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Opinion

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

The sumo and conventional deadlift argument needs to stop...

The sumo deadlift is cheating, this phrase is commonly thrown around in various powerlifting circles. The controversy often centers around the differences in range of motion between the sumo and conventional deadlift styles. The argument is overly simplistic and sounds something 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 above statement entirely disregards the basic rules of powerlifting which permit the sumo style of deadlift in competition. This is quite literally at the point where I believe this article should end. However, to satisfy the masses we’ll explore the various aspects between the deadlifts including biomechanics, anthropometry, and individual morphology to elucidate why the sumo deadlift is not cheating — nor is it even easier.

Sumo Deadlift
Sumo Deadlift

The Distribution Of World Records 

The most obvious point that no one seems to talk about is the distribution of world records that belong to sumo versus conventional deadlifters. Since a fairly significant portion of records belong to conventional deadlifters it should raise skepticism against the “sumo is easier” argument.

As Greg Nuckols mentioned in his 2015 article, “The exact numbers change over time, but in general, about 2/3 of female lifters and males under 100kg pull sumo, and about 2/3 of male lifters over 100kg deadlift conventional”. If adopting a sumo style of deadlift resulted in a uniform increase in deadlift PR’s, every competitive athlete would adopt this stance.

The Prevalence Of Doping In Sports: Does It Matter Here?

A paper titled “Prevalence of Doping Use in Elite Sports: A Review of Numbers and Methods” estimates that between 14-39% of adult elite athletes are intentionally doping (1). Regardless of the accuracy of this estimate, it’s understood that doping in sports is an issue, and we don’t necessarily know the distribution of users either. The use of performance enhancing drugs tends to be more common in some sports than others, and even differs by sex and culture (1). So this estimate is likely distributed throughout various tiers of competition in the powerlifting landscape.

However, this brings up an important question with regard to the sumo deadlift. If a significant percentage of the sporting community is willing to risk their health, reputation, status as a competitive athlete, and potentially monetary compensation, why would they simultaneously refuse to adopt a sumo deadlift stance? My opinion is that it has more to do with performance outcomes and less to do with fear of being teased for pulling sumo on Instagram.

Conventional And Sumo Deadlift Differences

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

The sumo stance on the other hand had significantly more recruitment of the vastus medialis (VMO), vastus lateralis (VLO), an tibialis anterior. Conversely, rectus femoris 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.

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) This is reflective of observational data that suggests most conventional deadlifters get stuck at the top of the lift while sumo deadlifters tend to get stuck during the first half. They also noted the stance width of sumo deadlifters was roughly 2-3 times as wide as conventional lifters. This change in positioning significantly alters the kinetics of the lift.

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. 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 (3). 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 which is demonstrated in the image below.

Good Morning Moment Arm
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. We 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.

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

This is part of the argument against 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.

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

Essentially, the difference between the 2D and 3D model 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 is being used. If we 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. 

Inter-Individual Differences In Hip Morphology

Morphology in this context refers to the form and structure of the human body. As such we will discuss inter-individual differences in hip structure and how it 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 men and 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 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
Femoral Anteversion

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

Femoral Retroversion
Femoral Retroversion

Normal femoral version is considered to be 10°-25° according to a paper by Tonnis and colleagues. The researchers found “Of 538 hips, 52% had femoral version <10° or >25° or femoral malversion. Severely decreased femoral version was found in 5%; moderately decreased femoral version, 17%; moderately increased femoral version, 18%; and severely increased femoral version >35°, 12%. Normal femoral version was found in 48% of the patients”. (7)

Through the occurrence of significant variance in femoral version, we can see that it would be inappropriate to assign one style to every individual across the board. 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.

Genetic differences and muscular development are also relevant factors to consider when selecting the appropriate deadlift style. An individual with mobile hips and well developed legs may have a natural predilection for sumo. Conversely, and 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 he or she is taller.

  • Is the shorter athlete cheating?
  • Should we normalize bar displacement by having athletes pull from a deficit or from blocks based on their anthropometry?

The starting point for the deadlift is entirely arbitrary.

  • What if we determined the plate diameter that would equalize anthropometric differences?
  • Why don’t we also have a fixed grip for bench press and foot position for squatting?

Wrapping Up

If sumo deadlift is cheating, then the above issues must also be addressed. However, the reason why we don’t standardize these things is because it would be overly complex while simultaneously limiting the athletes strength expression. Their ability to lift maximally is predicated on finding the optimal technique in each lift that suits their body and personal preference.

So although the sumo deadlift generally requires less mechanical work, the work being performed is significantly different. I hope this sheds light on some of the finer points of this discussion so we can do away with this nonsensical argument against the use of the sumo style deadlift. Lift Big!

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

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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