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The Art of the Sumo Deadlift – Part 1


I 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.

The 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.

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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.

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.

Semi Sumo (Narrow Stance)

Semi Sumo (Narrower Stance)

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.

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.

Incorrect Sumo Knees Over Bar

Incorrect Knees Over Bar

Hip Positioning

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.

Incorrect Sumo Knees Caving

Incorrect Knees Caving & Hips Closed

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.

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.

Incorrect Sumo Shoulders Over Bar

Incorrect Shoulders Over Bar

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.

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.

Correct Sumo Position

Correct Sumo Position

Correct Sumo Position

Correct Sumo Position

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.

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.

  1. Mark K-O

    Since you offered…

  2. Thanks for this article!

  3. I know this article is a bit dates, but it’s good. In the pictures it seems her hips are too low- basically at knee height or just barely above. Is. This ok and just a product of everything. See being lined up? Seems like a hard position to break the floor, not so much when your bending a bar, but. I gather she’s not.

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