By Drew Spriggs
This article is undoubtedly going to be the most controversial thing I’ve ever written, so I’m going to come straight out and say it – all strongman competitors SHOULD be sumo deadlifting.
Now I have gotten your attention (and probably all of your hate), let’s look at my arguments for the sumo deadlift (or variant of), and why you should be performing them. First up, let’s dismantle the arguments I hear time and time again against sumo deadlifts.
1. It’s cheating. Right off the bat, let’s make something clear – cheating is breaking the rules. If competition rules specifically stated that no sumo deadlifts are allowed (which, face it, a lot do) and you pulled with a sumo stance then yes, you would be cheating. What about during training though? Do people practice partial ROM deadlifts during training even though it might be a rull ROM lift in competition? By the same logic, you are ‘cheating’ during training despite partials being an effective training tool. This is a stupid argument, and anybody who sticks by it can be safely ignored.
2. It’s easier. This is an argument I see thrown out consistently by ‘experienced’ lifters. Let’s break it down – from partial pull heights (ie. 15″ and 18″), being able to pull sumo will reduce their ROM so it might indeed be easier. However, when you start pulling off the ground, the playing field is evened out – being ‘good’ at sumo requires a heap of technical proficiency and trying to muscle the weight up will generally result in the bar not moving off the ground, or being unable to lock it out. There are people out there who will find themselves able to pull more off the ground sumo than conventional, however this is often a question of leverages and not something that can be gained without practicing sumo – if you are one of these people, why wouldn’t you want to be as strong as possible (providing you’re in a position to pull sumo during a competition?) If anybody using this argument ISN’T STRONGER at pulling sumo off the ground, then you can safely ignore them.
3. Sumo deadlifts are only for women. This is a weird argument that I’ve seen thrown around a few times and I am not sure what basis it has. Yes, often females will be able to get into a better start position due to hip structure than males, but this definitely isn’t a rule. For example:
As well as Kimberly Walford pulling [email protected] ([email protected]) with amazing conventional technique. Want to tell either of them that they are pulling the wrong stance? Can you even deadlift as much as Kimberly? Probably not.
Now all those arguments are out of the way, let’s look at why you SHOULD be sumo deadlifting in some capacity, frequently.
1. Increased glute/hip strength: Something incredibly prevalent in beginner-advanced (but not elite) strongman competitors I see, both male and female, is poor hip and glute strength. This will often result in a poor hinge pattern while deadlifting (reliance on spinal erectors over hip extensors, such as glutes and hamstrings), poor deadlift lockout and inability to ‘pop’ atlas stones. Sumo deadlifts, performed correctly, will increase hip/glute strength and can improve all of those issues. There is a common belief that the correct way to conventional deadlift is to ‘squat’ the weight up or that having hips lower will activate the quads more. However, this is not the case – the point where the bar will move off the ground is primarily determined by individual leverages, and secondly more quad activation (specifically rec fem) will result in MORE hamstring strength needed to hinge at the hips (as the hamstrings and rec fem are directly opposite in their action)! Sumo deadlifts tend to use more of the gluteal group for hip extension, so the quads will be able to work synergistically to get the bar moving.
You can see the ‘pop’ from the lap position that Brian Shaw has. I am going to go out on a limb and say his hips are pretty strong.
2. Increased upper body loading: Using the ‘ease’ of sumo deadlifts off blocks, it is possible to overload the upper back in much the same way as using a Slingshot can for horizontal pressing. Given that people will generally be able to pull significantly more sumo off blocks than conventional off blocks, it is possible to do massive amounts of upper back work without overloading the spine/CNS, which can cause excessive fatigue. Being able to manage high loads for long periods of time will help build strong traps, lats, forearms and stabilising muscles – a benefit for almost every single static and dynamic lift/event.
If “time under tension” is a huge driver for hypertrophy, handling +1000lbs for a few seconds sure is one way to get bigger – I don’t think Dan [Green] has any issues with upper back mass.
3. Decreased lumbar shear forces: While there is always a risk of injury when lifting weights, studies have shown that there are significantly less shear forces on the lumbar spine (in particular L4-L5) when performing a sumo deadlift over conventional. Anecdotally, every lumbar spine herniation/rupture I have encountered in clients or athletes has been around L4/L5/S1, so any version of deadlifting with reduced lumbar shear is often beneficial to these lifters. The trap bar is another implement that has decreased lumbar shear forces, however it is a speciality piece of equipment that not every gym has – any good gyms will have a barbell.
