Why You Should Be Pulling Sumo Deadlifts From a Deficit

Y’know, I think a lot of people overcomplicate lifting. It’s lifting weights — you don’t really need some super-scientific programming method or ultra-rigorous diet to do damned well. But you do have to think carefully about how to move in the right ways to reach your goals.

That’s a big deal when it comes to assistance exercises. If you choose the wrong ones, you’re wasting your time. If you half-ass the right ones, you’re wasting your time. But if you work really hard at a few really productive movements, then you’ll get really strong. The tricky part, obviously, is choosing the right ones.

Fortunately, when it comes to the deadlift, I think it’s a bit simpler than for the squat and bench.

In my experience, no exercise is better at improving the conventional deadlift than the sumo deadlift — and no exercise is better at improving the sumo deadlift than the conventional deadlift.

If you’re not training both, I think you’re probably selling yourself short.

Of course, if that’s all you ever did, you’d get bored and probably a bit stale. Some variation is important to help stay mentally and physically fresh, and that’s where adding little tweaks to these lifts can be really useful — like deadlifting from a deficit.

[Read: The definitive guide to improving your conventional deadlift technique!]

The Deficit Sumo Deadlift

The sumo deadlift is an interesting lift because for most people, when properly executed, the sticking point in the sumo pull is right off the floor. This can make it a difficult lift to analyze in terms of technique, because you don’t get to see much happen when the bar doesn’t even break the floor. At the same time, however, technique is hugely important for a big sumo pull.

For that reason, your best bet for strengthening the sumo deadlift (and therefore the conventional as well) is often to get really, really strong off the floor. And pulling from a deficit is an excellent way to do so.

It’s also really difficult. Let’s look at the opposite approach: pulling from blocks or with loose straps. Both methods cut the first inch or two off the range of motion from the lift, and if you’ve tried them, you’ve probably found that you can pull much more weight even though you’re actually moving the weight almost as far. That’s because you didn’t do the hardest part of the lift! And in my experience, although it can feel really darn cool to pull 100 pounds over your actual max with ease, a partial movement like this doesn’t have much carryover to the competition style. A couple of weeks after this set, I missed 800 for a single at my actual meet:

But it works the opposite way in reverse: by adding an inch or two to the hardest part of the lift, you’ll have to use much less weight, but you’ll get much more carryover to the competition style.

How to Perform the Deficit Sumo Deadlift

The most important thing to remember when pulling sumo from a deficit is to be careful. You can put a lot of strain on the supporting muscles of the thighs, back, and groin area, and trust me — you don’t wanna strain your groin. So start light and progress slowly.

I also recommend just using a small (1-2 inch) deficit when performing this movement. Remember, just like using straps to cut off an inch of range of motion (ROM) can make a big difference, so can adding an equally small deficit. You don’t need to be pulling off of 100-pound plates to make the deficit sumo deadlift really darn hard.

Also keep in mind that your sumo technique will likely need to change a bit when pulling from a deficit. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to maintain the same hip height and torso angle that you use when pulling from the floor, especially if you’re someone who tends to “squat” the weight up when pulling sumo. It’s okay if your technique changes: remember, we’re just using this as an assistance movement.

Besides these two factors, you should perform the deficit sumo deadlift exactly as you would the regular sumo deadlift.

How to Program the Deficit Sumo Deadlift

There’s two general ways you can program the deficit sumo successfully: As an offseason focus, or as a lighter movement to use during meet prep.

1. Offseason Focus

  • Perform on your heaviest lower-body training days
  • Start with sets of 8-10 reps, and over the course of 4-6 weeks, progress to sets of 3-5 reps
  • Add about 10% to your working weights each week
  • You can change the deficit over the course of a training cycle

An example offseason deficit pulling program might look like this:

  1. Week 1: 2-inch deficit pull, 405×10 (approximately 50% 1RM sumo deadlift)
  2. Week 2: 2-inch deficit pull, 455×10
  3. Week 3: 2-inch deficit pull, 495×8
  4. Week 4: 2-inch deficit pull, 545×5
  5. Week 5: 1-inch deficit pull, 585×5
  6. Week 6: 1-inch deficit pull, 605×3

During Prep

In meet prep, because of the risk of injury, I believe the sumo deficit deadlift should be used exclusively as an accessory movement. For example, you might perform:

  • 3-4×8-10 with 30-40% 1RM sumo deadlift from a 2-inch deficit after your heavy deadlift training as restoration or “flushing” work
  • 5×5 with 50% 1RM sumo deadlift from a 1-inch deficit as your primary movement as a lighter training day for mental variety
  • A set of max reps from a 1” deficit using 40-50% 1RM sumo deficit as a heavy backoff set to maintain training volume during a higher-intensity phase

These are just starting points — you can get creative with it, but the “be careful” rule still stands!

Have any unconventional movements that work really well for you? Share them in the comments!

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.

Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page. 

Ben Pollack

Ben Pollack

Ben Pollack is a professional powerlifter and holds the all-time world record raw total of 2039 in the 198-pound class. He has won best overall lifter at the largest raw meets in the world, including the US Open, Boss of Bosses, and Reebok Record Breakers.

Ben earned his Ph.D. in the history and management of strength and fitness from the University of Texas at Austin in 2018, and has published articles in a number of scholarly publications, including The Journal of Sport History, The Journal of Sport Management, and Iron Game History: The Journal of Physical Culture. He also coaches strength athletes of all skill levels, including several internationally-elite powerlifters and world record holders. You can contact Ben through his website (phdeadlift.com) or via email at [email protected]

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