If you’re a regular gymgoer, you may know that the sumo deadlift gets some bad press. The age-old argument rages on — is the sumo deadlift cheating? Many argue that it is an exercise in its own right, with unique benefits (not to mention being a legal lift in powerlifting).
The conventional deadlift is a mainstay in the training program of most strength sports, and the sumo’s got some catching up to do. But it can pay off in spades. Here, we’ll break down the differences between these lifts and when to choose one over the other.
Despite what you may have heard about the sumo deadlift, it certainly packs a punch in terms of benefits for many lifters. Read on to figure out which to choose, and whether you can find a place for both of these lifts in your program. When you want to increase strength, both of these lifts can be mighty powerful. So let’s get into the battle.
Table of Contents
When to Do Conventional Deadlifts
When to Do Sumo Deadlifts
How to Do Conventional Deadlifts
How to Do Sumo Deadlifts
Benefits of Conventional Deadlifts
Cons of Conventional Deadlifts
Benefits of Sumo Deadlifts
Cons of Sumo Deadlifts
Frequently Asked Questions
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To the untrained eye, it could look like there’s not much difference between the two, but in reality, this change in technique has a bigger impact than you’d think. Here are just the main ticket differences.
In the conventional deadlift, your feet are about hip-width apart and your hands grip the bar outside your legs. With a sumo stance, your legs are much farther apart, and your hands grip the bar inside your legs.
While the conventional hits the whole posterior chain, the sumo’s heavy on the quads and glutes.
The conventional focuses on the pull motion from the lower back, but the sumo is all about the legs.
The overall range of motion from the ground to the lockout position is typically shorter with sumo deadlifts.
The basis behind the conventional and sumo deadlift is identical — take something heavy, and lift it off the floor.
The absolute bare minimum that you need for any type of deadlift is anything you can pick up. For serious training, you’ll need a barbell, clips, and round plates. Round weight plates are key for both versions because hexagonal plates shift every time you set the bar down — this can drive the bar into your shins and scrape them up.
Both deadlift types are full-body compound exercises that sufficiently target your glutes and entire lower body.
While they differ in degrees of involvement, both versions of the lift do involve your back, hamstrings, quads, and core.
The conventional deadlift puts more emphasis than the sumo deadlift on your lower back. For its part, the sumo deadlift taxes the quads more than pulling conventional. However, both lifts do recruit the following muscle groups:
Glutes: Your glutes are essential for locking out both versions of the lift. Because of the wider stance, the sumo deadlift may tax your glutes more.
Lower Back: Your erector spinae are involved in supporting and stabilizing the sumo deadlift, but the conventional deadlift is the one that will go the extra mile toward forging a stronger lower back.
Upper Back: Your lats, rhomboids, and scaps are involved in stabilizing the bar in both lifts, but their involvement may be even more obvious in the conventional stance.
Quads: The sumo deadlift relies more heavily on your quads than the conventional version, though a strong follow-through with your quads contributes to a strong conventional lockout.
Hamstrings: Just as the sumo deadlift relies a bit more on your quads, the conventional deadlift places more emphasis on the backs of your legs — your hamstrings.
If you’re not in the mood to be accused of cheating by your sumo-hating gym friend, you might want to pull conventional. Here are some other circumstances in which you might prioritize a conventional pull.
As a Beginner
Generally, it’s easier to master the technique for a conventional deadlift than sumo. This is because conventional doesn’t require as much hip mobility, and the position may feel more comfortable. This might be especially true if you are transitioning to the barbell deadlift from dumbbell or kettlebell deadlifts, which are typically performed in a conventional stance.
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For many beginners, it may be recommended to get used to pulling from the floor in this position before moving on to variants, such as the sumo deadlift.
To Build Functional Strength
If you’re looking to increase strength on a functional level, you may want to opt for the conventional style. This uses a position and range of motion that is more natural to many people. It also relies on hinging your hips, which is a key movement pattern of functional fitness.
The strength you build during a conventional deadlift has more carryover to sports performance and day-to-day life than its sumo counterpart. For this reason, many people favor the conventional deadlift.
