A Training Article by Daniel Hunt
In almost every resistance-based gym program, the deadlift (or a variation) is present. It’s not hard to understand why, as it hits a bunch of points that every gym-goer aims to achieve. It is an excellent compound movement that works both your anterior and posterior lower body, and posterior upper body. For most people, it’s going to be their heaviest lift, so, for anyone looking to move weight around - whether for training or ego, it’s excellent. And, the strength and power development possibilities are almost too good to pass up. Everyone and their dog is wrapping their hands around a bar and pulling it off the floor, but for what appears to be a relatively simple functional movement - there’s a lot of technique behind it. When it comes to the specific technique, there’s also a lot of back and forth between experienced lifters as to what is the safest and most efficient way to pick up a bar loaded with weight. You can lock down a general idea of ‘correct technique’ that can be applied en masse to your average gym lifter. But as people become more experienced, more alteration and nuances become involved. Things like how they grip the bar, set their feet, and even how they mentally prepare in the last moments before an attempted max lift. These small changes are learnt and developed over time, so beginners need not concern themselves just yet with anything other than the basics - like maintaining a straight back and not letting your knees be dragged inwards as you pull.
When watching someone deadlift, the most obvious variation you’ll find is whether they pull in a conventional stance, or a sumo stance. It’s easy to tell, as the two differ in appearance quite a lot, even if they are both achieving the same end state: standing with knees and hips fully locked out, holding the bar in your hands. I’ll say right now though, I’m not going to try and argue that one is better than the other - they’re two different means to an end, each with their own pros and cons. Some people are more suited to one than the other due to the way their body is (eg. longer limbs or hip angle). So, if you’re reading this hoping for validation about how your stance choice is superior, you may be disappointed.
Conventional stance is what most people envision when they think of a deadlift - which makes sense, given its name. It’s more common to see a conventional deadlift over a sumo deadlift in your average gym, since most people begin with conventional and there is an ever-present stigma around sumo pulling being inferior to conventional.
Conventional pulling uses your upper back, lower back, glutes, quads, hamstrings, biceps, forearms and core (See: All About Powerlifting - Muscles Involved in the Conventional Deadlift). It’s not a short list, especially when you name the specific muscles in each of those groups. Of those groups, the most activation occurs in the lower back and hamstrings when deadlifting in a conventional stance. Due to the amount of hip hinge required for this stance, the strain on the lower back isn’t surprising. The high levels of activation for the hamstrings can surprise some people however; conventional can appear to be quite quad-dominant when watching some lifters performing the movement. That’s not to say that there isn’t a large amount of quad use (which there is), but it can be counter-intuitive for people hearing this for the first time. It does make conventional stance an excellent posterior chain development tool - something that can be quite lacking for the average gym-goer, as most people like to work on what they can see. The high strain on the lower back can increase the risk of injury, as coupling it with poor form (something that is unfortunately common) or pre-existing injuries may lead to a back that is under much more stress than you bargained for.
Sumo stance is less common than conventional, and if you haven’t been around it much - it can look pretty funky. What can’t be denied, though, is that a successful heavy sumo deadlift leaves the athlete in an impressive power stance when at full extension. While the catchphrase “sumo is cheating” permeates through the strength and conditioning community, it still stands as a completely acceptable and validated stance for all official powerlifting competitions.
Sumo pulling uses your hamstrings, quads, glutes, lower & upper back, biceps, forearms and core. If you said that’s the same list as the conventional deadlift one, you’d be right. The stances both achieve the same thing, but what differs isn’t just the appearance - it’s also the muscle groups that are prime movers for the movement. (See: Bar Bend - Sumo Deadlift Guide) Where the conventional lift puts a heavy strain on the lower back, the sumo puts the torso in a more vertical starting position. This means that lower back injuries are less likely to happen if the movement is completed with the correct technique. Due to the wider foot and hip placement, sumo deadlifts target the glutes and quads more than they do the hamstrings or lower back. For the quads, this is because the person performing the lift has to achieve greater levels of knee bend (flexion) during their set up, and the quads are for responsible for leg extension at the knee joint. The wider stance also puts the hips into external rotation, requiring the glutes to be more involved. Sumo stance can be more awkward for some people to learn, especially if they started with and have become accustomed to conventional.
There can only be one
The title to this part is purposefully false - but, it does sum up the mindset that many lifters seem to have. The existence of a disparity between the two groups of people who are ultimately doing the same thing (but each in a slightly different way) isn’t new, and in this particular case isn’t really damaging anyone. I want to emphasise that to objectively say one stance is better than the other would be wrong, and if the person saying it is passionately adamant about it - they’re most likely just close-minded on the topic. Subjectively, there’s definitely room to argue for one or the other, as some are better suited to a particular stance when deadlifting. The reasons one may prefer one stance over another vary - and I, for one, switched from favouring conventional to sumo after a lower back injury. You could just be stronger and pull more in sumo over conventional, or vice versa. You definitely shouldn’t pull a certain way just because you think it “looks cooler” or saw someone online doing it. If you’re truly serious about maximising your strength gains - you should be doing both. I know individuals who lean heavily towards conventional may not like that, but it’s true - and a lot of strength and conditioning experts agree on it (See: Bar Bend - Sumo Deadlift versus Conventional Deadlift). Assuming you have the mobility to achieve correct technique - which you should have, unless an injury prevents it - then you should learn how to do both movements, safely and efficiently. Someone who competes in a lifting sport will favour one over the other, as their goal-specific training is focused on being as strong as possible in their superior stance. In this case, the stance in which they’re weaker would act as more of an accessory to help build their stronger one. But for the regular gym goer (most of us), a more even mix of the two is ideal. They both develop your overall pull strength, and targeting different primary movers is excellent for general training and strength. In saying that, even the average gym user has a preferred stance - just as they would for their squat, or where they like to put their hands for a bench.
So, how does someone decide on which is better for them?
My recommendation is that you should experiment to find whatever feels the most comfortable, whilst also being aware that a new technique can take time to become familiar. If you’ve always pulled conventional and then try out sumo - it’s probably going to feel weird at first, no matter how good you are at it. If you’re only just starting, then everything will feel weird. Comfortability is important, as it’s a good indicator when deciding which stance you prefer (just like how much weight you can pull in that stance). If conventional stance feels more comfortable than sumo, and you can pull more weight with it - then that’s two solid indicators that it may be better for you. An individual’s limbs and leverages can help indicate which would be better, but unless you have a lot of knowledge on the topic, or a coach who does - it’s difficult to know what to look for. Be sure to not over-exert yourself when learning a stance, as weight and rep schemes should advance in step with your familiarity. Don’t be afraid to return to a simpler movement like rack pulls, or pulling off of blocks, to help yourself develop your technique. Be prepared to spend some time learning and practising both stances, because your favoured one may not be obvious early on. Both of them will help you get an overall stronger pull, so don’t think that you’re losing out by doing both.
None of that information is definitive, and it shouldn’t be.. As I said before, don’t let anyone tell you that a particular deadlift stance is inferior to another - or worse, shouldn’t be done at all. Be open-minded to each different stance and what you prefer, whilst keeping in mind that for either - good technique will take time to develop, and training both will develop your weaknesses far more than ignoring one ever will.
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(Article Edited, Proof Read, and Fact-Checked by Charlotte Officer)
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