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Conventional vs sumo deadlifts is a question I always get asked when I give workshops on powerlifting techniques. Neither variation will be naturally easier or harder as it depends on certain individual differences.
Is a conventional or sumo deadlift better for you? The first way to decide if a conventional or sumo deadlift is better is to try both and see which one feels the most comfortable throughout the entire range of motion. Train with each one for 6 months. Your hip structure is another big factor, so perform the supine assessment.
The other determining factors when considering which deadlift is better are based on your limb length, body weight, and muscular strengths and limitations.
I will cover each of these factors in more detail, giving you a step-by-step process to choosing whether the conventional or sumo will maximize your strength potential. I also share some pragmatic tips from my own experience working with powerlifters and interview other coaches about conventional and sumo deadlifts.
- Similarities Between Conventional vs. Sumo Deadlifting
- Difference Between Conventional vs. Sumo Deadlifting
- Choosing Conventional vs. Sumo Based on Hip Structure
- Choosing Conventional vs. Sumo Based on Limb Length & Height
- Choosing Conventional vs. Sumo Based on Bodyweight
- Choosing Conventional vs. Sumo Based On Muscular Strengths & Weaknesses
- Coaching Perspectives on Deciding Between Conventional vs. Sumo
Table of Contents
Similarities Between Conventional vs. Sumo Deadlifting
It's important to recognize that while the two deadlift styles look different, there are two main similarities.
Building Muscular Tension
For both the conventional and sumo deadlift, you'll want to ensure that you achieve maximal muscular tension in the start position. Because there's no eccentric range of motion, you cannot build up tension the same way as other lifts before starting the movement.
To build up tension, you'll want to grab the bar in a strong grip, set your back by squeezing your lats, engage your glutes and hamstrings by actively pulling them into the start position, maintain a neutral head position, and drive your feet into the floor.
If you don't have muscular tension before lifting the bar, your conventional and sumo deadlifts will be inefficient off the floor.
Timing of Lockout
Another similarity between conventional and sumo deadlifting is the timing of the lock-out.
For most people, the timing of the hips and knees to finish the movement will happen simultaneously. What this will look like is that the hips and knees lock simultaneously. There are some exceptions to this, especially for advanced athletes, but for most people starting out, this is the timing you want to achieve.
If you want to improve your deadlift lockout you can read about my 10 tips.
Want to improve your deadlift technique?
Differences Between Conventional vs. Sumo Deadlifting
There are three main differences between conventional and sumo deadlifts:
Range of Motion
With the wider stance, the sumo deadlift is 20-25% less range of motion when compared with the conventional deadlift.
Therefore, there is greater mechanical work for conventional deadlifts; and vice versa, less mechanical work for sumo deadlifts. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that the sumo deadlift will automatically feel easier for you. We'll cover that in more detail later.
Check out my complete guide on how wide should you sumo deadlift. The wider you stand, the less range of motion that is performed. But wider doesn't necessarily mean better.
The angles of your body in relation to the bar will be different for conventional versus sumo deadlifts.
In the conventional deadlift, you will have approximately 5-10% more forward lean. In the start position, this will look like your shoulders are slightly in front of the bar if you draw a straight line down to the floor. If you tried to replicate this forward lean for sumo deadlifts, it would be highly inefficient.
On the other hand, in the sumo deadlift, your shoulders should be directly in line with the bar:
There are other subtleties to each of the lifts, especially regarding the angles of the hips and shins in relation to the bar. However, without this article turning into a ‘how to deadlift' guide, the key differences between the conventional vs sumo deadlift are the shoulder positions.
- Conventional deadlift = shoulders over the bar in the start position.
- Sumo deadlift = shoulders in line with the bar in the start position.
Check out my article on whether you should squat and deadlift on the same workout.
Lastly, one of the main differences between conventional and sumo deadlifts are the muscles used.
Because of the change in angles between the conventional and sumo deadlift, there will be different stress placed on the knee and hip extensors to lift the weight. As such, the loading demands for which muscles are used will change.
Ever wonder if the sumo deadlift is easier on the low back? Check out my complete guide.
In general, the conventional deadlift uses more spinal erectors, while the sumo deadlift uses more quads. This is particularly true just off the floor to about knee height. Practically speaking, you'd also likely have greater glute activation in the conventional deadlift; however, it depends on where your hips are in the start position in relation to the barbell. The research is still undecided about whether glutes are more active in one style over another.
A study by Escamilla et al. (2002), shows that the vastus medialis (inside of the quad), vastus lateralis (outside of the quad), and tibialis anterior (outside of calf) had greater muscular activation in the sumo deadlift.
