As far as deadlift and squat exercises go, the sumo deadlift and back squat rank near the top of the lift in each category — respectively.
So, what are the differences between the sumo deadlift vs back squat? Sumo deadlifts use a wide stance as you pull the barbell from floor-to-hip, which emphasizes the glutes, hamstrings, and quads. Back squats have the barbell resting on the back of your shoulders while bending your knees so your hips drop below parallel, which targets the quads, glutes, and adductor magnus.
In the article below, I’ll delve into the nuances between these two exercises and elaborate on the key differences between them.
In addition to giving you clear instructions on how to perform each movement, I’ll give you: the best technique tips, common pitfalls, and useful benefits, so you can jump straight to mastering these lifts.
Let’s get started!
What’s The Difference Between a Sumo Deadlift and Back Squat?
Despite both of these exercises using a barbell, there are some key differences that warrant one exercise being used over the other.
There are 5 main differences between the sumo deadlift and the back squat:
1. Movement Pattern
The sumo deadlift is a deadlift variation that follows the hinge-pattern of movement, displaying greater hip flexion than knee flexion, i.e. more bending at the hip than bending at the knee.
The back squat is a squat variation that follows the squat-pattern of movement, displaying greater knee flexion than hip flexion, i.e. more bending at the knee than bending at the hip.
2. Range of Motion
The sumo deadlift has a shorter range of motion, from the floor to a standing position with straight, hanging arms.
This may change depending on your height. Check out my article on Deadlifting For Tall Guys.
The back squat has a longer range of motion; beginning from a standing position to the bottom of the squat and a return to a standing position.
Again, this might change based on your height. Check out my article on How To Squat With Long Legs.
3. Contraction Sequence
The sumo deadlift begins with a concentric contraction, followed by an eccentric contraction, i.e. you’re lifting the weight ‘up’, then ‘down’.
The back squat begins with an eccentric contraction, followed by a concentric contraction, i.e. you’re lifting the weight ‘down’, then ‘up’.
4. Muscles Worked
The sumo deadlift places a focus on the posterior chain (the glutes and hamstrings), while also targeting the quads and trunk musculature.
The back squat places a focus on the quadriceps, but also involves a significant amount of work from the glutes, hamstrings, and core muscles.
5. Weight Used
The sumo deadlift will allow for heavier weights than the back squat, due mostly to the more advantageous biomechanics and reduced range of motion needed.
The back squat will require lighter weights than the sumo deadlift, due in part to the less advantageous biomechanics and also greater range of motion required.
The sumo deadlift is a deadlift variation that requires the lifter to place their feet wider apart, with their arms hanging directly down and hands gripping the bar inside the legs. This lift emphasizes the quads, gluteal muscles, adductor magnus, and back extensors (spinal erectors).
A couple key defining characteristics of the sumo deadlift — besides the wider stance — are the presence of near-vertical shins and a more upright torso angle.
How To Do A Sumo Deadlift
Here’s how to perform a sumo deadlift:
1. Set up a loaded barbell on the floor or lifting platform
2. Approach the barbell and centre your feet about hip width apart under the bar
3. One foot at a time, step outwards along the barbell so your shins are close to the smooth rings
4. Once your wide stance is set, squat down by pushing your knees out and sticking your hips back
5. Stop descending once you can reach the barbell with your hands
6. Grab the bar with an overhand grip, with your arms hanging straight down (not angled out)
7. Take a deep breath into your abdomen and brace your core
8. When ready, lift your chest and push the floor away
9. Drag the bar up your shins
10. Once you cross your knees, forcefully drive your hips forward to complete the lift
Check out my complete guide on how wide should you sumo deadlift.
Technique Tips For A Sumo Deadlift
Here are some sumo deadlift tips to help you with your technique:
- Have an appropriate toe angle. A good rule of thumb for the sumo deadlift is that the wider your stance, the more you’ll have to flare your toes out. While every lifter is built a little differently, ensure you practice with a variety of different stance widths and toe angles to find the strongest position for you.
- Drive your knees out, hard. Due to the wider placement of your feet in the sumo deadlift, you’ll need to push your knees out in order to efficiently push into the floor. While letting your knees drift inwards isn’t an automatic recipe for injury or pain, having your knees in line with your feet will deliver a more efficient force transfer for lifting the barbell.
Common Mistakes When Doing a Sumo Deadlift
The most common faults in the sumo deadlift are:
- Wearing the wrong shoes. Regular sneakers and running shoes are poor choices as they lack stability, but you also shouldn’t deadlift in squat shoes either. Without a doubt, the best shoes for deadlifts will help you stay balanced, reduce your range of motion, and provide you with improved foot support. If you lift at home, you could also just deadlift barefoot.
