The sumo deadlift has become popularized in the training world as an alternative option to the conventional deadlift. Let’s be clear – we believe that the deadlift is a foundational movement pattern that belongs in nearly every single type of training program.
But remember, the key we need to focus on with prescribing pain-free deadlifts is the individuality and variation that perfectly fits the client you are working with.
Not everyone is built the same, or has the same goals, so why would everyone deadlift the same? For example, if you’re training a 6’6” NBA shooting guard, it’s probably not the best idea to have that athlete pulling the conventional deadlift as their main hip hinge exercise. The trap bar deadlift is a better option in this case, especially when you take into consideration limb length ratios, center of mass, and stuff of that nature.
Again, different people need to deadlift differently. For more intelligent setup options, check out THIS article from Andrew Millett.
Oppositely, if you’re working with a competitive powerlifter with chronic low back issues, the sumo deadlift option is your best bet here compared to the conventional deadlift, just purely based on the biomechanics involved. The sumo deadlift offers a closer position to the ground, while slightly sparing the low back. Comparatively, the conventional deadlift carries a greater risk vs. reward.
The main point is this… The deadlift must be programmed and perfected with care in order to not only train it pain-free, but to optimize performance and results. Here’s how to unlock your deadlifting potential in 5 steps.
The Five Step Process To Pain-Free Deadlifting
If we choose to roll with the sumo deadlift as our main hip hinge exercise, there’s a simple process that must be adhered to, in order to make steady progress in your lifting. Our five-step approach, which is covered in much greater detail in our Hip Hinge 101 Workshop, is process-based and teaches the lifter how to properly build up their sumo deadlift. It’s important to master each step prior to advancing to the next one.
Step #1 Finding Your Optimal Foot and Hand Positions
Everyone is going to have his or her own unique foot position set up. When we take into consideration stuff like hip anatomy and hip mobility, it helps us dictate the optimal foot position for each individual’s sumo deadlift.
There’s simply no standard answer here – this foot position is going to be slightly different for each lifter. Some folks may have hip anatomy and hip mobility that works better with a wider, more “toed-out” stance. Other folks might do better with a narrower, “toes-forward” stance.
A good starting point for your optimal foot position is to use the smooth surfaces on either side of the bar, which are located between the rough knurling surfaces of the bar. Below is an image depicting a sumo deadlift stance with the feet directly behind the smooth surfaces on the bar. Start here, and adjust accordingly, based on feel.
Finding your optimal hand position is a bit easier. Simply begin with keeping your hands shoulder-width apart as you lower them down to the bar. This shoulder width-apart hand position typically works well for most people, especially since it allows for a more upright torso and upward eye gaze at the bottom of your pull.
A general rule of thumb is that the wider your hand position, the less ability you have of keeping this upright torso and upward eye gaze. Our recommendation is to start with the shoulder width-apart hand position, and adjust accordingly based on feel and ability to create optimal tension with the bar.
Step #2 Finding Your Optimal Height to Pull From
The ultimate goal is to pull your sumo deadlift from the floor. However, it’s important to respect the process and use the proper height to pull from as you progress toward that goal.
The elevated sumo deadlift is a great “teaching tool” exercise, since it allows for a more advantageous position for the lifter. In this elevated position, the lifter has improved safety implications for the low back since it offers a lesser degree of difficulty. Also, the elevated sumo deadlift provides a better opportunity for the lifter to use their leverages.
Here are a few scenarios that merit programming the elevated sumo deadlift:
An avid lifter who hasn’t trained sumo deadlifts from the floor in quite some time, and who is now getting back into it.
A novice lifter who has never properly trained the sumo deadlift from the floor before.
A way to provide progressive overload by decreasing the distance that the bar has to travel.
In the first two scenarios, the elevated sumo deadlift is used to provide body awareness and ownership of the bottom position. Also, it teaches the lifter how to wedge, how to leverage their body with the bar, and as a way to ease the lifter into the eventual sumo deadlift from the floor through a gradual approach.
In the third scenario, the elevated sumo deadlift is used as a way to load more weight onto the bar, which will eventually translate to sumo deadlifts from the floor.
To set up your elevated sumo deadlift, start by elevating the bar off the floor by roughly 2 to 4 inches. Take your time to really master this position. Here’s an example of the elevated sumo deadlift:
If you are still struggling to get into an optimal position even with the sumo stance locked in and the height of the bar raised up off the floor? You may want to modify down and look into training with the trap bar for your deadlifting. Here’s a great article which shows the big differences HERE.