If You’re a Strongman Athlete, CrossFitter, or Weightlifter
Certain sports call for the conventional deadlift. You can absolutely integrate the sumo deadlift into your program even if your sport doesn’t use it in competition. However, the conventional deadlift is the only legal form in strongwoman and strongman competitions, so practicing and building strength in that version is essential there.
As for weightlifters, the conventional stance of a deadlift has a more direct carryover to the positions and leverages required for the snatch and clean & jerk. For CrossFitters, the same reasoning applies, as Olympic lifts play a big role in competition. A conventional stance is also more conducive to the kinds of high-rep deadlifting that is also often featured in CrossFit.
Even though sumo deadlifts had a bad reputation in some circles, they’re an excellent choice for athletes aiming to up their one-rep max.
If You Have Long Legs or Short Arms
Although many beginners may find it easier to start with conventional pulling, there are some caveats to this. For example, athletes with shorter arms, longer legs, or lower back issues might feel more at ease with sumo right from the get-go.
Athletes with long legs will often need a significant amount of knee bend in their hip hinge to safely reach the bar. Those with shorter arms might also need a more generous bend to grab the bar. Widening your legs into a sumo stance allows you to give yourself the leverages you need without putting a disproportionate amount of strain on your lower back.
When You Want to Pull Heavy
Sometimes it just feels good to lift heavy. And sometimes, you need to take it to the absolute limit for a powerlifting meet. The wider leg stance for sumo works to artificially shorten your legs, reducing the range of motion you need to move the weight through. This means most lifters can pull more weight using sumo.
Because of this shorter range of motion, the sumo deadlift is often the choice for competitive powerlifters as it may allow them to lift heavier. That said, plenty of lifters accomplish incredible feats of strength using a conventional stance, perhaps especially strongman athletes. So while sumo may have an edge here, it depends on what you’re looking to accomplish.
If Your Lower Back is Bothering You
Whether you have chronic lower back issues or you simply want to give it a rest after putting it under a lot of strain, sumo deadlifting puts less pressure on your lower back. If you have chronic pain or an injury, you’ll likely want to clear any lifting with a doctor or physical therapist.
Once you’re cleared, the sumo deadlift may set you up for more success. The wider stance will allow you to stay more upright, placing less strain on your spine. Pushing through the floor with your quads will also help take the load off your lower back.
First things first: make sure you are familiar with the ever-important hip hinge. Once you are, you can get started.
Approach the bar with your feet hip-width apart and underneath the bar. When you look down, the bar should sit directly over the knot of your laces with your shoulders over it. You can turn your feet out by around 10 degrees or keep them straight.
Grip the bar with a double overhand grip (palms facing behind you), a hook grip, or a mixed grip (one palm forward, one palm back — great for heavy lifts). Your deadlift grip should only be as wide as needed to allow your legs between your hands; an overly wide grip makes you start lower, making it harder to lift as heavy or get as many reps in.
Keep your spine neutral.
Initiate the pull by creating tension through your core, back, and posterior chain. Pull up slightly on the bar and press your feet through the floor while engaging your shoulders, which should be pulled back and down to activate your lats.
Solidify this tension position by taking a breath in while maintaining tightness in your core from all angles. The bar should still be on the floor.
Drive your feet through the floor. Lift the bar vertically, keeping it as close to your body as possible.
Stand tall and drive your hips forward without hyperextending your back to complete the lift.
Control the bar (but no need to lower it slowly) back to the ground after reaching lockout.
For all their differences, the sumo deadlift isn’t going to happen all that differently from the conventional version. But the set-up will still be key.
Walk up to the bar. Instead of placing your shoulders over the bar, this time they start in line with the bar.
Take a wide stance. Turn your toes out to 45 degrees, ensuring that your stance is wide enough for your elbows to stay inside your knees while reaching down to grip the bar.
With your shins perpendicular to the floor, a near-vertical torso, and a flat back, grip the bar at shoulder width. A mixed grip or double overhand grip is okay, though a mixed grip may feel more difficult.
Keep your core tight, like you’re bracing to be punched in the stomach, and avoid arching into your lower back. Press through your feet while pulling slightly on the bar and engaging your core, shoulders, and whole posterior chain.
