This is the most common debate in the strength world especially of late with CrossFit introducing the deadlift to people that otherwise would never have heard of such a movement. At first glance, it looks like the sumo deadlift is much easier than the conventional deadlift, and some call the sumo deadlift cheating. However, most seasoned powerlifters would never engage in this debate because they have tried both and landed on one being best for them. I’m not going to drag this out, so here’s what to expect:
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⇒ Powerlifting: The Age of Science
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There are three main joints that are affected during the deadlift: hips, knees, and the back (lumping all the stressed intervertebral joints together). Now most people see the sumo deadlift and automatically think there’s less range of motion, so the sumo must be easier. However, if you look at the biomechanics closely, it’s simply not that easy. Let’s look at the hips first.
The demands on a joint experienced during weight training are determined by the load on the bar causing a line of force to be overcome and the perpendicular distance between that line of force and the joint in question. When it comes to the demands experienced at the knees and hips, those demands are defined in the sagittal plane in respect to the femurs and not the torso. That means you can’t simply look from the side and determine that there is less distance from the barbell and the hip and decide that sumo is easier. Let’s look at two images:
Image 1 Hip Demands relative to Femur
Image 2 Hip Demands relative to torso
Image 3 Conventional is straightforward
When you look at the demands of the hip from the sagittal plane relative to the torso, it’s obvious that the hip demands experienced during a conventional deadlift and sumo deadlift are very similar. It will come down to how short an athlete’s arms are in relation to their femurs to calculate the exact amount of torque required at the hips. With short arms are long femurs, an athlete’s femurs will be almost parallel to the ground, maximizing the demands at the hips. Once again, it all comes down to anthropometrics.
Whether an athlete pulls sumo or conventional, rarely will the limiting factor be demands experienced at the knees. The perpendicular distance from the knee to the line of action of the barbell simply isn’t a big enough distance to create demands that the knees can’t handle. However, if an athlete using a sumo stance drives their feet not only down but out creating a lateral force vector, the knee will take on a bit more of the load minimizing the demands experienced at the hips and spine. That’s a small tip for all of you sumo deadlifters in case you didn’t catch it.
The demands experienced at each intervertebral joint will depend on the load being lifted and the perpendicular distance from each joint in relation to the line of action created by the barbell. The lower the hips sit in the set up will shorten that distance versus a more inclined torso causing more demand at each intervertebral joint. That’s why the sumo deadlift has very little stress on the spine in relation to the conventional deadlift.
Image 4 Higher hips in the Conventional Deadlift
As you can see in image 4, the distance at each joint is quite a bit larger than image 2. Therefore, a determining factor for why someone should perform the sumo or conventional deadlift will be the strength in his or her back compared to their quads. If you have stronger quads and a weaker back, sumo deadlift is worth trying. If you have a stronger back with weaker quads, the conventional deadlift might be best. Regardless, there isn’t a big difference in overall demand regardless of the joint in question.
The main reason an athlete would choose the sumo deadlift is the anatomical structure of the acetabulum, anthropometrics, and personal strengths and weaknesses. The people who say the sumo deadlift is cheating are simply not looking at the movement from the lens of physics. If it were significantly easier than a conventional pull, every powerlifter on the planet would pull sumo.
Look, I tried the sumo deadlift, and all I could manage to lift was 320kg/705lb. However, my conventional deadlift was 365kg/804lb, so obviously the sumo deadlift wasn’t cheating for me. Yet, I will add one caveat, and that’s the evolution of the barbell. The more flexible barbells allow athletes to create a massive flex in the bar before the weight leaves the ground. When you add long arms, it appears to give the sumo deadlift quite the advantage with minimizing the range of motion to just inches. However, I will add that it still doesn’t seem to help me that much, so I am probably just bitter. I would need to analyze the lifts a bit closer to make any real determination. Here is a closer look at the more advanced deadlift bars with both the sumo and conventional deadlift:
Image 5 Deadlift Bar with a Conventional Deadlift
Image 6 My favorite powerlifter Chris Duffin pulling Sumo with Kabuki Deadlift Bar
After looking at these two images, I would have to agree that both sumo and conventional still experience roughly the same demands. It still goes back to anthropometrics and an athlete’s physiological make up leaving one big question. Is the sumo deadlift or conventional deadlift best for you? There’s finally an easy answer, and that is to try them both. You might find that one is stronger than the other, but you might find that the weaker one helps to build the strong one. This is the fun part of training, which is trial and error and one’s time under the bar.
Coach Travis Mash
P.S. Don’t forget Stronger Experts is planning their inaugural clinic at Rise Indoor Sports in Advance, NC right outside of Winston-Salem and one hour north of Charlotte. We are going to discuss the sport of powerlifting:
⇒ Powerlifting: The Age of Science
I promise that you will learn new truths about the Big 3 Lifts that we all love. The information will apply to powerlifting, strength and conditioning, and even weightlifting, so get signed up and come hang out
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