Sumo Deadlift — Proper Form, Muscles Worked, and the Benefits

Stave off lower-back pain, lift more weight, and build bigger legs with the sumo deadlift.

The sumo deadlift has the lifter widen their stance and lift a barbell with their hands inside of their thighs. Compared to the conventional deadlift, which is done with a narrower stance and the hands outside of the legs, it’s generally easier on the lower back and allows the lifter to pull heavier weight. Also, the Journal of Sports Science Medicine reported that the sumo deadlift is more effective for lifters with longer torsos and less deadlift experience. (1

But before you try it, we’re going to go over everything you need to know about sumo deadlifting: 

How to Do the Sumo Deadlift

A lot of people are generally stronger with the sumo deadlift. That doesn’t mean it’s an easier movement. It’s not. Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of how to properly sumo deadlift.

Step 1 — The Set-Up

sumo deadlift set up

Start by assuming a wide stance with the toes slightly pointed out. The stance itself should be wide enough to allow the arms to be extended downwards, inside the knees (elbows inside the knees). The stance width will vary from person to person. However, generally speaking, the width should allow for the athlete to have the shins perpendicular to the floor with the back flat and shoulders directly above the bar.

Form Tip: Think about pulling the hips down to the bar, keeping to core tight and braced. The knees themselves need to be pushed out wide to allow the torso to stay slightly more vertical than a conventional deadlift.

Step 2 — Pull the Slack Out of the Bar

sumo deadlift slack

Once you’re in position, start to tighten your core, back, legs, and butt to create a feeling of full-body tension. Slightly pull up the bar and press the legs through the floor (without moving the bar yet). Once you have found your best tension position, take one more breath, and then proceed to step three.

Form 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

Sumo Deadlift Drive

Now that you are in the correct positions and have no slack in the bar or your body, it’s time to pull the barbell by simultaneously driving through the feet and pulling up on the bar. The key here is not to allow the chest to fall or the hips to rise in the pull, but rather to have the barbell stay close to the body as you stand up. Press through your heels, keeping your hips and chest in position, and drive through your legs.

Form Tip: Keep your chest up and, as you pull, make sure the bar is against your shins to avoid letting the path of the bar shift too far forward. This can disrupt your lift and, in severe cases, cause injury.

Step 4 — Lock the Weight Out

Sumo Deadlift Lockout

At this point, the weight should be ascending your legs. You may feel the bar start to pull you down or stop moving altogether. Try not to let your chest fall forward or upper back round. Keep pushing through your heels and then squeeze your glutes to inch the bar to hip level. 

Form Tip: If you have trouble finishing the lift once the bar is past your knees, then squeeze your butt. This will help drive your hips forward and decrease the distance between the weight and the lift’s apex. 

Benefits of the Sumo Deadlift

Below are three benefits of the sumo deadlift that one can expect when integrating the sumo deadlift into a training program.

More Comfortable Mechanics (for Some)

Where the sumo deadlift shines is that it’s inherently beginner-friendly (for most folks, that is). 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 Strength, Specifically at the Top

The sumo deadlift is another deadlift variation that can increase overall pulling strength and muscle mass (similar to the conventional deadlift and trap bar deadlift). 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, this newfound strength should help you complete the top part of the lift more efficiently. 

Less Lower Back Strain

Unlike the conventional deadlift, the sumo deadlift has a lifter assume a more vertical torso positioning (due to the foot placement). By increasing the back’s vertical angle (the torso is more upright), the lower back is not stressed as much as in a Romanian or conventional deadlift. This can be beneficial for lifters who want to limit lower back stress, monitor training volume to the erectors, or address different aspects of the pull.

Quadriceps and Glute Strength

Due to the foot placement and hip/knee angles in the setup, the sumo deadlift targets the glutes (due to hip external rotation) and vastus medialis (inner quads) to a greater extent than a conventional deadlift. This can help lifters who either want to develop these muscles for aesthetic reasons or strengthen a specific weak muscle. 

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 (posterior chain). However, some slight differences between the muscles worked from the sumo deadlift vs. conventional deadlift vs. trap bar deadlift. 

Glutes

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 glutes to a higher degree.

Hamstrings

Though the conventional and Romanian deadlift recruits them more aggressively, the hamstrings are still primary movers for the sumo deadlift. That said, if a lifter is looking to target the hamstrings more exclusively, they may want to perform Romanian deadlifts instead.

Quadriceps

Due to the foot placement in the sumo deadlift, the athlete must achieve greater knee flexion angles (bend) to perform the sumo deadlift. For this reason, the quadriceps (which are responsible for knee extension) are targeted to a greater degree than in the Romanian deadlift and conventional deadlift, yet similar to the trap bar deadlift. Simply put, you’re squatting a bit more with this deadlift variation and so using more of your thighs.