Breathe in, drive hard through your feet, and let the bar rise. There’s so much leg drive here, it can feel like an inverse squat — it may actually help to pretend you’re “squatting the bar up”.
Move your body in sync, without allowing your chest to fall or your butt to rise. Keep the bar close to your body and squeeze your glutes as you stand up.
Driving your hips forward can help if the bar stalls at your knees. To finish, stand tall instead of leaning back into the lockout position.
Lower to the ground with control.
For both lifts, there’s plenty of extra equipment that can level up your deadlifts whether you’re shooting for sumo or conventional. Those shin scrapes we mentioned? Sometimes scrapes happen even when you’re using round plates, and this can be easily fixed by wearing tall socks or knee sleeves pulled down to your shins.
Serious lifters often use a weightlifting belt, as this instantly boosts the weight you can lift and the reps you can perform. Lifting straps can also be a useful addition if your grip strength is limiting your progress with either conventional or sumo deadlifts.
The right shoes will level up your deadlift too — something with a flat sole where your weight is distributed evenly, either weightlifting shoes or something like Converse Chuck Taylors are a great option.
Avoid running shoes like the plague — the shape of the soles will distribute your weight unevenly during the lift. If you don’t want to invest in lifting shoes, feel free to go shoeless, but some gyms aren’t keen on you walking around in socks. Be careful to dodge any stray weights that could roll over your feet if you go for this option.
The conventional deadlift hits the posterior chain hard, making it a key component in most athletes’ training regimens. It’s a great option if you’ve got long arms compared to your torso, and may be the best option if you’re working around certain hip or knee injuries.
Targets the Back, Hamstrings, and Calves
If you’re looking for a beast of a lower back exercise, the conventional deadlift’s your winner. The whole posterior chain comes into play during this lift, more so than the sumo — which uses a lot of quads.
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The conventional deadlift works your erector spinae and hamstrings and recruits all the stabilizing structures of your lower back. This is awesome news for building lower back strength and stability.
Better for Athletes With Hip or Knee Injuries
The nature of the conventional deadlift means that less stress is placed on the hip and knee joints than with the sumo deadlift. With conventional, extra load is placed on the lower back which takes some pressure off the hips and knees. This could help to reduce hip and knee injuries and avoid flaring up old injuries that are already there.
May Be Easier for Athletes With Longer Arms
If you have long arms relative to your torso, you’re in for a treat with the conventional deadlift. Longer arms mean less distance to pull the weight, so you can lift heavier due to the shorter range of movement that the weight needs to travel.
The conventional deadlift has a lot going for it. The lifting style is most people’s go-to when it comes to ripping heavy weight off the ground. But it’s not the end-all-be-all of the deadlifting world.
May Not Be Able to Lift as Heavy
Many lifters just can’t move as much weight conventionally as they can with a sumo position. That’s because there can be a shorter range of motion with pulling sumo than there is with pulling conventional. Because of that — and because you’ll have more support from your legs and less pressure on your lower back — you may be able to lift more sumo-style.
Many powerlifters opt to lift sumo for this reason. While some lifters are stronger in a conventional stance because it’s what they’re used to, others feel naturally stronger in a sumo position and cultivate it accordingly. If you haven’t tried sumo, you might be surprised by how much less you were pulling conventionally.
Tougher on the Lower Back
While the conventional deadlift certainly isn’t bad for you, it puts a lot more pressure on the lower back. In some senses, that’s a good thing, because it means it can make your lower back a whole lot stronger.
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But on the other hand, if your lower back is bothering you or you’re recovering from an injury, the conventional deadlift might aggravate pain or stiffness more than a sumo pull. The conventional version involves a deeper hip hinge and a more compromising (slightly more horizontal) position for your back.
The sumo deadlift hits the hips, glutes, and quads. As a result, it places less stress on the lower back. This may help you work around lower back injuries. It also requires more range of motion from your hips, so regular sumo training can help to improve hip mobility.
More Leg Activation
Just as conventional is the king of the lower back, sumo takes the crown if your focus is on the lower body and legs. The sumo deadlift places more focus on the hips, glutes, and quads than the conventional deadlift.
