Sumo Deadlift vs Conventional Deadlift: Which One Is Best?

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The benefits of picking a loaded barbell up off the floor and setting it back down in the pursuit of strength development are well known.

Deadlifting personifies the true essence of weightlifting and is as technical as it is simple.

What often appears to be the ultimate display of pure brute strength involves subtleties of technique that take years to master.

The two styles we are discussing today are sumo deadlift vs conventional deadlifting.

Lifters who are pulling the heaviest weights have usually committed to one style or the other, and we often witness healthy debate as to the merits of each lift.

Both the sumo and conventional deadlifting techniques are allowed in powerlifting competitions.

So what are the key differences between the sumo deadlift vs conventional deadlift? The Sumo deadlift differs from the deadlift in wider starting stance standing position and engages more of the quads and glutes. The conventional deadlifts engages more of the back muscles. Most lifters can lift more weight with a sumo deadlift vs conventional deadlift.

There are 5 main differences between sumo deadlifts and conventional deadlifts:

I will go through the complete list of differences between these two powerful movements. In addition, I will go through criteria to determine when to do either one.

“It's very hard to imagine a more useful application of strength than picking heavy s**t up off the ground."

Mark Rippetoe, Starting Strength Founder

The Differences Between Sumo Deadlift vs Conventional Deadlift

Despite both of these exercises using a barbell and starting at the bottom of the floor, there are many differences between the two movements. 

Before moving to the differences, lets go over some of the similarities. As a coach, you want to make sure you give the following signals to trainees,

  • Engage your core during the whole movement by bracing
  • Have a neutral head position
  • Sit and engage your hips back
  • Leave a foot print in the floor and grip firmly
  • Take the slack out of the bar by engaging the lats

Both types of deadlifts will build raw strength and develop muscle. As types of deadlifts, they engage your arms, glutes, hamstrings, quads, and your whole back. Finally, they are both hip hinge movements which helps to train the fundamentals of many sports. 

Lets move on to the differences of these two great lifts.

1. Sumo Deadlifts Have A Wider Stance

The biggest difference between both deadlifts is the starting stance.

The Sumo deadlift starts off with a wider stance than the traditional deadlift. Usually the stance is is twice your shoulder width. In addition to the wider stance, your feet will be pointed outwards to account for knee angle.

2. Sumo Deadlifts Have A Shorter Range Of Motion

Since the starting position of sumo deadlifts is wider, the lifter is closer to the ground.

In terms of work, moving the barbell less distance means the movement is shorter. Hence, the total range of motion is shorter for sumo deadlifts.

How does this affect hip extension?

Studies done my Escamila et al found no differences in demands and muscle engagement of the sumo deadlift.

3. The Sumo Deadlift Uses Less Energy

Due to the shorter range of motion, lifters move the barbell a shorter distance.

Overall, the amount of work is reduced for sumo deadlifts. In fact Escamilla et al found that the conventional deadlifts uses 25-40% more energy.

So if you're trying to get the most out of your sets and reps, sumo deadlifts are the way to go.

4. Deadlifts Engage The Back Better

Conventional deadlifts are more demanding on the back.

A 1991 study by Cholewicki et al suggests that the spine erectors work around 10% harder during conventional deadlifts than sumo deadlifts. 

5. Sumo Deadlifts Are More Demanding On The Quads

Sumo deadlifts activate the quad muscles more than conventional deadlifts.

According to EMG analysis, Escamilla et al found in their 2002 study that the vastus medialis and vastus lateralis were recruited more during the sumo deadlift than the conventional deadlift.  

What Is A Sumo Deadlift?


A deadlift is considered as “sumo” when the lifter has taken a stance that is around twice shoulder width. The feet are turned out to approximately 45 degrees, and the lifter takes a grip on the bar with their hands positioned inside their legs.

The sumo deadlift involves quite an upright torso position. A coaching cue to ensure a stable position is to line the shoulders up directly above the bar when setting up. 

How To Do A Sumo Deadlift

Step 1: Load your bar on a deadlift platform or a suitably flat and sturdy floor with rubber matting. If you are a novice, start with trainer plates on the bar.

Step 2: Assume a stance with wide feet and toes pointed out. The width of stance varies from lifter to lifter depending on their physiology. 

Step 3: Flex at the hips and grip the bar just inside your legs. You can use an overhand or mixed grip.

Step 4: Relax your shoulders, arms, and upper back. Focus your attention on the lift here.

Step 5: Look straight ahead. Make sure you have an upright posture with no rounding or slouching. 

Step 6:. Activate the shoulders and core. Drive the weight up by slowly pushing the feet through the floor.

Step 7: Extend through the hips and knees. Don't speed up your temp or slow it down.

Step 8:  As the bar reaches the knees, retract your shoulder blades and feel like you are pulling your shoulders together. Stand upright and complete the lift.

Step 9: Lower the bar back down to the floor while keeping control of the weight the entire time. Do not drop the bar or allow your posture to change. 

