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How To Choose Between Sumo and Conventional Deadlifts

The sumo versus conventional deadlift debate rages on across all platforms of social media. Both deadlift styles are popular among powerlifters, recreational lifters, and athletes wanting to improve their strength and power.

From a coaching perspective, it can be imperative to understand the mechanics of the conventional deadlift versus sumo deadlift. Both deadlift variations offer a ton of benefits once you can understand their differences.

Sumo Deadlift Vs Conventional Deadlift Quick Thoughts

Quick Thought 1: Conventional Is More Posterior Biased

If you want to build the hamstrings, glutes, and erectors, then you’ll have a better time doing so with the conventional deadlift. This deadlift is more posterior chain-focused than the sumo deadlift.

This doesn’t mean you won’t be working muscles on the front of the body like the quads, however, they’ll be a lot more secondary in the grand scheme of conventional reps and muscles used.

Quick Thought 2: Sumo Deadlifts Can Be Useful for Limiting Low Back Stress

If you primarily pull conventional and you notice that your erectors are beaten up or you’re working around an injury, then the sumo deadlift can be a viable option to explore.

In the sumo deadlift, you’ll have more quads and adductors active as this deadlift style will entail deeper degrees of knee flexion and hip external rotation.

Quick Thought 3: Pulling Mechanics Can Differ Greatly

It’s normal to resonate more with one of these deadlift styles over the other. Factors like our torso length, limb lengths, and strengths and weaknesses can play a role in this.

If your goal is moving the most weight possible then it’s a good idea to figure out which deadlift is best per your anatomy. This will typically give you a higher ceiling when it comes to chasing big pulls.

Sumo Vs Conventional Difference 1: Stance Width and Hand Placement

One of the major differences between the conventional and sumo deadlift is your stand width and your hand placement. These are massive differences that change the dynamic of each lift.

In the Sumo Deadlift…

  • Sumo Deadlift Stance Width: Wide
  • Sumo Deadlift Hand Placement: Inside the Legs

You’ll assume a wider stance which will replicate what sumo wrestlers traditionally use in their sport, hence the name sumo deadlift. How wide your stance will be dictated by your anatomy and sumo deadlift style.

For example, taller lifters will typically assume a wider sumo deadlift stance while shorter lifters will utilize a slightly narrower stance. However, this is not always the case and there can be variance here. It comes to efficiency and playing with different stance widths.

Despite stance width varying more, hand placement in the sumo deadlift will usually be consistent for every lifter. Sumo deadlift hand placement will typically be around a lifter’s shoulder width.

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With hand placement, the goal is to get the longest arms possible so you’ll see lifters use hand placements in the sumo deadlift that keep their arms straight. This gives them more mechanical efficiency and leads to stronger deadlift grip potential.

Another point to keep in mind with hand placement in the sumo deadlift is that the hands will always be inside the legs in sumo deadlifts. This is not the case for conventional deadlifts as the hands will be on the outsides of the legs.

In the Conventional Deadlift…

  • Conventional Deadlift Stance Width: About Hip-Width
  • Conventional Deadlift Hand Placement: Outside of the Legs

You’ll utilize a stance width that best leverages your hips and limb lengths. For example, similar to the sumo deadlift stance width can vary with conventional deadlifts, however, conventional deadlift stances will always be more narrow than sumo deadlifts.

Typically, your conventional stance width will be about hip-width apart. Ideally, you want to stack the legs with the hips to get the most mechanical advantage out of your knee extension (with the utilization of the quads) and hip extension (with the utilization of the glutes).

In layman’s terms, if we can stack the ankles, knees, and hips over one another then we can typically produce more force and create a stronger “stacked” position when conventional deadlifting.

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When your stance is too wide in the conventional deadlift you can have the knees collapse and lose out on the quads producing power and if your stance is too narrow then you just find your setup simply uncomfortable.

Hand placement in the conventional deadlift will always be outside of the legs. A cue that I like to use when helping lifters establish their conventional deadlift hand placement is to feel the knees lightly out on the insides of the elbows.

This will usually put most lifters into an advantageous position with their hand placement assuming their stance width is on point. Like the sumo deadlift, we want “long arms” and a grip width that is pretty much vertical with the floor.

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Sumo Vs Conventional Difference 2: Hip Position and Bar Paths

Hip positions and bar paths will also vary greatly between the sumo and conventional deadlift. The bar path conversation is also why we have the “sumo is cheating” debate on social media.

In the Sumo Deadlift…

  • Sumo Deadlift Hip Position: Closer to the Bar
  • Sumo Deadlift Movement Patterns: Typically Shorter Bar Path And More Vertical

In the sumo deadlift, your hips will typically be closer to the bar since your stance is wider and your hips are in an externally rotated position. This will bring the axis of your hips closer to the bar in your setup which will change your bar path.

For the sumo deadlift, you’ll typically see a slightly more vertical bar path. Both deadlift styles have primarily vertical bar paths but there’s generally less deviation from the true vertical pulling line in sumo deadlifts.

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This more vertical bar path is due to utilizing a wider stance with a more squat-like position with the knees. There’s less of a hinge at the hips in the sumo deadlift and more of a squat for most lifters. Note, that this can vary from lifter to lifter.

Generally speaking, this more “squatty” position will also result in a shorter bar path in the sumo deadlift, which basically means the amount that you need to lift the bar from the ground to lockout is a little less.

This is also the reason why you’ll have liters say things like, “Sumo deadlifting is cheating,” on social media. It’s because of the shorter bar path. It’s not cheating, it’s just different. Now, should they be judged differently in competitions? That’s a debate for another article.

