The Deadlift Series: Sumo vs. Conventional
The sumo stance is a variation that has increased in popularity over the last few years thanks to the explosion of the sport of powerlifting across the world.
As the name implies, a sumo deadlift employs a wide, sumo-wrestler-like stance over the barbell, in contrast to the narrower stance seen in the conventional deadlift.
Conventional vs. Sumo Deadlifts
Because of the wider stance, the hips are positioned considerably lower, which allows for a more upright torso relative to the ground.
The sumo deadlift is known to be more quad-dominant than its conventional counterpart, as well as less stressful to the joints and muscles surrounding the lumbar spine.
It does, however, require a great deal of flexibility in the groin area, namely the hip adductors. This can lead to discomfort in those who have never previously trained in the position, or who lack the flexibility to assume proper positioning to begin with.
The conventional deadlift also requires considerable quadricep strength, less so than the sumo deadlift, though it mainly emphasises the muscles of the posterior chain: the hamstrings, glutes and spinal erectors.
Which Stance is Right For You?
Out of the many factors to consider, anthropometry reigns as the one of greatest importance.
The word anthropometry stems from the Greek words anthropos, meaning “human”, and metron, meaning “measure”, thus referring to the measurement of individual humans or man.
In the deadlift, variances in torso and limb length illustrate the differences between the two main deadlift styles, enabling lifters to lean towards either variation when the goal is maximum strength and lifting efficiency.
As a rule of thumb, lifters with relatively longer torsos and shorter arms will benefit from a wider stance.
As previously mentioned, the sumo stance effectively lowers the starting hip height, allowing sumo pullers to more easily grab the bar while maintaining a neutral spine.
Those with longer arms and shorter torsos generally turn out to be better conventional pullers, as a longer arm length increases the distance from the bar to the shoulder joint, also resulting in a more upright position off the floor and less stress to the lumbar spine.
In biomechanics, the moment arm is the straight line derived from the axis of rotation within a joint to the line of force acting on that joint. The longer a moment arm, the greater the force that must be produced by the joint to execute a lift.
In the case of a deadlift, our joint of interest is the hip, with the line of force being a perpendicular line to the floor directly in line with the barbell.
Greater moment arm lengths means greater isometric demands from the muscles in the lower back to sustain a neutral and stable position.
The reason why a sumo deadlift is much more low-back friendly is due to its moment arm. A more upright torso position, with the hips abducted and externally rotated in the sagittal plane (front-to-back) results in the hips being positioned closer to the bar when viewed from the side.
Stefi Cohen, arguably one of the strongest female deadlifters of our generation. Also an incredible sumo deadlifter.
Let’s talk about the conventional deadlift for a second.
Individual differences aside, there are certain requirements for an ideal set-up that should be consistent no matter who’s executing the lift.
One of them is the position of the shoulders relative to the bar. The shoulder joint itself should be slightly ahead of the bar, with the barbell sitting directly underneath the shoulder blades.
This allows for the weight to be positioned below the lifter’s center of mass, resulting in a lift that’s safer and more mechanically efficient.
Take a look at one of our members below. This is a pretty spot-on set-up, which meets the requirements just previously described.
Now imagine if Gwen had shorter arms, with everyting else remaining the same. She would have to bring her chest considerably lower in order to reach the bar, which would result in her back being more parallel to the floor.
While there’s no rule in the Deadlift Bible that says one shouldn’t deadlift with a perfectly horizontal torso, that position would greatly increases the stress placed on the lower back, resulting in a lift that’s more similar to a stiff-legged deadlift than a conventional deadlift.
In that case, should she still deadlift this way, or should she switch to another stance?
In my opinion, there would certainly be merit in exploring other options, but as you’ll see, anthropometry isn’t the only determining factor when choosing a deadlift stance.
Let’s take a look at some other considerations.
Training Expertise and Coaching Availability
Some lifters naturally gravitate towards either stance simply because they’re better able to grasp its technical or positional demands. Others may require a little more coaching or trial-and-error.
Here’s the thing: purely in terms of execution, the sumo deadlift is a much easier lift to perform.
The conventional stance, on the other hand, seems to be an easier position for untrained individuals to correctly replicate, but the conventional deadlift itself can be slightly more nuanced than its sumo counterpart.
For most of us mere mortals who are simply on a quest for strength and longevity, choosing the variation that best suits your body type and injury history will be your best bet.
For those with more specific goals, the stance you choose will greatly depend on your desired outcome.
As an example, if you wish to build quadricep strength, the sumo deadlift can be a great addition to your program.
If your posterior chain is lacking, you can’t go wrong with the conventional deadlift.
Context is king when making program design decisions, and this is why working with a coach is one of the best ways to make sure you’re doing what’s optimal for your goals.
Injuries & Mobility/Flexibility Restrictions
This one is pretty self-explanatory.
If a certain position or movement hurts, don’t do it. It’s as simple as that.
If you have a history of low back pain that’s brought on by hip flexion, it would be wise to forego conventional deadlifting and maybe opt for the sumo stance instead.
If you have an adductor tear and find it nearly impossible to deadlift sumo-style pain-free…. well, I’m sure you know where I’m going with this.
Other Anatomical “Limitations”
Though adequate groin flexibility is a must for those interested in pulling sumo, you must also keep in mind that not everybody is built to squat and pull in a very wide stance.
This is due to anatomical differences that simply can’t be changed, such as the way your femur (thigh bone) inserts into your hip socket.
Lifters with very shallow hip sockets may be able to achieve greater hip external rotation than those with deeper sockets and more prominent femoral heads. Similarly, women tend to have a much easier time with the sumo deadlift due to their larger hip width.
Who do you think will be the better sumo deadlifter of the two?
Unfortunately, and as you may have already guessed, when the restriction is strictly anatomical, there simply isn’t anything that can be done about it.
I hate to be the coach who tells a client what they can or cannot do, based solely on the genetics they were given.
However, part of my job is to be realistic in managing expectations for both myself and the client.
With that said, I do believe there’s a time and place for preferences in training.
Since most of us train for the purpose of a healthier and stronger body, but also for fun and enjoyment, there’s nothing wrong with choosing one lift over the other simply because you enjoy it more.
When that’s the case, there are modifications you can take into account to make the lift better suit your body.
As an example, if your back angle is practically horizontal relative to the floor at the bottom of a conventional deadlift, you can elevate the bar slightly, which would allow you to have a slightly more upright position, thus sparing your lower back from potential undue stress.
Similarly, you could opt for the trap bar instead of the barbell deadlift, which allows virtually anyone to achieve a more vertical posture due to the shift in load placement and elevated handles.
The Deadlift Stance You’ve Probably Never Heard Of
In between the sumo and deadlift stances, there’s a third option for those who would like to opt for a wider-than-shoulder-width stance without going too wide.
It’s called the modified sumo, or hybrid sumo stance.
In essence, it is a conventional deadlift performed with the arms inside the legs, but it may facilitate positioning for those with hip flexion or other mobility restrictions.
In terms of technique, it heavily resembles the conventional deadlift, with greater posterior-chain focus and less quadricep engagement than the sumo deadlift.
Still unsure which one to pick? Though the factors mentioned in this article may help guide you in either direction, you’re likely better off trying both and seeing which one feels more natural and stronger.
Make sure to film your sets or have a training partner give you pointers in regards to your technique and positioning.
Stay tuned for a future blog in this series which will cover setting up and correct deadlifting technique.