The sumo is the dark horse of deadlifting. The first time you saw someone split their legs in the gym and yank a bar-bending amount of weight, you were probably more than a little puzzled. It may have even made you wonder if you’d been approaching your deadlift workouts the wrong way all along.
There’s no getting around the fact that the sumo deadlift is a master key for pulling potency. (In fact, some of the heaviest weights ever lifted by human beings have been done with a sumo stance.) The question, then, is just how to go about getting it right. There are many more moving parts to a good sumo than you might think.
So before you dive in, you deserve to know what you’re getting into. This is your crash course on the sumo deadlift, and why it’s more than worth your time.
- How to Do the Sumo Deadlift
- Sumo Deadlift Sets and Reps
- Common Sumo Deadlift Mistakes
- Sumo Deadlift Variations
- Sumo Deadlift Alternatives
- Muscles Worked by the Sumo Deadlift
- Benefits of the Sumo Deadlift
- Who Should Do the Sumo Deadlift
- Frequently Asked Questions
How to Do the Sumo Deadlift
Even if you can lift more weight with a sumo stance, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is easy pickings for strength gains. There’s a lot that goes into getting the sumo pull just right.
Step 1 — The Setup
Assume a very wide stance with your toes pointed outward. Generally speaking, the longer your legs are, the greater your toes will point to the sides. Your shins should be perpendicular to the floor when you grab the barbell, your chest should be up, and your back flat.
Coach’s Tip: When you’re just starting out, you may find it uncomfortable to open your hips enough to set up properly. Be patient with your form, you’ll naturally adjust to the posture over time.
Step 2 — Brace
Once you’re in position, tighten your core, back, legs, and butt to create a feeling of full-body tension. Slightly pull up on the bar and press your legs through the floor to engage your quads. Once you have found your tension, take a full breath in to your belly.
Coach’s Tip: Visualize pressure rising in the body before every pull, with all the muscles being engaged and ready to fire at once.
Step 3 — Drive With Your Legs
Once you’ve “found your legs” and have established a strong core brace, break the barbell off the floor by pushing down with your legs. The beginning of the sumo deadlift is all about your quads — don’t pick up your pelvis prematurely in an attempt to move the weight.
Coach’s Tip: Keep your chest up and, as you pull, make sure the bar is against your shins to avoid letting it shift too far forward.
Step 4 — Lock Out
After the barbell passes your knees, aggressively thrust your hips forward. Your knees and hips should extend simultaneously to lock the bar as you reach a standing position. Your back should remain tight, with your arms hanging down low. Don’t shrug your shoulders at the top.
Coach’s Tip: If you’re having trouble locking out your pulls, think about putting your buttocks directly under your shoulders.
Sumo Deadlift Sets and Reps
Much like any other deadlift variation you perform, your set and rep prescriptions will strongly affect the results you glean from the movement. If you’re trying to grow your legs, you wouldn’t necessarily follow the same programming as a powerlifter prepping for their next big competition.
It’s also worth noting that the intricate setup of the sumo deadlift may make it more difficult to work with higher reps. After all, getting your technique right takes mental fortitude in its own way.
- To Practice Technique: 4-6 sets of 2-4 reps with a light weight.
- To Gain Strength: 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps with a challenging weight that allows you to maintain good form.
- For Gaining Muscle: 2-4 sets of 5-8 reps with a moderate weight.
Common Sumo Deadlift Mistakes
As an alternative to the standard deadlift, the sumo pull comes with its own technique. The lift demands more of your hip flexibility and isn’t as customizable as other pulling movements might be, meaning that you have plenty of room to make mistakes. Here are some of the most common errors that befall sumo deadlifters.
A world-class sumo deadlift requires extremely mobile hips. Much of your leverage in the sumo pull comes from the setup itself — if you can’t externally rotate your thighs, your hips won’t be in an optimal position to pull. Trying to do the sumo deadlift with rigid hips simply isn’t productive. If you’re going to take the time to pull sumo, make sure you get limber.
Hips Rising Early
Where the conventional deadlift is often fast off the floor and harder at lockout, you might find the opposite to be true in the sumo pull. The extreme posture can make it difficult to break inertia and get the bar moving at the start. To compensate, many athletes shoot their hips up in an attempt to lift with their backs.
