The Sumo deadlift is arguably one the most misunderstood lifts in the strength world, and yet at the same time, it’s an incredibly effective exercise for building leg, hip and back strength.
In this article we’re going to be providing a complete guide, including a step by step technique breakdown, benefits, muscles worked, common mistakes, plus providing practical programming suggestions to help you bring sumo deadlifts into your own training.
Let’s get started, shall we?
How to sumo deadlift: step by step guide
1) The set-up
The most important part of any deadlift is the set-up, and the exact same applies here. You’re looking to create a solid base of support so that you can safely and effectively lift the most weight possible.
Wide stance: Place your feet in a wide, stable stance, typically at least 1 of your foot’s length out from hip-width on either side. The exact width that you use is up to you, and will depend on where you feel comfortable. If you’re new to the lift, you may want to start fairly conservatively with the width and increase it over time as you become used to the position.
Feet pointed out: Point your feet out, typically around 45 degrees. This will allow you to achieve the right alignment of hips, knees and toes.
Quads turned out: Turn your quads out, or if you want to get more scientific, externally rotate your hips, so that your knees are in line with your toes. If done correctly you should feel some tension and activation in your outer glutes.
Toes/feet arched: Usually if you’ve done the above steps correctly this will start to happen naturally. You’re looking to have a 3-point contact with the ground, with your toes, outer foot and heel forming a stable base for lifting. (If you think back to school geometry or physics, you might remember that the triangle is the strongest shape in nature)
Grip: You want to grip the bar with your hands directly underneath your shoulders. Personally, I recommend using a double overhand (both palms towards you) grip for lighter sets, and then switching to a mixed grip (one palm towards and one away) for heavier sets.
*Pro-Tip: For smaller female lifters, you may have to grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width so that at least 2 of your fingers are in contact with the bar knurling. This will allow you to have the strongest grip possible.
2) The ‘wedge’
Once you’ve got your set up, it’s time to wedge yourself into the bar, removing as much slack as possible and creating loads of full-body tension before you initiate the movement. If you do this correctly, you’ll lift more weight, build more strength, and reduce your injury risk.
To wedge yourself in, I like to take advice from multiple time world champion and world-record-holding powerlifter Stefi Cohen and visualise my body as a lever-based car jack, where my hips are the fulcrum; as they move down, my chest moves up.
The overall idea is to create as much tension as possible. On a heavy barbell, you might even notice the bar bends slightly before you’ve even initiated the movement.
3) The lift
Initiate the movement by driving your feet into the floor as you pull up and back on the bar. If you’re used to a more conventional deadlift, you may find that you have to put more effort into your leg drive than you’re used to.
As the bar reaches above your knees, really focus on squeezing your glutes, this will help you to achieve a good, strong lockout.
Notice how the lift itself is the simplest, easiest part – that’s because you took the time to nail your set-up!
Common sumo deadlift mistakes
If you follow the steps above you should be cutting out most of the common mistakes we’re about to talk about. With that said, it can be good to know about the common mistakes so that you can make extra sure to avoid them.
1) Getting your hip position wrong
I see this all the time with the sumo deadlift. People try to copy other lifter’s technique and end up placing their hips in a position that isn’t right for them.
The best way to solve this and find your right hip position is to do a slow and controlled top-down deadlift. Start stood up in your sumo stance holding the bar, from there push your hips back until the bar is just past your knees, then bend your knees to bring the bar to the floor. That’s your starting hip position. Don’t overcomplicate it.
2) Not getting tight before the lift
A good lift requires full-body tension and bracing, and yet so many people don’t do it properly. The biggest reason is usually just impatience, everyone is in a rush to lift the weight and smash out loads of reps.
To fix this, take your time, set up properly, get loads of tension and then make your lift. Put the bar down and repeat the process before every single rep. Yes, it will take more time, but it’s better to properly do a small amount of deadlifting than it is to do loads of poor quality lifting that’s going to set you up for injury.
3) Losing tension during the lift
Just because the bar is off the floor doesn’t mean that you can suddenly release all that tension and bracing. If you want your legs and hips to properly transfer force you need to stay as strong and braced as possible.
Keep your chest up, lats pulled back and down and abs tight until you’ve completed the lift.
Sumo deadlift benefits
Okay then, if the sumo deadlift takes time to learn and get used to, why should you bother? What are the benefits of bringing the movement into your training?
1) The sumo deadlift is better for some lifters’ anatomy
I’m gonna be honest with you, some people just aren’t the best suited to certain lifts.
For example, if you have short arms or a long torso, or both of the above, then a conventional deadlift is going to be pretty difficult for you.
If that sounds like you, the sumo deadlift might be a far more comfortable alternative.
On a related note, if you’re a female lifter, you may find the sumo deadlift preferable as it tends to better match up with the typically wider q-angle (angle between the quad and patella tendon) of women compared to men.
2) Less stress on your lower back
Since the sumo deadlift uses a more upright torso position and less hip hinge, it places less shear stress on the lumbar spine, which can be great if you’re wanting to deadlift but have struggled with back injuries in the past.
