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by on Mar 19, 2012 in Athletic Performance, Guides, Training, Westside Barbell | 8 comments

Sumo & Conventional Deadlifting: An Overview of Technique, Programming, and Individual Weaknesses

 

 

*Insert generic declaration regarding the Deadlift as a testosterone boosting, barn door back producing, man making necessity in every strength and conditioning program here.*

 

The Deadlift is a great movement – we know this.

 

We know that properly executed Deadlifts within an intelligently designed strength training program can potentially:

  • Improve absolute strength, speed strength, rate of force development, flexibility, and core stability
  • Improve soft tissue and bone strength
  • Reduce the likelihood of various injuries during sport and activities of daily living

 

While I could write an educational piece explaining why you should include the Deadlift and/or its numerous variations into your training routine, I’d rather not reiterate what most of us already know.

 

Instead, this article will differentiate between the two most common Deadlift variations (Sumo & Conventional) while providing step-by-step instructions regarding proper technique and programming for optimal efficiency.

 

Finally, I will offer a list of various exercises aimed at improving the Deadlift based on your individual mini-max (i.e. where you have the most trouble during the lift).

 

Enjoy

 

-J

 

Section 1: The Conventional Deadlift

Eric Cressey Conventional Deadlifting 660lbs. I believe a moment of silence is in order….


The Conventional Deadlift is often regarded as the original, the first, and the king of all lifts. The Conventional Deadlift, in all of its glorious simplicity, involves walking up to a loaded bar, feet roughly shoulder width apart, and picking it up until complete hip and knee extension (i.e. lockout).

 

The more you can pick up, the cooler you are. Simple as that.

 

Ideal Body Type:

Individuals with long arms and short(er) legs are generally better suited for the Conventional Deadlift. Their long arms will reduce the lifts total range of motion and their shorter legs will prevent their knees from obstructing the bar path.

 

Positives:

  • Larger Range of Motion (ROM)

Trainees attempting to increase muscle hypertrophy may prefer the Conventional Deadlift as it requires the individual to work through a greater ROM, which this study suggests may improve the hypertrophic response.

  • Increased Energy Expenditure

Escamilla et al. found 25-40% greater vertical bar distance, mechanical work, and energy expenditure with the Conventional Deadlift. Therefore, individuals trying to burn more calories during exercise may prefer the Conventional Deadlift.

  • Greater Involvement of the Lower Back/Erectors

Individuals attempting to specifically train their lower back may benefit from using the Conventional Deadlift as it places far greater demand on the erectors.

  • Forces Thoracic Extension

For a variety of reasons, our society generally lacks adequate thoracic mobility. In order to perform the Conventional Deadlift in a safe and efficient manner one must exhibit sufficient thoracic extension which will likely improve posture and overall function.

 

Negatives:

  • Larger Range of Motion (ROM)

Strength athletes are generally less concerned with muscle hypertrophy and are more focused on lifting as much weight as possible. The larger ROM in the Conventional Deadlift may be less efficient and result in less weight lifted during competition.

  • More Sheer Stress on the Spine

The Conventional Deadlift places far more stress on the spine (notably L4/L5), potentially making it a more dangerous movement to perform.

  • More Technically Advanced

Beginners often have a great deal of trouble grasping what constitutes proper technique and are subsequently more prone to injury through using this exercise. Additionally, the Conventional Deadlift requires much greater mobility (notably in the ankles and T-spine) making it more difficult to assume the most advantageous position.

  • Trunk Placement

The nature of the Conventional Deadlift forces individuals to be less upright at the initiation of the lift. This compromised position theoretically makes the lift harder to complete as well as more dangerous.

 

 

Conventional Deadlift Technique:

 

Setting Up:

  • Feet Shoulder-Width Apart

During the Conventional Deadlift your feet should remain approximately shoulder-width apart. I’d note this is highly individual and some lifters prefer a slightly closer stance while others favor a somewhat wider stance.

 

There is no right or wrong so find what works and feels best for you.

  • Feel the Steel (on your shins!)

One of the most common errors I see among trainees is the tendency to initiate the Deadlift with the bar too far away from their shins.

 

Think about this for a second: If you were to pick up two heavy bags of groceries, would you bend over and grab them from far away or would you get as close as possible prior to picking them up?

