What is a Sumo Deadlift and How To Do it?

The controversial Sumo deadlift is fairly unknown to noncompetitive lifters, but its presence has become more felt in recreational gyms of late.

The problem is, outside competitive lifting, there is no real reason why those looking to build strength at the gym, would benefit from incorporating the lift into their regime.

That being said, when used properly, the Sumo deadlift can help you progress as part of your strength training program among a handful of other benefits.

If you’re curious about the Sumo deadlift but are conflicted about the myriad of contradicting opinions out there, you’ve come to the right place.

This article will look at the pros and cons of incorporating the Sumo deadlift into your strength training regime and how to safely and effectively perform the lift. Keep reading to find out more.

What is a Sumo deadlift?

Compared to a regular deadlift, a Sumo deadlift requires a wider stance (picture the way a Sumo wrestler stands, for reference) and the lifter will lift a barbell with their hands inside their thighs rather than outside like with a regular deadlift.

Despite its seemingly threatening name, a Sumo deadlift is actually considered the ‘easy’ option compared to a regular deadlift and is said to be easier to do for those with less deadlift experience.

It’s also thought to be easier on the lower back and allows you to pull a heavier weight. This is because it requires less range of motion than a regular deadlift, which allows you to lift more weight.

The lift is also controversial because it is thought to be a way for competitive lifters to avoid the particular training principles required in order to lift a higher weight ‘legally’, in terms of weight-lifting competitions.

What are the benefits of the deadlift?

Before we go into the pros and cons of the Sumo deadlift, let’s look at some of the reasons why we deadlift.

There are tons of benefits to the deadlift. The movement involves most of the body’s muscles and requires similar movements to lots of our everyday activities such as bending and pulling.

Let’s face it, you can’t have an effective strength training regime without including deadlifts. The full body movement will enhance the strength of almost every muscle, but there are plenty of other reasons why the lift is so great.

Here are some other benefits:

  • Higher weight capabilities – deadlifts allow you to pull a lot of weight, especially compared to other full body lifts like barbell squats

  • They burn lots of calories – deadlifts work a lot of muscles in your body at one time, which as a result burns more calories during your workout
  • They build your back muscles, so you are less prone to injury – a weak core can result in lower back pain, deadlifts help prevent this. As the deadlift movement replicated many of our everyday movements such as carrying and bending, practicing the deadlift will help prevent you injuring yourself when doing these everyday activities

What are the benefits of the Sumo deadlift?

Now that we know why regular deadlifts are so great, let’s compare the benefits to the Sumo deadlift.

As we’ve mentioned already, the main reason lifters opt for the Sumo deadlift is that it allows for an easier lift compared to regular deadlifts. Although this is not the case for everyone.

The wider stance and narrower arm placement means that the lifters range of motion is shorter, making it feel ‘easier’ to lift the weight. This is why competitive lifters tend to use it to lift higher weights.

The difference in stance is also good for lifters with longer torsos but, those with shorter arms, however, would likely find the Sumo deadlift less comfortable than the regular version.

Sumo deadlifts can be a great way to build strength as a beginner too. The lift generally allows for more weight to be lifted, even if you’re not a competitive powerlifter, so you can put your muscles through more much sooner than if you were to start off with a standard deadlift. Then, once you’ve improved, you should find regular deadlifts a bit easier.

Compared to regular deadlifts, the Sumo lift also puts less strain on your lower back, which can help those still train if they’ve slightly pulled something. Although, it’s not recommended that you train with an injury, just make sure you use common sense when training.

There are some disadvantages, however. The Sumo deadlift generally trains less muscle than a standard deadlift, resulting in reduced overall muscle mass. 

While some may think the reduced range of motion is an advantage, it also means this lift is not as useful as the standard deadlift because you are engaging fewer muscles. So, if you’re not into competing, using this lift in the gym is a little pointless if you can just as easily do a standard deadlift instead.

What muscles work?

Let’s take a closer look at the specific muscles that are worked by a Sumo deadlift and how it can contribute to your strength training compared to a standard deadlift.

