When it comes to deadlift variations, sumo and conventional deadlifts take center stage. While the two techniques have their differences, they remain rooted in the same core foundation: both are dominantly hip extension movements that put emphasis on the glutes and hamstrings while also working the quads and associated stabilizing muscles (e.g. lats and spinal erectors).
So, what are the differences between the two variations and, more importantly, which one should you choose? Let’s take a closer look.
The Conventional Deadlift
The conventional deadlift is the classic variation where the feet are placed hip-width apart and the hands are positioned just outside the legs. This technique helps with:
Emphasis on the Posterior Chain – The conventional deadlift places significant demand on the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back, making it an effective exercise for total posterior chain strengthening.
Increased Hamstring Activation – The conventional deadlift requires more hip flexion and places greater stress on the hamstrings compared to the sumo deadlift.
The Sumo Deadlift
The sumo deadlift is characterized by a wider stance, with the feet positioned outside the hands. This technique results in:
Reduced Strain on the Lower Back – The wider stance and more upright torso position of the sumo deadlift can alleviate stress on the lower back compared to the conventional deadlift. This makes it a suitable option for lifters who have experienced lower back issues or prefer to prioritize other muscle groups.
Increased Quadriceps and Glute Activation – The sumo deadlift places a greater emphasis on the quads and glutes. This can be advantageous for individuals seeking to target these muscle groups.
Isn’t sumo cheating?
Contrary to what you may hear, pulling sumo is not “cheating.” In fact, the vast majority of elite competitive lifters who deadlift upwards of 900 pounds choose to pull conventional! Trust us—if it were easier to pull sumo, they would.
Your natural preference depends on your individual body mechanics—more specifically, your hip structure.1 Greg Nuckols, sport science writer, explains it like this:
Whether you’re stronger in straight-ahead hip flexion (favoring the conventional deadlift) or hip flexion with hip abduction (favoring the sumo deadlift) depends, in large part, on your hip structure. I’ll spare you the technical anatomical terms, but in simple terms, pelvises come in all shapes and sizes, hip sockets can be located farther forward or farther back on a pelvis, those hip sockets can be shallower or deeper, the angle of the femur where it meets the pelvis can vary, and there’s also some variation in how rotated the femur is where it meets the pelvis.
Those five distinct variables will determine both the range of motion your hips can go through, and the amount of muscular tension you can develop in different hip positions.2
How do I know which one is right for me?
It really depends on your goal.
If you’re looking to strengthen or grow specific parts of your body (such as your quads or your hamstrings), program in the variation that makes the most sense for your fitness goals.
If you’re looking to get your deadlift as strong as possible, your approach will be a bit different. In order to find the variation your body is naturally most comfortable with, train both methods equally for a few months. Then, choose the variation that you feel strongest with at submaximal loads of 70-80% of your 1 rep max.
Regardless of which variation you choose, deadlifts remain a vital component of any comprehensive strength training program, helping you build strength, muscle mass, and overall functional power. Incorporating proper form, progressive overload, and adequate rest and recovery will ensure that you reap the full benefits of deadlifts and continue to progress in your strength training journey.
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