Sumo vs. Conventional Deadlifts - Does it Matter? (Yes!)

I didn't always love deadlifts.  I feared them.  And every deadlift day I'd walk into the gym wondering if "it" would finally happen - "it" being that my spine would break in half, shoot out my butt, and I'd be crippled for months.

So why'd I do them if I was afraid?  Ego, probably.  And testosterone.

But having since learned to love the deadlift, I can attribute my early struggles to one specific point: I thought I was more advanced than I was.  I bypassed every easier deadlift variation in favor of the conventional stance - the hardest progression.

While I've reverse engineered my way to a pretty successful deadlift, I wouldn't recommend my path to others. So if you'd like to learn from my struggles - and let's be honest, you wouldn't be reading this otherwise - here's one of my biggest lessons: if you have yet to pull 2x your bodyweight off the floor, you're (probably) better off sticking with a sumo stance.  

And here's why:

1. All About that Base

Meghan Trainor references aside, the differences in foot position make the sumo deadlift much easier to learn.  The sumo deadlift requires a wider stance - after all, you're emulating a Sumo wrestler -  so it promotes a more vertical torso.  That's important because a vertical torso mimics the bottom position of a squat, creating context for learning the important aspects of deadlifting.  Once someone is in that position, it's easy to learn that the same aspects that make for a very good squat - shifting your weight back, staying on your heels, and your torso rising before your hips - makes for a good deadlift.

Can you learn the same things on a conventional deadlift?  Yes, but it's much harder.

When our feet are closer together we have a lot more ground to cover - it's math.  While the extra range of motion doesn't always make the conventional stance harder, what does make it harder is that our narrow base of support places us in a more horizontal starting position.  This requires more mobility and makes it harder to sit back and align our arm pits over the bar.  Most people will either A) fail to sit back far enough and fall forward as the bar leaves the ground, or B) feel like they're about to fall backwards when they sit back correctly.  I'm not a physicist but either case makes for a poor, inefficient deadlift.

When we can lower the barriers to making a safe, successful deadlift - sitting back, feeling hamstrings, pushing through the floor, etc - it's going to make everything else that much more successful.   A wide base generally helps us get there.

2. Harnessing Your Inner Quadzilla

The quads get a bad rap these days.  Yes, they're partly responsible for some dysfunctional movement, but they're also important in any athletic move.  They're also pretty nice aesthetically and I've been known to throw on a pair of short shorts and rock some thigh meat if the occasion fits.

While any deadlift variation is going to involve a lot of your posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings), sumo is going to involve more of your anterior chain (quads).  When you consider that most people have pretty developed quads, and underdeveloped glutes and hamstrings, more quads on the deadlift helps get people strong while still getting some glutes.  

And if nothing else, we can help end the male "skinny jeans" era.

 Good on the left, bad on the right.

Good on the left, bad on the right.

3. Ouch, My Achin' Back

To use a famous quote, "Deadlifts don't hurt your back, what you're doing hurts your back."

I say that (partly) in jest, but it's true.  If we're deadlifting correctly - and keeping a neutral spine - our back is going to be very safe.  Our spine will only be dealing with compression forces, like when we're stacking cans of soup, which our body is designed handle very well.  What we can't handle is when our vertebraes start moving and cause shearing forces.

When our spine doesn't stay neutral, our vertebraes begin to slide on each other creating shear.  We may not always have issues immediately (think of how many bad deadlifts you see in a commercial gym), but it's going to become a problem.  The main culprits can be all or some of the following: a weak anterior core, long or weak hamstrings, and weak glutes.  Unfortunately, this creates a catch-22: we can't deadlift correctly because those areas are weak, and deadlifting is the exact move that will strengthen all three areas. But there is a solution.  

Since sumo deadlifts involve more of our (usually) stronger anterior chain, they're often safer on the low back while still getting a training effect on our weaker areas. It's not uncommon for people to say they "feel" safer in a sumo stance, even if they can lift more weight conventionally. 

 

In the end, you want to get as strong as possible in both positions as that'll maximize your strength development.  You may eventually find one variation is a lot easier than the other, as it depends on how our hips are put together and the length of our levers.

Lastly, I couldn't write an article on deadlifting and not include a video of moi.  Here I am in both conventional and sumo stances. While I can pull more weight conventionally, I'm one of those that "feels" safer pulling sumo.