The sumo deadlift can be a revelation for anyone who has trouble deadlifting in the conventional stance. Sumo stance is particularly popular with female lifters.
What is the sumo deadlift?
The sumo deadlift is the same exercise as a normal deadlift in that it involves picking a dead weight off the floor and standing up straight, but the stance – the position of the feet and legs – is different.
Think of a Japanese sumo wrestler preparing to fight. He takes up a stance with feet quite wide apart – this is where the sumo deadlift gets its name. Instead of starting with legs shoulder-width apart and arms hanging by your sides, as in the conventional deadlift, you start with legs wide apart and arms hanging down between your legs.
Why is it such a great exercise?
The key difference with sumo stance is that it involves the legs much more than the back. In a conventional deadlift, the legs and the back are supposed to be involved 50-50 and in practise many lifters use a lot more back, particularly if they are a bit lacking in leg strength. Bodybuilders even consider the deadlift a ‘back exercise’. Sumo stance by comparison uses an incredible amount of leg and hip power.
Sumo stance is often favoured by female lifters because women tend to have more powerful legs in relation to their back. A proportion of male lifters also prefer the sumo stance, either because they want to use more leg strength or because the mechanics of the lift just suit them better.
Another advantage of the sumo stance is that the bar does not travel as far as it does in a conventional deadlift. Since the lifter’s legs are wider apart, their hands are closer to the ground at lock out, shaving perhaps an inch or two off the bar’s path from floor to lock out.
How to perform the sumo deadlift
It is recommended that you read the how-to on the conventional deadlift as well, for general deadlifting technique.
Step 1: Position your feet
The position of the feet is the crucial factor in the sumo stance. Different people favour slightly different positions – there is no single ‘right’ way so you will need to experiment yourself.
The two variables you need to consider are: how far apart your feet are, and how far your foot is turned out.
How far apart your feet are
Some people deadlift sumo with feet only a little further apart than the conventional deadlift. Others have their feet as far apart as possible, almost up against the weight plates.
Theoretically, wider is better. However it can also be uncomfortable on the hips and does take some getting used to. Some people never feel entirely comfortable in such a wide position and lift better with their feet a few inches inside of the weight plates instead of right up against them.
With a very wide stance you also have to be careful that you don’t drop the weight plates on your feet! This is especially important in the lowering phase or if you are doing speed work. One way to solve this problem is to wear steel toe capped boots, which takes the worry factor away.
How far your foot is turned out
For most of the big lifts like squat and conventional deadlift, the recommended foot position is slightly splayed. However in the sumo deadlift it may actually be better to turn the foot out as close to 90 degrees as possible (see the picture on the right).
The further your foot is turned out, the easier the stance is on your knees and hips as the foot is more in line with the leg. However this does make it harder to balance, especially during the latter part of the lift. As you drive into lock out it is possible to overbalance and sway backwards.
There is also the issue of comfort and how well you are able to turn your foot out in the first place. We’re not all ballerinas! Again, the answer is to experiment and find the most effective position for you.
Step 2: Starting position
Having positioned your feet in the way you want them, squat down and take hold of the bar (see below for a note on grip). Your arms should be hanging straight down between your legs and should grip the bar where they naturally hang. Be careful not to bend at the elbows.
Shoulders should be back and down. Note that due to the mechanics of the sumo stance your shoulder blades are not over the bar as they would be in a conventional deadlift but a little further back.
Your butt should be right down as close to parallel with the floor as you can get it (see right). This is different from the conventional deadlift where the butt is above parallel. In the sumo deadlift, the lower you can get your butt, the more power you can derive from the hip thrust when you lift.
You may find this position uncomfortable on the hips and knees when you first try it. This is normal, especially if you have been used to doing conventional style deadlifts. Try to keep your knees in line with your toes as much as possible throughout the lift.
Step 3: Breathe and prepare to lift
As with any of the power lifts, breathing is very important. Once you are in position, take a big breath in and ‘lock’ everything tight in preparation for the lift.
Ensure that your back is flat or arched before you lift. Try not to lift with a rounded back. You may need to film yourself from the side or get a friend to check your position to ensure that your back isn’t rounding.