One quick note, if you decide to deadlift sumo, you'll want to make sure you have the proper footwear. Check out my reviews of the best deadlift shoes for sumo.
Choosing Conventional vs. Sumo Based On Hip Structure
As I said earlier, the primary way that you want to decide whether to choose conventional or sumo deadlifting is based on which style you feel is the ‘most comfortable.' You'll feel more or less comfortable in one style over another, largely determined by the structure of your hip.
Understanding Bone and Joint Angles
The pelvis, hip socket, and femur (upper leg bone) are going to differ on an individual basis. There are differences in how the femur and pelvis come together, where the hip socket is located on the pelvis, and how the femur is rotated.
This is called anthropometrics, which means the measurements of an individual. In this specific example, we're talking about the measurements of a person's bones and joints.
You need to understand that there can be more or less of an angle for how your femur connects to the pelvis.
The greater the angle where the femur connects to the pelvis, the more comfortable this person will feel pulling sumo. Alternatively, the lower the angle, the more comfortable this person will feel pulling conventional.
In the image above, the angle on the left will be more naturally built for conventional, the angle in the middle may be suited for either conventional or sumo, and the angle on the right will be more naturally built for sumo.
These angles will determine the range of motion your hips can go through comfortably. This is why you should have proper deadlift shoes.
If you get hip pain while sumo deadlifting, make sure to check out my 7 tips to help fix it!
How to Find Your Bone and Joint Angles
The most precise way to find your bone and joint angles is to get an X-ray and have a radiologist tell you how the femur and pelvis line up. However, most people won't get an X-ray just to understand which deadlifting style they should do (that would be hardcore if you actually got an x-ray for this purpose, though).
The more practical way is by conducting a specific exercise called the supine assessment, which I got from Dean Somerset:
The Supine Assessment
The idea is to move your femur through a range of motion and track the positions where the pelvis starts to roll without any further movement at the hip itself. Essentially, you're moving the hip into a position where you create bone to bone restrictions and further movement can't be accomplished at that joint.Dean Somerset
If, after performing this test, you find that you can get a decent amount of flexion by keeping your knee more in line with your shoulder, then you're more likely suited for conventional deadlifting. This is because the angle of your femur and hip is lower.
Alternatively, if you can keep pulling your hip through flexion as the knee rolls to the outside, you're more likely suited for sumo pulling. This is because the angle of your femur and hip is greater.
With that said, your bone and joint structure is not the only reason for picking the conventional or sumo deadlift, so let's talk about the next reason why you might consider one over another.
If you want to learn whether you should squat or deadlift more, read my article on squat and deadlift ratios.
Choosing Conventional vs. Sumo Based On Limb Length & Height
Another consideration for choosing conventional or sumo deadlifts is based on the relative length of your limbs or proportions.
Most people with long arms will prefer a conventional deadlift. If you have short arms, you will prefer a sumo deadlift. If you have average arms, it's up to your preference.
When I refer to the “length of your limbs” or “proportions,” I'm talking about the length of your torso, arms, and legs about each other. Building with a certain proportion may allow you to feel more or less comfortable doing one style over another.
Dr. Michael Hales, a strength and conditioning researcher, published an article that provided recommendations on the style of deadlift that may lead to greater potential for performance based on individual proportions.
The first table below lists various proportions and the lifting style recommendations by Dr. Hales:
|Long torso / short arms
|Long torso / long arms
|Short torso / short arms
|Short torso / long arms
|Average torso / short arms
|Average torso / long arms
|Short torso / average arms
|Long torso / average arms
As you can see, there is some overlap between the two styles based on whether you have average arm length combined with short or long torsos. However, for the most part, this table offers some suggestions around which style you might want to try to optimize first.
In order to understand what ‘short,' ‘average,' and ‘long' mean, Dr. Hales provides the following guidelines (measured as a percentage of your overall height):
|Greater than 32%
|Less than 32%
|Greater than 49%
|Less than 49%
|Greater than 38%
|Less than 38%
When you're measuring your proportions, here is how you should measure them:
- Torso length: Start at the hip bone (greater trochanter) and measure to the top of the head
- Leg length: From the base of the floor to the hip bone (greater trochanter)
- Arm length: Start at the shoulder joint (humeral head) to the tip of the middle finger.
- Overall height: From the base of the floor to the top of the head.
Want to improve your sumo deadlift technique? Check out my article on the best Sumo Deadlift Cues.
Based on the above proportions, I would be classified as someone with average arms, long legs, and a long torso, resulting in limb lengths suited for conventional or sumo deadlifting. However, these recommendations should be taken in context with the other factors suggested in this article, since in actuality, I can actually pull more weight using a conventional deadlift stance.