If you get hip pain while sumo deadlifting, make sure to check out my 7 tips to help fix it!
- Bouncing off the floor. This is the most common way that lifters prevent themselves from getting seriously strong in the deadlift. Bouncing your deadlifts does not allow you to build maximum strength off the floor, which is where most lifters will fail their sumo deadlift. A bounce also has a greater susceptibility of having the barbell swing forward of the midfoot, leading to a less efficient pull. Do yourself a favour and pull every rep from a dead-stop, unless you’re competing in Strongman/Strongwoman — where bouncing deadlifts are permitted.
Want to know the best deadlift shoes for sumo? Definitely check out the Buying Guide and Review (2020) here.
Muscles Used: Sumo Deadlift
The muscles used in the sumo deadlift are the:
- Obliques (side abs)
- Erector spinae (lumbar muscles)
In the sumo deadlift, there are two primary actions occurring: hip extension and knee extension.
As a deadlift exercise, the sumo deadlift requires a significant amount of hip extension. This action forces the glutes and hamstrings to do a high amount of work. In addition, the knee extension required to straighten the lifter’s knees is handled by the quadriceps.
Keeping the lifter’s torso rigid is a key factor during the sumo deadlift, an action that demands a significant isometric contraction from the obliques and erector spinae.
Related article: Muscles Used In The Deadlift (Ultimate Guide)
Benefits of The Sumo Deadlift
Some of the benefits of the sumo deadlift are:
- It hits your quads harder. Compared to the conventional deadlift, Escamilla and colleagues (2002) found that the sumo deadlift showed significantly greater EMG (electromyography) activity in the vastus lateralis and vastus medialis. If you need a “squattier” deadlift variation for whatever reason to target your quads more, the sumo deadlift is the way to go. Check out other differences between the conventional vs sumo deadlift.
- Conducive to progressive overload. Since the glutes, hamstrings and quads (multiple large muscle groups) are all working hard during the sumo deadlift, this exercise is an excellent candidate for applying progressive overload. As a result, you can likely load up the weight quite heavy — often hitting similar weights as you would in the conventional deadlift.
Cons of The Sumo Deadlift
Some of the cons of the sumo deadlift are:
- Shin bruising and/or bleeding. The wider stance required in the sumo deadlift will place your shins against the knurling of the bar. Even with a lightly knurled barbell, your shins can bruise or quickly end up bloodied if you’re keeping the bar against your body the entire time — as you should. To avoid this, wear a pair of soccer socks or shin savers to protect your shins (click the links to check today’s prices on Amazon).
- Careful of your toes. In the sumo deadlift, the wider stance will naturally place your feet closer to the plates. Unless your toes are literally making contact against the plates before lifting the bar, it’s highly unlikely that the plates will ever land on your toes. That said, a dented platform or an uneven descent might make this more likely to occur. To avoid this altogether, you can narrow your stance slightly or you can pivot your feet inwards as you return the bar down to the floor.
Tired of bruised shins in the deadlift? Here’s How To Fix Bruising Shins During Deadlifts (Technique Tips)
The squat is often considered the king of all exercises; this movement is a squat variation that uses a standard barbell on the lifter’s back, it primarily targets the quadriceps, gluteal muscles, adductor magnus, calves and trunk musculature.
Although I’ll be referring to this exercise as “the squat” for the remainder of this article, please note that what we’re talking about here is the barbell back squat — not a bodyweight air squat.
How To Do A Squat
Here’s how to perform a squat:
1. Locate a set of squat stands or power rack
2. Change the hooks in order to ensure that the barbell sits roughly armpit-high
3. Grab the barbell using an overhand grip with your pinkie fingers on the smooth rings
4. In one smooth motion, dip under the bar as you squeeze your shoulder blades together
5. Find a comfortable shelf of muscle to rest the bar onto
6. Once the bar is positioned correctly, set you feet under your hips
7. Forcefully stand up to unrack the bar
8. Take two steps backwards to clear the hooks
9. Adjust your stance width and toe-angle
10. Inhale into your abdomen and brace your core tightly
11. Squat down by bending concurrently at your knee and hip joint
12. As you descend, lean forward slightly to stay balanced and shove your knees out
13. Ensure that your hip crease dips lower than the top of your knees
14. Drive you feet into the floor explosively to ascend
Check out the differences between the box squat vs back squat in our comparison guide.
Technique Tips For A Squat
Here are some squat tips to help you with your technique:
- Let the barbell sit naturally. Unless you’re a competitive powerlifter who is trying to lift every extra kilo that they possibly can, the position where you should put the bar on your back for squatting isn’t something worth losing sleep over. Overall, staying balanced in your mid-foot as you squat is the most important thing and this is more easily achieved when you aren’t overthinking the position of the bar on your back.
