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September 06, 2020 10 min read
The standard deadlift is a juggernaut of an exercise—there’s no arguing that. But just like with all foundational exercises, there’s a million variations of the deadlift that all hit slightly different muscles at slightly different angles. If you’re looking to turbocharge your gains, then the sumo deadlift is a movement you should seriously consider including in your workout plan.
The sumo deadlift has significant benefits for those into weightlifting that want to spice up their routine and build muscle. No word if actual sumo wrestlers incorporate this into their training, but it’d probably help if they did.
If you’ve never tried this exercise out, now is the time; below we’ve got everything you’d ever want to know about the sumo deadlift.
As you might’ve guessed, the sumo deadlift has the lifter adopt a wide stance (sumo stance, if you will), at least when compared to a conventional pull. This has several unique benefits which allows the sumo deadlift to stand apart from the other deadlift variations.
The main difference lies in the positioning of the spine. When the feet are spread further apart, it results in your torso being in a more upright position. And since your back is more upright and vertical, the load of the barbell places significantly less stress on the lower back—at least when compared to the conventional or Romanian deadlift. If you’re someone who experiences lower back pain or has had a back injury, the sumo is a good lift to incorporate.
Furthermore, the sumo deadlift usually allows people to stack on more weight. This is, once again, mostly due to the foot positioning, but the shorter range of the pull is also a factor that plays a part. The benefits from a higher training volume are apparent: higher strength gains, muscle mass gains, and an improvement in top-end strength for sports.
The wider foot placement also lends itself to a third major benefit. Because of the resulting hip and knee angles, your hips are put into an external rotation which allows this deadlift to target the glutes and inner quads. If you’re looking to target these areas due to a weakness in the pull with a regular deadlift or are just looking for aesthetic gains with glutes and quads, the sumo deadlift can provide.
In terms of your body’s mechanics, the sumo deadlift is also simply better suited for most people. This is based on the “angle of Q”—a measurement of the angle between the patella tendon and the quad. People with a higher angle of Q (which women tend to have), will be in a mechanically better position for the sumo deadlift than the standard deadlift. The sumo deadlift will also be better for those with longer legs.
While we’ve already mentioned the quadriceps and the glutes, we’ll go into a bit more detail here and mention some other muscle groups.
While sumo deadlifts take the focus off of the hamstrings, they’re still the primary mover in this lift. Most of your power will come from these muscles—but if you want to target them, the conventional or Romanian deadlift are better suited for your needs.
The glutes also become one of the primary movers due to the external rotation of the hip in the sumo deadlift. And due to the greater amount of knee bending, the quads also need to work overtime to keep your body aligned. But while they do work the quads more than the conventional or Romanian deadlifts, their quad activation is similar to the trap bar deadlift.
The lower back, aka the erector spinae, is also sidelined with the sumo deadlift. However, it still plays an important role in stabilizing the spine and resisting rotation. Once again, if the lower back causes you trouble in a regular deadlift, then the sumo variation might be up your alley.
The upper back, including the traps, is also a major mover in the sumo deadlift. It helps to maintain the positioning of your body and helps in the upwards pull. Since this deadlift has a more vertical pulling movement, it’s a great way to build the upper back muscles, traps, and rhomboids.
While the sumo deadlift might be easier on your lower back, it is a more challenging lift than the conventional deadlift when it comes to posture and proper deadlift form—which is why it’s that much more important to perform it correctly.
You want to get a regular deadlift setup to begin; barbell on the floor with the desired weight, the bar at about mid-shin level. Begin the sumo deadlift by walking up to the barbell and having your shins almost touch the bar.
Here’s our guide to a perfect sumo deadlift:
1. Begin with your feet significantly wider than shoulder-width apart. They should be pointed about 45-degrees outwards, and your shins should almost be touching the bar.
2. Engaging your core and glutes, bend over while keeping your spine neutrally aligned (straight). Bending your knees and hinging your hips should be where the bending over comes from.
3. Grip the bar overhand, with your thumbs around the bar (or whatever grip you choose), at shoulder-width apart. Your arms should be going straight down when they hold onto the bar.
4. Remember to keep your shins as vertical as possible, with your knees pointing in the same direction as your toes. Your knees pointing in the same direction as your toes should be maintained throughout the entirety of the lift.
5. Lift your chest up so your back remains straight, and keep your core engaged along with your lats. Maintain the straightness of your spine and the engagement of your core and lats through the lift.
6. Taking a deep breath, initiate the pull by pushing through your feet and extending your knees and hips. This movement should be explosive, and keep it going until you’re standing upright. The bar should be remaining in close contact with your legs.
7. Once the bar passes your knees, squeeze your glutes and lockout at the top.
8. Reverse the movement in a controlled manner, first breaking the hips and then the knees to come back to the starting position.
9. Repeat for the desired amount of reps.
The above will put you on the right path, but there are several details to keep in mind as well. Remember—this is a more technical lift than the conventional deadlift, so more complexity is a given. And since you’ll most likely be lifting even more with the sumo deadlift, it’s best to have perfect form in order to avoid injury. There are a number of form tips to keep in mind as you go through the movement.
Numero uno on our “things to keep in mind” list is where the feet are at. That mostly comes down to foot positioning.
Once again, keep your knees pointed in the direction of your toes, but also bring them out to where your ankles are at. Everyone will have a different ability when it comes to the sumo deadlift stance. It depends on your range of motion primarily, but it’s also important to remember that geared lifters will most likely be able to adopt a wider stance.
