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How to Deadlift: Which Variation is Right for You? – Part 2 (Sumo Deadlift)

Posted May 04 2011 10:33am

In the first installment of this series, I talked about the conventional deadlift and how it’s the most advanced progression in the “deadlift spectrum” for most folks.  Today, our focus will be another great strength exercise: the sumo deadlift.

I like the sumo deadlift quite a bit for those who aren’t quite mobile enough to get all the way down to the bar for conventional deadlifts from the floor.  It’s also grown in popularity among powerlifters over the years because it shortens the distance the bar has to travel and also (as a general rule of thumb) allows lifters to get more out of their deadlift (or squat) suits when pulling.  I find that it’s particularly common among the guys who are built to squat and bench press because of shorter arms and legs but longer torsos because they don’t have to get down so low (via hip flexion and dorsiflexion) to grasp the bar.

By bringing the feet a bit wider (abducting the hips) and turning the toes out a bit (externally rotating the hips), a lot of folks can get to “depth” much easier and ensure that they can pull with a neutral spine.  This is probably one reason why those with more retroverted hips inevitably resort to sumo deadlifts after failing miserably with trying to pull conventional-style; they’re just more comfortable with the hips externally rotated a bit.  So, if you’re someone who always walks with the toes pointed out, there’s a good chance that sumo deadlifts are going to be safer for you than conventional pulling.

That said, when discussing sumo deadlifts, I have just two concerns.

First, I think that they need to be cycled in and out of one’s strength and conditioning program relatively frequently, especially if you use an ultra-wide stance.  Deadlifting sumo-style for more than eight weeks straight is a recipe for hip irritation – especially if you’re someone who is doing a fair amount of squatting in the same strength training programs.  It’s one reason why I prefer a more “moderate” stance width for sumo deadlifts.

Second, the biggest sumo deadlift technique mistake I see is lifters trying to squat the weight up and down.  When the hips start too low – and then the hips and knees extend at the same rate – the knees aren’t extended enough when the bar gets to them.  The only way that the bar can continue its upward path is to either go around the shins (which is accomplished by rounding the back to move the bar away from the body) or get dragged along the shins. If your back hurts or you have blood all over the bar and scabs on your shins, you’re probably doing something wrong.

If conventional-style is the most advanced variation of the deadlift out there, sumo deadlifts are likely the first “regression” down, as they allow you to perform the exercise with less hip and ankle mobility, and they also ensure that the bar is starting a bit closer to the primary axis of rotation (the hips), as the femur is flexed and abducted and not just flexed.

Our next installment – the trap bar deadlift – will wrap this series up.  In the meantime, in case you missed it, enter your name and email below to receive a free 9-minute deadlift technique video.

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