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The Art of the Sumo Deadlift – Part 2: Mobility

As a follow up to my well received article “The Art of The Sumo Deadlift- Part 1”. I am proud to call upon my good friend and training partner for assistance, who happens to have his Doctorate in Chiropractic. Through some collaboration we were able to put together some common trouble areas for lifters learning to sumo deadlift. Here you will find some suggestions to approach correcting them. Remember these are purely suggestions, and any improper motor patterns, or positions causing pain or impingement should not be loaded before seeking appropriate professional help.

The raw sumo deadlift has become a go to alternative for many high-level powerlifting athletes, such as Dan Green and Connor Lutz (“although at a significantly lesser level than Dan Green” -Clutz).  The short lever movement allows for those with a long torso and short limbs to maximize the pull.  The key to this technical lift is the set up, and proper prioritization of movements to allow for a proper line from the floor to the lockout position.  If you are not mobile enough to get in the proper position, this lift will ultimately be unforgiving, as it’s easy to overuse the back musculature and result in injury.  I will now detail common faults and restrictions in this technique, and give you some mobility examples to help mobilize the areas of restriction.

Common Sumo Deadlift Faults

1.      Toes pointing forward

This is a common fault seen by lifters who are transitioning to a sumo deadlift technique from a conventional technique.  They often set up with a wide stance, but fail to set their toes out at 45 degrees.  This is sometimes a cueing mistake, and not a mobility error.  However, if you have trouble getting your toes to point out it may be wise to look upstream at your hips and adductor muscles.  If they are short or tight you will often notice that your ankles are caving in, your knees are crashing in, and you have trouble keeping your hips open.

Quick fix: Roll out your adductors and medial calf. Practice short foot techniques (http://www.somastruct.com/exercises/short-foot-exercise/)

art of sumo deadlift part 2

art of sumo deadlift part 2

Left Image: Flat Foot, Right Image: Short Foot

2.      Knees over the bar and closed hips

In the sumo deadlift, your knees should be forced outwards over your second toe, and behind the bar while keeping proper hip height and a neutral spine.  For those who cannot achieve this position, it’s often the hips and adductor group causing you to fall forward and closing off your hips.  In addition, weak gluteus medius, and maximus will reduce your external rotation strength, allowing your adductors to over power you.

Quick fix: Banded adductors stretch and strengthen your gluteus medius and maximus to allow proper external rotation of your hips.  examples = Monster Walks and Banded Squats

art of sumo deadlift part 2

 

3.      Shoulders too far over the bar

If you have trouble keeping your shoulders back and directly over the bar, a simple cue is to pull the bar back and into you.  This will allow you to properly load your scapulae (shoulder blades) into the down and in position, which will activate your lower trapezius, and lattisiumus dorsi muscles. This will create proper neutral spine, and external rotation at the shoulder, which will bring your shoulders directly over the bar, and keep your chest up.  From a mobility point of view, you will want to address the anterior chain structures. The pectoralis major, and minor will be forcing your shoulders to internally rotate and cause you to fall forward.

Quick fix: Scapular retractions with bands (Straight arm lat pulldowns), as well as pectoralis major and minor smash.

art of sumo deadlift part 2

4.      Loss of a neutral spine

From a chiropractic perspective, neutral spine is the most important part of this technique, as it allows for all other sequences to be achieved for an optimal lift. If you don’t have proper neutral spine with an upright torso, you are going to turn this lift into a sumo stance stiff legged deadlift. The neutral spine is not a mobility issue, but an issue of prioritization and stability.  The hips are meant to be an area of mobility, and the low back an area of stability.  Therefore fixing the hips will allow for proper overall positioning in the sumo deadlift.

Quick fix: Mobilize the hips and practice proper neutral spine. 

art of sumo deadlift part 2

Left Image: Poor Form, Right Image: Neutral Spine 

5. Lockout trouble

Lockout can be difficult for some lifters, not due to strength, but due to mobility. The muscles that connect your tuberosity of the ischium (pelvis) to your femur (thigh bone) are often the culprits.  These muscles are the hamstring and adductor magnus (adductor) muscles. Having overly tight hamstrings can inhibit your body’s ability to lock out your knees.  In addition the hip flexors, iliopsoas, are often a trouble area in this movement.  It attaches to the vertebrae in your lower back, and the head of your femur. This muscle often causes an increase in your lumbar lordosis, which can lead to back pain and difficulty getting your hips through.

Quick fix: Squat Opener to Sumo Toe Touch (located in bonus video) and rolling out tight adductors. 

Psoas (couch stretch)

Psoas (couch stretch)

Recap

If you want to become an expert lifter, it is important to use proper technique in all lifts.  That being said, the sumo deadlift is one of the most complex, rewarding lifts if performed to perfection.  You will realize immediately that it takes time to master such a technical movement, but once you do, you will see a dramatic increase in your posterior chain muscle strength.  In the long run, this lift will improve your performance in all areas of strength training.

Sumo Warmup, and Bonus Video!

 

  • Foam Roll / Lax Ball
  • ITs
  • Adductors
  • Gluteus Med, Gluteus Maximus, Piriformis
  • Hamstring/Glute Tie-In
  • Rocking Frog to Sumo Seal Stretch
  • Squat Hip Opener to Sumo Toe Touch (working from narrow to wide)
  • Backwards Roll to V-Sit
  • Side Lunge / Adductor Stretch
  • T-Rex Walks
  • Monster Walks
  • Banded Squats
  • Deadlifts!

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.

Screen Shot 2013-09-25 at 12.04.50 AM

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.


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