Sumo vs. Conventional Stance Deadlifts

Posted on 26 Sep 2015 01:04

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Sumo versus Conventional stance Deadlifts: Which is Best for You?

This short blog post that I am writing is more than just discussing the pros and cons of each of the stances. I believe that there are a plethora of articles out there that are structured around convincing the reader to choose one of the two and some even talk about the "hybrid" stance. For those of you interested, the hybrid stance is just a narrower sumo stance. I see this same nonsensical justification and manipulation when it comes to the propaganda around the hook grip and how it is suddenly the best grip to use for heavy deadlifts. People have agenda's and they like to twist and manipulate data to suit that agenda. I do not have an agenda.

Most of the strongest deadifters in the world pull conventional. But there are some super strong deadlifters who pull using a sumo stance as well. Sure, you're not supposed to take what the PROs do at face value, but at the same time you cannot ignore a pattern. And the pattern here is that most of the biggest deadlifters in the world perform the deadlift using a conventional stance.

Most of the articles that you will read elsewhere discussing this topic will feature the writer breaking down each of the stances into which muscles they target or involve:

  • The sumo stance makes the deadlift more about the hips and the glutes while minimizing back involvement
  • The conventional stance makes the deadlift more about the back and less about the hips

The Messenger

Think about the people who are offering advice on this subject. You have bodybuilders, RAW powerlifters, geared powerlifters, strongmen and deadlift enthusiasts such as myself. Bodybuilders will promote the conventional stance because a lot of them use the deadlift as a finisher on their back training days to really destroy their back (in a good way). RAW powerlifters will mostly be 50/50 on this subject because they don't really have an agenda on the matter. This is not a subliminal slight to geared users. I like geared powerlifting and I have written about how much I enjoy it as a spectator. But the truth is that raw powerlifters will not have much of an agenda on the subject or even if they do, there are equal proponents of each of the stances.

As for geared powerlifters, they will almost always pick sumo stance. There are a few geared lifters like Brian Carroll who insist on training both equally in your off-season so that you do not become overly dependent on either. But, geared powerlifting is about getting the most out of your gear and unlike the squat and bench press suits, deadlift suits give you the least carry over. So to maximize this carry over most gear users use a sumo stance. if you add in the complexity of multi-ply geared powerlifting then it is almost an absolute statement that geared users prefer sumo stances. Sometimes geared powerlifters stick to wearing their squat suits and briefs for the deadlift to really squeeze out whatever advantage they can muster. Strongmen usually stick to conventional because that has the best carry over for their events. As you can see, apart from online coaches and experts, most athletes promote the stance that will make them victorious in their competition.

I think, when it comes to choosing a stance for the deadlift you should go with what is most comfortable for YOU. Infact, I think almost ever single deadlift enthusiast like me will give you the same advice. I understand that this answer may seem awfully simplistic, so I will elaborate on this point.

Can beginners make such choices?

I do not believe most beginners can choose between these two stances. They do not know enough about their bodies, what they are capable of and they lack proficiency in the movement to make an educated decision. With that being said, I think the conventional stance is easier to coach and learn. Unless there are unmitigated circumstances, I teach beginners the conventional stance first. If you are a beginner reading this your next question is going to be: "When will I know which stance is better for me?". I cannot give you a number to aim for on the deadlift before you can make this decision. Any number I give you will be purely arbitrary similar to how charlatans classify beginners with 200/300/400 or such numbers on the squat / bench press / deadlift. What I can tell you is that as you become proficient in the movement and as you progress you should gradually experiment with the sumo stance to see if you like it.

A lot of us are impressionable people and we've seen big geared lifters from gyms like Westside Barbell standing over a barbell ready to dominate the lift. I believe our primal nature makes us think of the sumo stance as "mightier" than the conventional stance. It is one thing to be impressed or visually attracted to the sumo stance but it is another thing to be able to get your hips and groin to adjust to that position.

