Sumo deadlifting is still a fairly popular deadlift style within strength training, powerlifting and bodybuilding training- Why? Because it reduces the lifters range of motion within a deadlift, technically making heavier weights easier to move as they don’t have as far to travel. It also places less load on the lower back because the torso is more vertical meaning a reduced moment arm of the spinal erectors. However, just the same as with conventional deadlifting, to gain the most of out of this lift the set up and technique needs to be efficient otherwise you lose any benefits that the shortened leverages provide.
What do I mean by this?
Sumo is not simply a wide stance conventional, you do not just turn your feet out and hope for the best or try and lift by doing the splits. Sumo stance is about shortening what is called the moment arm between the hips and the bar by widening your stance and decreasing the distance between your hands.
Let’s start with the setup of the sumo. This is going to be person to person dependent and influenced by things like quad strength, hip mobility and structure, upper back strength, and adductor tightness. From research we know that sumo and conventional hip extension demands are the same, meaning that you get the same level of gluteus maximums recruitment from both however, sumo does have a greater recruitment of the quads as these are what are utilised to break the floor.
Feet need to be in a fairly widened stance, not so far apart that you are essentially doing the splits but wide enough that you are able to reduce your rom. I usually like to teach people to line up with the rings on the bar as a guide when learning.
Feet placed under the bar here and have the bar almost cut your shoelaces in half, if feet are turned out almost at 90degrees you’re going to have a bad time. We need to be in an optimal position for quad extension and a plié is not it.
The next step is one of the more important steps, shoulder/hip and knee angle.
One of the more common cues you here within coaching/lifting is hips down, for MOST athletes this will result in them shoving the knees forward and the whole overall setup of the lift goes out the window. So how do we know when our hips are in the right position and, how do we prevent the knees coming forward and moving the bar forward? to answer the first question, our shoulders relative to our hips, secondly the hips need to drive forward and the knees need to stay still, so as crude as this cue is one of the best I have heard is, “balls to the bar”. If our shoulder is too far in front of the bar we increase the moment arm and our hips become too high, if our shoulder is too far behind the bar we increase the moment arm again and end up squatting the bar.
Making sure there is also good upwards lat tension is important, we don’t want the hips to shoot up and through, the hips need to be moving forward to the bar from the very beginning.
So let’s look at a photo of a good sumo setup, when our shoulders are just slightly in front of the bar (5-10 degrees), our shins vertical and knees on top of (but not over) our ankles we automatically place our hips in their most optimum position and create the shortest moment arm possible (please be aware here also of knees caving in, this is an extremely common fault with lifters performing a sumo deadlift).
In the first photo we can see just how short of a distance Matt’s hips have to travel to reach the bar, his shoulders are just slightly in front of the bar so he is not squatting it, and has created tension through his lats.
The second image is a great example of not over exaggerating the lockout by leaning back into it, he has locked out his glutes and what you can’t see here as it is a still image from a video, the straightness of the bar path from start to finish. If we look at his foot positioning his feet are slightly turned out, head is in a neutral position and knees are positioned almost directly on top of his feet, not caving in or shooting forward.
Image courtesy of Matt Stenzel. (photos taken off a video)
Why is a short moment arm ideal?
Well I’m glad you asked! Think of it like the difference between carrying a really heavy bag of groceries with an extended arm away from your body for a long period of time vs carrying it in super close to you, which one is easier and uses less energy? Carrying the bag close to you. Same with the deadlift, the further away your hips are from the bar the more energy the body has to generate for the bar to travel to your hips as the distance the bar has to travel increases, make sense?
Because I suck at drawing (yes even stick people) I looked pretty hard to find a good stick person drawing to illustrate my point and the best one I found came from the Colour of Insanity blog (which you can find here).
Remember, the point of any kind of lifting, not just powerlifting but strength training, requires us to move weight in the most direct route possible to optimise the efficiency of the lift, and therefore be able to move more weight, increase our hypertrophy stimulus and therefore increase strength and muscle growth.
This drawing nicely illustrates the difference in the distance the bar has to travel to the hips.
So you can see now if you are starting either squatting into the bar or with your hips super high, you are lengthening the distance the bar has to travel to your hips which makes the lift harder and less efficient.
Although Sumo decreases the ROM and places less strain through the lower back is it suitable for everyone? The short answer is no. However, if you find it easier than a conventional by all means go for it. Sumo and conventional do recruit different muscle areas at different levels and as a bodybuilder and a Powerlifter this is a good thing to be aware of. Sumo requires more quad strength to break the floor but requires less effort from the spinal erectors in comparison to a conventional deadlift that requires less effort from the quads to break the floor, but does require more effort from the spinal erectors. Both lifts require the same effort from the gluteus maximus during hip extension (it is also important to note that speed has not been shown within any research to have any kind of impact on gluteus activity, speed deadlifts are an article for another time though).
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