- Stay in the middle of your feet. It’s critical during the squat that you not cave forward by leaning over too much, while also not falling backwards from trying to stay too upright. As you descend, feel the pressure in your feet — your goal is to keep your balance in your midfoot at all times. Whether you should lean forward slightly or a lot depends on your size and build.
Don’t get complacent with your squat technique, here’s 9 Squat Cues To Improve Technique (And 1 You Should Not Do)
Common Mistakes When Doing a Squat
The most common faults in the squat are:
- Knees caving inwards. The action of your knees caving in is referred to as “knee valgus”. This squat inefficiency definitely is not helping you add more weight to the bar, but it’s also unlikely to be inherently wrecking your knees. To ensure you’re able to transfer force into the floor maximally and lift the most weight possible, remember to drive your knees outwards — especially at the bottom of the squat and on the way up.
- Back rounding over. Squatting with a rigid torso is highly efficient, since force is transferred almost directly from the floor into squatting the bar up. By allowing your back to round, your trunk musculature must actively move your back from a rounded to a straight position and this action is not what the trunk muscles excel at. To ensure that you perform this exercise effectively, ensure that you fix your rounded back during your squats.
Can’t seem to keep your knees from collapsing inwards as you squat? Check out my article on How To Fix Knee Valgus During Squat (7 Tips)
Muscles Used: Squat
The muscles used in the squat are the:
- Adductor Magnus (part of the hamstring)
- Abdominals (obliques)
- Erector Spinae (lumbar muscles)
When a lifter is performing the squat, there’s a number of key actions occurring at the ankles, knees, and hips.
Starting with the knees: they must extend (straighten) to make the lifter stand up out of the bottom of their squat — an action handled almost entirely by the quadriceps. That said, the calves do show up to assist with knee extension a little bit.
Moving on to the hips: they also must extend in order for the lifter to bring their torso back to a vertical position. The glutes predominantly handle this action, with assistance form the adductor magnus (especially in a deep squat).
Finally, the torso must remain straight as the lifter squats down and stands up. Keeping the midsection from collapsing forward is critical for an efficient squat, and this comes down to strength of the obliques and erector spinae.
There are some differences in squat technique if you’re using the Olympic squat vs Powerlifting squat. Check out our comparison guide that discusses which style you should do based on your goals.
Benefits of The Squat
Some of the benefits of the squat are:
- Getting to lift heavy. As a lower body compound exercise, the squat recruits the quads and glutes primarily. The amount of muscle activity required to stand up from a heavy squat is shocking. As a result, it’s an exercise where you can channel your desire to lift heavy and seriously turn some heads in the gym.
- Practicing a competition lift. Whether you’re currently a powerlifter or aspire to compete in the future, you’ll give yourself an upper hand by practicing a competition lift. Not only will you develop strength that can be specifically applied to powerlifting, your squat strength will also help you tremendously in all other strength sports (Olympic lifting, CrossFit, Strongman/Strongwomen, Highland Games) as well.
Cons of The Squat
Some of the cons of the squat are:
- Moderate-level mobility required. Despite the squat being an exercise that babies can adopt without a second thought, many lifters struggle with common mobility-related difficulties: heels rising, unable to hold onto the bar, and leaning forward too much. Lack of regular squatting likely contributes to lifters forgetting how to squat properly, in addition to not bringing their bodies through these ranges of motion.
- High technique requirements. In addition to the mobility demands needed to squat efficiently, the squat is often considered the most technical lift out of the powerlifts (squat, bench press and deadlift). The difficulty in maintaining proper joint coordination, ideal bar path and the total body strength required — all under a heavy barbell — make this a seriously challenging exercise.
Looking for an awesome warm-up routine for squatting? I’ve got you covered: click here for my article on How To Warm Up For Squats
When examining the sumo deadlift and the squat, selecting the correct exercise depends almost entirely on the purpose you’re trying to accomplish.
Pick sumo deadlifts if you need a hinge-pattern exercise, you require a different deadlift variation, or you want to target your glutes as the primary muscle group targeted.
Pick squats if you need a squat-pattern exercise, you require a different squat variation, or you want to emphasize your quads as the primary muscle group targeted.
At the end of the day, this decision is most easily answered by asking yourself, “What am I trying to accomplish here?” and selecting the exercise that has the greatest chance of fulfilling that goal.
About The Author
Kent Nilson is an online strength coach, residing in Calgary (AB). When he’s not training, coaching, or volunteering on the platform at powerlifting meets, you’ll likely find Kent drinking coffee or enjoying his next Eggs Benedict. Connect with him on Facebook or Instagram.