Article written by Pro Strongman Matt Mills
The sumo deadlift has been my favorite way to pull since the first day I was shown it. Many lifters give the sumo pull a try, and if they are weaker at it, they never try it again. Whether sumo is your go-to pull like myself, or a big weak point for you, it is definitely something you want to have in your program. For myself, because I am much stronger I only put it in on occasion, in favor of working on my weaker conventional pull. What I’m saying here is if you suck at pulling sumo then you need to work on pulling sumo. The problem is when many lifters pull sumo they try to pull it like they do conventional, but just with a wider stance. The sumo deadlift can be more frustrating as it is more technical, in my opinion. The old saying “grip it and rip” doesn’t really apply to sumo. Sumo is all about using leverages in your favor to break the floor. Done correctly you might be surprised at how much more weight you can pull, especially if you are a powerlifter that has avoided it like the plague. Strength is a skill, and it must be practiced over and over.
I find the sumo deadlift cannot be “muscled” up when technique fails, much like we see in a conventional pull. The sumo pull is also far less stress on your lower back, and back injuries are very common in strength sports. I have used sumo deadlifting in place of conventional many times for lifters with injuries to keep them pulling safely.
Typically we see the sumo deadlift recommended for the taller thinner lifters, while conventional is best for shorter thicker lifters. I don’t believe this at all, because I have seen too many variations of stances, and body types using different stances. Take a look at Dan Green’s sumo deadlift. Dan is far from being considered a thinner lifter, as well as being under 6 feet.
Ed Coan used what’s called a modified sumo stance when he pulled 901lbs in the 220lb weight class, an all time world record that still stands today.
Let’s break the sumo deadlift form down step by step. Like most lifts, your set up is everything with sumo. Any break in form will cause you to fail: again, strength is a skill!
Start by choosing the width of your stance. The definition of a sumo deadlift is a deadlift where the feet are on the outside, and the hands are on the inside. Typically a taller lifter will have a wider stance to make up for their longer limbs, while a shorter lifter will choose a narrower stance. Let’s go back to the examples of Dan Green, and Ed Coan. Dan being a taller lifter is best with a very wide stance, while Ed being 5’6’’ has a very narrow stance for pulling sumo. Again height isn’t always the case so I recommend you play around to see what stance works best for you. Also to go extremely wide like Dan you must have very flexible hips to get yourself into position. If you have tight hips when starting sumo, you will be better off with a narrow stance. As you become accustomed to sumo, you edge your feet out more and more to find where you can move the most amount of weight.
Once the width of your stance is set you want to fan your toes out much more then you normally would on a conventional deadlift. The reason for pointing your toes out so much is you want to drive the knees out hard.
Driving the knees out, or “spreading the floor” will help you break the floor by activating your glutes more. When it comes to pulling conventional, the bar can start anywhere from against the shins to over the midline of the foot depending on the lifter. Also you do not want the knees going over the bar at all. If the toes are pointed more forward the knees will track over the bar, and you want be able to use your leverage to break the floor. The shins should be completely vertical, or even at a negative angle if you have the flexibility. When it comes to sumo, you want the bar right against your shins. This is where it’s also important to wear some long socks, or something to protect your shins because you are going to literally drag the bar up your shins. No one wants to use a bar with your skin and blood on it, so protect yourself.
Now that your feet are set, toes out, and the bar against your shins, you are going to drop straight down to the bar. This is where most people make the mistake in the set up for sumo. When pulling conventional you generally hinge down to the bar by pushing your hips back, until your hands reach the bar. Again everyone has their own set up, but this is how I teach the set up for conventional. Where people make the mistake is they hinge down to the bar in their sumo stance and end up stiff legging the weight up, hips pop up first, with no use of the quads off the floor. I like to put my arms out in front of me, and keep them locked out to reinforce that fact. Take a big breath in, and drop straight down to the bar. The old saying by powerlifters is “drop your nut sac to the bar”, and if you’re a girl then use your imagination. This will put you in the best position to use your leverages to break the floor. At the same time, you do not want the hips too low. The hips should be slightly above, as I will demonstrate in the video.
Once you grab the bar, take the slack out of it, and keep your head up. One of the most common mistakes I see in any deadlift is the lifter does not take the slack out of the bar. This makes for a very difficult pull, and will usually throw the lifter out of their form before they break the floor on both conventional and sumo. When you take the slack out of the bar pulling sumo, you are going to use the weight to pull your hips down and your chest up. Many lifters have issues breaking the floor pulling sumo, due to the face they treat it like a wide stance conventional deadlift. Again, set up is everything here.
In the last couple of years, there has been a lot of arguing about head position on the deadlift. On the conventional pull I like to keep my chin tucked, so my neck stays in a neutral position. I’m not saying this is the way to do it, as I have seen great conventional pullers that look up, but it’s something you can play around with to see what works best. However, what I am saying when pulling sumo, is that your head SHOULD BE UP. You don’t have to look to the ceiling, but your eyes should be at an upward angle. You want to stay as upright as possible through the lift, and looking down will cause you to lean forward coming off your heels.
