Is Sumo Deadlifting Really Cheating? The Final Nail In the Coffin

The sumo and conventional deadlift argument needs to stop. Here's why.

The sumo deadlift is cheating, say lifters who prefer conventional. Just because the sumo deadlift can reduce low back stress doesn’t make it less badass, say lifters who pull sumo. Sure, the basic rules of powerlifting say that sumo lifts are kosher for competition. But still, different powerlifting circles will insist that conventional deadlifts are the only true deadlift. You’re giving yourself an unfair advantage, the argument goes. Why?

The sumo and conventional deadlift styles require lifters to use slightly different ranges of motion. That’s where the argument comes from. It goes like this: “The sumo deadlift allows you to move the bar a shorter distance, therefore, less mechanical work is performed. Thus, it is cheating.”

The problem is that this statement flies in the face of biomechanics, anthropometry, and individual morphology. When you look at all these factors, it’s pretty clear that the sumo deadlift is not cheating — nor is it even easier.

Conventional and Sumo Deadlift Differences

To figure out whether a particular form of lifting is cheating, you’ve got to dive into details. Okay, so the range of motion is different in sumo and conventional deadlifts. So what? What’s the context for the differences between deadlift styles?

Conventional and Sumo Form Differences

Simply put, pulling conventional will place your hands outside your knees. Your feet will be roughly shoulder-width apart, requiring your hip hinge to be a bit more intense. You might find yourself needing to push your butt back more dramatically to reach the bar.

Sumo deadlifts call for a much wider foot placement — as wide as you can comfortably go. You’ll be lifting with your hands inside your knees, so the lift will look more “squat-like” than a conventional pull. 

Despite these differences, both sumo and conventional deadlifts are hip hinges. They both require you to maintain a braced core throughout the lift. You’ll also need a proud chest and protracted shoulder blades to engage your lats.

Muscles Worked

A 2002 paper titled “An electromyographic analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts” found significant differences in how forces are applied to the body. Specifically, they found that conventional deadlifts create ore shear force on the back, specifically L4, L5. (2) The researchers also found greater back extensor, hamstring, and gastrocnemius requirements. That’s unsurprising, due to the stooped posture of the back during a conventional deadlift. 

The sumo stance, on the other hand, significantly recruits more of the vastus medialis (VMO), vastus lateralis (VLO), and tibialis anterior — your inner thigh muscles. Conversely, the rectus femoris (part of the hamstring) showed less recruitment when compared to the VLO and VMO. This is because the rectus femoris is a biarticular muscle, meaning it crosses two joint complexes. So although the quadriceps are primarily involved in knee extension, the rectus femoris is also involved in hip flexion. Thus, increased hip flexion torque would result in an increase in hip extension requirements from opposing musculature to complete the lift. Interestingly enough, the demands on the hips in both styles were very similar. So, though the hinge will look and feel different, both styles will work your hips — hard.

Lifting Speed

A 2000 paper by Escamilla and colleagues suggested, “the conventional group reached the first peak bar velocity significantly faster than the sumo group.” Therefore, they spent significantly less time in the acceleration phase than the sumo group. (3) They also noted the stance width of sumo deadlifters was roughly two to three times as wide as conventional lifters. This change in positioning significantly alters the kinetics of the lift.

What does this mean? Sure, the lifts have different speeds and mechanics — but they also have different sticking points. It makes sense that conventional lifters reach peak velocity first. Look around your gym while people are deadlifting. After a while, you’ll notice that most conventional deadlifters get stuck at the top of the lift. Sumo deadlifters tend to get stuck during the first half because they’re spending more time in the acceleration phase. This doesn’t produce one lifting style that’s easier than another. It produces lifting styles that require different kinds of practice.

Biomechanics

Biomechanics is a field of study that applies mechanical principles to the body in order to understand human movement. (4) It looks at how muscles, tendons, and bones interact to create motion.

As mentioned previously, the argument against the sumo stance is predicated on reduced mechanical work. In other words: because the range of motion is shorter, the claim is that less work is done. But is that true?

Work can be expressed by the equation W = F * d, where W = Work, F = Force, and d = distance or displacement. A 2000 paper found that when normalized by height, conventional deadlifters had 20-25% greater bar displacement than the sumo deadlifters. This is a substantial amount of additional work being done by the conventional lifters. However, this is only one data point of a more complex multivariate analysis.

A moment is a term used in biomechanics to describe the turning, twisting, or rotational effect of a force. A moment arm is the length between the joint axis and the force acting on that joint. An example of this is demonstrated in the image below.

Good Morning Moment Arm

The greater the distance between the acting force and the axis of rotation, the greater the moment arm. Longer moment arms mean greater internal force requirements to overcome external loads and create concentric motion.

Torque is the measure of force that causes an object to rotate around an axis. You can calculate torque using the following equation T=F*r sin(θ). T = Torque, r = the length of the moment arm, and θ is the angle between the force vector and the moment arm. When looking at a 2D image of the sumo deadlifts, greater abduction of the knees allows you to bring your hips closer to the bar, thus reducing the moment arm and torque requirements of the hips. A visual representation of this can be seen below.

