Haven’t You Heard?
Powerlifting has become quite popular with the rise of Crossfit and social media. For a sport that only competes in the squat, bench, and deadlift, there are very few options when it comes to variations of the lifts that are legal within the competition rules in most powerlifting federations. One of the biggest variation differences is the sumo deadlift vs conventional deadlift. Both are legal in competition, but if the keyboard warriors on social media have taught me anything, is that sumo is cheating! Typically, the range of motion sumo provides is 25-40% less than conventional deadlifts (Escamilla 2000). People aren’t impressed when they only see 4 inches. (Story of my life . . . wait what?!). However, just because the range of motion is less, does not mean it’s easier. Yes, it’s mechanically less work, (Work=Force x Distance) but that is not important when lifting one rep maxes, as the most common factor for failing is generally the inability to overcome the weakest point of the lift. If sumo guaranteed you to lift more weight, then every competitive powerlifter would adopt the style, along with all the excessive pre-lift foot twisting set up, hand gesturing, and imaginary patty cake rituals that powerlifters do.
I remember when I first got into powerlifting fifteen years ago, I was a conventional puller at heart because that was what I first saw, and also because I was not sure how to perform sumo deadlifts properly. It wasn’t until about five years of training that I decided to try sumo deadlifts, and to my luck, Elite FTS came out with an article that stated how to choose conventional or sumo based on bone structure. It basically said that if you had a long torso (your torso would be more than 47% of your height), you would be better suited with sumo, and that if you have long arms (more than 38% of your height) you would do better with conventional deadlifts. Being as naive as I was, I remembered it, never questioned it, and preached it to whoever was willing to listen (or not willing but was in the unfortunate circumstance of being married to me). However, I will explain why there might be some truth to it later in this article. So, that brings us to the title of this article: how do we determine if we are built to lift more with sumo or conventional deadlifts? Let’s see what the science says!
Anthropometrical Determinants of Deadlift Variant Performance (Chowela 2017)
What Did They Do, Man?
The research nerds measured the height, weight, upper arm, forearm, hand length, wrist and
ankle girth, seated height, thigh length, and lower leg length of 47 deadlift noobs. The study stated that the subjects were currently engaged in structured resistance training, but the authors wanted the participants to be unfamiliar with deadlifting to minimize one particular preference of style over the other, as this would skew the data. After the subjects were taught how to deadlift, the subjects randomly performed a conventional or sumo one rep max deadlift, followed by the same stance for 60% of their 1RM for as many reps as possible (AMRAP). Then, after three to four days, the deadlift noobs then performed the same protocol of a 1RM and 60% AMRAP with the alternative deadlift style. The authors then compared all the data to see if there were any relationships between the anthropometry (fancy ass French words for how someone is built. The origin of the word “anthropo” literally means “human”, and “metry” means measurement) of a person, to the performance of sumo or conventional deadlifts.
Dude, What Happened?
The subjects had a 1RM average of 255 lbs for both sumo and conventional deadlifts (give or take 80 lbs) with around 21 reps on the AMRAPs. When it came to 1RM performance and how someone was built, the authors found a positive correlation of a stronger sumo 1RM when the lifter had a higher seated height to overall height ratio.
Why The FAQ Should I Care?
So, what does this all mean? In other words, get your seated height (from sitting surface to top of you head) and divide that by your overall height. If it’s around 52% or more, then the sumo stance might be for you. The research nerds didn’t say there was any particular cut off for the percentages, and did not provide any raw data of the measurements in order to give us the chance to try and figure it out. Instead, the research nerds just stated a not-by-accident correlation of r=.297 when it came to long torso lifters being stronger in sumo (I say “not by accident” because in statistics they use the word “significant” instead but I don’t want you to misinterpret that as the magnitude since the correlation provided in this particular study, the r value, is actually weak cause in grad school they teach us that anything less than .4 is weak, anything between .5 to .7 is moderate, and an r value of .7 and higher is a strong correlation). This study was kind of difficult to apply to competitive powerlifters since the lifters were all new to deadlifting in either style, and were relatively weak at an average of 255 lbs for their 1RM.
Now, this study would agree with the Elite FTS article I mentioned earlier, but only with the long torso portion and not the long arm portion. I believe the reason for that is because the article was based on literature by Hales 2010, but the caveat is that Hales’ article falls on the lowest level of evidence. It is on the opposite side of the gold standard, (meta-analysis/systematic reviews or even randomized control studies), but instead is just an expert’s opinion.
What Does Other Literature Say?
So all the previous studies mentioned above don’t exactly explain why some powerlifters pull much heavier in one style over the other. The population of subjects was the best the researchers could recruit, which were typically college students, and even then, it’s hard enough for them to actually want to commit four days to science (trust me, as I write this article, I am currently struggling to find subjects in my doctoral study on blood flow restriction despite how provocative and kinky it sounds). In another study (Escamilla 2000) they used an awesome population of twelve elite sumo pullers and twelve elite conventional pullers and analyzed their biomechanics during a powerlifting competition. When it came to starting the deadlift, they found significant differences between the two styles for the length of the moment arms (fancy French ass words for the perpendicular distance between the line of force and point of rotation. Think of how heavy it feels when trying to carry a 10 lb can of nacho cheese with straight arms compared to how easy it feels when you are embracing and holding the nacho cheese close to your heart. By the way, bless you Costco for providing me with life’s essentials). According to this study, the moment arms in the conventional deadlift are longer in front of the ankle and in front of the knee, whereas in sumo, the moment arms are longer behind the ankle and behind the knee. However, the moment arms are equal for the hips in both stances. Now, you are probably saying “Al, WTF are you talking about and can you explain it in another beautiful nacho cheese analogy?”. In brief, when it comes to sumo deadlifts, lifters will use more quads and shin muscles compared to conventional deadlifters, which will use more calf, hamstring, and spinal erector muscles, especially at the start of the pull with no difference in hip force (read: dat ass).