 

Hopefully you would get as close as possible to improve your leverages and avoid a potential injury.

 

The same thought process applies to the Conventional Deadlift: Whether or not your shins actually touch the bar is irrelevant; as a general rule of thumb, prior to beginning the lift the bar should be no more than 1 inch away from your shins.

  • Sit Back, NOT Down

This is known as the hip-hinge and can be a very tricky concept to teach.

 

In an attempt to explain the hip-hinge as clearly as possible I’m going to ask you to follow the directions outlined below. Ideally, my cleverly written step-by-step instructions will give you a solid understanding as to what a proper hip-hinge feels like.

  1. Stand up and place your body so the fronts of your knees are approximately 2-3 inches in front of a couch, coffee table, or other knee-high surface.
  2. Place your feet roughly shoulder-width apart and shift your body weight onto your heels
  3. Keeping your chest tall, back flat, and without allowing your knees to touch the surface in front of them, send your butt BACK towards the wall behind you. Continue gradually until you come to a natural end-range of motion.

Assuming my instructions were well written and you performed the movement correctly, you should have felt a pronounced stretch in your hamstrings.

 

This is what I mean by “sit back, NOT down.” When you’re set up in front of the bar you should send your butt towards the wall behind you while keeping your chest tall and back flat.

 

As a visual reference, here is a video of Tony Gentilcore using a dowel to demonstrate the hip-hinge

 

Feel free to grab a broomstick and mimic Tony’s movement. Just be sure to keep the pole in constant contact with these three points: top of your butt, upper/mid back, and your head.

  • Grab the Bar

Once you have properly hip-hinged and sent your butt back towards the wall behind you, it is time to grip the bar.

 

To do so, I suggest using an alternating grip (one palm face up and one palm face down) and gripping the bar on the outer-side of each leg. Try to keep your hands within 2 inches from either shin.

 

Whichever hand you decide to place up/down is entirely up to you. Play around with it and find what feels most comfortable.

  • Chest Tall, Back Flat & Tight

You’re almost done with the set-up. Now all you have to do is keep your chest up tall while maintaining a flat and tight back.

 

Picture this: to get into your most efficient pulling position, keep the logo on the front of your shirt visible to the wall ahead of you at all times. Simultaneously squeeze your shoulder blades together while shoving them down and back, flex your lats, and maintain a flat/neutral spine.

 

You are now ready to initiate the pull.

 

The Pull:

  • Big Breath & Squeeze Abs Tight

Immediately prior to lifting the bar you should take a deep breath of air into your stomach (not your chest!).

 

Once you’ve done this, flex your abs and brace yourself as tight as possible.

  • Pull the Slack Out of the Bar

Rather than abruptly jerking the bar off the ground, slowly pull on the bar while maintaining total body tightness.

 

Once you feel that you cannot pull on the bar without it coming off of the ground you are ready to apply maximal force.

  • Drive Through Mid-Foot & Heel

As quickly and explosively as possible drive all of your weight into your mid-foot & heels. Put as much pressure into these areas as possible while squeezing your abs and maintaining a neutral spine.

  • Chest First, Hips Second

If your butt shoots up ahead of your chest then you initiated the lift incorrectly. Either your technique is off, your erectors/core are weak, or you didn’t squeeze your abs tightly enough.

 

Or it’s a combination of all three.

 

Regardless, you must attempt to keep your chest higher than your hips throughout the entire range of motion. If your hips consistently precede your chest then reduce the weight, work on your form, and strengthen your core through various special exercises.

  • Hump the Bar – Hard

To finish the Deadlift you must use your butt! Basically, force your hips through and squeeze your butt as though you are trying to impregnate the bar.

 

Often times people believe they are finishing the Deadlift with their butt when they are actually hyper-extending their lumbar spine (lower back). Be sure to finish by squeezing your butt and NOT overextending your lower back.

 

 

Section 2: The Sumo Deadlift

Check out this nerd! I think his name is Jordan or something....

 

The Sumo Deadlift is most visibly different from the Conventional Deadlift in that the lifter assumes a considerably wider stance. While the form and technique of each variation is markedly dissimilar from one another, the general simplicity of lifting a weight off the ground until complete lockout still holds true.

 

While training at Westside Barbell Louie consistently impressed upon me the importance of the Sumo Deadlift and its incredible carryover to the Conventional Deadlift, Squat, and overall athletic performance.

