One of the most polarizing debates in the strength training world is the debate on whether to deadlift in a conventional or sumo stance.
Depending on who you speak to, you will often get a different answer on which is best, making it hard to come to your own conclusion.
There are several excellent articles on the subject, however many get too in-depth and can be overwhelming for beginners who are just looking for a simple guide to help them on their way.
In this article, I want to simplify the decision-making process for you and give you the high-level details on the conventional vs sumo deadlift debate.
Firstly, let’s quickly run through the conventional and sumo deadlifts.
The Conventional Deadlift
The conventional deadlift, as its name suggests, is the conventional way to perform a deadlift.
To execute the lift, the lifter’s legs will be about hip-width apart with their arms just outside their legs. Their torso will typically be more bent over than a sumo deadlift with their hips raised higher at the start.
Although both lifts recruit the same muscle groups, for the most part, the conventional deadlift tends to have more hamstring and spinal erector (lower back) activation.
Below is a pretty succinct breakdown of the conventional deadlift by Ed Cohen.
The Sumo Deadlift
The sumo deadlift differs from the conventional deadlift in a few key ways.
The first and most obvious difference is that the lifter’s legs are outside their arms and their feet will tend to point out as opposed to straight forward.
With the legs out wide, this brings the hips closer to the bar allowing for a more upright torso position and will also typically reduce the range of motion by about 20-25%.
This stance brings the quads more into the mix and has less reliance on the spinal erectors to complete the lift, (although they’ll still be doing plenty of work!) making the sumo stance more favorable if you have a weaker back or stronger quads.
Bryce Krawczyk at Calgary Barbell has an excellent sumo deadlift tutorial in the video below.
Deciding Between the Conventional or Sumo Deadlift
Unfortunately, there’s no one size fits all answer that will tell you which stance is the best choice for you. Everyone has different strengths, weaknesses, weight, height, leverages, etc that there are just too many factors at play to give a simple answer.
The best way to determine which stance is right for you is simply to try them both. You could do this in any number of ways but in all cases, this will take a few months of training with good technique.
For example, you could train conventional for a training block and then switch to sumo for the next. You could swap between both from week to week. The key is to make sure you are training with both stances for a length of time, you will eventually find yourself gravitating to one or the other.
That said, some considerations may help make your decision easier:
- Training Goals
- Individual Strength
- Hip Structure
- Limb length
Let’s look at these in a bit more detail.
One of the most important considerations to factor in when deciding on your deadlift stance is why you are training in the first place!
Someone training for Powerlifting, for example, has one goal; to lift as much weight as possible. For a Powerlifter, the decision is simple, “in which stance am I strongest?”.
For someone who is training for general health though, the deciding factor may come down to which lift is most comfortable.
Maybe Bodybuilding is more your forte, and you want to deadlift to build up a certain muscle group? If you wanted to focus on your back muscles then EMG data suggests that the conventional deadlift would be a more suitable choice, whereas those working on their quads would get more benefit from the sumo deadlift.
So be sure to ask yourself why you are deadlifting in the first place and whether one stance, in particular, will help you achieve your goal more effectively.
How strong certain muscle groups are may influence your deadlift stance.
If you have a particularly strong back, relative to other muscle groups, then you will probably find the conventional deadlift easier than the sumo deadlift.
Conversely, if you have a weaker back and stronger quads, then the sumo deadlift stance may be a better option.
This is also a good argument for never settling on one particular stance. As you get more experience and become stronger, you might find that you develop muscles at different rates, so what worked for you a year or two ago might not be the best option now, as weaker muscles have now ‘caught up’.
My recommendation for those that have a favored stance would be to train with it around 80-90% of the time, but always be sure to swing back to the other stance now and again to assess where it is at.
Flexibility can also play a role in determining your preferred deadlift stance.
Generally speaking, those who have a lot more hip joint flexibility and are more capable of hip abduction may find the sumo deadlift much easier than those who don’t.
Or you can look at it another way, which stance do you find most comfortable?
This also ties in quite nicely to the next factor, hip structure.
We’re all built differently and our hips come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.
This means that the way our hips connect to our femur and the shape of this joint can influence our deadlift stance.
I won’t go into the nitty-gritty details as Greg Nuckols covers it well, but in general, the angle at which your femoral head connects to your hip socket can play a big factor in how well suited you might be to each deadlift stance.
Of course, not everyone is going to have the luxury of knowing exactly how their hip joint looks. Thankfully there’s an easy test we can do to get a general idea, as demonstrated by Dean Somerset below.