I know I stated earlier that I do not have an agenda on this matter and I want to reiterate that, but it would be remiss of me to not warn you about the sumo stance being inherently difficult for most people. If you really want to adopt it, you have to work towards being able to spread your legs that far and wide. This is why I have said that the conventional stance is easier to coach and learn. Additionally, I would not recommend beginners using both stances or learning both stances at the same time. It is difficult enough for most trainees to master ONE stance at a time even - forget targeting two very different stances on the same lift. Such levels of complexity will not benefit a beginner.

How will the trainee "know" which stance is more comfortable?

With more practice a trainee improves his or her proficiency on the deadlift. This also means that over the course of a trainee's lifting career, the "form" that a trainee uses will evolve and not look the same over this entire time span. For example: the general guidelines for the deadlift are:

  • Hips must be above the level of the knees
  • Hips must be below the level of the shoulders
  • Shoulders must be ahead of the bar i.e. the bar must be directly below the scapula

Within these guidelines there is room for individual differences. Some people will prefer their hips to be closer to the level of the shoulders while others will prefer them to be closer to the level of the knees. As a trainee becomes more and more proficient in the movement, there will be changes in the individual form of the lifter. But, you must be open to the fact that at different strength levels the trainee might prefer different stances. The trainee might go from a deadlift of 100 pounds to 300 pounds using a conventional stance then with experimentation the lifter might change the stance to sumo and drop down to 260 and work up to 400 pounds and then suddenly find too many hips or groin issues and back down to 300 and use a conventional stance to build up to 500..this is an arbitrary example but you can see how it is not uncommon to expect the trainee to shift stances based on comfort and how this comfort can be correlated to the strength level the trainee is at.

Justifications

I originally began writing this blog post to talk about some of my observations reading different lifter's training logs. Some people believe that limb length and limb ratio are reasons to choose between these two stances. Next thing you know Greg Nuckols will put up a bunch of charts trying to correlate all the powerlifters in the world and their deadlifts and limb lengths and ratios and which stances they use - in short a whole bunch of theoretical nonsense.

You don't need to justify which stance you use. You don't need to hunt for some magical reason to legitimize you using either the sumo or the conventional stance for deadlifts. I can assure you that there are enough people out there who have overcome various adversities to reach admirable levels of strength and limb ratios or deadlift stances are going to be the least of your problems.

Almost 99% of the time you will just know which stance is better for you. I know this sounds incredibly ambiguous but trust me: you will know. The more you practice actual strength training using maximal end weights you will figure out whether the conventional stance is for you or not (assuming you've started out with a conventional stance like most of us). If you decide to throw in the towel with the conventional stance because of how uncomfortable it makes you, then by process of elimination you will have to work towards mastering the sumo stance. Despite all this, you will know instinctively that one of the two stances is just not your cup of tea. At the same time, there are lifters who are versatile in both stances. They are a minority but I am bringing this up because I don't want you to make any stance into a "villain". Regardless of which stance you choose you will need to work your butt off to get strong at it and each stance has it's own set of obstacles you must overcome. But for most of us, once we've been lifting for a while, we instinctively know what is within our capacity and what is not going to sit right with us.

A lot of people feel compelled to justify every little thing they do. Westside Barbell will insist on not directly training the deadlift and they will say that the deadlift is too dangerous to train frequently especially using maximal weights. But the truth is that Westside is about geared lifting and you will get more out of your squat gear than your deadlift gear so if you train the squat more (and you have to so that you can achieve the biggest squat) you cannot physically try to deadlift the same - both big lifts being trained maximally is too taxing and can cause injuries. Similarly, with the recent "Vegan Gains" character and youtube channel you have vegans trying to justify being vegan by throwing around chemical terms when all they should say is that they don't have it in them to eat another living mammal.

Let's get real. Most of us - if not all of us, who are passionate about lifting weights do not lift to be "healthy". We stay healthy so that we can lift heavy. So, there's no need to justify using a stance based on limb ratios and other theoretical mumbo-jumbo. Pick a stance based on what is comfortable for you and be open to the possibility that you might switch your stance in the future if you feel the need to do so. If you are a competitive athlete then you will be forced to picking a stance based on the sport you are competing in. Otherwise, for most of us who lift because we love to lift big: it's all about comfort and satisfaction at lifting the heaviest weight.

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