Every time I give workshops on powerlifting technique at least one person always asks whether they should deadlift conventional or sumo. Neither variation is going to be naturally easier or harder as it depends on certain individual differences.
The first way to decide is to understand which style feels the most comfortable throughout the entire range of motion. As such, you should train both conventional and sumo for a period of time to see if you have a personal preference. Other determining factors that make conventional or sumo deadlifting a better choice are based on your hip structure, limb length, body weight, and muscular strengths and limitations.
I’m going to cover each of these factors in more detail, which will give you a step-by-step process to choosing whether 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 on the topic.
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 are not able to build up tension in 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, both 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 at the same time. There are some exceptions to this, especially for advanced athletes, but for most people starting out this is the timing you’re wanting to achieve.
If you’re wanting to improve your deadlift lockout you can read about my 10 tips.
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.
The angles of your body in relation to the bar are going to 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 being slightly in front of the bar if you were to 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 when it comes to 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 for 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.
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 is going to 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.
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.
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 the ‘most comfortable’. The reason why you’ll feel more or less comfortable in one style over another is 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 referred to as 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.
The main thing you need to understand is that there can be more or less of an angle for how your femur connects to the pelvis.
The greater the angle of 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.
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 find you can keep pulling your hip through flexion as the knee rolls to the outside, then 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 about whether you should squat or deadlift more, you can 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.
When I refer to the “length of your limbs” or “proportions” I’m talking about the length of your torso, arms, and legs in relation to each other. If you’re built with a certain proportion it 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 proporations 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 torst / long arms||✅|
|Short torso / average arms||✅||✅|
|Long torso / average arms||✅||✅|
As you can see, there is some overlap between the two different styles based on if you have average arm length combined with either 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 in inches):
|Torso||32||Greater than 32||Less than 32|
|Arms||38||Greater than 38||Less than 38|
When you’re measuring your proportions, here is how you should measure:
- Torso length: Start at the hip bone (greater trochanter) and measure to the top of the head
- Arm length: Start at the shoulder joint (humeral head) to the tip of the middle finger.
Based on the proportions outlined above, I would be classified as someone who has short arms and a long torso, which would result in limb lengths more suited for 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.
Let’s now talk about the next consideration for deciding whether to do conventional or sumo deadlifting.
Choosing Conventional vs. Sumo Based on Bodyweight
Deciding whether to do conventional or sumo also depends on your overall bodyweight.
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 how this works, let’s take a 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 bodyweight of a person. However, the data below is just too interesting not to mention.
What we’re looking at is a near-perfect linear relationship between the body weight of a person and which style of deadlift they choose.
As you get higher in bodyweight, the fewer sumo deadlifts are being represented with more conventional pulls. As you get lower in body-weight, the more sumo deadlifts are being 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 still 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 you to decide which deadlifting style you should choose.
If you fall on either end of the extreme, the lowest or heaviest bodyweight class, then the decision becomes rather 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 a bit more experimentation between the two styles to see which one will work best.
Let’s take a look at another consideration for choosing one style over another, which is based on muscular strengths and weaknesses.
Choosing Conventional vs. Sumo Based On Muscular Strengths & Weaknesses
You may find yourself deciding 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. For the sumo deadlifts, you’ll have greater knee extension, 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 when the knees are in full flexion the quads are working the hardest. 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 fail to 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 at the same tempo out of the hole?
If the athlete’s hips rise faster than the bar, then this might mean they are weaker in the quads and stronger in the hip and back extensors. What this would look like is 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 would get them to deadlift conventional until they develop stronger quads. Notice how I’m not simply 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 bodyweight, then I will work on their specific weakness and then begin to experiment with sumo deadlifting once they’re stronger.
Coaching Perspectives on Deciding Between Conventional vs. Sumo
From my own 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 level of the hips, 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 if I 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 bodyweight and muscular strengths. 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 for an athlete to find a natural position with sumo deadlifts.
In order to get some 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 highly respected coaches within the world of powerlifting.
I asked them how they would decide whether someone should do conventional or sumo:
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 making 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 a mechanical position that feels uncomfortable.
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 leverages, 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 both conventional and sumo, and select the style that feels the most comfortable and allows you to lift the heaviest weight over time.
If you’re someone who cares about improving their deadlift strength and their one rep max then deciding between conventional or sumo will be important.
The biggest factor in your decision-making process will be based on which style you feel the most comfortable. Whether you feel comfortable or not will largely be dependant on your hip structure, so make sure to perform the supine assessment to figure out the natural range of motion of your hips. 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, bodyweight, and muscular weaknesses.
Test your strength in each deadlift style over a long period of time (6-months) before committing to one over another.
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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.