  • Trapezius – compared to a standard deadlift, the Sumo deadlift requires a more upright position, working the traps a lot more. The traps and back muscles are what we use to keep our torso position in check when pulling the bar, so a Sumo deadlift can help train our pulling technique

  • Glutes – with a Sumo deadlift, we actually work our glutes more due to the fact that our feet are further apart and turned outwards. If working your glutes is a priority then, choosing a Sumo deadlift might actually be the better option

  • Quadriceps – the Sumo deadlift also requires more bend because of where we place our feet. Our quads are responsible for our ability to extend our knees and bend our legs, so choosing the Sumo deadlift will benefit your quads even more than a standard deadlift

  • Lower back – when we pull the bar upwards as we execute the Sumo deadlift, our lower back muscles are worked in order to keep our spine in the correct position. Compared to the standard deadlift, the Sumo puts less strain on the lower back but, that does then allow for other back muscles to engage on its behalf

  • Hamstrings – compared to a standard deadlift, the Sumo deadlift works the hamstrings, although not as much so if this is an area you’re particularly looking to work on, a standard deadlift will serve you better than a Sumo

How to do a Sumo deadlift

Below is a step-by-step guide on how to safely and effectively do a Sumo deadlift. For specific tips on how to execute each step, we have compiled a list of tips in the next point! 

  • Step 1: begin standing with your feet placed widely apart, so that they are wider than your shoulders and your toes are pointing out. Then let your arms hang down with your elbows inside your knees and hold the bar.

  • Step 2: tighten your back, core, glutes and legs, you want to feel like your entire body is engaged, and start to pull the bar (without actually lifting it off the ground) and feel your legs engaging further as they push against the floor.

  • Step 3: making sure you keep your back nice and straight, take a breath in and pull on the bar while simultaneously driving the pressure through your feet. Don’t try to lift the bar away from you into the air, rather keep it as close to your body as possible and move your body, so you go from a squat position to a standing position.

  • Step 4: at this point, it’s important not to let your chest drop forward or bend your back. Keep your muscles engaged and squeeze your glutes to bring the bar to hip level. Hold the lift for a few seconds and then drop the bar to the floor. Don’t breathe out until the bar is back on the floor.

Tips for proper stance, grip, position and execution

The actual movement required to do a Sumo deadlift isn’t particularly complicated, but there are a few things you need to keep in mind when performing the lift in order to get the most out of it and avoid injury.

Below are some tips to help you:

1. Stance

Like with regular deadlifts, proper Sumo deadlift technique all stems from the proper setup. This starts with the correct stance. 

To ensure your stance is the correct width, check to see that your knees are facing outwards in the same direction as your toes before you begin.

The reason your toes need to be positioned in this way is because it allows you to bend your knees as you lift without pushing the bar away from you. This is important because the bar should remain as close to your body as possible throughout the entire lift.

Compared to a standard deadlift, you will find that you need to start off slightly closer to the bar too.

2. Grip

Once you’ve perfected your stance, it’s time to focus on your grip. Depending on how broad your chest is you may need to grip a little wider but generally, your elbows should be almost touching your knees.

Whether you go for a hook, double overhand or a mixed grip is entirely up to you.

3. Position

Before you execute the lift, make sure your back is not completely vertical, rather your shoulders are sitting a little in front of the bar.

Another important position is your final position before dropping the bar. Don’t be tempted to push the bar away from you as you pull it up your body as you stand. The final position requires you to hold the bar close to your hips. This will likely be the hardest part of the lift, so in order to help push you through it, try squeezing your glutes as you drag the bar into the standing position.

4. Execution 

How you go from squatting to standing should almost feel more like a pushing action than a pull. 

This is because in order to stand up while holding the weight, you’re going to need to push down on the floor with your legs to avoid injuring your chest and arms.

When Sumo deadlifts will work for you

If you’re only looking to build muscle and strength, there’s no strong reason why you should focus much time and energy on Sumo deadlifts.

This is because unless you plan to use it in competition, the Sumo deadlift is categorized as an ‘accessory lift’, meaning it doesn’t really aid towards improving your deadlift.

If you’re a competitive powerlifter, the Sumo deadlift will of course come in handy for you. The lesser range of motion required to do a Sumo deadlift allows you to be able to lift heavier weights and ultimately help you to win more competitions.

The lift will also work for you if your main priority is training your glutes and quads but if you’re looking to train your entire body, you would benefit more from a standard deadlift or other variations.

You may want to opt for the Sumo deadlift if you’re currently struggling with a back injury that prevents you from being able to squat but of course, we do not recommend training when injured so just exercise caution here and maybe see a medical professional first to check you’re okay to train.