Step 4: Lift the bar and drive hips forward
As you start to lift the bar, push hard through your feet and then drive your hips forward. The majority of the power for this lift is coming from your legs and from the action of your hips coming forward.
As with any power lift but especially when you are lifting heavy, you should be trying to accelerate the bar. Since it is heavy it doesn’t actually move that fast, but your intention should be to move it fast. This makes the lift more powerful.
Although the move is powerful, it is more of a squeeze off the floor than a jerk. Keep the bar as close to your body as you can, as this is the optimal path for the bar to take – straight up!
Think also about pushing your knees outwards as you lift in order to keep them in line with your feet, as you would do in a wide stance squat.
Step 5: Lock out
Continue pushing through the legs until you reach the lock out position, when your legs are completely straight. Your arms will also have stayed completely straight throughout the lift.
Some people breathe out when they reach the lock out position, others hold their breath until they have lowered the bar again.
Step 6: Lower the bar
Like the conventional deadlift it is important to lower the bar as carefully as you lifted it, as many injuries occur due to dumping the bar with poor form. Lower the bar safely by reversing the lift. Keep your back flat and the bar close to the body.
If your stance is very wide, be careful not to place the bar down on your feet!
Note on grip
There are two main grip styles used in the deadlift:
- double overhand grip, with both palms facing in towards the body
- alternate or reverse grip, with one palm facing in and one palm facing out
The double overhand grip is safer than the alternate grip but not as strong. The alternate grip puts an asymmetrical stress on the body and particularly on the supinated arm (the one facing away from the body).
It is therefore recommended that you use the double overhand grip for as long as possible before switching to the alternate grip for the heaviest sets, and also to do a lighter set using the alternate grip the other way round so that the body is not constantly stressed on the same side.
Alternatively, continue to use the double overhand grip but use straps for the heaviest sets when your grip gives out. This is safer, but may compromise development of grip strength.
It is also a good idea to use chalk to aid your grip and lessen callus formation. If you belong to a gym that doesn’t allow chalk, you should probably change your gym.
How to use the sumo deadlift in your training
If you are more comfortable deadlifting in the sumo stance than the conventional stance, you can use the sumo stance as your main method of deadlifting. There is no problem with using the sumo stance in competition, for instance.
However, be aware that the sumo stance involves a lot less back work than the conventional deadlift and over time your back strength might deteriorate if you don’t include extra back work such as good mornings, rows and conventional deadlifts.
Many people train both types of deadlift even though they may favour sumo in competition, to ensure that back strength is maintained.
The sumo deadlift uses many of the same muscle groups, and in the same way as a wide stance squat, so regular wide stance squatting will help your sumo deadlift both in terms of technique and in developing the required flexibility to be comfortable in the stance.
Note on footwear
Go to any powerlifting competition and you will see a wide variety of foot attire on display during the deadlift, more so than in the squat and the bench press.
In principle, the thinner the sole of your shoe, the less distance the bar has to travel. A chunky sole could add an inch to the bar’s path. Therefore many people will opt for deadlift slippers, very thin plimsole-like footwear, in order to minimise the distance the bar has to travel as much as possible. You can even deadlift barefoot or in stocking feet.
With the sumo stance however the issue of feet slipping comes into play because of the wide stance and the fact that you are pushing down and outwards through your feet as you lift. You may have to experiment with different shoes and surfaces to ensure you don’t slip as some rubber mats can be a bit slick. It is possible to use chalk or resin on the soles of your shoes to give you better grip.
The other issue with sumo stance, as discussed above, is the proximity of your feet to the weight plates. Steel toe cap boots will deal with this issue but they are generally quite thick-soled so you need to weigh up the disadvantage of adding an extra bit of height to your lift against saving your toes from decapitation.
- How to improve the sumo deadlift by Mike Robertson
- Go Sumo from EliteFTS
- 10 tips for sumo deadlifting from EliteFTS
- Converting to sumo deadlift: how I made it work for me from Dragon Door
- Video clip of Ed Coan deadlifting sumo
- Video clip of Aneta Florczyk deadlifting sumo
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- Breathing in the bench press
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