Good Morning Moment Arm
Good Morning Moment Arm

Side View of Conventional and Sumo Moment Arms

This is part of the argument against the sumo deadlift. Because the moment arm is shorter, the torque requirements of the hips are reduced making the lift easier. However, this 2D analysis is not representative of what occurs in three-dimensional space. A 2001 paper by Escamilla et al. found similar summated moments when looking at various squat widths. (3)

The difference is due to the additional complexity added by the transverse plane in the 3D model which alters moments. The image below outlines the difference between moment arms calculated in 2D vs 3D.

Side View Of Conventional And Sumo Moment Arms
Side View Of Conventional And Sumo Moment Arms

Superior View of Sumo Moment Arm

Essentially, the difference between the 2D and 3D models is that in the 2D model the moment arm is the distance from the hips to the bar. In the 3D model, the moment arm becomes the length of the femur, which remains unchanged regardless of which style of deadlift is being used. If you refer back to the 2002 paper where electromyographic comparisons of the sumo and conventional deadlift found similar demands placed on the hips, then the findings make sense when evaluating moments within a 3D model.

In other words, the range of motion for sumo deadlifts may well be shorter. But that doesn’t mean the hips are working any less hard.

Superior View Of Sumo Moment Arm
Superior View Of Sumo Moment Arm

Inter-individual Differences In Hip Morphology

Morphology in this context refers to the form and structure of the human body — that is, length and shape of your limbs. This is an important topic to dig into when figuring out inter-individual differences in hip structure. Just like every training program needs to be customized for each person, your body structure impacts movement and performance. A 2003 paper by Lequesne et al. found significant inter-individual differences in joint space width. (5)

These differences increased when comparing cisgender men and cisgender women, with women displaying 9.3% smaller joint space widths than men. Another paper, titled “The Gender Difference of Normal Hip Joint Anatomy” found “The male acetabulum [the socket of the hip bone where the head of the femur sits] has a smaller anteversion and a smaller inclination than the female acetabulum”. (6)

Further, we can look at differences in femoral anteversion and retroversion. Hip anteversion is an internal rotation of the femur, the degree of which exists on a spectrum. The image below depicts an excessively anteverted femur.

Femoral Anteversion

Retroversion refers to the angle of external rotation of the femoral neck in relationship to the femur and is depicted below. 

Femoral Anteversion
Femoral Anteversion

Femoral Retroversion

Normal femoral version is considered to be between 10 and 25 degrees, according to a paper by Tonnis and colleagues. The researchers found “Of 538 hips, 52 percent had femoral version <10° or >25° or femoral malversion. Severely decreased femoral version was found in five percent; moderately decreased femoral version, 17 percent; moderately increased femoral version, 18 percent; and severely increased femoral version >35°, 12 percent. Normal femoral version was found in 48 percent of the patients.” (7)

Femoral Retroversion
Femoral Retroversion

Because there are significant variances in femoral version, it would be inappropriate to assign one style to every individual across the board. Meaning, telling everyone which style of deadlifting is superior doesn’t make sense, because everyone’s body is different. This data also demonstrates that adopting a particular style due to assumed mechanical advantages ignores individual morphology, and may actually impede the athletes’ ability to generate force. So don’t assume which style you’ll excel at and which you shouldn’t bother with based on what other people tell you about your body and your lifts.

Genetic differences and muscular development are also relevant factors to consider. An individual with mobile hips and well-developed legs may have a natural predilection for sumo. Conversely, an individual with smaller legs relative to their upper body, but with a strong back may have a bias toward the conventional style. In either case, the athlete will find which style works best for them.

It’s important to also note that within a single weight class individual heights may range significantly. A taller athlete may have to move the bar farther simply because they are taller. Some questions that come up:

  • Is the shorter athlete cheating?
  • Should federations normalize bar displacement by having athletes pull from a deficit or from blocks based on their anthropometry?
  • What if federations determined the plate diameter that would equalize anthropometric differences?
  • Why don’t federations also have a fixed-grip for bench press and foot position for squatting?

From these questions, it’s clear that the starting point for the deadlift is entirely arbitrary. Sumo isn’t cheating — it’s just…well, unconventional.

The Distribution Of World Records 

If you’re the tl;dr the science type, here’s one more piece of evidence. Want to see which lift style is supposedly easier? Check the records. A fairly significant portion of records belongs to conventional deadlifters. That alone should raise skepticism against the “sumo is easier” argument.

