The Art of the Sumo Deadlift – Part 1

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Connor Sumo DeadliftI will be the first to admit that deadlifting has been the most challenging of the three powerlifting disciplines for me. While squatting and benching have naturally come relatively easily, the deadlift not so much. While this may seem like a reason to disregard my thoughts on the deadlift, I can say that I have first hand experience on the trials and tribulations of building a strong deadlift. Similar to how average players often become the best coaches due to the time they put in learning and understanding ways to compete against others more genetically gifted; I have put in significant time studying and critiquing my sumo deadlift technique in the hopes to escape disappointment on the platform.

While I hate to make excuses, the short limbed, long torso lifter is simply behind the 8-ball when it comes to huge conventional pulls. The hips sit too low, the bar travels too far, and without erectors made of rebar, the lift often becomes technically, and biomechanically difficult. Often times compromising spinal position to the point of being dangerous under heavy loads. Being of this aforementioned hobbit type physique, I began to deadlift sumo in the hopes to escape the fate of “out squatting my deadlift”. Historically, sumo deadlifting was largely popular amongst equipped lifters for the simple fact it was easier to load the hips of a deadlift suit with a wider foot placement, allowing lifters to make bigger pulls. There was a feeling that it wasn’t possible to pull big numbers using sumo technique raw. What we have seen is the likes of Belyaev, Pozdeev, Wierzbicki and Dan Green who have put up monster numbers recently, all deadlifting sumo raw.

The sumo deadlift, in my opinion, became popularized by the Russian lifters who are historically all technicians of the sport. The mindset stereotypically of conventional deadlifters’ of “grip it and rip it” definitely doesn’t apply to the technically demanding lift of sumo deadlifts, and may have led to the misconceptions about raw sumo deadlifts. Sumo deadlifting is a lift that requires patience, dedication, and attention to detail. This is not to say that conventional deadlifting doesn’t require these attributes, but in my opinion, they are required in greater quantity when starting to deadlift sumo. I like to look at the sumo deadlift as a masterpiece, rather than a test of true brute strength.

Screen Shot 2013-09-25 at 12.04.50 AMThe first mistake most people transitioning to the sumo deadlift make, is that they simply “deadlift conventional” with a wider foot placement. I can’t stress enough, that for the exception of a few genetically gifted deadlifters, the sumo deadlift is not the same movement as a conventional deadlift. What I mean by this, is that you can’t simply storm up to the bar, grab hold of that thing, and yank on it until it comes up. Positioning is extremely important, and plays an enormous role in ability to complete the lift. A notion some conventional deadlifters ignore.

Sumo Deadlift Form and Positioning

Foot placement

In terms of foot placement, there is no one size fits all approach to setting up. A lot of factors come into play such as hip mobility, biomechanics, and individual lifter strengths. While there is no one answer to this question, it can make or break a lifters’ ability to deadlift sumo. A good rule of thumb is to pay attention to the angle of the shin in the bottom position of the setup, and to start with the shins slightly past perpendicular to the bar.

Semi Sumo (Narrow Stance)

Semi Sumo (Narrower Stance)

The narrower the stance, typically the easier it will be to break the floor, but the harder it will be to lock the weight out due to torso angle and hip height (which should make sense later on).

Conversely, the wider the stance, the more difficult it will be to break the floor, but the easier it will be to finish the lift due to upper body positioning. Thinking of it slightly differently, the narrower the stance the more similar it becomes to a conventional deadlift (more back). The wider the stance the less stress on the back and more emphasis placed on the hips, hamstrings (more legs), and upper back.

Toe Angle

A common question that gets asked, is what angle should the toes be at? A good place to start is approximately 45 degrees.

The more pointed forward the toes are, the greater stress that gets placed on the hips, and the more the lifters mobility is challenged. The more toe’d out the lifter, the harder it will be to get the weight off the floor.

Incorrect Sumo Knees Over Bar

Incorrect Knees Over Bar

Again, each lifter will be slightly different but splitting the difference is a good place to start!

Knee Positioning

Before beginning the lift, the knees need to be forced outwards, opening up at the hips. The knees must be behind the bar. Unlike the conventional deadlift, shins should be as vertical as possible. This will help with getting the hips and shoulders into the right position.

Hip Positioning

Incorrect Sumo Knees Caving

Incorrect Knees Caving & Hips Closed

The goal of the sumo setup is to keep the hips as high as possible WHILE maintaining proper shoulder positioning. This is going to happen by forcing the knees outwards hard, dropping the hips down, and keeping your hips as close to the bar as possible. The closer the hips can stay to the bar, the easier it will be to lock the weight out.