If you find the measurements suggesting you can deadlift either conventional or sumo, then a semi-sumo deadlift stance might be more appropriate for you.
If you have short arms, you should read my article on Deadlifting With Short Arms because I provide 4 tricks that will help you get better leverage. If you have long legs, you should read my article on Deadlifting For Tall Guys.
Let's discuss the next consideration for deciding whether to do conventional or sumo deadlifting.
Interested to learn more about how the sumo deadlift compares with the back squat? Check out my other article on the Sumo Deadlift vs Back Squat.
Choosing Conventional vs. Sumo Based on Bodyweight
Deciding whether to do conventional or sumo also depends on your overall body weight.
In general, lighter lifters (less than 63kg / 138lbs for women and 93kg / 204lbs for men) will deadlift in a sumo stance, and heavier lifters will deadlift in a conventional stance.
To understand this, let's look at data from the 2016 IPF World Powerlifting Championships. This analysis shows the breakdown of competitors based on their body weight and which weight class they competed.
It's important to recognize that the information we're going to cover may have more to do with the proportions outlined previously rather than the overall body weight of a person. However, the data below is just too interesting, not to mention.
To learn more about how different body types impact powerlifting, check out my article on What Body Type Is Best For Powerlifting? (Science-Backed).
We're looking at a near-perfect linear relationship between the body weight of a person and which style of deadlift they choose.
As you gain body weight, the fewer sumo deadlifts are represented with more conventional pulls. As you lower body weight, more sumo deadlifts are represented with fewer conventional pulls.
This trend is a bit more prominent in men. As you can see, 100% of the 59kg class used sumo deadlifting, and less than 15% of the 120k+ class used sumo. While the trendline is similar in women, you'll have a higher percentage of either lift at each end of the body-weight spectrum.
This data should be an easy reference point for deciding which deadlifting style to choose.
If you fall on either end of the extreme, the lowest or heaviest bodyweight class, the decision becomes clear. Choose the dominant style and see if it feels more comfortable to you.
However, if you fall somewhere in the middle bodyweight classes, you might need to do more experimentation between the two styles to see which one will work best.
Let's look at another consideration for choosing one style over another based on muscular strengths and weaknesses.
If you deadlift in a conventional stance, you can use a sumo deadlift as a “special method,” which I detail in my article 10 Special Exercises To Improve Your Powerlifting Movements.
Choosing Conventional vs. Sumo Based On Muscular Strengths & Weaknesses
You may decide to pick either conventional or sumo deadlifts based on which muscles are stronger or weaker.
As I said earlier, when talking about the differences between conventional and sumo deadlifting, each style will emphasize certain muscle groups over another.
For the conventional deadlifts, because you'll have slightly more forward lean, you'll have greater muscular activation in the trunk muscles, such as the spinal erectors. You'll have greater knee extension for the sumo deadlifts, which places more loading demand on the quads.
As such, you'll want to play to your strengths as much as possible.
- Stronger low and mid back: conventional deadlifting
- Stronger quads: sumo deadlifting
Determining If You Have a Weakness
One of the easier ways I diagnose whether someone is more dominant in one muscle group over another is how they squat.
First, does the athlete always fail to drive out of the hole and above parallel?
While this is not always the case, it might mean they have a quad weakness because the quads are working the hardest when the knees are in full flexion. The reason why it's not ‘always the case' is because athletes might fail to bring the bar down in the right bar path or brace their core properly to begin the movement, which would impact how they squat out of the hole. This is why I use the second point below to determine a lifter's quad weakness.
Second, can the athlete keep the bar and their hips rising simultaneously out of the hole?
If the athlete's hips rise faster than the bar, they might be weaker in the quads and stronger in the hip and back extensors. This would look like if an athlete's hips shoot up and back out of the hole and come into a ‘good morning position.' If this is the case, the athlete's quads aren't working properly, and they are trying to shift the loading demands to stronger muscle groups in the glutes and low/mid-back.
What To Do If You Have a Weakness
If an athlete has a quad weakness, I will get them to deadlift conventional until they develop stronger quads. I'm not saying, “They should deadlift conventional because they have weak quads.”
If an athlete is more suited to lift sumo based on their hip structure, proportions, or body weight, I will work on their specific weakness and then experiment with sumo deadlifting once they're stronger.
Related Article: Top Deadlift Alternatives.
Coaching Perspectives on Deciding Between Conventional vs. Sumo
From my experience, when an athlete walks through the door on their first day, I always get them to deadlift using the conventional stance.