 

While he believes the Sumo Deadlift is one of the best movements in a lifters repertoire, he recognizes that it must be cycled with other lifts in order to achieve optimal results.

 

Below I’ll cover the pros, cons, and proper lifting technique of the Sumo Deadlift.

 

Ideal Body Type:

Individual’s with long limbs and a short(er) torso are generally best suited for the Sumo Deadlift. Their long arms will reduce the lifts total range of motion and the wide stance will inhibit their knees from blocking the bar path on the way up.

 

It’s also worth noting a sufficient amount of hip mobility is necessary in order to perform the Sumo Deadlift appropriately and without pain.

 

Positives:

  • Shorter Range of Motion (ROM)

Strength athletes are most interested in lifting as much weight as possible while exerting the least amount of effort. The shorter ROM seen in the Sumo Deadlift effectively reduces an individual’s total work, theoretically allowing her/him to lift more weight.

  • Greater Carryover to Wide Stance Squatting

The wide stance used in the Sumo Deadlift directly carries over to performance in the wide-stance squat. In essence, through properly using the Sumo Deadlift you can effectively train both movements simultaneously.

  • Less Mobility Required (Notably Ankle /Thoracic Mobility)

Cholewicki et al. found a 10% reduction in joint moment with the Sumo Deadlift compared to the Conventional Deadlift. Specifically, individuals lacking ankle dorsiflexion and thoracic extension can more readily assume the Sumo Deadlift position without compromising technique.

  • Less sheer forces on Lumbar Spine

Cholewicki et al. found an 8% reduction in sheer forces on the spine, possibly because the bar stays closer to the individuals’ center of mass.

  • Less Advanced Technique

In my experience, the Sumo Deadlift is far easier to teach when compared to the Conventional Deadlift.

 

Negatives:

  • Harder on the Hips

It’s not uncommon to hear individuals who regularly Sumo Deadlift complain of severe anterior hip pain. Often times this is simply a case of femoral anterior glide syndrome and can easily be fixed through targeted glute activation drills and some time away from pulling Sumo. However, to prevent this pain in the first place I recommend cycling between Sumo and Conventional variations on a consistent basis.

  • Shorter Range of Motion (ROM)

A shorter ROM leads to less overall work and may not be ideal for individuals attempting to increase muscle size and/or burn more calories.

 

Sumo Deadlift Technique:

 

Setting Up:


  • Feet Wide & Pointed Outward

The major visual difference between Sumo and Conventional Deadlifting is the width of your stance.

 

How wide should you go? It’s impossible to say.

 

To be safe, start narrower and work your way out until you find what’s most comfortable. Generally speaking, if you’re wearing Powerlifting briefs/suit you will be able to get away with a wider stance than a raw lifter (i.e. someone not wearing supportive gear).

  • Feel the Steel (on your shins!)

The same guideline outlined in the Conventional Deadlift applies here:

 

As a general rule of thumb, the bar should be no more than 1 inch away from your shins prior to initiating the lift.

  • Sit Back, NOT Down

Despite your stance being considerably wider, the hip-hinge is more or less the exact same as with the Conventional Deadlift.

 

Send your butt back towards the wall behind you while keeping your back flat and chest tall.

  • Grab the Bar & Pull Yourself Down

Similar to Conventional, with Sumo Deadlifting you will grip the bar using an alternating grip. However, this time you will grip the bar inside of your legs.

 

I tend place my hands roughly 6-8inches apart from one another but that’s my personal preference.

 

Grip the bar on the inside of each leg while using an alternating grip. Adjust the width of your hands based on what feels best.

  • Chest Tall, Back Flat & Tight

With the Sumo Deadlift your trunk will naturally remain more erect than during the Conventional Deadlift.

 

That being said, you must consciously force your chest to be up/tall while maintaining a tight upper back and neutral spine.


The Pull:

  • Big Breath & Squeeze Abs Tight

Immediately prior to lifting the bar you should take a deep breath of air into your stomach (not your chest!).

 

Once you’ve done this, flex your abs and brace yourself as tight as possible.

  • Pull the Slack Out of the Bar

Rather than abruptly jerking the bar off the ground, slowly pull on the bar while maintaining your total body tightness.

 

Once you feel you cannot pull on the bar any more without it coming off of the ground, you know you are ready to apply maximal force.