Shoulder Positioning

The shoulders need to be above the bar throughout the whole lift. This idea of shoulders AND hips as high as possible while opening at the hips will keep the torso as vertical as possible. A lot of lifters struggle with understanding where “above” the bar really is at the shoulder.

Incorrect Sumo Shoulders Over Bar

Incorrect Shoulders Over Bar

The best way to judge this is by paying attention to the angle of the arm. When setting up and pulling the weight, the arm must stay perpendicular to the floor. The anterior delt is not the “shoulder”, and lining this up with the bar will force the hips too low making the weight extremely hard to break the floor. Lining the shoulder blade up with the bar will push the hips too high and make the weight difficult to lockout.

Before beginning the lift, the knees need to be forced outwards, opening up at the hips. The knees must be behind the bar, unlike the conventional deadlift, shins should be as vertical as possible. This will help with getting the hips and shoulders into the right position.

Putting it all together

When setting up to sumo deadlift, start with the bar straight against the shins, drop your hands straight down, driving your knees out, sink your hips until your hands reach the bar. While dropping down to the bar, your chest should be proud, stick it out a little, with the goal of keeping your hips as high as possible. Once you have established your hip height, push your heels through the floor, pulling the slack out of the bar until your chest is high, and your shoulders are above the bar. This will keep your torso as upright as possible.

Correct Sumo Position

Correct Sumo Position

Initiate the pull by spreading the floor with your feet, with the idea of forcing your hips towards the bar. The shoulders and hips should rise at the same time, patiently creeping the weight off the floor keeping the chest nice and proud. Once the bar reaches the knees you then initiate the lockout with an aggressive knee extension, locking the knees to provide leverage to finish the lift. Once the knees are locked, the hips are extended and forced to the bar. To finish, the shoulders are pulled back creating something that is like a giant pendulum.

Sumo Deadlift Lockout

The sumo lockout is a very brief two-part movement, a violent knee extension followed by hip extension. If the knees aren’t locked before the hips are brought through, the knees will sag and the weight will be extremely difficult to lock out.

Correct Sumo Position

Correct Sumo Position

The art that is the sumo deadlift requires great patience to break the floor, with the precise timing at lockout. Locking the knees too early will pitch the body forward; locking too late will make it difficult to extend the hips. Once this is mastered, the Sumo deadlift is a piece of beauty, a masterpiece.

No Sumo Deadlift Article is complete without a look at what in my opinion, is the most technically sound lifter in the world, Andrey Belyaev.

Looking for sumo deadlift form check? Post up your video in the comments, and I’ll be happy to give you some feedback.

This is the first of a series of sumo deadlift articles. Keep your eyes open for part two, where we will go over mobility, and flexibility for the sumo deadlift.

Connor Lutz is an elite powerlifter in the 181 Lb weight class. Connor holds the World Record bench press in the IPF of 403 Lb. His current best lifts are a 541 Lb squat, 430 Lb bench, and 600 Lb deadlift. He is also a member of the Saskatoon Barbell Club in Canada.

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37 Comments

  1. The Dude

    A sincere “thank you” for sharing such a comprehensive ‘step-by-step’ guide to sumo deadlifting – dare I say it, the best on the internet at thi spoint. While I have been doing the conventional DL for the past 2 years, I was intimidated by the technique involved in the sumo variant. Thanks to your guide , I was able to equal my conventional DL PR towards the end of my schedule today. Thank you again!

    Reply
      1. The Dude

        Could you possibly consider doing a similar step-by-step guide for the front squat (cross arm style)?

        Thank you and greetings from India!

        Reply
    1. Clutz15

      It’s hard to see proper positioning form the back, but it actually looks pretty good man! It looks like you need to squeeze the quads a little harder when you initiate lockout and are struggling to engage your glutes to finish the lift. Try doing some deadlifts paused at the knee for 2 seconds you that you can practice that lockout. Adding in some pulls against bands will also help getting that speed through lockout, because if its not fast you won’t get it! Goodluck with your training. Hope this helps.

      Reply
      1. Hidayat

        Thanks for the advice and tips man! Appreciate the help you’ve given. l’ll certainly be applying the deadlifts paused in training. I’ll have to think of a set-up for the bands though.Thanks!

        Reply
  2. hastalles

    Hey Connor, I think I’m stronger with my upper back rounded than with it arched. Probably cause it puts my hips higher? Anyway, I noticed that you recommend an arched upper back here. Do you think I have an issue here that I need to address? Or are my leverages just really weird. :D Thanks for your time!