The main reason is that it's simply an easier movement to learn. It requires less mobility at the hips level, and at least initially, it will feel more natural for the athlete. While it's true that one style will produce greater performance benefits, those outcomes take years to realize. So, it's better to have my athletes feeling confident pulling from the floor first before trying to optimize their 1 rep max.
When considering sumo deadlifts, I use the factors outlined in this article in a priority fashion. First, I look at their hip structure and proportions. Then I look at their body weight and muscular strength. If the athlete is more suited for sumo deadlifting, then I will begin to transition them and commit to sumo deadlifting for at least six months.
In my experience, this is simply how long it takes an athlete to find a natural position with sumo deadlifts.
To get other perspectives, I asked Jason Tremblay and Matt Gary how they would approach the conventional vs. sumo deadlift debate. Jason is the Owner of The Strength Guys, and Matt Gary is the owner of Supreme Sports Performance & Traning and the former National Team Head Coach for USA Powerlifting. Both are highly respected coaches within the world of powerlifting.
I asked them how they would decide whether someone should do conventional or sumo:
Check out my article that discusses Are Sumo Deadlifts Harder Than Traditional Deadlifts?
Here's Jason Tremblay:
In practice, we've operated off of the belief that people should try both and use the one they are strongest in on a permanent basis moving forward. The study by Hales (2010) has rarely factored into us making a successful recommendation of stance.Jason Tremblay, The Strength Guys
You can see how Jason doesn't take too much stock on the recommendations based on proportion sizes. What Jason prioritizes is simply how the athlete is performing over a longer period of time.
If you train conventional or sumo simultaneously, doing one session in each stance per week, then over time, you'll recognize a clear winner based on strength. This would require you to have regular ‘assessments' of strength in each stance and then make a decision based on the relevant training evidence.
Here's Matt Gary:
Matt Gary, Supreme Sports Performance & Training
I initially let the athlete decide his or her deadlift stance based on what they feel is most comfortable because an athlete will typically execute better when the lifts feel good. As they progress into heavier loads and form begins to break down, I encourage them to employ the stance where they can execute consistently and efficiently while simultaneously taking advantage of their unique leverages to lift the most weight possible.
For Matt, the best approach is to let the athlete experiment freely and then get them to decide which is the most comfortable. You certainly don't want to force an athlete to be in an uncomfortable mechanical position.
Just like Jason, as the athlete becomes stronger, Matt recognizes there may be a style of deadlift that allows them to maintain a more precise technique under heavier loads. That technique is usually based on the athlete's leverage, so it's at that point where Matt might recommend a style that maximizes their strength more effectively.
Both Jason and Matt give a lot of credit to how athletes feel after trying both styles. As such, you should use the same approach. Experiment with conventional and sumo, and select the style that feels the most comfortable and allows you to lift the heaviest weight over time.
The Sumo deadlift was rated as one of my top deadlift progressions to take your lift from a beginner to advanced level.
For more deadlift resources, check out:
- Semi Sumo Deadlift: Should You Do It?
- How Wide Should You Sumo Deadlift?
- Conventional vs Sumo Deadlift: Which One Should You Do?
- Is Sumo Deadlift Easier On Your Low Back?
- How To Fix Hip Pain When Sumo Deadlifting
- Are Sumo Deadlifts Cheating? (No, Here’s Why)
- Sumo Deadlift Mobility: 10 Exercises With Full Routine
- Back Extension vs Deadlift: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Why Do Some Women Pee When Deadlifting?
- Increase Deadlift By 100 Pounds: A Practical How-To Guide
Understanding conventional vs sumo deadlifts is key if you care about improving your deadlift strength and your one rep max.
The biggest factor in which deadlift is best for you is based on which style you feel the most comfortable. Whether you feel comfortable or not will largely depend on your hip structure, so make sure to perform the supine assessment to figure out your hips' natural range of motion. This will give you the first clue as to which style you might be more suited to; however, don't ignore the other factors outlined in this article, such as limb proportions, body weight, and muscular weaknesses.
Test your strength in both sumo and conventional deadlift over a long period of time (6 months) before committing to one over another.
Then let us know on Instagram which you prefer. Are you a conventional deadlift person? Or do you love sumo deadlifts?
Note: If you do end up using the convnetional deadlift, there are a variety of stances you can implement. Make sure to read my article on How To Choose Your Deadlift Stance.
Escamilla, RF., Francisco, AC., Kayes, AV., Speer, KP., Moorman, CT. (2002) An electromyographic analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts. Medicine Science Sport Exercise, 34(4): 682-688.
Hales M (2010) Improving the Deadlift: Understanding Biomechanical Constraints and Physiological Adaptations to Resistance Exercise. Strength and Conditioning Journal32(4):44–51.