With numerous ways to deadlift based upon goals of strength, hypertrophy, and/or application to sport, lifters and coaches must best determine the most well-suited deadlift for optimal progress.
In this article, we will discuss the differences between the sumo deadlift vs the Romanian deadlift, and what benefits lifters can expect based upon their individual sport goals (powerlifting, weightlifting, strongman/strongwomen, and general fitness).
The Sumo Deadlift
The sumo deadlift is a deadlift variation in which a lifter assumes a wide stance (often with the feet toward the end of the barbell), with the feet slightly turned out allowing for the hips to stay much closer to the barbell and the lifter assuming a much more vertical torso angle in the set up. This positioning over the barbell decreases the amount of stress placed upon the lower back in exchange for greater quad engagement.
The sumo deadlift does limit maximal hamstring and erector recruitment when compared to conventional and Romanian deadlifts, however is often used to isolate the glutes and inner quads, as well as is commonly used during powerlifting competitions in which both conventional and sumo styles of pulling are allowed.
[Want to learn more about conventional deadlifts? See how they stack up here!]
The Romanian Deadlift
In the Romanian deadlift, the lifter takes a much closer stance, with a large emphasis on stretching the hamstrings and hips to bring the torso over the barbell.
Unlike the sumo deadlift, the Romanian deadlift is not a competition lift (powerlifters can compete using the sumo deadlift during competition), but rather is a critical assistance pulling movement for powerlifters, weightlifters, and general fitness to maximize hamstring and hip hypertrophy and health.
[Want more info? Check out our ultimate guide to the Romanian Deadlift Here!]
Muscles Groups Targeted
As noted above, the sumo deadlift places a great emphasis on the glutes, inner quads (for knee extension and stabilization), and mid to upper back. When compared to the Romanian deadlift, the sumo deadlift offers less hamstring and lower back specific hypertrophy and has less direct application to conventional style deadlifts and other pulling movements (see sport specificity below).
Loading in the Sumo Deadlift vs Romanian Deadlift
Many lifters will be able to pull heavier loads using the sumo deadlift vs the Romanian deadlift as the later is often performed as an assistance lift to specifically target the hamstrings and lower back, and is highly advised against maximal loading (near or at 1rm level of intensity). Since the sumo deadlift is generally higher than one’s Romanian deadlift, loading is reflected as such.
When the goals are hypertrophy, both are performed with moderate loads for higher volumes, with a strong emphasis on muscle contractions and positioning. When strength is the goals, sumo deadlifts can be loaded in similar fashion to most main strength lifts (back squats, deadlifts, bench press, push press, etc.) whereas the Romanian deadlift should be limited to more hypertrophy and movement based training (not used to increase maximal strength). In the event a lifter is looking to maximally load a similar pattern to the Romanian deadlift, he/she should try conventional deadlifts.
Specificity to Competition Lifts
Below are four main sports and their specific training considerations regarding specific to sports performance.
The sumo deadlift has a high specificity to powerlifting if and only if the lifter uses the sumo style deadlift during competition. In the event he/she is a conventional puller, there will be less specificity. The sumo deadlift can still be used to build a well-rounded pulling athlete (such as when using more advanced methods from Westside Barbell), however the Romanian deadlift should be used regularly during hypertrophy based cycles to fully develop the specific muscle groups needed to pull maximal loads in the conventional deadlift.
Generally speaking, the sumo deadlift has minimal application and benefit for Olympic weightlifters (with the exception of the sumo clean pull). Because weightlifters do deadlifts and other pulling exercises to build strength and muscle SPECIFIC to the positioning in the clean and snatch, the sumo deadlift has very limited benefit. That said, one may argue that weightlifters can use the sumo deadlift at times throughout the year where muscle hypertrophy is the goal, however even then one can argue for more Romanian deadlifts, rack pulls, clean/snatch deadlifts, and good mornings.
Both lifts can be incorporated into training programs, as strongman/strongwoman athlete must be versatile in the pulling approaches and abilities. Generally speaking, Romanian deadlifts should be performed regularly to bulletproof the hamstrings and lower back from injury, whereas sumo deadlifts can be used to either isolate weaker muscles (glutes and middle back/traps) or vary pulling training up to develop a more well-rounded strength athlete.
While I do feel sumo deadlifts are a good training lift, many of the same benefits that the sumo deadlift can offer recreational lifters can be done (and then some) with the Romanian deadlift. Too often new lifters will sacrifice developing a strong foundation of movement and muscle that can then be applied to various pulling lifts (cleans, snatches, conventional deadlifts, sumo deadlifts, rack pulls, etc) at the expense of lifting heavier loads (often will poor form) during sumo deadlifts. Personally, I find the sumo deadlift a fun, strength based exercise, however it does lack overall application to many other fundamental movements for most athletes.
Exercise selection should be based upon the goals of the coach and athlete. The Sumo deadlift has a high specificity to a competition lift and has some potential to build muscle mass in the glutes, inner squads, and back. When compared to the Romanian deadlift, the sumo deadlift lack as much hamstring engagement and application across numerous sports and movements, such as to weightlifting, conventional deadlifts, and general hamstring hypertrophy training.
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