Research shows pulling sumo may be better than the conventional deadlift at recruiting the vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, and tibialis anterior (the quads and shin muscles). (1)
May Be Better if You Have a Lower Back Injury
By placing more focus on the glutes and quads, the sumo deadlift takes some of the pressure off the lower back. This is great news if you’ve got a janky lower back that’s restricting your deadlift progress.
Shear forces on the lower back are generally much less in sumo deadlifts than their conventional counterpart, which could reduce the potential for lower back injuries. (2)
Improves Hip Mobility
The sumo deadlift involves placing your hips into external rotation (feet pointing outwards) and abduction (legs apart). To get a good sumo position, you need to have good hip mobility. To some people, this is a barrier. But why not see it as a challenge? The best way to get great hip mobility is to practice movements that require it.
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If you don’t have sumo-level hip mobility just yet, don’t sweat it. There are lots of drills you can start with to make your hips more flexible and mobile, so you can build your way up to your first sumo.
Aside from avoiding the ire of anti-sumo lifters, there are some reasons you might want to avoid this style of pulling.
Not Legal in Strongwoman and Strongman Competitions
First things first: sumo deadlifting is not legal in strongwoman and strongman competitions. If you want to master deadlifting events in that sport, you’re going to have to get very strong in a conventional stance.
Now, that doesn’t mean that you can’t ever pull sumo as a strongman athlete. You absolutely can do so in training. But in terms of getting specific, competition-centric skills and strengths, the sumo deadlift just won’t do the trick.
Doesn’t Carry Over as Strongly Into Olympic Lifts
If you’re performing Olympic lifts in either CrossFit or weightlifting, the sumo lift just won’t be as helpful as a conventional pull. The stance you’ll need to use while weightlifting is much more similar to that of a conventional lift, which means that the sumo isn’t going to translate in the same way.
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Not to mention that conventional deadlifts work your lower back in the pull and your upper back in stabilizing the bar. Your back will also help in the sumo variation, but the conventional positioning will enable you to recruit a lot more back muscle. In addition to the position itself, this is another reason that the sumo deadlift might have an inferior carryover into Olympic lifts.
Weigh Your Options
While both lifts have key benefits, the ultimate choice for you will depend on your fitness goals. For two lifts that look similar from a distance, these are remarkably different movements and you’ll build strength in different muscles depending on the lift you choose as your favorite.
That being said, remember you don’t need to choose a favorite. These two work great in tandem and as you build strength in one lift, you’ll have a positive impact on the other.
The debate about these two lifts is rife with debate and even outright contempt. Here are some highly-charged questions (and answers) to keep in mind for your next verbal sparring session on the platform.
Is sumo deadlifting cheating?
While there are as many opinions in strength sports as there are strength athletes, “no” seems to be a good answer. If the rules of a sport allow sumo deadlifting — as powerlifting does — then it’s allowed. It’s not permitted in strongman competitions, though, so you’ll run into obstacles there.
However, there’s arguably no cheating in training. The sumo deadlift is a valid option if you have lower back issues, long legs, short arms, or simply want to build your quads, give your back a rest, or give your body a new training stimulus. You might also simply prefer the lift.
Which is better, the conventional or sumo deadlift?
The better lift is whichever best suits your body and your goals. If you prefer one mode of lifting over the other because of your body type, then that’s likely the superior option for you. On the other hand, if you need to train a certain lift for competition, that should be your main option.
Can I do the conventional and sumo deadlift?
There’s nothing wrong with using both lifts in your program as long as you’re allowing for sufficient recovery. You might alternate your main lift each week during a particular training block. Alternatively, you might choose to complete one training block using exclusively conventional deadlifts and follow it up with a training block where you exclusively pull sumo.
Escamilla, R.F., Francisco, A.C., Kayes, A.V., Speer, K.P., & Moorman, C.T. (2002). An Electromyographic Analysis of Sumo and Conventional Style Deadlifts. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 34(4), 682–688.
Cholewicki, J., McGill, S. M., & Norman, R. W. (1991). Lumbar spine loads during the lifting of extremely heavy weights. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 23(10), 1179–1186.
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