Your typical lifter will probably have to use a more moderate stance—so don’t be worried about not going wide enough. Make sure to feel the engagement in your quads and glutes, and slowly work on your mobility rather than pushing yourself with the sumo deadlift.
Another limitation on your stance will be the initial difficulty of the lift. When compared to a conventional or Romanian deadlift, the sumo is normally harder to get moving at the beginning; something that’s balanced with its relative ease when it comes to locking out at the top. If you go too wide, you might not be able to even lift the barbell.
When it comes to the sumo deadlift, the name of the game is being as vertically above the load as you can get. Turning your toes outwards is essential for this since it allows you to stand closer to the bar during the lift. If you point them straight out, you’ll be lifting the bar way too far out in front of you to make the sumo worth doing.
At the same time, you don’t want to point them out far enough where you’re unable to create any tension through your legs. But, if you do reach that happy middle ground, your lift will benefit with a closer pull to your body and a shorter pull—resulting in good form and being able to lift more. Something that we can all get behind.
The last piece of the foot puzzle is what’s called, “spreading the floor.” Since the most difficult part of the lift is at the very beginning, you’re going to want to create a ton of tension in your feet so they’re ready to push through.
“Rooting” your feet to the floor should result in a big arch in your feet. Do this by making an outward twisting pressure with your feet while pulling your heels together. Now—you don’t actually want your feet to move. Just engage these muscles and your feet should produce a big arch.
And don’t forget about your knees! Rotate your knees out, or quads out if that helps you better visualize the motion. Your knees not only have to be pointing towards your toes for proper force generation, but they also need to get out of the way of the bar when you’re going through the movement.
It will help if you think of this movement more of a knee-hinge than a hip-hinge lift. It’s going to be initiated by the knees—by spreading the floor and driving your knees sideways and down.
Now, that covers it for the feet (and knees), but what about the rest of the body? Let’s talk about the hips.
While you don’t want to think of this movement as a squat, you also do want to get your hips close to the bar as possible. Obviously, this will depend on your own mobility and the length of your legs—but try your best without letting your knees come forward.
Think of this as almost “wedging” yourself into the bar. If you do this correctly, your shoulders should be behind the bar and your torso will be upright. Pushing your chest out will also help with the wedge.
All of this has to do with keeping as much of your body weight behind the bar as possible, since that’ll generate the greatest amount of vertical force. The more of your body is in front of the bar, the more difficult it becomes to lockout.
Make sure the wedge is tight by pulling your body down into the bar before you begin the lift, and then continue by pulling the bar into your body. This will ensure that more of your body stays behind the bar through the lift—something that’ll make a huge difference when it comes to locking out at the top.
Keep your butt relatively high as well. While you don’t want to be “un-wedging” yourself by bending forward too much to keep it high—you also want it higher than you would in a squat, for example.
The final piece of the puzzle is the drive forward with your hips.
While this is a knee-hinge movement over a hip-hinge, the hips do finish the movement. Properly shooting them forward will help your knees and hips lockout in a straight line—something that’ll help you from injuring your lower back.
This is usually the case with beginners, but you should really avoid lifting the weight with your lower back. The hips should be acting as leverage throughout the lift, and especially at lockout. Think of it as shooting your hips into the bar rather than pulling your lower back into it.
This can lead to hyperextension, which is one of our mistakes to avoid.
While we’ve covered everything about what perfect form is, there are some common mistakes it’s worth touching on again.
Setting the stance—and not making it too wide—is crucial. Not only will a too wide stance be detrimental to trying to initiate the lift, but it could also lead to injuries. Your shins should be in a straight vertical orientation.
Also, hyperextending the back at the top of the movement (lockout) is a common problem, especially with beginners. Like we mentioned above, you want to initiate and complete the lockout with your hips, and definitely not the spine. A good way to go about this if you’re unsure how to do it or what we mean, is to squeeze the glutes at the top of the lift. Once the glutes have engaged and locked out, don’t change the angle of your spine.
And speaking of the angle of the spine—do not let it round. This goes for pretty much all lifts, but you do not want any rounding of the back. This goes double when you’re lifting heavier weights with the sumo deadlift, or even a conventional one. Rounding increases the chances of disk herniation, and it’s something to avoid at all costs.
Sticking to perfect form should avoid all of these issues, but also keep in mind that the weight you’re lifting might be just too heavy. Over-loaded barbells are a classic cause of half-reps, poor form, and injuries—so rather than chasing numbers, make sure you’ve got the basic movement down pat.
When it comes to powerlifting, an advantage that the sumo deadlift has is that the bar has less distance to travel. A shorter range for the bar to have to be moved is an important priority when it comes to powerlifters. Furthermore, the sumo deadlift is one of the two ways to deadlift at a powerlifting meet—so if you’ve got powerlifting in your sights, then this is an essential movement to add to your roster.
For strongmen, the stance that the sumo deadlift has you take can be a good substitution for lifting stones if you there’s none available to train with. Furthermore, the sumo can give the lower back a rest from all of the conventional deadlifting.
When it comes to athletics, the trap bar deadlift is often utilized in a pulling session at the gym, since it places less stress on the lower back. The sumo deadlift is a great addition to a low impact (on the lower back) lift that athletes can do if worried about injuring themselves.
And lastly, the sumo deadlift is a good addition to training routines for those just looking for general fitness. Some people’s bodies are simply better suited for the sumo rather than the conventional deadlift. Furthermore, people with a history of lower back pain might want to opt for this variation of the deadlift.
Whatever your goals and physical abilities, the sumo deadlift should be a serious consideration when building up a training program—whether it’s for strength training, bodybuilding, or just wanting to spice things up with the sumo stance.