The deadlift is one of the most effective ways to train the glutes, hamstrings, and back muscles. It is the last competitive lift in the sport of powerlifting and has been used for athletic development, muscle building, and even rehabilitation.
The deadlift has several varieties but the two most common are the conventional and the sumo styles. For the conventional style deadlift the feet are placed shoulder width apart with the hands on the outside of the legs.
In contrast, the feet are wide with the toes pointed outward for the sumo deadlift. The lifters hands are also on the inside of their legs rather than the outside. The torso in a more upright position for the sumo deadlift compared to the conventional style. From a biomechanical perspective the sumo deadlift should be much more advantageous, there is less stress on the low back, the hips aren’t pushed back as far and the bar actually has to move about 20% less distance than it does if the same lifter was using a conventional deadlift!
However, plenty of successful lifters still use the conventional style, in fact many of the strongest deadlifters in the world use this style.
In order to decide which style is best for you there are four things to think about; anthropometrics (limb length), whether or not back pain is present, strength characteristics, and mobility.
In this context, anthropometrics is going to refer to limb length. When examining various lifts one can look at which proportions provide the most benefits to successful performance. For example, short arms make bench pressing easier and short femurs make squatting easier. A long torso and short arms make deadlifting challenging whereas a short torso and long arms make the deadlift easier. If you have proportionally shorter arms or a proportionally longer torso a sumo deadlift may be right for you. If you have long arms and a shorter torso you may excel at the conventional deadlift.
Back pain present?
The sumo deadlift style is mechanically more advantageous when compared to the conventional style. The torso is a more upright position which reduces stress on the lumbar spine. If you have a history of low back pain using the sumo style would allow you to effectively train the glutes, hamstrings, and erectors without stressing the low back as much as the conventional style.
*The conventional deadlift is displayed on the left and the sumo is shown on the right. Notice that the torso is in a more upright position for the sumo style*
Both the sumo and conventional deadlift train the hip extensor muscles (gluteus maximus, adductor magnus, and hamstrings), however the sumo style places more emphasis on the quadriceps muscles. If you have strong quadriceps (exceling at the squat may be indicative of strong quadriceps) then you may want to utilize the sumo style. On the other hand if your hamstrings and spinal erectors are strong then the conventional style may be the best choice.
The conventional style deadlift demands slightly more hip mobility. Furthermore, if you struggle to get your back flat using the conventional style then the sumo may be right for you. If getting in the right position for the conventional deadlift is challenging try the sumo style as it requires less mobility.
Both sumo and conventional style deadlifts will effectively help you gain strength and muscle size. Selecting the right style for performance may come down to individual limb lengths, injury history, strength and mobility characteristics. That being said, swapping out these lifts in different training phases may have incredible effects on strength.
For example, a four week/phase, four phase training program may look a little like this:
Phase 1 (weeks 1-4): Sumo style
Phase 2 (weeks 5-8): Conventional style
Phase 3(weeks 9-12): Sumo style
Phase 4 (weeks 13-16): Conventional style