How to Sumo DeadliftTongue-in-cheek, we sometimes call the sumo deadlift cheating to highlight the problems with its overuse outside of competitive powerlifting. Outside of a powerlifting meet, it is simply another accessory lift for the squat and deadlift. For general strength training, there is no reason to choose between the conventional deadlift and the sumo deadlift. They are different tools for different purposes.
How to Sumo Deadlift (and Why?)
Every lift is a tool in your toolbelt that can help spur progress, build strength, and train weaknesses when used properly. The sumo deadlift is no different.
But the sumo deadlift is controversial. It is a clever way to sidestep sound training principles in order to lift more weight in a competition-legal manner. We achieve similar results with a low rack pull, shortening the range of motion to lift more weight. But no one is comparing rack pull PRs to conventional PRs and calling it apples-to-apples. Yet, since sumo deadlifts are legal in powerlifting competitions, that is exactly what happens.
Tongue-in-cheek, we sometimes call the sumo deadlift cheating to highlight the problems with overusing the deadlift outside of competitive powerlifting. The problem is that while the sumo deadlift is a competition lift, outside of a powerlifting meet, it is simply another accessory lift for the squat and deadlift. For general strength training, there is no reason to choose between the conventional deadlift and the sumo deadlift. They are different tools for different purposes.
Below we discuss where the sumo deadlift might fit into your training program; its pros and cons as an accessory lift for the posterior chain. Then, walk through how to perform the lift correctly.
When to Sumo
Sticking with the idea that “lifts are tools,” we can classify the usefulness of each lift for strength by exercise criteria. Coach Noah Hayden wrote an excellent piece on exercise selection criteria here. But if you are training for general strength and quality-of-life improvements, your criteria ought to prefer lifts that
- train the most muscle mass,
- use repeated movement patterns,
- require basic coordination,
- use biomechanically determined long, safe, and effective ranges of motion,
- allow high intensity and incremental loading,
- are structurally sustainable, and
- have a wide therapeutic window.
The conventional deadlift meets these criteria for a hinge-type movement better than other forms of the deadlift and is practical for standard lifting equipment. (Read more about the muscles worked in the deadlift.)
Once we’ve established the main lifts for a lifter (typically the squat, press, bench press, and deadlift), then training proceeds mostly through quantitative changes. We try to make the main lifts progressively heavier, building a broad base of general strength. Eventually, training becomes more individualized, and we have to make qualitative changes. We can change the nature of the training stress slightly, using tools that might not fit our criteria as well as the main lifts but that continue to provide some clear benefit to our strength development.
For general strength, “sumo or conventional?” is the wrong question. The right question is, “when is it appropriate to use sumo deadlifts?”
Well, it depends.
What is a Sumo Deadlift?
A sumo deadlift is any deadlift in which foot placement is set wider than the conventional deadlift, allowing a narrow grip, hands placed inside of the legs and feet. Wide feet and a narrow grip result in a shorter vertical range of motion for the lift and less movement around the hip and knee joints. Less work against gravity requires less overall energy output to complete the lift.
Viewed from the side, the sumo setup brings the lifter’s hips closer to the barbell at the start of the movement. This shifts much of the work of the sumo deadlift away from the hamstrings and places it on the knee extensors, the adductors, and the glutes. Less muscle mass involved in the lift seems like it should make the lift more difficult, resulting in less weight lifted. But, because the shorter ROM is seen as less movement around the joints, for some lifters, the tradeoff—less muscle mass for different pulling mechanics—is advantageous.
Advantages of a Sumo Deadlift
- Reduces ROM for some lifters
- Allows you to lift more weight
- Acts as an auxiliary lift for squats and deadlifts
- May help if injured or sore back
- Can be used to target glutes and quads with a hinge movement
Compare this with a low bar and high bar squat. The low bar squat allows the lifter to lift more weight by shifting the work to bigger muscle groups: in the low bar position, the lifter must bend over more, increasing the range of motion around the hip joint. This adds more of the overall work to the bigger hip extensors, even though it reduces some of the work done by the quadriceps muscles. There is little difference in the amount of vertical work against gravity between the two lifts at a given weight. The ROM is mostly the same, but the allocation of muscle mass is more favorable. This better satisfies our main criteria (train the most muscle mass) while preserving the long, safe, and effective range of motion. The sumo deadlift reduces the range of motion and the amount of muscle mass used for more weight on the bar, which is good for competition but arbitrary in the gym.
- Trains less muscle mass than conventional
- Reduced ROM makes it less generally useful
- Reduced overall muscle mass
When Should You Sumo Deadlift?
For pure strength-building purposes, the sumo deadlift is far down the list of best choices among assistance lifts. The sumo deadlift is an accessory lift, and you should program it as one. (How to Program Assistance Work) Supplemental deadlifts like the SLDL and RDL, the deficit deadlift, and the rack pull fill training slots better because those lifts train aspects of your main deadlift directly.
Looking at the characteristics of the sumo deadlift, you might use it for targeted training of the glutes and quads while still training the lats and, to a lesser degree, the back extensors. Access to a belt squat machine might make this option moot, however.
