Sumo Deadlifts: What They Are and How to Perform Them
By now, we all know the importance of strength training in helping you reach your fitness goals. If you’re looking for an exercise that’s effective and efficient, the sumo deadlift is a great option—not only do you work your entire body, but you also target your posterior chain and do so with less pressure on your low back compared to a traditional deadlift.
In a sumo deadlift you take a wider stance, and this variation leads to new benefits all around. It’s also a great way to add some variety to your training. We talked to fitness trainers Brooke Van Paris and Katie Kollath about how to perform a proper sumo deadlift as well as how to modify one, and why this move should be part of your workout routine.
What Is a Sumo Deadlift?
A sumo deadlift is a variation of the traditional deadlift, a weight lifting exercise where you hinge at the hip and lift a barbell or bar off the ground to hip level. In a sumo deadlift, you take on a much wider stance than a traditional deadlift. This positioning of the body, explains Van Paris, moves the upper half of the body closer to the ground, decreasing how far you have to hinge forward and lessening strain on the low back.
Your hands are inside the legs when gripping the bar, adds Kollath. While you use your full body in a sumo deadlift, most of the focus is on the posterior chain, specifically the glutes and hamstrings.
Benefits of Sumo Deadlifts
One of the main benefits of sumo deadlifts (and all deadlifts) is that they recruit total body musculature. In addition to the glutes, hips, adductors, and quads, sumo deadlifts also work your core, back, traps, and arms, says Van Paris. Because of the wider stance, sumo deadlifts also allow for more drive from the legs, reducing the load on the lower back and making it a “safer” position, especially for beginners. The wider stance may also allow you to lift heavier weights.
Another benefit is novelty, says Kollath. Mixing up your workout routine by switching to sumo deadlifts from traditional deadlifts or other variations can produce hypertrophy and strength gains.
Finally, deadlifts are one of the most functional movements, says Van Paris, because pretty much every day in our normal lives, we have to bend over to pick up something. Training to learn proper form is important to prevent injury from, say, grabbing things off the floor at home or the next time you move.
Proper Sumo Deadlift Form
Form is important in performing a sumo deadlift; here’s how to do one according to the trainers.
- Start standing with your feet wider than your hips. Turn your toes out, about 45 degrees. Your shins should be vertical.
- Bend at the hips to lower the upper body to grab the bar. Your hands should be inside the thighs and directly under the shoulders, creating a straight line from the shoulders, elbows, wrists, and hands. You can use either an overhand grip or a mixed (one overhand, one underhand) grip. Pull your shoulder blades back and engage your lats and core to create a flat back.
- Before pulling, make sure the bar is as close to the shins as possible. (Van Paris suggests thinking about “shaving your legs with the bar.”) Anchor yourself by pulling the slack out of the bar and wedging the hips forward.
- Inhale and exhale as you drive the heels into the ground and pull up on the bar. Extend your legs and hips at the top of the lift.
- Return to the starting position while keeping the muscles and core engaged so you don’t round the low back while lowering down.
Other tips include remembering to breathe. Van Paris says the deep inhale before pulling the bar can create tension in the core to keep it engaged and protect the low back. At the top, make sure you’re not locking out too aggressively. “It’s more about the hips going into the bar, which requires more squeezing through the glutes than hyperextension through the low back,” she says.
Kollath also mentions that you want to keep your center of gravity close to your body. Think about sitting back both as you lift the weight and lower it back to the floor. “With the wider stance on a sumo deadlift set up, you can sometimes get your thighs at or below parallel to the floor. This allows for more of an upright torso position placing a lot of the focus on the glutes,” she adds.
How to Modify
If you’re new to deadlifts or strength training, there are ways to modify sumo deadlifts to make them easier. You can start with different weights, says Kollath, such as a medicine ball, dumbbell, or kettlebell, and work your way up to using the barbell.
You can also alter your stance to reduce any tightness in your hips by altering the width of your legs or angle of your feet, says Van Paris, or by putting the bar on an elevated surface so you have less distance to pull it up. And if sumo deadlifts aren’t your thing, there are many other deadlift variations (Romanian, straight-leg, single-leg, etc.) you can try instead.
Sumo Deadlifts vs. Traditional Deadlifts
The primary difference between sumo and traditional deadlifts is the stance. Whereas in a conventional deadlift your feet are about shoulder-width and your hands are outside the legs, in a sumo deadlift, your feet are positioned wider with your toes turned out, and your hands are inside your legs.
This also affects the muscles that are used. In traditional deadlifts, explains Kollath, your torso is more bent toward the floor, which uses your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings. During sumo deadlifts, your torso ends up being more upright, so the focus shifts towards your posterior chain and quads, as well as your traps.
Because the angle between your torso and the floor is decreased with a sumo deadlift you don’t have to lift the bar as high, which gives you a smaller range of motion, says Van Paris. This can help decrease the risk of injury because it puts less force on the torso and lower back and reduces rounding of the spine. However, while the wider stance reduces pressure on the lower back, it can also put more strain on your hips.
Unless you have any injuries or medical conditions, everyone should be able to try doing a sumo deadlift. However, proper form is important both for effectively performing the move as well as preventing injury. You also want to make sure you nail the form down before adding too much weight too quickly.
Especially for anyone who sits all day, Van Paris also recommends properly warming up and stretching or foam rolling tight muscles like the hip flexors, calves, quads, and lats. If you have any questions or concerns, always consult a doctor before trying a new exercise.
Sumo Deadlift Variations
- Narrower Stance Sumo Deadlift: To reduce any pain or pinching in the hips, Van Paris suggests narrowing your stance or reducing the angle of your feet, which can help decrease pressure on your hips. There is no other change to the exercise in terms of how it’s performed, and your hands will still be inside your legs.
- Elevated Sumo Deadlift: Another variation is to lift the bar from a higher elevation, such as safety bars or step platforms. This also reduces pressure on the hips as you don’t have to bend as far down, and you also have a smaller range of motion.
- Kettlebell Sumo Deadlift: If you want to start with something easier than a bar, you can use a kettlebell. Hinge down and grab and lift the kettlebell with both hands, and pull up like in a normal sumo deadlift.
The Final Takeaway
Sumo deadlifts are a functional strength training exercise that works the entire body. They’re done with a wider foot stance than traditional deadlifts, which gives you a shorter range of motion. As a result, sumo deadlifts focus more on the glutes and quads and also reduce pressure on the low back.
You can modify sumo deadlifts by starting with lighter weights or elevating the weights so there’s even less distance between your torso and the ground. Once you’ve mastered the form, you can challenge yourself by adding more weight.
In general, sumo deadlifts are safe for most people to do, and can be a great complement to traditional deadlifts in your workout routine.