The truth about sumo deadlifts
written by Philip Stefanov | MAY 23, 2023
Sumo deadlifts are one of the most underrated and unnecessarily hated exercises in the history of working out. There, I said it.
Whether you carry intense hatred toward sumo deadlifts or wonder why people hate this variation, read on because we are breaking it down in this week’s newsletter.
What Are Sumo Deadlifts?
In case you’re unfamiliar, sumo deadlifts are a variation where you assume a wider (sumo) stance. Your arms are between your legs, and your hips are in a lower position compared to conventional deadlifts. The lower hip position leads to a more upright torso and slightly greater quadriceps activation.
In contrast, a conventional deadlift is where your legs are between your arms, and your hands are typically shoulder-width apart. The position forces your hips into a slightly higher position.
Why Do People Hate Sumo Deadlifts So Much?
Picture this: You’re a world-class powerlifter who has spent the last 18 months preparing for a competition. The weight has been set, the judges are ready to see you perform, and you’ve been called to step up for your final deadlift attempt.
The weight on the bar? A cool 705 lbs. “That’s a lot of weight,” you think to yourself, but you confidently approach the bar, set yourself up like you’ve done thousands of times before, brace, and pull. It takes Herculean effort to lift the bar, but you give it everything you’ve got and complete the rep successfully.
Before you’ve even had a chance to celebrate your new PR, you hear someone from the crowd say, “Yeah, but sumo is cheating. Let’s see him deadlifting that much with a conventional stance.”
But why the hate? Some critics argue that sumo deadlifts aren’t as hardcore as their conventional counterparts. They claim that a sumo stance is like a shortcut––a sneaky way for lifters to bypass the challenges of deadlifting by shortening the range of motion. Some even go as far as to compare sumo deadlifts to half-squats.
As such, a 500-lb sumo deadlift isn’t nearly as impressive as a 500-lb conventional deadlift.
Is The Hate Justified?
First, it’s important to note that sumo deadlifts are allowed in every reputable powerlifting federation. Competitors can pick between a sumo or conventional stance, as both count the same for one’s total.
Second, to understand if the hate is justified, we have to look at a couple of things: the range of motion and the hardest part of the lift.
A common argument against sumo is that the range of motion is shorter, which means trainees must exert less effort to lift the same amount of weight. According to various resources, sumo does have a shorter range of motion––somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 to 25 percent, depending on the person.
However, that doesn’t mean sumo is easier. Even if you can lift slightly more weight with a sumo stance, that would compensate for the shorter range of motion, keeping your exertion level the same.
Plus, isn’t strength training about finding the most efficient way to lift a weight from point A to B? Suppose sumo allows you to lift more. Why handicap yourself with a conventional stance, especially if you compete in powerlifting, where the goal is to put up the biggest total possible?
Speaking of powerlifting and totals, if sumo were cheating and easier than conventional deadlifts, it would make sense that most, if not all, competitors would use a wide stance to pull as much weight as humanly possible, no?
Well, there is plenty of data to suggest that this isn’t true. When looking at data from male competitors, it seems that those in lighter weight classes favor a sumo stance, whereas lifters shift more toward a conventional stance in the 93, 105, 120, and 120+ kg classes.
In other words, heavier men tend to deadlift conventional and lighter men prefer sumo. You can read more about these findings here.
Beyond the range of motion, we also have to look at the overall difficulty of completing a sumo deadlift repetition versus a conventional deadlift. While some people are eager to compare the sumo stance to half squats, doing so is unfair.
The purpose of half squats is to eliminate the most challenging part of the repetition (the bottom), which isn’t the case for sumo deadlifts.
The two sticking points for most lifters on the deadlift are the bottom and the top. Most trainees will fail to lift the bar off the floor or fully extend their knees and hips at the top.
Despite the slightly shorter range of motion, sumo deadlifts include both sticking points because you must lift the barbell off the floor and complete the rep by fully extending your knees and hips.
Finally, EMG data suggests only minor differences in muscle activation between sumo and conventional deadlifts. More specifically, sumo favors the quadriceps more because of the more upright torso position, whereas conventional deadlifts lead to slightly greater back muscle activation.
The Bottom Line on Sumo Deadlifts
Given everything we’ve discussed today, sumo deadlifts are not cheating and don’t deserve the hate they are getting. If you don’t like the movement, simply don’t do it.
In contrast, if conventional deadlifts don’t feel great (for example, you have to hunch over to get into the starting position, which bothers your lower back), try the sumo stance. Even if the weight feels a bit lighter, you can always fix the issue by… simply lifting more.
I’m partial to sumo deadlifts because I’ve found them more suited for my build. I’ve done my fair share of conventional deadlifts, but I always hunch over and rarely get my lower back in the recommended neutral position for a safe pull.
Plus, given the minor differences in muscle activation, I don’t see a good reason for sticking to one variation over the other, especially if you struggle to get in the correct position. Safety should always be your priority; if a movement doesn’t feel good for your body, there is no reason to stick with it.
Thank you for taking the time. Until next week,
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