A lifter might sumo if they have a back injury and are unable to squat, for example. Since the back is more vertical in the sumo deadlift, and it’s a simpler lift. However, pain avoidance should not be the main reason to choose a lift. (Read, e.g., Knee Pain and Squatting). Again, here, the lift is a poor man’s belt squat.
There are some rare lifters who cannot perform the conventional deadlift from the floor without their hips being higher than their shoulders. These exceptionally long-legged individuals will often end up pulling sumo when they compete and might consider the lift for general strength training as well. An argument can be made for employing a rack pull, however, if that is an available option.
Finally, if you are a competitive lifter and you believe that pulling sumo is going to help you take home more bling, then by all means. You should, however, not fall into the trap of only pulling sumo. Competitive sumo deadlifting needs to be trained and practiced, but it also should be built on a broad base of general strength. As with any sport-specific skill, strength gives you a higher ceiling, and how good you are at the skill gives you a more efficient performance. Make sure your foundation is based on good training principles and solid deadlift numbers before refining your sumo deadlift.
How to Sumo Deadlift?
Start with the setup. As with the conventional deadlift, most of the technique of the sumo deadlift is in a correct setup: stance, grip, and position. This setup varies with individual build, anthropometry, and flexibility more than the conventional deadlift. We give you good starting places and basic markers, but the lift will require some trial and error to find your best stance and grip width.
- Wide stance: determined by build and flexibility. Key markers are vertical shins and knees tracking in the same direction of your toes at the bottom of the lift.
- Place shins about ½” from the bar.
- Start with toes out slightly past 45 degrees.
Approach the bar with a wide stance. How wide will depend on you, but here is the test: when you bend over to take your grip and shove your knees out, your shins should be nearly vertical. You should be able to put your knees over your feet, pointing in the same direction as your toes. Too wide and your femur length and adductor flexibility will prevent your knees from aligning over your feet, keeping you from finishing the setup. Too narrow and you are defeating the purpose of the lift. If your shins are at a more acute angle to the floor than vertical, and you can stand to go a little bit wider, work your stance gradually outward.
You are going to set up a little bit closer to the bar than you would for a conventional deadlift. We like to say that the conventional deadlift should be about one inch from your shins. For the sumo deadlift, stand so that the bar is about a half-inch away from your shins with your toes pointed out.
The toes-out position allows you to bend your knees without pushing the bar away from you. Point your toes out a little bit past 45 degrees to start, and when you bend over to take your grip in the next step, shove your knees outward along the barbell (in the same direction your toes are pointing), not forward.
- Narrow grip: inside of legs with one finger on the smooth part of the barbell
- Double overhand, hook grip, or mixed grip are acceptable
- Shove your knees out in the direction of your toes
Next, bend over and grip the bar, shoving your knees out as we described above, being careful not to push the bar away from you. Your grip will be narrower than it is for the conventional deadlift. A good place to start is placing one finger on the smooth part of the barbell, just off the knurling. Broad chested lifters may need to go a little bit wider, but not much. Part of the advantage of the wide sumo stance is clearing space for the narrowest practical grip.
Use the same types of grip for the sumo deadlift that you use conventional: double overhand, hook, or mixed grip, depending on your preference.
- Use the bar to pull yourself into position
- Pull your chest up and set your back
- Be patient and pull your hips as close to the bar as you can get them
- Imagine you are trying to make the plates float ¼” off the floor
- Shoulders will be slightly in front of the bar. The back will be more vertical and hips closer to the bar than a conventional deadlift.
Once you’ve taken your grip, you are going to squeeze yourself into a very tight, very uncomfortable position. When you sumo, you are going to have to use the bar to pull yourself into position. Pretend that your arms are ropes and you are going to pull them straight and taught as you squeeze your chest up and set your back.
As you squeeze your chest up, you are simultaneously going to pull your hips closer to the bar. If you did not have the bar for counterbalance, you would fall backward here. Be patient and pretend like you are going to squeeze into position until the plates are floating a quarter-inch off the floor. (At lighter weights, the plates may actually leave the floor as you squeeze into position. That’s okay.) Some people incorrectly think that the sumo deadlift starts with a perfectly vertical back angle. It does not. Before you pull, the correct setup will have your shoulders slightly in front of the bar, with a neutral (flat) lumbar spine.
- Push the floor away and drag the bar up your legs
Just as with a conventional deadlift, it is helpful to think of the sumo deadlift as a push, not a pull. Push the floor away as you continue to squeeze your chest up.
The lats perform the important job of keeping the bar on your legs. You should lift with the goal of dragging the bar up your legs by actively sweeping the bar back into them during the lift.
At the top, finish tall with a proud chest. And, as always, hold your breath until the bar is back on the floor.
Practically, there are not many reasons to include the sumo deadlift as a big part of a general strength program beyond those lifters who use it in competition. But we do not always have to be practical with our training. If you are an aspiring coach, try the sumo deadlift. Understand it so that you can coach it. For more advanced lifters, there is value in versatility and the knowledge of different, lesser-used assistance lifts. So, give it a try. Just don’t get too distracted.