Deadlift Record Holder Cailer Woolam Talks Choosing Between Sumo and Conventional

Every strength athlete has a preference when it comes to pulling sumo and conventional style deadlifts. This preference often leads to debates that scrutinize one being better, or harder than the other. Debates aside, lot of athletes and coaches see value in both.

If you look at most elite powerlifters, then you’ll see they’re often strong in both lifts, and not just their favorite style. They both target different muscular chains and work different areas of pulling mechanics, which can create a stronger pull in your preferential choice. When you understand this concept, you’re often left with one question: How and when should I choose between conventional and sumo deadlifts? 

To help answer some common questions athletes usually have regarding deadlift styles, I reached out to deadlift world record holder Cailer Woolam. He currently holds the deadlift world record for the 198lb class with his 881lb pull, which he performed this past February.

Woolam is no stranger to dealing with criticism that comes with sumo pulling, so he’s a perfect candidate for discussing the art of choosing deadlift styles. Not to mention, his conventional deadlift is crazy strong too.

The Importance of Training Both Sumo and Conventional

Boly: When training the deadlift, how important do you think training both sumo and conventional is? Should they be equal in strength? If so, why?

Woolam: I have personally found it to be incredibly beneficial to be proficient at both sumo and conventional. I feel it’s important for all powerlifters looking for a bigger deadlift to practice both styles. In most cases, the two styles will most likely have a gap between them. It really just depends on how the individual is built. I think it’s best if both are as close as they possibly can be.

Boly: Is there a time when you’d advise a strength athlete to train one more than the other? For example, a powerlifter who pulls conventional, should they pull more this style?

Woolam: Let’s say you’re a conventional puller. In the few months leading up to your competition your main focus should be strictly on conventional. Then, after the meet in your off-season is when you should start training your sumo to make it as strong and efficient as possible.

Boly: What are some no-brainer benefits to training both styles?

Woolam: To be breif, each style works different muscles as you may already know. So the more you do both, the more muscle you’ll be building over time. In the end, it will only make you a better deadlifter at either style.

How to Choose Between Sumo and Conventional

Boly: Do you have any tips for athletes who are unsure which style to pull?

Woolam: This question is one of the very good reasons that lifters need to train both styles. If you are only doing one, then you have no idea which one you could potentially be better at. The only way you can know for sure which is better for you is to optimize your technique for both. Once you’ve done so, then I’d advise to make your decision.

Accessory Lifts for Both Styles

Boly: What’s your favorite accessory for training the conventional and sumo?

Woolam: My #1 favorite accessory movement for conventional is heavy bent over rows. Hands down! There is no substitute for this exercise. Best accessory for sumo is pulling conventional, it’s as simple as that. That has worked the best for me.

When to Switch and Rotate Intensity

Boly: How often do you switch back from each style deadlift? Do you ever do both in one program?

Woolam: In my off season I will mainly pull conventional in my workouts. I may throw in a few sumo sets after just to keep my technique fresh, or if I just want to have fun. Meet prep I will alternate conventional and sumo every other time I deadlift. Every 4 to 5 days or so.

Boly: How do you personally like to rotate intensity on each pulling style? For example, do you train conventional higher one day, then sumo lower on the next? I know this is heavily dependent on an athlete’s program, but I think this is a good point to talk about to avoid overdoing it for beginners.

Woolam: The first thing I’d like to mention is that my sumo is around 100lbs over my conventional pull. That being said, in my off-season I pull conventional at a relatively high RPE on my main deadlift days. So a high RPE conventional doesn’t feel nearly as taxing as a high RPE sumo would since I can’t handle as much weight conventional.

To give you an example, when I’m getting ready for a meet my main deadlift days consist of alternating weeks of heavy sumo, and then my second deadlift day is light conventional. After that, my next week is lighter faster sumo, then my second deadlift day is heavy(ish) conventional.

Wrapping Up

With a 900lb sumo and 800+lb conventional deadlift, it’s impossible to say Woolam can only pull one style. Every athlete and coach will have their personal preference on how to decide between pulling styles. Woolam makes many great points on the importance of being strong in both.

After all, being proficient in both styles might be the best way to truly assess, which style you should use.

Feature image from @cailerc40 Instagram page.