Erector Spinae (Lower Back)

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 (lower back strength). Unlike the conventional and Romanian deadlift, the sumo deadlift stresses the lower back less so as the torso is more vertical, allowing other back muscles to pick up some slack. 

Trapezius and Back Muscles

The upper back and trapezius muscles are used to maintain proper torso positioning and aid in the upwards pulling of the barbell. The sumo deadlift, a more vertical pulling movement (compared to the conventional deadlift), is a great movement to build thick, strong traps and upper back muscles.

Sumo Deadlift Sets, Reps, and Weight Recommendations

Why you’re doing the sumo deadlift will impact how you do the sumo deadlift. Specifically, we mean how man sets and reps you do and how much weight you lift. Below, we provide training guidelines for different training scenarios. Note: These are just scenarios and shouldn’t be considered the end-all-be-all for sets and reps. 

 

sumo deadlift
Oleksandr Zamuruiev/Shutterstock

For Better Deadlifting Mechanics

The sumo deadlift can be used as a regression for the conventional deadlifts and/or assist beginner lifters in learning proper hip flexion and extension mechanics in the deadlift.

Do three to four sets of eight to 10 repetitions with light to moderate loads, at a controlled speed (focusing on lowering the weight with control), resting as needed. Coaches can also include pauses and tempos to enhance movement awareness in the pull further.

To Get Stronger

The sumo deadlift can be used to develop maximal strength for powerlifting and strongman athletes. It can also be a useful deadlift alternative for lifters who want to diversify their pulling strength, as a sumo deadlift will feel different than a conventional deadlift.

Do three to five sets of three to five repetitions with heavy loading, resting as needed. Lifters can also use bands, chains, and other sumo deadlift variations (see below) to enhance strength further.

To Gain Muscle

The sumo deadlift can be done for higher volume with moderate to heavy loads to increase muscle hypertrophy — specifically in the muscles mentioned above. The below guidelines are a great jumping-off point for those who want to get larger.

Do three to five sets of six to 10 reps with a moderate to heavy load. Or, perform two to four sets, for 12 to 15 reps with a moderate load. Keep your rest periods to 45 to 90 seconds. Another tip is to perform controlled tap and go reps, where you touch the plates to the floor and then explode back up. Don’t drop the weight and start the rep over. The tap and go method will increase your muscle’s time under tension. 

To Build Muscular Endurance

For those looking to increase glute and posterior chain muscle endurance, the sumo deadlift can be trained in a higher repetition range is to increase muscular endurance and fatigue resistance.

Do two to four sets of 12 to 20 reps with a light to moderate load. Keep rest periods to just 30 to 45 seconds. 

3 Sumo Deadlift Variations

Below are three sumo variations that lifters can do to increase sports specificity, boost strength and power, and increase movement integrity in the sumo deadlift.

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 when one adds bands or chains to change the difficulty of the lift at either the bottom, middle, or top of the lift. As a result, lifters can battle through sticking points. For example, chains make a lifter heavier at the top (as they come off the floor). By loading chains onto a barbell, you’ll be able to pull a doable amount of weight off of the floor but then increase that number at the top. Therefore, your lockout will get stronger.

On the flip, you can loop bands around the top of a power rack and secure the other ends to each side of a barbell. Load the bar up with more weight than you could normally lift (like 10 to 20 percent). The load will get lighter towards the top, so you’re essentially overloading the initial pull of your deadlift. 

Tempo Sumo Deadlifts

Tempo training can be done with the sumo deadlift simply by adding time constraints or cadences for the various phases of the pull. Mainly, the bottom, top, or middle of a lift. By adjusting your tempo, you can increase your muscles’ time under tension (which leads to more muscle growth), and teach yourself how to better control weight.

3 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 we like. 

kettlebell sumo deadlift
New Africa/Shutterstock

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.

Clean Deadlift

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

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.

References

  1. Cholewa JM, Atalag O, Zinchenko A, Johnson K, Henselmans M. Anthropometrical Determinants of Deadlift Variant Performance. J Sports Sci Med. 2019;18(3):448-453. Published 2019 Aug 1.

Featured image: Oleksandr Zamuruiev/Shutterstock

2 thoughts on “Sumo Deadlift — Proper Form, Muscles Worked, and the Benefits”

  1. Hi Mike,

    I like the information provided on this link. I’m an avid exercise nut, in my late 50s, have long limbs and looking for alternative exercises to work my glutes and quads. I’m unable to do squats and really tired of leg press machines. I want to start doing sumo deadlifts to focus on the muscle groups listed above. And being that I have the legs and arms of a dandy-long legs spider, I want to maximize my time in the gym.
    Thanks!
    Paul

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