  • Spread the Floor Apart and Leverage the Bar Back/Towards Your Body

To initiate the pull imagine there is a crack in the ground running directly beneath you and it is your job to spread the floor apart using your feet.

 

Rather than drive directly into the ground you must put all of your force onto the outer portion of the mid-foot and heel while simultaneously keeping your chest tall and pulling the bar backwards/into yourself.

 

If someone were to look at your feet it should appear as though you were trying to tear a seam through the outer-backside of each shoe.

  • Chest First, Hips Second

You must actively keep your chest higher than your hips at all times. If your hips move first then you likely aren’t tight enough prior to lifting and may need to adjust your positioning to get a greater stretch in the hamstrings.

  • Hump the Bar – Seriously

To finish the Deadlift you must use your butt! Basically, force your hips through and squeeze your butt as though you are trying to impregnate the bar.

 

Often times people believe they are finishing the Deadlift with their butt when they are actually hyper-extending their lumbar spine (lower back). Be sure to finish by squeezing your butt and NOT overextending your lower back.

 

 

Section 3: Programming the Deadlift

 

There are so many individual factors involved with programming the Deadlift that it’s impossible for me to prescribe one definitive routine.

 

That being the case, below I will provide the guidelines I follow while using the Westside Barbell Conjugate Method.

 

As a brief primer, the Westside Barbell Conjugate Method devotes 2-days per week to specific lower-body strength training. One session is devoted to increasing maximal strength and the other is devoted to improving speed-strength and explosive power. Each session is separated by roughly 72 hours and makes use of numerous Squatting and Deadlifting variations.

 

For a detailed description of how to use the Westside Barbell Conjugate Method, read Louie’s articles and my Users Guide.

 

Deadlifting Frequency, Volume/Intensity, and Variation

  • Max Effort Squat/Deadlift Day (Monday)
  1. Main Move: Work up to a 1 repetition maximum (1RM) in a variation of the Squat OR Deadlift.When working up to a 1RM in a variation of the Deadlift, do not use the competition version of Conventional or Sumo. Instead, perform movements which closely resemble the competition lift such as Deadlifts with added ROM (deficit pulls), Deadlifts with decreased ROM (rack pulls), or Deadlifts using variable resistance tools such as  bands/chains.
  2. Accessory Work: Following the main move perform several accessory exercises geared towards improving your individual weaknesses. Incorporating a variation of the Deadlift such as a rack pull, Deficit Deadlift, or Deadlift vs. bands/chains for 3-5 sets of 3-5 repetitions using heavy weight is a great way to increase intensity while keeping volume relatively low.
  • Dynamic Effort Squat/Deadlift Day (Friday)
  1. Following Dynamic Effort Squats, perform Dynamic Effort Deadlifts for roughly 6-10 sets x 1-3 repetitions. Execute these lifts as fast as humanly possible while using sub-maximal weight (i.e. 50%-75% 1RM). Again, do not use the actual competition lift. Bands and chains are especially great tools on these Dynamic Effort days.

 

Variation:

To reduce the risk of injury, burnout, and adaptation, cycle through numerous variations of the Deadlift on a consistent basis.

 

Personally, I switch between Sumo and Conventional Deadlift variations every 1-3 weeks.

 

  • Max Effort Day Variation:
  1. Main Move: When working up to a 1RM you must change the variation on a weekly basis. I suggest regularly switching between Sumo and Conventional variations.
  2. Accessory Exercises: Progress with and cycle through Deadlift variations every 1-3 weeks

 

  • Dynamic Effort Day Variation:
  1. You may use the same Deadlift variation for a minimum of 1 week and a maximum of 3 weeks. Once you have finished a cycle with a specific variation you must change the Deadlift variation entirely.

 

Programming the Deadlift Summary

  • Deadlifting Frequency: 2x/week
  1. Max Effort Day – 1 day per week is devoted to Maximal Effort training
  2. Dynamic Effort Day – 1 day per week is devoted to Dynamic Effort training
  • Deadlifting Intensity/Volume
  1. Max Effort Day - Work up to a 1RM and then (if this falls in line with your individual needs) perform 3-5 sets of 3-5 repetitions of a heavy Deadlift variation
  2. Dynamic Effort Day - Perform 6-10 sets of 1-3 repetitions in any variation of the Sumo or Conventional Deadlift. Use roughly 50%-75% 1RM and execute these lifts as fast as possible.
  • Deadlifting Variation
  1. Max Effort Day – Change your Max Effort move every single week
  2. Dynamic Effort Day – Change your Dynamic Effort move every 1-3 weeks


 

Section 4: Mini-Max Fixes

 

 

A mini-max is the specific segment of a given lift in which you are you are least capable of overcoming the load. In other words, it is your weakest link.