In doing this test, you can learn a lot about how your hip joint functions, and this can be a good indicator of whether a conventional or sumo deadlift may be best for you.
If you find that your knee is at its highest point before you start to bring your leg out wide, then you may be best suited to a conventional deadlift. However, if you can get more range of motion as you bring your leg out wide then the sumo deadlift could be a better option for you.
Your weight may also be a factor in determining your ideal deadlift stance. It isn’t an exact science but some studies have shown that heavier lifters tend to lean more towards a conventional stance, whereas lighter lifters, in general, prefer a sumo stance.
To look into this theory, I took a look at the top 3 placed Powerlifters in each men’s weight category at the IPF World Open Powerlifting Championships 2019 and what deadlift stance they used. I then plotted this on the graph below.
It’s a small sample size, so is by no means a conclusive study but of the 24 lifters, 15 used a sumo deadlift and only 9 used a conventional deadlift.
What is clear to see is that in the 3 lightest weight classes (59kg, 66kg, and 74kg) all 9 lifters chose a sumo deadlift. In the 83kg class, everyone used a conventional deadlift, and then in the 93kg class, it flipped back to sumo. In the 3 heaviest categories, the majority of lifters chose a conventional deadlift, with 1 lifter in each class choosing a sumo deadlift.
As mentioned, this trend has been observed by others so it is certainly a good idea to keep it in mind, but certainly don’t rely on it when choosing your ideal stance.
The final factor to consider is the length of your limbs (arms, legs, torso) relative to each other. From my own experience, this is perhaps the factor I put the most stock into.
In an article by Dr. Michael Hales, a method for measuring your arms, torso, and height and their relative lengths is outlined. This method is simplified by Boris Bojanovic at EliteFTS to allow lifters to measure themselves and determine whether they have a short, average, or long torso and arms.
Once these values are determined, a table is provided which indicates what deadlift stance is best suited to your proportions.
To make things a bit easier, I have created a calculator which will tell you what stance is best for you once you measure and input the values provided.
The general idea is that if you have short arms, you will probably favor a sumo deadlift more, whereas if you have long arms, then a conventional deadlift may be right for you.
From my own experience, it seems about right. I have particularly short arms and when I adopt a conventional deadlift, I have to bend over quite far to reach the bar, putting my back at a very exposed angle.
As a result, I have always favored the sumo deadlift because this angle puts a lot of stress on my lower back.
In the sumo deadlift, by moving my legs out wide, I can bring my hips closer to the floor, meaning my short, T-Rex like arms are better equipped to reach the bar, and my back remains more upright.
Bringing Everything Together
With all the above factors in mind, you should have a clearer idea of whether a conventional or sumo deadlift will be more suitable for you.
Taking myself as an example; my training goals are centered around Powerlifting and I would like to one day compete in a Powerlifting competition. Therefore, I would predominantly want to focus on the stance that I am strongest in, which, right now, is the sumo deadlift.
If I was to do an honest assessment of my strength, I would say that my back is one of my more developed muscle groups, therefore a conventional may be best.
As far as flexibility goes, I have no problems getting into the wide stance that the sumo deadlift demands, so this factor would point towards a sumo deadlift.
For my hip structure, I can achieve more flexion with my leg moved out wide, so again, it’s more evidence favoring a sumo deadlift.
In terms of weight, I am on the lighter side and fit into the 66kg class so the evidence would suggest I might favor a sumo deadlift here too.
And finally, limb length, and as already mentioned, I have short arms with an average torso, so yet again, the sumo deadlift comes out on top.
So, all factors bar one suggest that I might benefit from a sumo deadlift, and indeed, from my own experience and experimentation with both, I always find myself coming back to the sumo deadlift, so there may be something in it.
Again though, I want to reemphasize that you should not completely disregard one variation once you have established your preferred stance. Make sure and regularly switch over from time to time, you might be surprised by how well you perform! If for no other reason, it can sometimes be a nice change of pace to switch up your training stimulus from time to time!
So to summarize everything together, there’s no right or wrong way to perform the deadlift, and it’s not always easy to determine which stance will suit you best.
There are several factors to consider and each will influence your stance in different ways. The only way to determine whether to pull conventional or sumo is to regularly do both over a period of time and continually reassess as you get stronger and better.
It’s also worth considering the equipment you use when deadlifting, such as your choice of shoe. Here are my top 5 recommendations to ensure your deadlift is as strong as it can be regardless of whether you pull conventional or sumo. You may even want to consider deadlifting without shoes!