    Reply
    1. Clutz15 Post author

      Great effort! The pull actually looks pretty good man. Try working in some paused deadlifts. 1-3 second pause at the knee, about an inch before you got stuck. Work on contracting your quads and using your hips and shoulders as a lever to lock the weight out. Also doing some speed pulls against bands will make you realize really fast how quick you have to transition and bring the hips through.

      Reply
  3. trancebreak

    Hi mate, just wondering if you could give this a quick look. I find it real difficult to sit into the starting position which results in my shoulders sitting over the bar incorrectly and muscling the weight with nothing but my back because of the lack of leg drive. I’ve read your mobility article on part 2, I’m going to implement those stretches daily. Do you have any other advice? Please help a frustrated puller -_-

    Reply
    1. Clutz15 Post author

      You want to try and be as upright as possible. This is going to happen by getting your hips as tight to the bar as you can, you can achieve this by opening your hips and driving your knees towards the outside of your feet. Potentially “toeing” out a little more might help with out seeing it from the front. Also when you setup try dropping straight down to the bar, spreading your knees and keeping your chest up. It might help in cueing you into the correct position. Also don’t be in a rush to get the weight off the floor. Be patient and keep your positioning, the weight will come! Good luck in your training!

      Reply
    1. Clutz15 Post author

      Nothing bad to say about that one! My only real recommendation is to deadlift in a harder, flatter shoe. Or in barefeet if your gym allows it. The squishy sole on running shoes makes it tough to stay in proper position, while force is lost aswell. You want to get into position by driving your feet down through the floor and a regular runner inhibits this. Other than that, it looked good!

      Reply
  4. Amy

    Just found this article — great stuff! I normally do conventional deads but have recently started trying sumos. If you are still giving feedback, I’d appreciate you taking a look. Thanks in advance!

    Reply
    1. Clutz15 Post author

      I would try dropping your hips a little bit in your setup. Try to open the knees a little bit more to get them tighter to the bar. This will utilize more “legs” to get the weight moving rather than your back which looks like its breaking sligthly off the floor. If I had to guess a video from the side would have your shoulders too far in front of the bar, turning it more into a straight leg, sumo deadlift. I’ve actually found alot of women, particularly longer limbed ladies like yourself, that find your style of setup more effective. I don’t have an issue with your hips that high if you can maintain a proper starting position ie. without your shoulders over that bar. Try to “set your hip height” and then pull your shoulders back into position by driving your knees out and heels through the floor. Hopefully that made some sort of sense!

      Reply
  5. Martin

    Hi Connor!
    Thanks for an amazing article. I’m a novice powerlifter who’s adapting to the sumo deadlift due to having had a lot of lower back problems when using the conventional style. I have been using the sumo deadlift form for only 2 weeks so any feedback you can offer would be very valuable to me. I have a fairly narrow stance due to hip mobility (working on that so thanks for the part 2 of this article) and think that I need to try and keep my initial back angle throughout the lift instead of slightly tilting forward.

    Cheers!

    Reply
  6. Ralph

    How is my sumo deadlift here? i just switched to this style from conventional because I had trouble setting my back.

    Thanks

    Reply
      1. Ralph

        Thanks for the feedback. Hope you saw it despite the quality of my video. I just hope I can maintain a straight back as the weight goes up.

        Reply
      1. Martin

        Hard too see from behind but it looks like you there is some distance between your shins and bar in the lower part of the lift. Your back angle is slightly compromised during the lift which might make lockout difficult. By pulling the bar in towards you as you lift you will be in a stronger positon when you pull and the stress on the back will lessen

        Reply
  7. Martin

    Preparing for my first meet in 1 month and would love some pointers. Keep tipping forward and don’t quite know what to do about it

    Reply
    1. Martin

      Oh and btw my 1RM Squat is 170kgs but my dead is only 180. Want to increase my pull over 200 so that its correlates better to my squat, thx for an amazing article

      Reply
  8. House

    Just off the top. Looks like you might benefit from keeping your hips down at first pull. Also practicing on holding that weight through the negative as much as possible. Federations typically require control to the ground. Just some thoughts

    Reply
    1. Martin

      Thx for the reply House, keeping the hips low is my problem and I don’t quite know what to do in order to keep the angle of my back more upright. I’m just super pissed in the video which is why I dropped the weight, I usually follow IPF regulations = )

      Reply
    1. Judy

      Okay, well, can’t figure out how to get the video embedded. Sorry. Also I got your name wrong. Sorry again.

      Reply
  9. Jack

    Outstanding series! Do you depress the shoulder blades when pulling the sack out of the bar?

    Also, not sure where the “feel” of shoulder above the bar is. However, I can feel it my shoulder is “behind” the bar. is this ok?

    thanks

    Reply

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