As we’ve already mentioned, this particular variation may also suit you better if you have particularly long legs too.

Other deadlift variations

If you’re interested in adding some new lifts to your workout, below are some of our favorite deadlift variations. 

1. Standard deadlift

Original usually equals best, and that’s the case with the standard deadlift. Probably the most well-known variation of the lift, the standard deadlift, is so popular because it allows you to build full-body strength.

How to do it:

Step 1: start with your feet shoulder-width apart and stand directly beneath the bar

Step 2: bend at the hips and grip the bar (your arms should be shoulder-width apart too)

Step 3; bend your knees until the bar is touching your shins

Step 4: inhale deeply while you raise your chest and straighten your back into a standing position. Hold it there for a few seconds 

Step 5: then lower the bar back to the starting position, breathing out as you do so

2. Romanian deadlift

The Romanian deadlift is a popular variation of the deadlift that works your glutes, lower back and hamstrings.

This movement focuses more on your hip hinge compared to a standard deadlift.

How to do it:

Step 1: standing with your feet hip-width apart and knees bent, grip the barbell. You can use a mixed grip or double overhand for this lift

Step 2: from the standing position, hold the bar in place and lean forward, hinging from your hips and lower the bar down, so it rests in front of your shins. Make sure your back and arms remain straight throughout the entire lift. Rounding your back can cause injury

Step 3: return to the standing position and repeat according to your regime

3. Kettlebell deadlift

Designed to initiate beginner lifters, the kettlebell deadlift is the best place to start if you’re new to lifting. It’s also more accessible because you only need a small kettlebell to do it. So, you don’t necessarily need access to a gym or a lot of space to do this lift.

How to do it:

Step 1: stand with the kettlebell between your feet, your feet should be shoulder-width apart

Step 2:  bend at the hips to grip the kettlebell with straight arms. While you do this, engage your abs and pull your shoulders back

Step 3: next, you’re going to stand up straight, as you do this, imagine you are pushing your legs into the ground

Step 4: hold for a couple of seconds before bending your knees as you lower the weight back to the starting position. Repeat as desired

4. Block pull deadlift

Like the Sumo deadlift, the Block Pull deadlift features a reduced range of motion, making the lift easier for those who struggle with the correct deadlift technique.

A lot of people can struggle with flexing their hamstrings enough to lean forward and grip the bar when doing a standard deadlift. The Block Pull deadlift makes this easier by having the bar raised off the floor before you begin. Similarly to the Sumo deadlift, this will also let you lift heavier weights.

How to do it:

Step 1: rest the barbell on two blocks, how high you make the blocks is up to you, the higher the bar is before you begin, the less demanding this lift will be

Step 2: with your feet directly beneath the bar, bend your knees and grip the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart

Step 3: the rest of the move is pretty much exactly the same as any other deadlift, just start to stand up, pulling the bar up with you. When you’re standing straight make sure not to bend your back and the bar should be hip height for best result

Step 4: lower the bar back onto the block and repeat the lift as advised in your workout plan

The deadlift, as you can see, is a super versatile and customizable lift and there’s something to suit literally everyone. Just remember that proper technique is essential.

5. Paused deadlift

If you’re looking for a way to make deadlifts more challenging, you can add pauses to increase the time you are under tension.

You can do this with any deadlift variation. Simply carry out the set-up as normal and begin to execute the lift.

Once the bar reaches just below your knees, rather than continuing to stand up, pause there for two or three seconds to really put your strength to the test.

After the pause, simply continue with the lift as normal and repeat.

6. Trap bar deadlift

One of my favorites, I wrote a whole breakdown on the trap bar deadlift here. 

Final say

The Sumo deadlift is certainly a controversial lift and its use and success will depend entirely on your goals, body type, skill level and more.

If you are of average height, with no underlying injuries or pain and your goal is to build your strength and train your whole body, the Sumo deadlift will not bring much difference to your workouts.

But, it will help less confident lifters build muscle before taking on the more challenging lifts.

While the lift is widely referred to as a way of ‘cheating’ the system when it comes to competitive powerlifting, although the lift is perfectly legal, there’s no denying it works and will help you to win more competitions.

After all, lifting is better than no lifting, so do what suits you best.