While conventional deadlifts sometimes get a bad reputation for being hard on the low back, especially when performed incorrectly, is the sumo deadlift different? Is the sumo deadlift more safe for those with prior back issues?
Is the sumo deadlift easier on your low back? Yes, the sumo deadlift is easier on the low back because the angle of the torso is reduced in the sumo deadlift which decreases shear forces acting upon the spine, and places more load on the quads, glutes, and hamstrings rather than the erectors and stabilizing structures of the spine.
If we already struggle with back pain or issues, then perhaps the sumo deadlift is a better option for longevity in powerlifting – but only if we are able to meet certain criteria. In this article, we’ll discuss why the sumo deadlift is easier on the low back, and for whom it may be appropriate.
Why Is The Sumo Deadlift Easier On Your Low Back?
The sumo deadlift is easier on the lower back compared to the conventional deadlift because the position of the sumo deadlift reduces the shear forces acting upon the spine.
While the spine is more resilient to compressives forces (a load that runs vertically along the body, like a barbell resting on your back during the squat), it is the shear forces that occur during the deadlift that increase the risk of injury.
Shear forces are forces that act in a parallel fashion to the structure, in the case of deadlift we are referring to a force acting parallel with the vertebral discs of the spine. In the deadlift, shear forces occur because the barbell is not in line with the spine, it sits in front of the body throughout the entire movement.
These shear forces increase the risk of disc herniation (bulge or rupture of the discs of the vertebra that can apply pressure on nerve roots which can cause pain) or strain of the tissues supporting the spine, especially when the forces exceed the force output of the erectors. When this happens the erectors fail to maintain position and the core is no longer braced in a neutral position.
Research suggests that the shear forces experienced in the low back (L4/L5) decreased by 8% for the sumo deadlift compared to the conventional deadlift. The reason for this is that with the sumo deadlift the torso will be in a more upright position throughout the lift, while the conventional deadlift will have a more inclined torso.
For this reason, it is also easier to maintain a neutral spine (not arched, and not rounded) which dramatically decreases the amount of shear force acting on the spine. This positioning of the body in the sumo deadlift will require more recruitment from the quads, hamstrings and glutes according to EMG data and limit the amount of force required from the erectors.
Check out my article on the Muscles Used In The Deadlift, which includes many common variations of the deadlift.
The erectors will be more active in the conventional deadlift (when performed properly) to maintain a neutral spine with a more horizontal torso in the start position. If the erectors are not active in the deadlift, the supporting structures of the spine will take the load which increases the risk of disc herniation.
It is also important to note that it may be the repetitive strain of improper movement patterns that causes more issues than sudden overloads.
In addition, a wider stance in the sumo deadlift may further decrease the load on the lower back as it would result in a more upright torso. However, this may stress other joints and tissues (ex: hips, knees) rather than the low back because of the shift in demands that occurs with a wider stance.
Wondering what sumo stance is best for you? Check out our article on How Wide Should You Stand in The Sumo Deadlift
Is The Sumo Deadlift Appropriate For Everyone With Low Back Issues?
While some people have found that the sumo deadlift can help strengthen the low back and relieve back pain, this may not be the case for all lifters. Each person’s movement patterns will be different, as well as the mechanisms for the pain and/or injury that they are dealing with.
When It Might Be Appropriate
The sumo deadlift could be the right solution for us if:
- We are able to achieve the correct positioning of the hips and spine
- We can perform the movement pain-free
- The movement feels more secure than conventional
If we have adequate hip mobility to assume the foot positioning in the sumo deadlift and we are able to achieve/maintain a neutral spine, then the movement is likely appropriate for us to perform as long as we can execute the lift without pain.
Whenever we experience pain, especially pain that escalates during or after the lift, we should avoid the movement. It is important to find out why the pain is occurring, so that we can fix the problem and train the deadlift properly – rather than pushing through pain and exacerbating the problem.
When It Might Not Be Appropriate
The sumo deadlift may not be appropriate for us if:
- We do not have enough hip mobility to accomplish the sumo deadlift stance
- We are experiencing pain when performing the sumo deadlift (during or after training)
- We cannot achieve or maintain a neutral spine throughout the lift
- A medical professional has advised against so for the time being
If we cannot achieve the necessary positions to perform the sumo deadlift properly, then it may be best to avoid the lift until these foundational capacities have been mastered. The reason for this is that we could do more harm than good, if we load the body in a movement with improper form.
If the sumo deadlift is common hip pain, try these 7 Tips To Help Fix Hip Pain With The Sumo Deadlift
Should You Switch To The Sumo Deadlift To Prevent Low Back Injury?
If we are currently pain-free and have no known back issues, there is no reason to switch the sumo deadlift to prevent an injury. In fact, when performed correctly the conventional deadlift can strengthen the erectors and spinal stabilizers (transverse abdominals, quadratus lumborum, multifidus, erector spinae) and makes us more resistant to injury.
It is important to note that the conventional deadlift itself does not cause back pain or injury, instead it is the way we perform the movement that determines the outcome. For this reason, research states that it is crucial that we prioritize technique, and build up capacity gradually.
By doing so, we encourage optimal movement patterns, and let the tissues become more resilient as we get stronger.
As leading back pain researcher Stuart McGill states, movements should be hip dominant rather than lumbar dominant. What this means is that the movement should occur at the hips, and erectors and knees to a certain degree, instead of at the lumbar spine for optimal movement patterns.
Considerations When Dealing With Low Back Pain & Deadlifting
When we are dealing with a low back injury, it is important to seek medical advice from a professional that we trust is knowledgeable about lifting and the movement patterns that accompany it. There are those who advise against the deadlift even for those without injury.
While these professionals may have good intentions, they are avoiding the underlying issue and failing to address the root cause of the pain and dysfunction. We should instead seek to find the root cause of the pain, and take the necessary steps to heal the injury and then incorporate proper movement patterns to ensure longevity.
If we have had previous/recurring back pain or injury then perhaps it would be better to switch to the sumo deadlift, as it is easier on the low back. It has been shown that once an individual experiences a lumbar disc herniation, it is more easily aggravated with improper movements than it would have been before an injury occurred.
For this reason, we need to be even more aware of our movement patterns once an injury occurs, to prevent re-injury. Even once the injury is resolved, we still want to ensure that we are progressing the movement gradually, as any sudden overload of the tissues can result in injury.
While the sumo deadlift is easier on the low back, we must first determine if the lift is appropriate for us based on our ability to maintain the correct technique, and we are able to perform the movement pain-free. Although, it is important to remember that there is nothing inherently bad about the conventional deadlift, if we are able to perform it correctly and pain-free.
Other Sumo Deadlifting Resources To Check Out:
- Semi Sumo Deadlift: Should You Do It? (Complete Guide)
- How To Fix Hip Pain When Sumo Deadlifting (7 Tips)
- Does Doing Conventional Deadlift Help Sumo Deadlift?
About The Author
Amanda Parker has a passion for competing and coaching in both powerlifting and weightlifting. She uses her knowledge from her Kinesiology Degree, CSCS, and Precision Nutrition certification to coach athletes and lifestyle clients for performance in training and nutrition. Connect with her on Instagram.