targeting of the adductors. 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 is it for?
The following body types and goals are best suited for a sumo pull.
- 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, 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. I cannot say this more definitively. It is much easier to get into a sumo stance if your arms are short. 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. Folks with long legs who force the conventional will see a rounding of the spine at 80% and above at almost every instance.
- Those on an Olympic Lifting Cycle – The conventional set-up can confuse the body when in the first pull of Olympic lifts. We need to sit low and chest tall in Oly lifts, much lower than a conventional deadlift. Sumo pulling will create significantly less movement path confusion on your carryover to Oly lifts.
- Band Ankle Mobility – There is less flexion of the hip which means less flexion all the way down the chain.
- Adductors – The adductors are a largely under-trained muscle group and the sumo strengthens them quite well.
- Less Shear Force/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.
- 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 poor choice for muscle growth. However, less range of motion does present less possibilities of injury risk.
The sumo can be a great option for those with hip alignment that points the toes outward. 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.
I prefer the sumo deadlift for a number of reasons, most notably the lower risk of injury and the stronger position it puts most people into, however that is simply my personal opinion as a coach.
If it ain’t broke, don’t go fixing it. If you are pulling big weight and continuing to progress then don’t start toying with that, ya hear? Both movements will make you kick more ass, will re-shape your body and improve the way you do everything. 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.
Now go forth and pull heavy!
Dave Thomas is an owner and head coach at Performance360 in San Diego, California. Dave is certified through the National Strength and Conditioning Association, USA Weightlifting, Russian Kettlebell and is a former NCAA athlete.