3) Improve your conventional deadlift
Even if it’s not your main lift, the sumo deadlift is a great way to improve your conventional deadlift by providing a novel stimulus. It’s close enough to a conventional deadlift to have great strength carryover, but different enough to work new muscle groups and bring up any weaknesses you might have.
Sumo deadlift muscles worked
Quads: These will be a prime mover for the lift as you drive off the floor.
Glutes: These will be used to complete extension and lockout.
Hamstrings: Although they might not be used as much as in a conventional deadlift, the hamstrings are still large contributors to the sumo deadlift.
Lower Back: Just like the hamstrings, it might not be used as much as in a conventional deadlift, but it still plays a significant role in bracing and stability.
Lats, Traps, Upper Back and Abs: Remember that full-body tension we talked about? These are some of the muscles that have to actively contract to create it.
Practical programming for the sumo deadlift
Alright, you want to give the sumo deadlift a try, but how do you implement it into your training? In this section we’ll be covering sets, reps and periodisation, plus providing a simple example programme.
Sets and Reps
For most strength training goals, I recommend 3 to 5 sets of 3 to 5 reps. This might mean…
You get the idea.
For peaking, especially in the weeks leading up to a powerlifting competition, I would recommend adding some more heavy singles as well. This could look like…
- 1×5, 1×3, 1×1 – with the heavy single used as a final top set
For hypertrophy (muscle-building) I’d honestly just use a different exercise, and I say this for three reasons…
1) Sumo deadlifts use a relatively short range of motion, whereas in hypertrophy training we want a long range of motion.
2) You essentially drop sumo deadlifts back down to the floor, whereas for hypertrophy we want a controlled eccentric.
3) The benefit of the sumo deadlift is that it allows you to lift very heavy weights, which is great for strength, but will absolutely wreck you when done for high volumes. If you do 5 sets of 10 sumo deadlifts at 60-70% of your 1 rep max your central nervous system is going to be basically annihilated for the next week, which is going to seriously impact the rest of your training. For hypertrophy, I would choose exercises that create far less systemic fatigue (Hamstring curls, Glute Ham Raises, Back Extensions).
The type of periodisation model you choose really depends on your goals and your training level. As a beginner you can pretty much improve every session, so you don’t really need any complex periodisation, just a few days to recover. As an intermediate, you might consider a structure that allows for weekly improvements (such as heavy-light-medium) and as a late-intermediate or advanced lifter you’ll likely have to cycle different volumes and set/rep schemes over time (as shown below)
An Example Programme for a late-intermediate or advanced lifter
|Week 1||Week 2||Week 3|
|Session 1||3×5 @ RPE 7||3×3 @ RPE 8||3×1 @ RPE 8|
|Session 2||1×5 @ RPE 8||1×3 @ RPE 9||1×1 @ RPE 9.5|
For clarity, I’m not saying that this is a perfect programme. At an advanced level, you should have a good idea of the volumes and intensities that work best for you (or you should have a coach that does) This is simply an example programme to demonstrate what a simple periodisation of set and rep schemes could look like.
Frequently asked questions about the sumo deadlift
Is the sumo deadlift easier?
The honest answer is that ‘it depends,’ if you’re a short-arm, long-torso lifter then yes, the sumo deadlift is definitely going to be easier because it works with your anatomy rather than against it. On the other hand, if you’re a short-torso, long-arm lifter then the sumo deadlift is going to feel much harder because it’s not going to be the best lift for your leverages.
Also, it’s worth remembering that getting strong is already brutally hard, so finding any way to make it easier is a good thing. Check this link out for a deep dive into Sumo vs regular deadlifts.
Is the sumo deadlift cheating?
Not at all, the sumo deadlift is a 100% valid technique that is allowed and used in official powerlifting competitions. So if it works for you, go for it.
Sumo Deadlift Versus Conventional Deadlift – Which One Should You Choose?
Both the sumo and conventional deadlift are great exercises for strength development, as well as equally valid options for competitive powerlifting. Realistically which one you choose comes down to three factors…
1) Your anatomy. Just like we discussed above, certain body proportions better suit certain lifts.
2) Your weaknesses. If you need to bring up your lower back and hamstring strength, then conventional deadlifts would be a good pick, whereas if you need to bring up your quad and glute strength, then sumo deadlifts would be a good choice.
3) Your natural preference. If you try both lifts out for a few weeks, you’ll probably find that you naturally prefer one of them and seem to get a better feel for the lift and technique. Plus, at the end of the day you’ve got to enjoy your training, so it makes sense to gravitate towards the movement that you like doing.
There’s only really one thing left to do, it’s practice time. You’ve got a solid technical model to work from so get yourself into the gym and give the sumo deadlift a try. Don’t go crazy and try to max out in your first session, just keep the weights light to moderate and see how the movement feels as you dial in your technique. Then, after a few sessions, you can start pushing up the weights.
If you’ve got any questions or comments, just ask them down below and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.
‘Til Next Time
What to learn more? Check Alex’s articles on mastering the power clean and snatch.
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Alex is the Owner and Head Coach of Character Strength & Conditioning, and specialises in strength & power development for athletes.
He currently works as a Tutor & Educator for British Weightlifting, and has previously delivered S&C support to gymnastics and swimming talent pathways.