Step #3 Own The Hip Hinge Position
Training the hip hinge variability can have huge carryover into owning your sumo deadlift. By practicing different degrees of the hip hinge in a variety of lifts, it demonstrates your ability to control and own this position.
This process effectively improves motor learning and ownership of the hip hinge pattern. Through a variety of lifting positions, the athlete improves their overall:
Tissue loading tolerance in the posterior chain
Joint integrity in both hip joints
Neural efficiency in the hip hinge pattern
With respect to building joint integrity in the hip joints in the hip hinge pattern, a good start is for the lifter to get comfortable with sitting the hips back posteriorly into hip flexion over a sustained period of time. This enables the lifter to become more comfortable in this position. A great way to load this position through lifting can be found in the following exercises:
Barbell Bent Over Row
Barbell Pendlay Row
Barbell Corner Row
Barbell Meadows Row
For building tissue loading tolerance in the posterior chain, a good way to start is to isolate these muscles via body weight exercises such as:
Physioball Hamstring Curls
Valslide Hamstring Curls
Glute Ham Raises
The next step is to load the posterior chain muscles with barbell exercises. This will help to increase the tissue tolerance of the backside, which will provide necessary carryover for the sumo deadlift. The following exercises work well here:
Stiff Leg Barbell RDL
Step #4 Add Technique Work for the Sumo Deadlift
The major lift is the sumo deadlift. However, this lift can be compartmentalized and broken down into its respective constituents. The importance of mastering your technique cannot be overstated for building up a strong sumo deadlift. When we’re talking technique work, we’re predominantly looking at speed work, controlled pauses, and eccentric lowering.
For speed work, the goal is to move the bar as fast as possible. Since this is a big drain to the CNS, it’s important to keep rep ranges low here, in order to keep the pulls fast and crisp.
A general set-up would be performing between 1 to 3 reps of lower percentages (60% to 70% is a good ballpark) from anywhere between 6 to 10 sets.
Next up is working on controlled pauses. The ultimate goal here is to build tension and strength through common sticking points in the sumo deadlift. Sticking points are points during the lift at which lifters have a difficult time producing enough tension to move the load, and oftentimes fail in doing so.
A common sticking point for most lifters ranges between the initial pull (off the floor) and the knees. The best way to attack this sticking point is to add in “paused” sumo deadlifts, where the lifter follows this sequence:
Lift the barbell off the floor
Pause for a full 2 seconds at your sticking point
(i.e., 2 inches off the floor, at the mid-shin, or just below the knees)
Lockout at the top of the lift
Lower the bar back down to the floor
Lastly, let’s focus on creating more time under tension through the utilization of eccentric lowering aka accentuated eccentrics. Performing sumo deadlifts with eccentric lowering provides a longer duration for the lifter to have to hold the weight.
Not only does this help increase grip strength, it also forces the lifter to keep full body tension and truly control the movement. A simple way to add sumo deadlifts with eccentric lowering is to follow this sequence:
Lift the barbell off the floor
Lockout at the top of the lift
Lower the bar back down to the floor in a controlled manner for a duration of between 3 to 5 seconds
For more smart deadlifting variations and methods to train around pain and break through plateaus, check out THIS article from Dr. Russell Manalastas.
Step #5 Program the Sumo Deadlift Into Your Training Week
If you’re competing for a powerlifting competition, the best scenario would be to perform your sumo deadlifts on two days per week. One day you’ll want to focus on speed work. Typically, this should occur during mid-week.
The other day you’ll want to focus on strength/maximum strength work and technique work (i.e., controlled pauses and eccentric lowering). This session belongs at the end of the week.
For the general population, keep it simple. Start by programming your sumo deadlifts in on one day per week. The main focus, at least initially when rebuilding your deadlift pattern, should be spent on technique work and hammering home the movement. Once you’ve built relative strength and resilience in the sumo deadlift on one training day per week, you can then consider increasing your weekly volume similar to the situation above on two days per week.
About the Authors
Matthew Ibrahim, CSCS, LMT and Dr. Zak Gabor, DPT, CSCS
Matt and Zak are the co-founders of the Hip Hinge 101 Workshop. They have one goal, and one mission for their workshops: to educate coaches, clinicians, trainers, and athletes on how to properly build a pain-free deadlift from scratch through their systematic approach. With over a decade of knowledge and experience in the fields of athletic performance and sports rehabilitation, Matthew and Zak will be co-presenting the 2017 Hip Hinge 101 Workshop.