This corroborates with an EMG study by the same author that reports the same findings of increased EMG activity in those muscles for their respective deadlift style. Greg Nukols also wrote a nice article saying that 2/3 of all women or male lifters under 100kg tend to pick sumo as their competition variation most likely due to their muscle involvement stated earlier. Essentially, if one has the susceptibility of having stronger calves, hamstrings, and low back muscles, then conventional is optimal, whereas if one has stronger shin and quad muscles then sumo is optimal. Although hip strength demands are about the same for both sumo and conventional, these studies also validate another study (Cholewicki 1991) that looks at the spine loads during heavy deadlifts. In this study, the authors found that sumo deadlifts reduced the shearing force at lumbar segments L4/L5 by 8% compared to conventional deadlifts. Anecdotally, after acquiring a herniated disc, this was my reason for switching to sumo after 5 years of strictly pulling conventional. After switching to sumo, I did not experience any pain when deadlifting, just a decrease in my self respect, as we all know sumo is cheating.
What About Hip Structure and Flexibility?
Great question reader! It’s like you knew I wanted to talk about the different types of hip variations but did not have a great segue for it, (weeeiiirrdd). Stuart McGill, a world renowned expert of the spine, has talked about hip anatomy and how it can contribute to squat depth and width along with deadlift width. He states that deep squatters and sumo lifters tend to have a shallow hip socket, retroverted femur heads (think of this as when sometimes you see people that often point their toes really out when they walk. Now there are a lot of factors that can contribute to the manifestation of that, but I’m trying to keep it simple) and coxa valga (fancy ass French words that means that the femur head inclination angle is wide). He states that surgeons call this type the Dalmation Hip. Not named after the breed of dogs you would wish to make a lovely winter coat with, but after the Dalmatian coast in Croatia. This area typically and historically has great Olympic lifters from Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, and the Ukraine. In contrast, the Celtic Hip depicts deep hip sockets that are more limited in range of motion and higher cases of femoral impingement. Also, people that have more range of motion in their joints will have a length-tension relationship in their muscles that can produce more force closer to end range, ie: the end range of hip abduction and external rotation that sumo pullers are in. (I discuss the length-tension relationship more in depth in my first article “Does Squatting Like A IG Thot Increase Gains?”).
What I Recommend With My Clients
So with the population in these studies, we have extreme sides of the spectrum. On one end we have complete deadlift noobs that have not let their strength potential manifest in either of their deadlift styles, while on the other side, we have competitive deadlifters which have specialized in one type of style without having data on their counterpart deadlift style. With so many variables we went over in this article, we wouldn’t be able to know if the lifter would do better with sumo or conventional without training each style for at least an average of nine months. I talk about program writing and theory in this article. I say nine months because that will allow enough time for each month to build upon the last, all while addressing variables like mobility and technique. This is especially true in the sumo variation since it’s more technical than conventional with the most difficult portion of the lift being the initial start of the pull that sets the trajectory of the lift. Once either you or your coach understands your specific strengths and weaknesses of the different muscles and their lengths, along with your current mobility, you will optimize the right deadlift variation for you.
The Actionable Take-Aways
-Characteristics of strong conventional pullers:
- Shorter torsos compared to their overall height
- Stronger calf, hamstring, and low back muscles
- Tend to be the bigger lifters that are over 220 lbs.
- Possibly decreased history of low back pain.
- Possibly deeper hip sockets.
- Possibly with Western European ancestry
-Characteristics of strong sumo pullers:
- Longer torsos compared to their overall height
- Stronger shin and quad muscles
- Tend to be smaller lifters that are less than 220 lbs.
- Possibly increased history of low back pain.
- Possibly shallow hip sockets.
- Possibly with Eastern European ancestry
-Try to find the majority of characteristics you fall under and train accordingly.
-If you are new to deadlifting, get your seated height and divide that by your overall height, then multiply by 100. If it's 52 percent or above, try sumo.
-Train both styles seriously for at least nine months to eliminate chances of current modifiable variables affecting your future potential.
-Just understand that these are all general ideas trying to help get you in the right direction.
Compared to my last article “Is ‘Muscle Confusion’ Better For Strength and Hypertrophy?” where there is tons of literature on programming and periodization, this topic surprisingly has little research on the subject. In all my articles I list all my resources not just to prove that I am trying to be as objective as possible, but also for you to look at the evidence yourself to tentatively come up with the best explanation when weighing the pros and cons for the reasons why we do specific variations of lifts in the gym or on the platform. Please feel free to ask any physical therapy, powerlifting, or programming questions that you want answered in the next blog down in the comment box below, along with any comments or general questions.
Cholewa JM, Atalag O, Zinchenko A, Johnson K, Henselmans M. Anthropometrical Determinants of Deadlift Variant Performance. J Sports Sci Med. 2019 Aug 1;18(3):448-453. PMID: 31427866; PMCID: PMC6683626.
Escamilla RF, Francisco AC, Fleisig GS, Barrentine SW, Welch CM, Kayes AV, Speer KP, Andrews JR. A three-dimensional biomechanical analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2000 Jul;32(7):1265-75. doi: 10.1097/00005768-20000
Escamilla RF, Francisco AC, Kayes AV, Speer KP, Moorman CT 3rd. An electromyographic analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2002 Apr;34(4):682-8. doi: 10.1097/00005768-200204000-00019. PMID: 11932579.