 

In regard to the Deadlift, a mini-max tends to occur around one of three areas:

  1. The floor (the beginning of the lift)
  2. The knees (midway through the lift)
  3. The lockout (the end of the lift).

 

As Louie always says, a lifter is only as strong as his weakest link. Therefore, to help you strengthen your weak points, below I have provided a list of my favorite accessory movements  to use in the case of each individual mini-max.

 

I’d note if you’re new to Deadlifting (i.e. have been Deadlifting properly for less than 6 months), you likely do not need to work on improving any specific mini-max and would do better focusing on improving the lift as a whole.

 

Finally, Reverse Hypers and Sled Towing are mentioned in all three lists because I think they’re awesome.

 

Weak Off The Floor:

  • Deficit Deadlift Variations
  • Dynamic Effort Deadlift Variations
  • Low Box Squat Variations
  • Concentric-Only Good Mornings
  • Front Squat Variations
  • Box Jump Variations
  • Sled Towing**
  • Reverse Hypers**

Weak at the Knees:

  • Deadlift Variations vs. Bands/Chains
  • Snatch Grip Deadlift Variations
  • Rack Deadlift Variations
  • Good Morning Variations
  • Sled Towing**
  • Reverse Hypers**

Weak at Lockout:

  • Hip Thrust Variations
  • Good Morning Variations
  • High Box Squat Variations
  • Rack Pull Variations
  • Pull-Through Variations
  • Sled Towing**
  • Reverse Hypers**


Wrapping Up

 

This piece is long enough. Go Deadlift somethin heavy!

 

Never Minimal. Never Maximal. Always Optimal.

 

-J

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  • Charles

    Nice article. Do you have any thoughts about those people that are of the opposite body type and how deadlifts can fit into their training? I’m tall (6’3″) with short arms, very long legs and terrible hip mobility and can never seem to find what works for me. Rack pulls are OK but I always run into problems on re-racking the weight (back starts to round).

    • Jordan

      Thanks Charles.

      First I’d encourage you to get as much ankle, hip, and thoracic mobility as possible.

      Second, you’re on the right track through using reduced ROM movements such as rack pulls. I’m not sure what you mean by re-racking the weight is an issue. When I do rack pulls I leave the bar in the power rack and strip the weight from the pin it’s on.

      Third, try progressively lowering the pin height on your rack pulls until you feel comfortable pulling from the ground. This may or may not work, but 9-12 weeks of progressively increased ROM rack pulls could definitely be of benefit.

      Fourth, if you haven’t tried Sumo definitely give it a shot.

      Finally, if you’re not competing in PLing and you don’t *need* to pull from the floor, sticking to reduced ROM DL variations might be in your best interest.

      Hope this helps,

      -J

  • Jim T

    For a much better article on deadlifts… see Mike Robertson: http://robertsontrainingsystems.com/blog/deadlift/

    • Jordan

      Thanks, Jim. I look up to Mike a great deal and I’d consider myself extremely lucky to be half as good as he is one day

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  • Osura

    very informative article!
    I am a novice power lifter (aged 17) and i have a rather specific problem. Last year i managed to dead-lift 150 kgs using the sumo variation with only a week of dead lift training. however i could barely manage a half squat. this year i didn’t do many dead lifts but focused mainly on my squat. while i can squat to a greater depth, my dead lift is now horrible. i can barely do 150 dead lift albeit with great effort and without any proper technique. the problem is because 2 months ago before i temporarily stopped training i did 170. it has been 15 months since i resumed training but my dead lift is stagnating. Most say that i have confused my dead lift with the squat. please help me

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  • jake

    Massive article, but a good read. Am quite a beginner so I’ll be trying some of this, thanks!

    • http://www.syattfitness.com Jordan Syatt

      Thanks Jake,

      Let me know if you need any help/clarification.

      -J

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