Coach's Tips

  • Maintain a natural curve in your back. No over arching and no rounding the back.
  • Keep your abdomens braced and core engaged.
  • Your shins should be perpendicular (90 degrees) to the ground
  • Keep the barbells close to your shins. Touching if your flexibility and anatomy permits
  • Push the floor away from you and leave a foot print in the ground.

Sumo Deadlift - Pros And Cons

The sumo deadlift is a great movement for beginning lifters and advanced lifters alike. Here are some pros and cons of the lift.

Pros

  • Sumo deadlifts put much less demand on your back, enabling lifters with sore backs, who might struggle with the conventional style, to continue deadlifting. 
  • The sumo deadlift is a very similar position to how we lift heavy items in everyday life. 
  • It is easier to lockout than conventional deadlifts as the bar has less far to travel. 
  • Increased leg development. There is evidence to suggest the quads work a lot harder than during a conventional deadlift.

Cons

  • It is a more technical lift and harder to learn as a beginner.
  • There is the potential for a large amount of strain to be applied to the hip flexors.

Common Mistakes With The Sumo Deadlift

1. Too Wide Of A Stance

Your trained flexibility and the anatomical limit that your skeleton allows dictate how wide your stance should be. Your stance is too wide if your shins are not vertical when looking from the front.

Use a mirror or video camera for feedback as to your correct width.

2. Hyperextending The Back At Lockout

Hyperextension is the easiest way to injure your back when sumo deadlifting. Hip extension should finish the sumo deadlift, not spinal hyperextension.

The best way to prevent hyperextension is to squeeze the glutes hard at the top of the movement. Once you have locked out the glutes, do not change the spine angle.

3. Starting With The Shoulders In Front Of The Bar 

Remember to set up with the shoulders in line with the bar, not in front. Setting up with the shoulders ahead of the bar will create too much forward lean for a safe and effective sumo deadlift.

What Is A Conventional Deadlift?

The conventional deadlift involves the lifter setting up with a hip-width stance and taking a grip with the hands at shoulder width on the bar. 

The conventional deadlift involves around 10% more forward lean in the starting position than the sumo setup. A coaching cue to achieve this position is to set up with the shoulders just in front of the bar.  

How To Do A Conventional Deadlift

Step 1: Load your bar on a deadlift platform or a suitably flat and sturdy floor with rubber matting. If you are a novice, start with trainer plates on the bar.

Step 2: Stand with your mid-foot under the bar with feet at hip-width. Point your toes out very slightly.

Step 3: Hinge at the hips without bending your knees. Take a shoulder-width overhand or mixed grip.

Step 4: Set your position by bending your knees until your shins lightly touch the bar. Do not allow the bar to move away from your mid-foot. 

Step 5: Set your back by lifting your chest until you feel your spine assume a neutral position. Lock in this position, bar over your mid-foot, shins against the bar, and your hips strong.

Step 6: Brace your core and upper back and stand up with the weight. Keep the bar in contact with your legs while you pull. Do not shrug or lean back at the top. Fully extend your hips and knees.

Step 7: Return the weight to the floor by flexing your hips and knees. Lower the bar by pushing your hips back and flexing the knees. The bar will re-position over your mid-foot in preparation for your next rep. 

Coach's Tips

  • Keep your back straight. 
  • Engage the lats by taking the slack out of the bar
  • Your pushing force should be centered along your foot. Not your heels or toes.
  • Breathe and brace by keeping your core tight during the lifting portion of the movement.
  • Hip hinge the movement, don't squat here!

Conventional Deadlift - Pros And Cons

The conventional deadlift is widely considered the king of lifts but it does have its disadvantages. Here are some pros and cons of the deadlift

Pros

  • One of the best exercises you will do for back development.
  • The technique is easy to learn.
  • Set up requires slightly less hip range of motion than sumo deadlifts. 

Cons

  • Can aggravate back issues
  • Does not activate the legs as much as a sumo deadlift
  • Conventional deadlifts do not cross over to everyday lifting techniques as much as sumo deadlifts.

Common Mistakes With The Conventional Deadlift

1. Excessive Rounding Of The Back

Probably the most common mistake with the conventional deadlift is excessive rounding of the back. It is also the mistake that is most likely to result in significant injury. 

Make sure you have a flat, firm back with a neutral spine throughout the lift.

2. Turning The Deadlift Into A Squat

This is a fairly common mistake amongst novices and involves the lifter dropping into a position that resembles the bottom of a squat, with the hips below the knees. 

This completely changes the dynamic of the lift and can cause serious injury.

You should focus on the hips not dropping below parallel and the shins maintaining quite an upright position throughout the lift.

3. Not Pushing The Hips Back

Focus on pushing your butt back behind your feet when you are deadlifting.

This enables you to safely activate the muscles that control flexion and extension of the hips and go a long way to perfecting your deadlift technique. 

Which Deadlift Is Best For You?

I briefly mentioned anatomical limits earlier in the article.

Realistically the anatomical limit (or the absolute limit of the flexibility your joint can achieve) of your hips dictates which deadlifting style will be your strongest.