This defeats the purpose of pulling sumo. If you find the bar fighting you in the beginning, be patient with it and continue to drive with your legs. It will move.
Rushing the Setup
Anyone can grip-and-rip a conventional deadlift to at least some degree of success. However, that kind of cavalier attitude simply will not cut it when you go to test your strength in the sumo pull. Everything from your foot angle to your torso brace to how you physically get your hands on the bar requires attention and practice.
The sumo pull gives you a tremendous amount of leverage, but only if you set yourself up for success to begin with. Take your time when setting up to ensure your technique is just right.
Sumo Deadlift Variations
You can tweak and tailor the sumo deadlift to make sure it suits your training needs better. While it isn’t the most customizable movement out there, there are ways to make it work better for you.
Deficit Sumo Deadlift
Deficit sumo deadlifts are a variation that challenges the deepest ranges of motion in the movement. In doing so, you can increase pulling strength off the floor and target the glutes and hamstrings to a greater degree.
Sumo Deadlift with Accommodating Resistance
Accommodating resistance is a great way to attack weaknesses or sticking points in your technique. Since the sumo deadlift is so fickle, you might find adding bands or chains to be highly useful for increasing your lockout strength if you’re lacking in that area.
Sumo Deadlift High Pull
If you practice CrossFit, the sumo deadlift high pull — sometimes abbreviated as the SDHP — has surely made its way into one or two of your daily workouts. The initial technique of the SDHP is identical to that of the sumo deadlift.
However, instead of simply standing with the barbell, you must implement some explosive force and drive it up to shoulder height with the power of your hips and the strength of your upper back.
Sumo Deadlift Alternatives
If you’ve been doing the sumo deadlift for a while or want to alternate it with a similar deadlift variation, then here are three sumo deadlift alternatives that you might find make suitable replacements.
Trap Bar Deadlift
The trap bar deadlift is a very similar deadlifting movement due to increased knee bend and vertical torso positioning. If a lifter cannot or does not want to sumo, the trap bar deadlift can be used to increase upper body strength, hip engagement, and even develop the quadriceps.
Kettlebell Sumo Deadlift
The kettlebell sumo deadlift is a deadlift regression that can increase movement integrity and/or basic movement patterning and skill necessary for the sumo deadlift. At heavier loads, this exercise can be done to increase muscular endurance and basic strength.
The clean deadlift is a deadlift variation done primarily in Olympic weightlifting training to help a lifter with the bottom portion of his or her clean. In the clean deadlift, the athlete tends to have the hips start slightly lower than a conventional deadlift. In doing so, the clean deadlift can increase glute, hamstring, and quadriceps strength specific to the sport movement.
For this reason, the trap bar deadlift and the clean deadlift can be seen as very similar pulling movements for Olympic weightlifters.
Muscles Worked by the Sumo Deadlift
Below are the primary muscle groups worked by the sumo deadlift. Like other deadlift variations, the sumo deadlift works the glutes, hamstrings, and back. However, there are some clear distinctions that you should be aware of.
The glutes are targeted to a high degree by the sumo deadlift, as the feet are set wider and turned outwards. The hip is placed in external rotation, which in turn involves the glute medius to a higher degree.
Though the conventional and Romanian deadlift recruits them more aggressively, the hamstrings are still primary movers for the sumo deadlift. That said, if you’re looking to target the hamstrings more exclusively, they may want to perform Romanian deadlifts instead.
The setup of the sumo deadlift necessitates a lot of quad strength to get the lift going. If your quads lack the gusto to break the bar off the ground, you’re likely to compensate by changing your torso angle or make some other unwanted adjustment. As such, the quads play a key factor in ensuring the lift starts off on the right foot.
The lower back muscles, also known as the erectors, work to keep your spine stable during the pulling phase of the lift. In doing so, the spinal erectors can be developed, which is a good thing since they’re often one of the key limiting factors for a heavy deadlift.
Unlike the conventional and Romanian deadlifts, the sumo deadlift stresses your lumbar spine to a lesser degree as your torso is more vertical, allowing your legs to pick up much of the proverbial slack.