4. Increased training efficiency: Training efficiency is something I am a big believer in, especially for those who like to push the boundaries with high training volumes. It is generally accepted than front squatting is superior to back squatting in terms of carryover to events, however if an athlete were to only front squat and conventional deadlift, there would be a hip strength deficiency (especially as the back squat is a potential competition event). If an athlete were to only back squat and conventional deadlift, they are missing out on all the benefits that anteriorly loaded squats come with (increased upper back/torso strength, etc), and less specificity to events such as atlas stones and yoke. For those already training at a very high volume, needing to back AND front squat means less time spent on events if recovery is already an issue, something we don’t want to happen, or reduced frequency of both. The sumo deadlift can help bridge the gap – it will increase hip strength (as with back squats), however it has the added benefits of upper back loading and decreased lumbar shear forces. It is also accepted that sumo deadlifts will also ‘carryover’ to the back squat due to hip, upper back and torso strength, so it is possible to be ‘prepared’ to back squat without needing to train it. For this reason, I believe the sumo deadlift to MORE beneficial than the back squat for strongman athletes, providing the athlete is already front squatting.
5. Increased “picking stuff up off the ground” variety: Quite often athletes will find themselves at a plateau with their deadlift, and an accepted way of getting past it is increasing frequency of that movement pattern. Generally speaking, there are only 3 variants of the conventional deadlift that are highly specific – off the ground, from a deficit and from a reduced height. While they all have their places, they require a differing hip position to initiate the movement which doesn’t always improve your pull off the ground. The sumo deadlift is a less-specific variant that can be introduced and in my experience is a great tool for exceeding plateaus. It’s also worthwhile looking at some of the best deadlifters around, whether they pull sumo or conventional the clear majority train the other form in their off season or as accessory work (for example, look at Dan Green or Ed Coan).
6. Teaches patience. With conventional deadlifts: It is common to ‘rush’ the start of the pull – how often do you see people charging in off a massive hit of Torq, yelling and screaming with a “grip and rip” conventional deadlift setup? Too often, these people end up massively out of position with a ‘fish hook’ lumbar spine, and needing to hitch/lap excessively to lock out a sub-maximal deadlift – or miss it completely at the top. With sumo, it is near impossible to ‘grip and rip’ – the requirement for good leverages and positioning is too high, as well as the latency before the start of the pull and the bar moving off the ground. This patience is something that often seperates the good lifters from the great, and a very important skill to learn.
Aussie powerlifter Annie Rendle-Short with a [email protected] ([email protected]) sumo deadlift to win the Pro-Raw invitational last year. A perfect example of patience while initating the deadlift – if at any point she rushed, it would never have locked out.
Implementing Sumo Deadlifts
A good sumo deadlift requires exceptional hip mobility, something most people will lack at the start but can be developed, paradoxically, by sumo deadlifting. The easiest way to increase hip mobility is to start pulling from blocks (say 6″), and over a period of a month or two work your way down to the ground. For those who are sticking purely to strongman, I don’t believe much time needs to be spent pulling sumo off the ground – pulling off 3-4″ blocks consistently is all that’s needed to reap the benefits of sumo. However, if you find you have a hip structure suited to pulling sumo, then I would recommend you spend some time pulling off the ground; if you’re stronger at sumo and have any plans to compete in powerlifting, this is where you should be! I tend to stick to higher rep ranges with all my clients who aren’t planning on pulling sumo in competition – a few sets high-rep sumo block pulls are a great way to finish off a deadlift session with a phenomenal glute pump. It is also possible to run an ‘off-season’ of sumo deadlifts with lower rep ranges (and increased loads), by the time you get back to peaking for competition the increased hip strength will be a massive benefit to you (especially if it is lacking in the first place).
Like anything, the sumo deadlift is a training tool that shouldn’t be shunned and avoided due to age-old criticisms that aren’t applicable. Just like you shouldn’t avoid bench pressing, the strongman athlete shouldn’t avoid sumo deadlifts if they want to become the best athlete they can be.
Drew is a competitive powerlifter and strongman, who realized that strength training had a massive positive effect on other areas of his life. After realizing he was much better at teaching others how to be lift than lifting himself, he decided to step down off the platform and create Dreadnought Strength – an online and in-person coaching business that dedicates itself to allowing regular people to experience the trans formative power of strength training. He is available for online coaching from Starting Strongman
Featured Image Matt Mills @MillsFitness