Limb Length And Specificity

I have heard that limb length and height should be factors to consider when determining which side of the sumo/conventional fence you should fall. This is not strictly true and is certainly not the only determining factor. 

I know plenty of tall, long-limbed ectomorphs with outstanding hip flexibility who are perfectly capable of performing any Olympic lift or powerlifting move with perfect form. Equally, I know plenty of people with a traditional powerlifter endomorphic somatotype who do not have the necessary ROM to even set up for a sumo deadlift.

There is so much individual variation in the shape of the hips. Just the angle of inclination of the femur neck in relation to the femur shaft can have a massive impact on potential hip ROM and most certainly affect a lifter's deadlifting style.

Perform Your Strongest Deadlift

I am not going to suggest that you get MRI scans of your hips, nor will I advise you to worry about the shape of your femur neck.

The best advice I can give is to train both styles of the deadlift. Commit a sustained period to each of them and see which type your body responds to the best. 

I recommend that the movement you feel the strongest and most proficient at should make up most of your deadlifting. 

However, I suggest you make notes of the differences between the two to identify your potential weaknesses. 

Sumo Deadlift Example

For example, a lifter who has trained predominantly conventional deadlifts for the past ten years. 

They introduce sumo deadlifts into their routine for several months, as they suffer from back pain.

They find that their conventional deadlift 1RM is significantly heavier than their sumo 1RM, despite the sumo technique feeling more natural. 

I would suggest that the lifter dedicates time to the sumo movement. From the disparity between the 1RM of the two exercises, I can identify weaknesses. I would say the lifter has predominantly developed back strength due to the conventional method, but the legs are not as strong as they should be. 

When the quads are required to work harder in the sumo deadlift, the weights reduce with the emphasis being removed from the back. 

The lifter complains of back pain, which suggests that the conventional deadlift is causing chronic injury. 

Taking some time to focus on sumo deadlifting will strengthen the legs' weaknesses and take the pressure off of the back to enable recovery. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Sumo Deadlift Easier Than Conventional Deadlift?

Although the distance the bar travels and the range of hip flexion/extension is decreased compared to a conventional deadlift, sumo deadlifts challenge your muscles differently. The sumo deadlift is a more technical lift and takes much longer to learn the technique's subtleties.

Why Are My Hips Painful When I Sumo Deadlift?

If you take too wide of a stance too early, you can easily strain your hip flexor and adductor muscles.

Sumo deadlifts require exceptional flexion, abduction, and external rotation of the hips and may require specific flexibility training to earn the necessary ROM. 

Until you develop the appropriate strength and flexibility, perform your sumo deadlifts with a slightly narrower stance.

Are Sumo Deadlifts Safer?

The majority of deadlift injuries I have witnessed over the years involve the lower back. 

Sumo deadlifts are less demanding on the lower back than conventional deadlifts, which may reduce the risk of injury.

Final Thoughts

The fact that you are reading this article suggests that you already deadlift or are at least aware of deadlifting benefits.

The deadlift is a phenomenal exercise for developing overall muscularity and strength and forms the foundation of many training routines. 

Both sumo and conventional deadlifts are viable techniques for building vast levels of full-body strength. However, when choosing which variation is for you, individual factors need consideration. 

You should train both styles of the deadlift to work out which lift is most comfortable and elicits the best response from your body.

You can also use both exercises to identify potential weaknesses that are holding your deadlift back. Remember, train your weaknesses until they become your strengths. 

I hope this article has given you an insight into the sumo deadlift vs conventional deadlift.

References

Escamilla RF, Francisco AC, Kayes AV, Speer KP, Moorman CT 3rd. An electromyographic analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2002 Apr;34(4):682-8. doi: 10.1097/00005768-200204000-00019. PMID: 11932579.

Escamilla RF, Francisco AC, Fleisig GS, Barrentine SW, Welch CM, Kayes AV, Speer KP, Andrews JR. A three-dimensional biomechanical analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2000 Jul;32(7):1265-75. doi: 10.1097/00005768-200007000-00013. PMID: 10912892.

Michael W. Krzyzewski Human Performance Laboratory, Division of Orthopaedic Surgery, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC 

Cholewicki J, McGill SM, Norman RW. Lumbar spine loads during the lifting of extremely heavy weights. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1991 Oct;23(10):1179-86. PMID: 1758295.

DISCLAIMER: This article is for intended for educational purposes only and not as an individualized exercise prescription, therefore no one can be held liable in the occurrence of injuries, damages or monetary losses as a result of the information.

About The Author

Nathan Carter is a highly qualified fitness professional with over fifteen years of experience. He has enjoyed several roles over this time, including: Tutor & Assessor for Level 2 Fitness Instructors and Level 3 Personal Trainers Sports Performance & Conditioning coach for a professional rugby team. Nathan has been a sponsored surfer for many years. His relationships over his career have included companies such as Billabong, Santa Cruz, Fanatic, ION and Finisterre. Health, Fitness and Wellbeing are not just Nathan’s career. They are his passion, his hobby and his lifestyle.

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