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How to Deadlift: Which Variation is Right for You? – Part 2 (Sumo Deadlift)

Written on May 4, 2011 at 8:33 am, by Eric Cressey

In the first installment of this series, I talked about the conventional deadlift and how it’s the most advanced progression in the “deadlift spectrum” for most folks.  Today, our focus will be another great strength exercise: the sumo deadlift.

I like the sumo deadlift quite a bit for those who aren’t quite mobile enough to get all the way down to the bar for conventional deadlifts from the floor.  It’s also grown in popularity among powerlifters over the years because it shortens the distance the bar has to travel and also (as a general rule of thumb) allows lifters to get more out of their deadlift (or squat) suits when pulling.  I find that it’s particularly common among the guys who are built to squat and bench press because of shorter arms and legs but longer torsos because they don’t have to get down so low (via hip flexion and dorsiflexion) to grasp the bar.

By bringing the feet a bit wider (abducting the hips) and turning the toes out a bit (externally rotating the hips), a lot of folks can get to “depth” much easier and ensure that they can pull with a neutral spine.  This is probably one reason why those with more retroverted hips inevitably resort to sumo deadlifts after failing miserably with trying to pull conventional-style; they’re just more comfortable with the hips externally rotated a bit.  So, if you’re someone who always walks with the toes pointed out, there’s a good chance that sumo deadlifts are going to be safer for you than conventional pulling.

That said, when discussing sumo deadlifts, I have just two concerns.

First, I think that they need to be cycled in and out of one’s strength and conditioning program relatively frequently, especially if you use an ultra-wide stance.  Deadlifting sumo-style for more than eight weeks straight is a recipe for hip irritation – especially if you’re someone who is doing a fair amount of squatting in the same strength training programs.  It’s one reason why I prefer a more “moderate” stance width for sumo deadlifts.

Second, the biggest sumo deadlift technique mistake I see is lifters trying to squat the weight up and down.  When the hips start too low – and then the hips and knees extend at the same rate – the knees aren’t extended enough when the bar gets to them.  The only way that the bar can continue its upward path is to either go around the shins (which is accomplished by rounding the back to move the bar away from the body) or get dragged along the shins. If your back hurts or you have blood all over the bar and scabs on your shins, you’re probably doing something wrong.

If conventional-style is the most advanced variation of the deadlift out there, sumo deadlifts are likely the first “regression” down, as they allow you to perform the exercise with less hip and ankle mobility, and they also ensure that the bar is starting a bit closer to the primary axis of rotation (the hips), as the femur is flexed and abducted and not just flexed.

Our next installment – the trap bar deadlift – will wrap this series up.  In the meantime, in case you missed it, enter your name and email below to receive a free 9-minute deadlift technique video.

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41 Responses to “How to Deadlift: Which Variation is Right for You? – Part 2 (Sumo Deadlift)”

  1. Garrett Frampton Says:

    EC,

    In the first video you are doing a pretty explosive deadlift. This is safe for you, since this is probably 30-40% of your one rep maximum. Explosive deadlifts seem pretty dangerous and it might be worth cautioning people not to use a fast with heavy weights.

  2. Niel Says:

    Eric, where does the Romanian deadlift fit in the spectrum? I don’t see it included in programs or discussed too often (transfer, leverage, etc.).

  3. Ryan McGrann Says:

    Thanks for the article. I noticed in some of your heavier lifts you wear a back belt. I was curious what your stance was on belts? I know McGill doesn’t really support their use at least for healthy spines…hoping I could get your take. Thanks.

  4. Tony Says:

    Is it common for people to have a harder time lifting sumo style if they’re used to lifting conventional? I’m doing some sumo in my routine and I thought it would feel easier because of the shorter ROM, but it feels harder too me.

  5. Michael Says:

    Eric, I’m currently doing a 2/day/week kettlebell program along with a 2/day/week freeweight program. I haven’t been doing deadlifts much lately because of all the work the kbs do for the same muscles. Any suggestions on this? I really miss doing my deads!

  6. J.B. Says:

    Garrett, I’m not going to speak for EC, but in my experience pulling for speed is one of the best ways to increase rate of force development, vertical jump, and general explosiveness in athletes.
    Ask any olympic lifter. They do tons of high speed work off the ground at pretty significant percentages of their max deadlift.
    The velocity of pulls with higher loads tends to be self limiting.