Conventional Deadlift

As Greg Nuckols mentioned in his 2015 article, “The exact numbers change over time, but in general, about two-thirds of female lifters and males under 100 kilograms pull sumo, and about two-thirds of male lifters over 100 kilograms deadlift conventional.” If adopting a sumo style of deadlift resulted in a uniform increase in deadlift PRs, it’s safe to assume that every competitive athlete would adopt this stance. Instead, lifters of all genders seem to choose whichever deadlift style works best for their own bodies. And folks set plenty of world records pulling conventional. In fact, the heaviest deadlift of all time — a 501-kilogram pull by 2018 World’s Strongest Man Hafthor Bjornsson — was pulled conventionally. 

Will Sumo Or Conventional Deadlifting Make Me Stronger?

As with everything in lifting, you tend to get out what you put in. If you’re training for max strength with sumo, you’re going to get stronger. If you’re training for max strength with conventional, you’re going to get stronger. But will either lifting sumo or conventional make you overall stronger than the other?

The sumo deadlift will place relatively more emphasis on your quads and inner thighs. Because of that, you might find more immediate carryover strength in your front squat and snatch. And because pulling conventional places more emphasis on your low back, your back squat will get a boost. (You’ll need a strong lower back to keep yourself stable and braced, especially during low bar squats.)

Still, deadlift strength — regardless of pull style — will almost always carry over into other lifts. By strengthening your hip hinge under heavy load, you’re going to see overall numbers increase. So really, what it comes down to is, ‘which style can you lift heavier with?’ If your barometer for increasing strength is the weight you’re lifting, think about what your body needs. Which version of the deadlift works best for you? Take a few microcycles to figure it out — you might be surprised by the answer. Whichever you choose, you’ll find that whichever lift you do more consistently, with heavier weight, will get you stronger overall.

When Should I Pull Sumo?

First things first: if your form is locked in, but pulling conventional hurts your low back…pull sumo. It’s not weaker, and it’s not cheating — it’s doing what’s best for your body. Lifting through low back pain with conventional deadlifts won’t get you stronger. But moving through your workouts injury-free, consistently honing your deadlifting technique, and adding weight, will get you stronger. If pulling sumo is your way to do that, then pull sumo. 

If you decide that sumo is going to be your go-to deadlifting style, lift sumo whenever your program calls for regular deadlifting. You’ll structure your macrocycles around sumo deadlifting, letting conventional lifting take the backburner. Because of the high levels of stress that deadlifting puts on the body and CNS, you’ll likely only lift sumo once a week.

Even if you primarily pull conventional, though, you might still want to integrate sumo deadlifting. That might mean an opposite-stance microcycle where you pull sumo for a six-week stretch. Some programs may also call for an opposite-stance pull once a week. If you usually do conventional deadlifts, this will be your cue to widen your legs and go sumo.

When Should I Pull Conventional?

Some folks just can’t get the foot and ankle stabilization they need to pull sumo. Others have histories of groin injuries. You don’t want to risk aggravating them by emphasizing the inner thighs during such heavy lifting. Still other folks just… enjoy conventional deadlifting. It’s how they were originally trained, and it’s the deadlift style they fell in love with.

You might find conventional deadlifts more accessible if you have very long arms because you’ll be able to reach the bar better. That can translate into a less potential low back strain with this form of deadlifting. When conventional deadlifts are your pull of choice, you’ll likely do them once a week. In this case, sumo deadlifts will become your “opposite stance” lift. You’ll integrate them into less intense, technique-based microcycles or sessions.

More On Deadlifting

If you’ve waded this deep into the science of deadlifts, chances are you’re eager to go do some heavy pulling of your own. Check out these deadlift training articles, inclusive of all deadlifting styles.

References

  1. De Hon, O., Kuipers, H., & van Bottenburg, M. (2014). Prevalence of Doping Use in Elite Sports: A Review of Numbers and Methods. Sports Medicine, 45(1), 57–69. doi:10.1007/s40279-014-0247-x 
  2. 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. doi:10.1097/00005768-200204000-00019 
  3. ESCAMILLA, R. F., FRANCISCO, A. C., FLEISIG, G. S., BARRENTINE, S. W., WELCH, C. M., KAYES, A. V., … ANDREWS, J. R. (2000). A three-dimensional biomechanical analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 32(7), 1265–1275. doi:10.1097/00005768-200007000-00013 
  4. Kaufman, K., & An, K. (2017). Biomechanics. Kelley and Firestein’s Textbook of Rheumatology, 78–89. doi:10.1016/b978-0-323-31696-5.00006-1 
  5. Lequesne, M. (2004). The normal hip joint space: variations in width, shape, and architecture on 223 pelvic radiographs. Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, 63(9), 1145–1151. doi:10.1136/ard.2003.018424 
  6. Retrieved 5 March 2020, from https://www.ors.org/Transactions/55/2057.pdf
  7. Prevalence of Femoral and Acetabular Version Abnormalities in Patients With Symptomatic Hip Disease: A Controlled Study of 538 Hips – Till D. Lerch, Inga A.S. Todorski, Simon D. Steppacher, Florian Schmaranzer, Stefan F. Werlen, Klaus A. Siebenrock, Moritz Tannast, 2018. (2020). The American Journal Of Sports Medicine

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