Sumo Deadlift vs Conventional Deadlift

Sumo vs Conventional Deadlift

In short, both sumo and conventional deadlift variations have their place in training cycles and primarily depend upon:

  • What muscles you’re looking to train
  • Your hip structure/ flexibility: this actually plays a greater role than your height / proportional limb length
  • It’s primarily a question of comfort: conventional pulls place a great demand on your posterior chain, the sumo variation is much more quad dominant
  • Injury record: based on the above, weigh up your strengths and weaknesses to determine which one will allow you to pull the most weight, taking in to account the likelihood of injury. For example, I have a more susceptible lower back than I do quad, so for long-term progress the sumo variation is best suited to my needs.

Differences between Sumo and Conventional Deadlifts

The conventional deadlift is far more hamstring dominant and places a slightly larger strain on your lower back, but tends to breed greater explosiveness.

A muscular man conventional deadlifting
A heavyweight powerlifter conventional deadlifting

The sumo variation’s more quad dominant pulling style generally lends itself to a lower risk of injury. A lot of people perceive the sumo deadlift to be ‘cheating’ as it accounts for a shorter range of motion (somewhere around 25%). Now this is a fallacy as:

  1. For 1RM lifts, your muscles have enough contractile force potential (in the form of ATP*) to allow even the hardest working 1RM to not be limited by energy storage and transportation.
  2. Additional mechanical advantage would have no effect on 1RM power. But for higher volume work it would probably impact the athlete’s ability to lift more reps when compared to conventional
  3. Moment Arm: A moment arm is the length between a joint axis and the line of force acting on that joint. Every joint involved in an exercise has a moment arm. The longer the length of the moment arm, the greater the load will be that is applied to the joint axis; basic principles of leverage.

*ATP= Adenosine Triophosphate

  • This is important in this context when we consider the biomechanical requirements of each deadlift variation. This study very nicely summarises the biomechanical differences in each lift, and the sumo-pullers had greater vertical trunk and thigh positions.
  • The wider stance and vertical trunk height demanded in the sumo variation should theoretically allow for a smaller moment arm (compared to it’s conventional counterpart) and an improved leverage.
Female powerlifter deadlifting
A female powerlifter setting up in the Sumo Deadlift position
  • Interestingly this study also highlighted that both techniques have comparable hip and knee extension and as discussed above, conventional deadlift required around 25-40% more energy expenditure, greater vertical bar distance and overall mechanical work. So, it’s more powerful, but requires more energy.

Picking the right accessory exercises for your deadlift is absolutely critical, so pick wisely.

Muscular Activation in the Deadlift

This study highlights the core differences between deadlift types, as college football athletes performed sumo and conventional deadlifts with and without a lifting belt, based on a 12-RM intensity. Variables measured were knee angles and EMG* (electromyographic analysis) measurements from 16 muscles.

Overall EMG activity from the vastus medialis (anterior thigh muscle), vastus lateralis (another anterior thigh muscle), and tibialis anterior (muscle in the upper two thirds of the tibia that helps to dorsiflex the foot) were significantly greater in the sumo deadlift.

Anterior view of the thigh muscle
Anterior view of the Thigh Muscle from Slideshare

Whereas overall EMG activity from the medial gastrocnemius (muscle present in the posterior part of the leg, originating from the femur) was significantly greater in the conventional deadlift.

By analysing these findings, we can deduce that if you’re looking to improve your thigh’s size and strength, then you should sumo. If your goal would be best suited to improved hamstring and posterior chain development, then conventional deadlift is best suited to your needs.

*Electromyography is an electrodiagnostic technique that evaluates and records the electrical activity produced by skeletal muscles. In this example, the EMG activity in each muscle allows us to define which deadlift technique is best suited for your goals

The Main Differences between Sumo and Conventional

  1. Conventional Deadlifts require greater energy expenditure and places a greater demand on the posterior chain
  2. Conventional improves explosiveness at a greater rate than sumo.
  3. They also place approximately 10% greater load on lower back and spinal extension. This is because the initial pull from the floor in the conventional variation starts further forward than in the sumo variety – hence the minor moment arm differences.
  4. Sumo Deadlifts are more quad dominant and less likely to cause lower back injuries
  5. It’s wider stance and hip requirements demand greater flexibility
  6. The moment arm in sumo, when done correctly, is slightly lower

Is the Conventional Deadlift better than Sumo?

There are too many variables for this to have an absolute yes or no answer, but I’ll do my best to some up in this infographic.

A comparison of the core differences between sumo and conventional deadlifts
A comparison of the core differences between sumo and conventional deadlifts
Sumo Deadlift Conventional Deadlift
The quad activation required reduces the strain on your lower back. So for anyone who suffers from back issues, this could well be better suited. More hamstring dominant, so greater crossover to power production and sprinting.
More technical. Getting into position for the sumo variation of the lift requires more technical prowess. Something that a lot of lifters don’t ever improve upon. Improved posterior chain development. The strain on your hamstrings and lower back strengthens the most important muscle group in your body when done correctly.
Greater knee flexion. Knee flexion places greater demands on the quads and the sumo variation requires knee flexibility and muscular strength. A higher energy expenditure but greater force production. Because you’re more upright, the bar needs to travel a greater distance. But your body is in a far more optimal position to do so than when pulling sumo.
Smaller energy expenditure. It’s harder to lift the bar from the floor when sumo deadlifting, but it requires less energy to get it from A to B, because the distance involved is lower. A conventional deadlift is a multi joint exercise that activates more muscle groups so is arguably more beneficial for muscle building

Hip extension demands are almost identical when comparing both deadlift styles. Because the length of your femur remains exactly the same height, the moment arm* remains almost identical.