    That said if the lifter starts with poor technique: too much slack (in their arms/the bar) hips too low allowing their butt to shoot up, they can injure themselves.. but deadlifting with bad technique is the issue, not the speed of the lift.

  7. Ross Says:

    Garrett Frampton, a deadlift by its very nature should be explosively lifted from the floor, regardless of the weight. When Eric is pulling 600 pounds i’m pretty sure he’s not approaching it with the intention of lifting it slowly.

  8. Speed and Agility Says:

    Hey Eric,

    How much sumo dead lifting do your professional baseball athletes do?

  9. Danny McLarty Says:

    Eric,

    In regards to how wide you spread your legs out when doing sumos…

    If you keep your feet at a “medium” width, do you still recommend not using sumo deads “too often?” I tend to keep my feet fairly narrow (relatively) when pulling sumo. Most of my clients also seem to feel more comfortable with a ~narrow sumo stance. If you don’t go very wide, do you think the same hip irritation problems (as a wide stance sumo DLer) are still likely to arise?

    Thanks.

  10. Tate Says:

    Eric, any ideas about a CP baseball product. I loved Ultimate Off Season. But would love to see the difference for ballplayers.

  11. Gordon Wayne Watts Says:

    I recently got a laugh out of the reply my friend Nia Shanks made about some YouTubers who criticised her DL technique: Unless they can deadlift 2.6X **their** BW, they’d better NOT tell her she’s doing it wrong. (HA ha!! – THAT stopped them cold in their tracks!)

    Even though I was finally able to catch up to her on that lift (with exact corrections made for my taller height: I pulled 320 off the blocks at the same bodyweight), I still was uncertain if her critics were more right or more wrong.

    But, on the ‘Comments’ of my most recent Facebook video (click my name above, and then look for most recent vid: ‘Deadlift Experiment’), I not only weighed in with my opinion (giving time to both sides of those YouTube comments), but MORE IMPORTANTLY, I used Sines and Cosines (trigonometry) to analyze the 2 aspects under question –and I write you today to ask your thoughts on whether my mathematical treatment of the deadlift theory was correct in the ‘Comments’ to that vid.

    If Facebook’s down (or if you simply don’t feel like clicking on it), the long-story-short is that:

    #1 — I suggest that the multiplier factor for sheer stress on the legs (when pulling sumo) is the inverse of the cosine of the angle between each leg and its difference from vertical. (Approaching infinity as the legs do a 180-degree split –ouch!!) –and:

    #2 — I suggest that the foot-pounds of torque of bending over (to pick up the weight) must be corrected by the Sine of the degrees of stance different from vertical (which means for a perfectly vertical stance, there *is* no torque).

    The explanation on my Facebook is a little more user-friendly (if a but longer), but I know you are very smart -and would appreciate your thoughts on the Calculus I used in my Trig analysis of these 2 aspects of Sumo deadlifting.

    THX!

    Gordon Wayne Watts
    LAKELAND (between Orlando & Tampa), Fla.

  12. Clement Says:

    Hi Eric, I think it’s interesting that you consider the sumo deadlift a less advanced exercise than the conventional deadlift – but it’s also an astute observation.

    In the past, I’ve never had any issues with learning to sumo deadlift. I thought that it was because I was “built” to sumo deadlift, as referred to by many of the Elite FTS articles.

    However, after reading a Bret Contreras blog post about the best deadlift variation to use, I realised that I shouldn’t just keep to one variation.

    Now, I find that my conventional deadlift isn’t that worse off from my sumo. In fact, it’s surpassed my sumo deadlift numbers!

  13. Jason Says:

    I’m completely with you on Sumo as a regression of Conventional. I’m a competitive powerlifter and strength coach as well, and I find it much easier to teach my newer (beginner level) clients sumo without back pain. I find the conventional stance makes it too easy to shift weight over to the toes (and ultimately strain the lower back).

    I also agree that you need to cycle up the deadlift patterns. Personally I pull sumo (to a moderate sumo, as you displayed) in competition and training when I’m going heavy. But I’ll train conventional in single Leg deadlift variations (obviously).

    Great series Eric, keep up the good work!

  14. Eric Cressey Says:

    I’ve never been a huge RDL fan. I tend to prefer variations that begin from a dead-stop. So, I’d prefer rack pulls for the most part. We still use RDLs some, though – usually in single-leg stance.