Benefits of the Sumo Deadlift
Below are three benefits of the sumo deadlift that you should be aware of before choosing to implement it into your workout routine.
More Comfortable Mechanics (for Some)
Where the sumo deadlift shines is in its applicability to your body type. The wider stance and narrower arm position shortens the range of motion, which is why most people can lift a bit more weight compared to their standard deadlift.
Some lifters, specifically in the powerlifting community, think that the sumo deadlift is cheating. It’s not, and if a lifter is on the shorter side with shorter arms, then the sumo deadlift may not be the best variation for them.
More Lockout Strength
The sumo deadlift can be done in various ways — using bands, manipulating lifting tempo, adding chains. Because the sumo deadlift usually allows for a heavier load to be lifted, this allows you to overload your muscles with more weight than they’re used to handling.
Once you switch back to conventional or trap bar deadlifts (if you don’t want to stick with sumo full-time), this newfound strength should help you complete the top part of the lift more efficiently.
Less Lower Back Strain
The setup of the sumo deadlift should reduce some of the stress placed on your lower back, provided you keep your intensity consistent. That said, it also allows you to lift heavier — a boon which may offset the reduction in spinal pressure. By default, though, if you want to limit lower back stress while still pulling from the floor, the sumo deadlift is a safe bet.
More Leg Strength
Plain and simple, the sumo deadlift demands more of your quads than the conventional pull. If you’re a leg-dominant lifter, or just want to bring up your quad strength by deadlifting, you can prioritize the sumo pull and kill two birds with one stone.
Who Should Do the Sumo Deadlift
It may sound (and look) appealing at a glance, but no movement is right for every athlete in every situation. If you’re on the fence about the sumo deadlift, consider whether or not you fall into one of the following categories before you take the plunge.
The sport of powerlifting has one (and only one) objective — lift the most weight possible in accordance with the criteria set forth by whatever federation you compete in. With that in mind, you should use whatever technique helps you reach that goal.
There’s a reason the sumo deadlift is so common at powerlifting meets, after all. If you find that the sumo pull comes easy to you, and you want to be a powerlifter, there’s no reason to look elsewhere.
Even though you probably won’t see it in your workouts on a weekly basis, if you train CrossFit you can stand to benefit from the occasional sumo deadlift workout. Not only will it help refine your technique on movements like the sumo deadlift high pull, there’s no shame in packing in some bonus posterior chain work to keep you strong from head to toe.
You don’t need competitive aspirations or a CrossFit class to pull sumo. If you go to the gym just to stay in shape and have fun, and the sumo deadlift looks fun, go for it. The movement provides ample stimulation to your legs and back and, perhaps most importantly, provides you with a skill to practice so your workouts are about more than just moving weight.
Get Into the Ring
If you think you’re brave enough to dance with the sumo deadlift, there’s no better time to try than right now. Even if you don’t end up hitting a new personal record in the pull, the sumo deadlift can still be a valuable addition to your workout routine.
Better hip mobility, a stronger lockout, and bigger, beefier quads are all on the menu if you put the time in and get the technique just right.
Should I do sumo deadlifts?
It depends. If you’re new to deadlifting, you may find the exercise more comfortable compared to a conventional deadlift, since the form is a bit trickier to nail down at first. That said, you’ll only figure it out by trying out different deadlifts. If you find that conventional or trap bar deadlifts feel great, then do those.
Can I alternate between sumo and conventional deadlifts?
Sure. Doing sumo deadlifts may even help your conventional deadlift (and visa-versa). That said, if you’re a competitive powerlifter or a person focused on getting strong, you may want to stick with one variation for a few training cycles. That’s because both lifts require mechanical proficiency, and you’ll only gain that by doing it over and over and over. Simply put: practice makes perfect.
Is doing sumo deadlifts cheating?
No. You may see powerlifters comment that sumo deadlifts don’t count, but they’re either just trolling other competitors or, if they’re serious, are uninformed. Yes, for most people, sumo deadlifts create a slight leverage advantage, which is why most folks are stronger with the sumo deadlift. That doesn’t mean however that a 500-pound sumo deadlift doesn’t count. It does.
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