Seasoned powerlifters are already familiar with the ongoing debate between sumo and conventional pulling. But if you’re a beginner, you may still be trying to decide which style works better for you.
It’s important to make the decision early on and stick with it for a good while before considering switching. If you pull sumo one week and conventional the next, you’re not really improving on either one. You’ll just wind up average at both when you could’ve been a master at one.
In Powerlifting, there are concrete technical requirements for each movement. That means you need to choose a deadlift style that makes it easier for you to consistently meet those criteria. For the deadlift, the main technique rules are as follows:
The bar can stop moving as you struggle to do the lift. That is acceptable within the rules. But, the bar CANNOT move downwards. This is one of the most common sources of a failed deadlift in a powerlifting meet.
As a lifter you want to keep the bar close to your body to make the lift easier, but this is different from partially resting the bar on your legs as you pull. The main telltale sign of supporting the bar is locking and unlocking the knees as the bar travels up.
This one is pretty self explanatory. You must stand tall with your shoulders back (not slouched forward, think of standing up with good posture), hips pushed through, and knees locked, but not hyperextended.
Notice that none of these mandates say anything about whether your legs should be inside or outside of your hands. Thanks to that omission, we can choose between sumo and conventional. In a conventional deadlift your legs are inside your hands, whereas in a sumo deadlift, your legs are outside your hands.
Now that we’ve identified the requirements you need to meet, the next step is to break down the sumo deadlift’s technique. By breaking it down, you’ll be able to tell if your unique strengths and weaknesses will make sumo pulls easier or harder for you.
You always want your shins completely vertical and perpendicular to the floor with your toes pointing outwards at a 45 degree angle. This allows lots of leeway for foot width. Though you generally want to stand with your feet about shoulders’ width apart, you can theoretically go wider by externally rotating your femur at the hip.
Of course, not everyone has good hip mobility (or can develop it). The hip socket and femur angle can vary vastly from person to person, so for some lifters it’s just not an option. Unfortunately, this limiting factor isn’t common knowledge, so it leads to a lot of mistakes.
The most common of these mistakes is sumo deadlifts going too wide. Here’s your rule of thumb: if your shins are not vertical at the start of the pull, you’re too wide.
This means that your hands should be shoulder width apart when grabbing the bar, ensuring your arms are as long as possible.
Drop your hips, straighten your back, and keep your chest high. You’re doing it right if you feel enough tension against the bar to keep you from losing balance and stumbling backward. For beginners trying it out for the first time, this might be a bit tricky at first.
The most common mistake I see lifters do here is to either drop their hips too low or start with the hips too high. If you drop the hips too low this will force your hips to rise before the bar picks and you won’t be able to create as much tension against the bar.
If you set your hips too high you will be neglecting your quads and end up doing a “wide stance conventional deadlift” meaning you are pulling with the same mechanics as conventional deadlift (neglecting most of the advantages of sumo)
Visualize pushing the floor away from you instead of pushing yourself upwards. It may sound like a placebo effect, but it’s a great trick for subconsciously keeping your back tight.
When the bar gets to your knees, lock them and squeeze your butt to push your hips through. The tricky part is timing both knee and hip lockout takes some trial and error, but the good thing is that with some repetition this is easily achievable.
In general, a sumo deadlift will make the bar travel less distance to lockout compared to a conventional deadlift performed by the same lifter. This can allow you to move more weight with the same amount of effort.
From a mechanical standpoint a sumo deadlift has a shorter moment arm from the hips to the bar compared to conventional. This means that there is less force applied to the lower back as your hips are closer to the bar. In most cases this can help save a lifter's lower back.
At the same time, sumo deadlifts place more emphasis on the quads and glutes as they become the primary movers, once in position.
The upper back tension, though, is arguably similar in both.
Sumo, although arguably less taxing than conventional, is still a deadlift and should be programmed as such. This means that for most lifters, once to twice a week should be plenty. Once a week for stronger, more experienced lifters is an appropriate exposure, while for newer lifters, twice can be beneficial.
The sumo deadlift can be programmed by itself or combined with upper body work (if a lifter needs more exposure to upper body work or has limited sessions per week), but it’s rarely if ever combined with squats. Squats and sumo deadlifts both use very similar muscle groups (quads and glutes) and therefore will inhibit strength on either movement when done in the same session.
For this reason, I like to separate squats and sumo deadlifts. Now this is not a hard set rule but if you are even a somewhat strong lifter you will notice how they can affect each other.
That being said, technique is best learned on the spot, not from a book. It’s much easier to go through it either in-person with an experienced coach or through online coaching with 1-on-1 feedback. That's why we always, always, always recommend if you don't have an in-person coach, you consider online coaching
Online coaching helps even the most experienced lifters stay at the top of their game, and it’s as simple as recording a video of your lift and sending it to us for feedback.
All you gotta do to learn more is click here for more information on how it all works.