by John Gaglione T-Nation
Here’s what you need to know…
• Sumo is a much more technical lift than the conventional deadlift and it takes time to learn it. Don’t write off the sumo deadlift even if it hasn’t worked for you in the past.
• Even if you don’t plan on competing in the sumo stance, it’s a powerful exercise to help develop your hips and entire posterior chain.
• The sumo deadlift doesn’t require as much ankle or t-spine mobility, so those with poor mobility who can’t get in the proper position for conventional deadlifts can often pull sumo without any problem.
My deadlift has always been a struggle. In 2006 my best competition deadlift was 484 pounds at 198. I kept getting called for hitching or ramping. My thighs always seemed to get in the way at lockout when I pulled conventional. I just couldn’t get my hips through.
In 2007 I finally pulled my first 500-pound deadlift in competition at 220. In 2010 I’d progressed all the way to 515… while weighing 308. My deadlift essentially didn’t go up in 4 years! My other lifts kept climbing but I couldn’t seem to figure out the deadlift. It was frustrating as hell.
I sought out the help of local powerlifters Chris Talyor and John Bernor. They both agreed I should give sumo a try, as did Mark Bell and Jesse Burdick. The last straw came when the great Louie Simmons said I should pull sumo, too. Here’s some footage of me working on my form from back when we first met. It wasn’t pretty, but I was getting there.
Once I started to dial in my form, I finally broke past the 550 barrier. Now my best sumo pull is 640 and my best conventional is 585. The moral of the story? It took me years to figure out my proper form and stance and I’m still tweaking it. Sumo is a much more technical lift than the conventional deadlift and it takes time to learn it. Don’t write off the sumo deadlift even if it hasn’t worked for you in the past.
So Who’s the Sumo Deadlift For?
Even if you don’t plan on competing in the sumo stance, it’s a powerful exercise to help develop your hips and entire posterior chain. Typically the sumo deadlift is suited for a lifter that has more of a typical “squatter” build. People with thicker legs and hips can typically pull sumo well. Conventional pulls are generally for taller, lankier lifters with long arms and legs. Also, bigger lifters with bigger bellies typically have a hard time getting to the bar, so going wider in a sumo stance is a way for them to get down to the bar and not have their belly get in the way.
The other advantage of the sumo deadlift is that is doesn’t require as much ankle or t-spine mobility, so folks with poor mobility who can’t get in the proper position for conventional deadlifts can often pull sumo from the floor without any problem.
3 Main Benefits of the Sumo Deadlift
1. It shortens the range of motion of the pull.
2. It works your hips more.
3. It’s less stressful on the low back.
Here are 6 tips to simplify the sumo deadlift as much as possible.
1. Find Your Stance
Get your knees out to where your ankles are. Geared lifters can get away with going a little wider, but most people need a more moderate sumo stance. The sumo deadlift is typically harder to get moving off the floor and easier to lock out, so don’t go so wide that you can’t even get the bar moving.
2. Point the Toes Out
You don’t want to “duck” your toes all the way out because that would make it very difficult to create any tension, but you certainly can’t keep your feet straight ahead; that would essentially put the bar an extra inch out in front of you (which makes it all the harder). By turning your toes out slightly you can place the bar on the smooth part of your inner shin. This will allow the bar to start closer to the body and set the position for a smoother and shorter pull.
3. Drop Your Balls to the Bar
The length of your legs and your current level of mobility depends on how low your hips can start. You don’t want to squat the weight up, but you want to get your hips as close to the barbell as possible to improve leverage. Great examples of this in action are Dan Green and Caitlyn Trout, each of whom have shorter legs and great mobility so they can get their hips low without their knees coming forward. (If your knees come forward, this puts the bar out in front of you and you’ll be putting yourself in a bad start position.) A good rule of thumb is to get your hips low enough to get your back straight and still have good hamstring tension.
4. Get Your Body Behind the Bar
Once you figure out your hip position, it’s important to start to leverage yourself behind the weight. The more of your body weight that’s forward of the bar, the harder it’ll be to lock out. If your head and chest are in front of the bar at the start, it’s going to be very hard to finish the lift. A good way to help position your bodyweight behind the bar is to pull yourself down into the bar before the lift, and then pull the bar into your body. This helps keep tension on the lats and helps prevent the upper back from collapsing and the hips from shooting up.
5. Spread the Floor
Spreading the floor is super important for breaking the weight off of the floor. This will help keep tension on the hips and get the bar moving. Typically the hardest part of the sumo pull is the start, so you need to be patient and create a lot of torque in your hips to crack the plates off the floor. It’s important, too, to keep forcing the knees out on the way up so your knees don’t get in the way as you get close to lockout.
Isometric seated band-abductions are a great exercise to help with this. Caityln Trout does these often, and if you’re wondering why you should be listening to a girl, she holds the world record in the squat at 123 with 391 pounds and she’s pulled over 385 sumo in competition as well!
6. Shoot the Hips Through
In a powerlifting meet, you must stand erect with the knees and hips locked out in a straight line. As such, it’s really important to focus on driving your hips into the bar to finish with a smooth lockout. Even if you aren’t a powerlifter, this will help save your lower back and teach you to finish with your hips. Oftentimes people make the mistake of overextending the lower back and that ends up forcing the knees to unlock.
Hip-hinging exercises like pull throughs, RDLs, good mornings, along with glute-emphasis hip thrusts and barbell glute bridges will help strengthen the lockout portion of any deadlift.
Putting it All Together
You can use the sumo deadlift as a primary exercise on your max effort or dynamic day or as a supplemental movement for repetitions.
Sample Max Effort Day
A Competition Stance Deadlift work up to a single at 90% of 1RM (or projected opener for your next contest)
B Sumo Block Deadlift 3 x 3. Raise the plates 3 inches off the ground.
C Lower assistance work for the glutes, hams, abs, quads, etc.
Sample Dynamic Effort Day
A Box Squat with bands 10 x 2 at 60%
B Sumo Deadlift with chains 6 x 2 at 50% 1RM. Then 2 x 2 at 65% of 1RM
C Lower assistance work for the glutes, hams, abs, quads, etc
Sample Volume Day, aka Deadlift Party
A Competition Deadlift 5 x 3
B Sumo Deficit Deadlift 4 x 6
C Stiff Legged Deadlift 3 x 10
Since switching to sumo in 2010, I’ve put 125 pounds on my competition deadlift PR. My raw conventional went from 515 to 585 and my sumo pull went from the mid 400’s to a 640-pull in competition. Here’s my first 600+ pound competition deadlift. This was my best and fastest pull at this weight, but this is the meet where I went on to pull 640 on my third attempt at this particular meet.
It took me a few years to get it right, but now my deadlift is moving again and I know with the right training, I’ll soon be pulling 650+. As such, I invite you to give it a try, even if you’ve struggled with it in the past. It might not become your preferred style of pulling, but it can help bring up your squat and conventional deadlift and allow you to push past plateaus and achieve great gains in your entire body.