  15. Eric Cressey Says:

    I really only use belts for competition lifts – and this was in preparation for one.

  16. Eric Cressey Says:

    Yes, there is definitely a learning curve to picking up any new exercise.

  17. Eric Cressey Says:

    If you need to do work with KBs, put them at the end of a lower-body lifting session. Remember that you’re never going to train maximal strength with a kettlebell the way that you can with heavy deadlifting, so somethings you need to pick one.

  18. Eric Cressey Says:

    Well said, JB!

  19. Eric Cressey Says:

    A fair amount. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nVnvVFwQHaw

  20. Eric Cressey Says:

    If they are going to arise, it certainly won’t come around nearly as quickly. So, you can use it for longer – although I wouldn’t say indefinitely.

  21. Eric Cressey Says:

    Will be doing it sometime, Tate – hopefully sooner than later.

  22. Eric Cressey Says:

    I think you have too much time on your hands, Gordon. ;)

  23. Braden Says:

    Just to check. You’re saying its a bad thing to have blood all over the bar and scabs from just sumo deadlift or conventional deadlift too?

  24. Conor Says:

    Is the sumo stance wide enough to negate the load imbalance of a functional leg length difference?

  25. Thomas Says:

    Eric-you didn’t mention anything about knee problems with the sumo. When I do this variation, my left knee gets pretty sore and feels irritated even while doing the movement. My knees do tend to “crack” a bit so they may be a tad hyper-mobile. Is this common/uncommon (knee pain with the sumo) and any recommendations? I don’t get knee pain with the squat by the way.

  26. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thomas,

    You might be too wide with your stance. See if bringing it in gives you some relief.

    Also, if you’re someone with anteverted hips, the sumo DL may give you problems.

  27. Brian Says:

    Eric,

    I notice that when I do sumo deadlifts that my hamstrings are really sore for about a week and a half even when I do a light weight and have properly warmed up. Normal recovery for me is only a couple of days. Any thoughts to speed recovery?

  28. Conor Says:

    Awesome videos in these instructions. You have some serious power in that second video. Nice!
    Conor

  29. Ryan Stinn Says:

    Any suggestions for those of us with retroverted hips?

  30. Eric Cressey Says:

    Ryan,

    Most of the time, just letting the hips “go where they go” is the answer. Sumo pulls are a good fit, and you may need to just be a bit more turned out for conventional and trap bar deadlifts.

  31. Dominic Bianco Says:

    I think companies like yours should be in every school in the world,as I deliver a program called Boot Camp 4 Kids in Australia and use the bands as part of my program it breaks up the sessions and it is more enjoyable for the children. Great job guys God bless you all
    Regards
    Dominic Bianco
    The trainer.Org

  32. darin Says:

    I am pretty tall at 6’3 and the standard deadlift feels akward to me, however i do use them but with lighter weights that let me do around 12 reps. I then go to th sumo style for heavier lifting.

  33. Michael Alcrow Says:

    Hey cressey, when are you going to have a sweepstakes or something like that to give someone a chance to meet you and your facility?

  34. Eric Cressey Says:

    Michael,

    You don’t need to win a contest to meet me! Our doors are always open if you want to come and visit Cressey Performance, whether it’s to train as a client or simple to observe.

  35. FitnessTacoma Says:

    Hey Eric, Its Pleasure to read your blog.The above articles is very impressive, how much sumo dead lifting do your professional baseball athletes do?

  36. Stewart Says:

    Hi Eric I’ve looked at your deadlift 1 & 2 and at this time I think they would be a bit to strenuous for me.
    I showed your program to my Dr and he said not to do it as I am still recovering from a heart attack which I had 6 months ago.

    Im wondering if you would have a program for me.
    My age 69

    Regards Stewart

  37. Eric Cressey Says:

    Stewart,

    I’d recommend you work with a good fitness professional near you in person, as they’ll be able to gauge exercise to your needs much better than I can in a distance-based format.

  38. patricia Says:

    I am new to lifting but I see now I would definately do a sumo deadlift cause of my knee problems! thanks for video

    By the way what is a good weight to start with as a beginner?

  39. Eric Cressey Says:

    Patricia,

    I’d go with training plates or, if need be, 10lb plates elevated off an aerobic step to shorten the distance the bar has to travel.

  40. Pop Says:

    Sumo good for xxl lifter??

  41. Eric Cressey Says:

    Pop,

    Generally, yes.

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