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Sumo or conventional

Picking the right deadlifting technique

If you’re reading this, you've probably been doing a form of deadlifts for a while, and are aware of its superior capabilities to strengthen the back, hips and legs. However, a question that often pops up is: should you apply a narrow or wide foot position? While some discard the difference between the two as just being a matter of range of motion, I'll explain that much more is at play. Because not only will applying either variation bring forth different training effects; finding the right match for your body type will gravely impact your ability to lift.

photo by @wearebru

Let's first go over the essential differences between the two techniques. For the sake of global fitness culture, I will refer to the narrow stance technique as a 'conventional' deadlift, and to the wide stance technique as a 'sumo' deadlift. While these are just semantics, an important difference to note is that during a conventional pull the hands are outside the legs (see photo above), while on a sumo pull the hands are inside the legs (see video below). I'll explain why this is important.

When the hands are outside the legs (conventional), the hips start fairly high, the back is close to horizontal, and knee angle is large. What this means is that little leg drive is involved, but that the back and hips need to generate a tremendous amount of force to both maintain position and be able to drive the barbell upward. When going sumo, things work in quite the opposite way. Not only do the hips drop down, the back assumes a more vertical starting position, and knee angle decreases.

What this means is that when going wide, leg drive becomes more important, while the back doesn't have to work as hard. Also, the hips 'open up' a lot more, which puts more strain on the adductors (inner thighs). An additional note here is that the range of motion is quite a bit shorter on sumo deadlifts, which can make this technique easier for those who lack the mobility to assume a neutral back position at the start of their deadlift.

So which variation should you be doing? Generally speaking, for all-round development, you need both. However, some body types fare a little better with either variation. Those with short torsos and long limbs generally generally prefer the conventional technique. This makes sense, seeing that long legs require a high hip position in order to get the knees out of the way of the barbell, while a short torso doesn't require as much back strength to remain stable.

On the other end, those with longer torsos and shorter legs - the natural squatters -generally prefer the sumo technique. This should come to no surprise, because when dropping down the hips for a sumo pull, you essentially assume a more squat-like position. And short legs mean that the leg muscles don't need to generate a lot of force to initiate leg drive. If you're wondering to which category you belong: the long-torso-short-leg lifters are generally able to squat (almost) as much as they can deadlift, up to 90-95% not being uncommon. The short-torso-long-limb lifters on the other hand usually far exceed their squat with their deadlifts; sometimes up to 50% higher.

In conclusion, when composing a training routine there are two factors to consider: performance, and desired training effect. If maximum performance is key, then you should find your optimal technique and prioritize that. Then, you can pick either variation depending on what you are trying to achieve with your training. Are you looking to strengthen your lower back within a pulling framework? Focus on conventional deadlifts. Are you looking to strengthen your adductors and leg drive more? Go sumo. And this of course works both ways: if you've been at one style for a long time, then you are sure to find some gains when switching techniques.

Bryan Wolters

MSc. Human Movement Sciences, former powerlifter, and current trainer at Vondelgym Amsterdam.

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