In the Conventional Deadlift…

  • Conventional Deadlift Hip Position: Further From the Bar
  • Conventional Deadlift Movement Patterns: Typically Longer Bar Path

In the conventional deadlift, you’re going to assume a more “hinge-y” setup which means you’re going to bend over to pick up the bar with the hips further from the barbell.

This changes the hips’ axis point and you’ll see a little more deviation regarding the bar path in the conventional deadlift. For example, you might see the weight shift forward a little more in this pulling style as lifters work to clear the knees.

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The greater degree of hip hinge in conventional deadlifts will also typically place a little more stress on the erectors as the bar is further from the hips’ axis point. For sumo, think more squat, and for conventional, think more hinge.

Regarding bar path, you’ll typically have a greater bar path in conventional deadlifts as you’ll have to lift the weight higher when locking out reps as you’re lifting weight to a standing position with the feet closer together.

This is also why you see lifters refer to the conventional deadlift as the more “true” deadlift. Again, we can save the conventional versus sumo deadlift cheating debate for another article.

Sumo Vs Conventional Difference 3: Who These Lifts Work Best For

There’s a reason most of us gravitate towards one deadlift style over the other. This natural inkling towards one of the deadlifts typically has to do with our anatomy and which deadlift “feels” more natural.

Sumo Deadlift Are Great For…

  • Lifters with shorter legs and torso and longer arms.
  • Lifters with long legs and arms and a short torso.
  • Powerlifters who want to maximize the weight they can pull while cutting down on their range of motion.
  • Lifters that have naturally strong adductors, glutes, and good mobility.

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Conventional Deadlifts Are Great For…

  • Lifters with longer arms, short legs, and a short torso.
  • Taller lifters with a longer torso and limbs.
  • Recreational lifters that want to build their full body and hinge strength.
  • Lifters that have naturally strong erectors, quads, and glutes.

Which Should You Use Sumo and Conventional Deadlifts

In my coaching opinion, I think it can be beneficial for most lifters to be proficient in both the sumo and conventional deadlifts. Even if you’re not “optimally” built for one of these deadlift styles training both can be useful.

Each of these deadlift styles will expose your body and joints to different stressors and having the range to execute both can have carryover to contexts outside of just deadlifts.

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For example, if you always pull conventional then adding a block or two of sumo deadlifts can be great for training your adductors through a different range of motion and working your hips’ abilities to externally rotate while moving load.

I think it can also be useful to rotate between these deadlift styles to give different areas of your body an extended period of rest. If you always pull conventional, then using sumo deadlifts can be a nice tool to give your erectors some likely needed recovery time.

Sumo Vs Conventional Difference 4: Sumo vs Conventional Muscles Worked

The muscles used in the sumo and conventional deadlift will also be different. This can be useful to keep in mind so you can train the muscles that aren’t being trained in your preferred deadlift style to make sure you’re hitting your blindspots.

When in doubt, remember that the conventional deadlift will be more posterior chain (muscles on the back of the body) focused whereas the sumo deadlift will be a little heavier on the anterior muscles, and research supports this. (1)

Since the weight is further from the hips in the conventional deadlift you’ll have a lot more involvement with the glutes, hamstrings, and erectors as they work to keep the bar close to the body while extending the hips.

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In the sumo deadlift, you’ll have the quads and adductors more involved since the knees will be more flexed and the hips are heavily externally rotated through your reps.

If you’re trying to build the posterior muscles and the back, then opting for the conventional deadlift can be a good strategy call, and if you want to build the legs and mitigate lower back stress then the sumo deadlift can be a great call.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Q:
Is the conventional deadlift harder than the sumo deadlift?

A:
It really depends on where a lifter's limiting factors are. Typically, you'll see lifters have an easier time pulling more sumo than with conventional. However, this isn't always the case and what feels hard can be highly individual.

Q:
Are conventional deadlifts better than sumo deadlifts?

A:
Conventional deadlifts are not inherently better than sumo deadlifts, they're just different. For example, the conventional deadlift is better for building the posterior chain, but that's if we narrow our ask which is better for building muscles like the hamstrings, glutes, and erectors.

Final Thoughts

If you’re a powerlifter then you’ll want to perfect the style of deadlift that you plan to compete with and you’ll likely perform this deadlift at a higher frequency than its peer.

For recreational lifters, I think it can be beneficial to rotate between the sumo and conventional deadlift to expose your body to different stressors and stimuli.

Both deadlifts can increase your strength and power and both will train different muscles which can make them great for hypertrophy-focused goals depending on the context of what you’re after.

If you have additional questions about the sumo and conventional deadlift, drop a comment below or reach out to me via Instagram (@jake_boly or @that_fit_friend).

References

  1. Escamilla RF;Francisco AC;Kayes AV;Speer KP;Moorman CT; (n.d.). An electromyographic analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts.
Jake Boly, CSCS, MS Sports Science

Jake Boly, CSCS, MS Sports Science

Jake Boly is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of That Fit Friend. He's often regarded to as a go-to resource in various performance shoe communities. He’s been formally reviewing shoes and training gear for over 7 years and has hand-tested over 400 pairs of shoes. Jake is known on the internet and YouTube for blending his review process with his educational, strength sports, and personal training background.

Jake has a Masters in Sports Science, a Bachelors in Exercise Science, a CSCS, and he's been personal training for over 10 years helping hundreds of clients get stronger, lose weight, and accomplish their goals. He uses his exercise science brain and personal training background to make curated and thoughtful review content on the fitness gear he's testing.

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