As you use the bar to take the slack and get your hips in position, you are going to arch your lower back HARD. This is another difference between sumo and conventional. For conventional pulling you want a flat, or neutral lower back but it doesn’t have to be excessively arched, but again every lifter is different here. For sumo, you want to arch as hard as possible to keep your hips as close to the bar as possible. As you arch you want to get your shoulders straight in line with the bar, or if you have the flexibility get behind the bar slightly. This again will create the best leverage to break the floor with.
Set up is everything, so let’s review:
- Set your stance depending on your body type and flexibility.
- Fan your toes out.
- Drop straight to the bar with arms locked out.
- Arch the lower back hard.
- Take the slack out of the bar by pulling your hips down and your chest up.
- Keep your hips close to the bar.
- Shoulders in line or behind the bar.
Now that we are in the proper starting position to start the pull, you want to again drive the knees out as hard as possible, while simultaneously think about falling backwards with the bar. Falling back with the bar will ensure the most out of your quads off the floor. Similar to conventional, think about driving your feet through the floor to get the bar moving. This cue will keep your chest and hips rising at the same time. As the bar passes your knees, squeeze your glutes tight and push your hips forward until you are fully locked out. Make sure the hips and knees lock out at the same time to use your glutes effectively. A lot of deadlifts are missed above the knees because the lifter locks the knees too soon, and all the stress is placed on the low back. Make sure to lock out properly and think about getting tall. Many lifters try to lean back too much to lock out, and end up re-bending their knees to compensate, causing a hitch, or even falling backwards because of loss of balance.
Application to Strength Sports
If you are a powerlifter like myself, pulling sumo as your main lift is a no brainer if it is your best pull. However there are a lot of competitors that think they don’t need to train sumo as they only use conventional in competition. This is a big mistake in anyone’s training, as weak points need to be fixed. As stated before, pulling sumo will greatly strengthen your hips. If your conventional pull is far better than your sumo then it is something you really need to work on. If there are obvious weak points you have, strengthening them will only bring your main lift up. In the sport of strongman, pulling sumo is illegal BUT I still recommend strong(wo)man competitors add it in their training from time to time. For anyone wondering the reason it is illegal, it is because many deadlift events in strong(wo)man are anywhere from 12 inches to 18 inches. If we were able to pull sumo at these raised heights it would create an extremely shorty range of motion, especially pulling from 18 inches.
Personally I am far better sumo but I train conventional more even when I have a powerlifting meet coming up. The same rule applies; I have a weak point in my conventional pull so strengthening that has only brought up my sumo pull. Another application for the sumo pull to the Strong(wo)man competitor is lapping a stone. Think of the starting position of loading an atlas stone. The feet are set to the outside of the stone in a fairly side stance. A great accessory exercise to get stronger off the floor with stones is to do Sumo RDL’s, which I will get to shortly. A simple way to program sumo deadlifting is to use it as your secondary exercise. Start your deadlift session with your conventional deadlift for heavy reps (under 5). When using sumo as your accessory exercise, you can pull reps at it for added volume at 3 sets of 8-10 with short rest periods. I guarantee you that if you are stuck on your deadlift AND you suck pulling sumo then this will be your answer. If you are like me, you can do the opposite and pull your main deadlift sumo and conventional for volume and get the same training effect.
Deficit Sumo Deadlifts
Deficits are always my favorite accessory lifts, as I am mainly weak off the floor on both my pulls. If you have trouble breaking the floor despite a good set up, these are for you. I wouldn’t recommend going any higher than 1.5 inches here as that is plenty of deficit to get the training effect you are going for. Just make sure you really get the hips in a low position here from the set up. It’s a common mistake for a lifter to add deficits and not have the flexibility to perform them properly.
Raised Sumo Deadlifts
The same rule will apply here, if you are weak once you get the bar moving off the floor, you need to start from that position. Raising the bar up 4 inches is usually a great place to work from, but place the bar where you get stuck. One tip on raised deadlifts is to never do rack pulls. As a gym owner I do not allow them in my gym for the main reason they damage bars. The other is they do not apply much to the actual deadlift. Having the bar on the racks changes the way the bar bends to get moving. This subtle change can break you out of your form, and risk injury when going extremely heavy. A better way is to use mats or blocks to raise the bar to where you want. This will create the same pull as you would off the floor to better transition to a stronger lockout.
RDL’s are a great exercise to strengthen your low back, glutes, and hamstrings. When working on your sumo pull, you want to do these in your sumo stance as well. Sumo RDL’s are great to stretch your hamstrings out if you are having problems getting into the proper position on the set up. Keep the lower back extremely tight and arch and only hinge at your hips. The knees should be relaxed, but not locked out and not bending as you go down. There should be a very big stretch in your inner hamstrings if you do these correctly. If you are very flexible and can touch the floor, then stop the bar about mid shin level as you want to keep the stress on the hamstrings.