Moment Arm and the Force System
The angle of your torso when deadlifting will impact the angle of the moment arm and your ability to lift heavier weight

So the more upright your torso, the smaller the moment arm and the improved angle of muscular force. In terms of an upright back, sumo deadlifts win hands down.

The reason conventional deadlifts place a greater demand on your back is because it requires greater torso lean. Usually up to 10% when compared to the sumo variation.

*The moment arm is the distance between the axis of a joint and the line of force acting upon it. The more vertical the better when it comes to prioritising energy efficiency. 

Is the Sumo Deadlift easier?

No. Definitely not. But I pull sumo so I’m probably biased.

it does require a smaller amount of ATP energy because you’re technically pulling the bar a shorter distance. But it’s much harder to pull the sumo deadlift from the floor than it is the conventional. Try pulling anything from a sumo stance and you’ll see what I mean.

It’s more about individual strengths and weaknesses. If you have stronger quads and a comparatively weaker back, you’ll probably be able to pull a heavier weight from the sumo position. If you have stronger hamstrings and greater explosive power, then you’ll probably be able to pull more conventional to begin with.

But just because you can lift more weight with one now, it doesn’t mean you should disregard the other.

So should you pull Conventional or Sumo?

In short, you should do both.

An athlete is only as strong as their weakest link. If your greatest weakness is strength off the floor, then the sumo deadlift should be one of your most potent weapons.

If you struggle with lockout strength, then the conventional deadlift is the ultimate ‘accessory’ exercise. But given the strenuous nature of both lifts you need to be wary of overdoing either one.

There are other variables to consider when looking at weak point training and this guide to deadlifts variations should help.

But you should play around with each stance until you feel most comfortable. It should feel natural and athletic. If the sumo deadlift feels a little uncomfortable, don’t give up on it. Just focus on groin strength and flexibility. The higher the frequency, the more comfortable you will become with it.

Should you use a Belt when Deadlifing?

Compared with the no-belt exercise, the belted variation produced significantly greater rectus abdominis (abs) activity and significantly less external oblique activity in the same study comparing deadlift styles in footballers.

If you have a greater need to train your abdominals, then by interpreting the data we can see that utilising a belt will force your abs to work harder, whilst also allowing you to lift more weight.

If your motivation from an abdominal perspective is to train your obliques, then the non-belted deadlift will better suit your training methods.

If you’re unsure which deadlift style will be best for you, run a 3 month program utilising conventional and one using sumo; both belted and beltless. When you have finished both weigh up:

  1. Amount of weight lifted
  2. Comfort with sub-maximal loads
  3. Proficiency with maximal loads
  4. Progression
  5. Injury risk / susceptibility
  6. Weak points

If that style is weaker with maximal loads, then it’s easy to identify the specific weakness that’s holding you back.

For example, if you have a weaker sumo deadlift than conventional, you the chances are your quads are holding back your posterior chain and letting the team down, you’ll need to activate your quads more in the rest of your training to improve on your weak points; front squats and additional sumo deadlift variations will help rectify the problem.

But for me, I prefer to train volume with a conventional pulling style as I find it improves power generation and posterior chain development. An absolute essential for proper strength training.

But for training loads > 90%, I use sumo style as it helps with injury prevention.

This is much like how I think you should train the squat (which you can find out more about in this guide to squat prioritisation and development); utilise high bar for strength development and low bar to express it.

Will the Deadlift help your Squat?

Yes. As we covered above, sumo deadlifts will develop your quad strength and conventional pulling is more hamstring dominant.

So sumo deadlift is of greater benefit to the front squat and conventional will have a greater carryover to the bottom portion of the back squat.

It also greatly improves your lower back strength, core and your bracing patterns, so there’s no question your deadlift and squat should work in harmony. But the squat can be a complex beast, so discover what accessory exercises would best suit your squat needs here.

Why does my back hurt when I Deadlift?

Three options:

  1. You’re doing it wrong
  2. You have an existing injury that makes it hard to perform
  3. You have a weak core or you don’t properly engage it

If your lower back rounds when you deadlift that’s a big no-no and can definitely cause some pain. Pull your chest up, shoulders back and lats tight. Once you’ve pulled the slack out of the bar you should be ready to deadlift without back pain.

If you have an existing injury you can’t train around then you need to see a specialist. If you can train around it, then give deadlifting a rest for a couple of weeks and see what other exercises aggravate it.

This guide to muscle activation in the deadlift should be useful for this.

Once you’ve narrowed it down to a particular muscle group you can begin strengthening it with remedial exercises.

I recently worked out my core was the weakest part of my lift. This meant that I was being held back by my lower back and abdominals when deadlifting.

To rectify it, I added in 4-6 sets of weighted planks 3 times a week in between sets to save time. Within 3 weeks my back issues had gone.

Coincidence? Maybe. But a stronger core is always a plus point.

Can you Sumo Deadlift in Competition?

Yes and many lifters do. As it tends to favour longer limbed lifters, the sumo deadlift is used substantially in powerlifting competitions worldwide. However it isn’t allowed in strongman competitions and isn’t part of Olympic weightlifting. 

If you specialise in Olympic weightlifting there’s a trade-off to consider. Whilst the conventional deadlift is better at building explosivity, it can disrupt your bar path in the clean. So although the sumo deadlift is less specific, it may prove to be more beneficial in the long-term.

You also need to consider the impact deadlifting too often will have on your CNS.

How do you deadlift? Let me know in the comments

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