The Barbell Sumo Deadlift: For a Thick, Pain-Free Back

By Matt Walter
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Learn how to perform the sumo deadlift and why it may be a better option for you than the traditional deadlift

Learn how to correctly and safely perform the sumo deadlift, and then keep on reading to learn more about this movement’s benefits, variations, and alternatives.

The sumo deadlift is a multi-joint movement in which the feet are placed in a wide stance with toes pointed out and the grip is positioned inside of the legs. It is a legal movement in powerlifting competitions, but the traditional deadlift is usually the version prescribed in StrongMan, GRID, or CrossFit competitions.

The wider stance of the sumo deadlift targets the muscles of the inner thighs (adductors) and hips to a greater degree than conventional deadlifts. The hamstrings, glutes, upper back, and traps are targeted, making this a well-rounded, beneficial movement for everyone.

The wider stance also allows the athlete to be lower to the ground than with a traditional deadlift and results in a more vertical torso. This combination can make the sumo deadlift a safer movement for most people, especially those with long femurs or low back concerns.

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Table of Contents

How to Sumo Deadlift with Proper Technique

I was very fortunate in my early lifting years. My dad taught me first. He was a coach and was meticulous about everything he did. When I was 13 he had me start training with a local powerlifting champion. I learned how to do things right, and I’ve avoided injury because no matter how strong I got my technique has never faltered.

We’ll start with a quick, step-by-step summary of how to perform the sumo deadlift. Then we will separately cover all three phases of performing the sumo deadlift in detail: approaching the bar and the setup, lifting the bar to the knees, and the lockout.

Video: Larry with Barbell Brigade Explains the Sumo Deadlift A Must Watch!

How to Perform the Sumo Deadlift: Step-by-Step Instructions

Step 1: Adopt a wider than shoulder-width stance with your feet up pointing out at 45-degrees. Your knees should be in line with your toes.

Step 2: Grasp the bar with a mixed or pronated grip, with your hands inside your legs.

Step 3: Sit your hips back, isometrically contract the muscles of your legs, hips, core, and back, keep your chest high, and pull the slack out of the barbell.

Coach’s Tip: pulling the slack out of the bar prevents resistance against the plates when you begin your lift. Get tight and pull up slightly on the barbell unit you feel it touch the tops of the weight plates. Then explode off the floor!

Step 4: Take a deep breath and brace your core.

Step 5: Lift the barbell off the ground by extending your knees, hips, and back, driving your feet through the floor, and bringing your hips toward the bar.

Step 6: End the lift when you reach the fully locked out position. Do not lean backward or hyperextended your back.

Step 7: Lower the barbell back to the floor.

Let’s break down each phase of the lift in detail.

Bar Approach and Setup

I like bumper plates for this movement if you will be using less than 45-pound weight plates. All bumper plates from 10 pounds up to 55 are the same diameter. That way you are always pulling from the same height and you aren’t reaching excessively low to the ground.

Approaching the bar: Step up to a barbell placed in front of you on the ground. Place your feet wide, outside shoulder width.

Approach the barbell with a wide stance, your toes pointed out to roughly 45 degrees

Foot placement: Your feet should be turned outward at approximately a 45-degree angle, your midfoot should be in line with the bar, and your shins should be vertical. I line up the lowest, horizontal shoelace of my shoe with the outermost knurl line of the barbell. That’s how I visually get into position.

Gripping the bar: Actively squat down and grip the bar between your legs with your strong hand supinated (plan forward) and your weak hand pronated (palm facing your body). Your knees should be in line with the second and third toes of your foot (knees point the same direction as your toes). I grasp the bar the outside part of my hand just inside the knurling of the barbell.

Grasp with the barbell between your legs with a mixed grip

You can also grasp the bar with both hands pronated (double overhand grip) or with a hook grip (hands pronated with your first two or three fingers over your thumbs).

Starting position: Get into the starting position by pushing your hips back while keeping your torso as upright/vertical as possible. Your trunk should be at roughly a 45-degree angle.

Your hips should be slightly higher than the knees and your spine should be neutral.

Your shoulders should be slightly in front of the bar with your shoulder blades (scapula) in line over the bar.

Final setup with your shoulder over the barbell

Brace your core by taking a deep breath into your diaphragm. You should visibly be able to see your stomach distend. If you are wearing a lifting belt you want to think about pushing out against all sides of the belt (not just the front).

Sit back, keep your chest up, your eyes forward, and pull the slack out of the barbell. You should feel the barbell touch the tops of the inner circle of the weight plates when you pull the slack out. The barbell never makes a sound against the weights when good deadlifters pull the bar off the ground.

Starting position checklist:

  • Legs wider than shoulders
  • Feet at 45 degrees, midfoot in line with the bar
  • Shins vertical
  • Hands between legs with a mixed grip
  • Hips higher than knees
  • Shoulder blades in line with the bar
  • Neutral spine, chest up, eyes forward
  • No slack in the bar

Lifting the Bar to the Knees

Extend your knees, hips, and back all at the same time.

Two cues that have really helped me and my clients in the past have been to think about pushing your feet through the floor or bringing your hips to the bar.

The first pull is lifting the barbell off the floor to the knees

The bar should drag along your shins as the bar rises off the floor. Think about pulling the weight into or behind your body, not straight up in front of you. This cue will also help keep your torso vertical and help prevent you from rounding your back.

Either wear pants or get used to scrapes on your shins.

The Lockout

Extend your hips and drive them into the bar by contracting your glutes.

Continue to extend your knees until you reach full lockout. Full hip extension, shoulders contracted, barbell above the knees.

The lift is finished when the athlete is standing tall with the barbell hanging in front of the thighs

Once you have reached the “lockout” position, do not hyperextend backward! You’re just trying to stand up with the barbell. It’s not more complicated than that! You don’t need to lean back once you’ve lifted the weight. Doing so can cause injury!

What is the Difference Between the Conventional and Sumo Deadlift?

The conventional, or traditional deadlift has the athlete stand with his or her shins against a barbell, feet roughly shoulder-width apart, toes pointed straight ahead, and hands gripping the bar outside of the legs (between the outside of the leg and the weight plates). For most, this is just called the deadlift.

The traditional deadlift begins with a narrow stance and the hands grasping the barbell outside of the legs

The Sumo Deadlift has the athlete assume a wider stance with the toes pointed roughly 45 degrees and the hands gripping the bar inside the legs.

The sumo deadlift begins with a wide stance and the hands grasping the barbell between the legs

Other than foot and hand placement, there are two major differences between the conventional deadlift and the sumo deadlift.

Bar Path: The Sumo Deadlift has a shorter bar path than the conventional deadlift. Because the feet are set wider, your hips are closer to the ground, so the bar does not have to be lifted as far from the ground to complete the repetition.

Targeted Muscles: The Sumo places more stress on the glutes, vastus medialis oblique (the Tear Drop muscle of the quadriceps located near the knee joint), and the adductor muscles of the inner thighs.

These are the two deadlift variations that are used in powerlifting. There are other variations as well.

The trap bar deadlift uses a trap bar.

Trap Bar Deadlift

The clean deadlift is used by Olympic lifters and looks very similar to the traditional deadlift except the athlete uses a double overhand grip instead of a mixed grip.

Barbell Row Starting Position

The snatch deadlift uses a snatch-width grip, also double overhand.

The Snatch Deadlift Starting Position

And then there are countless variations using dumbbells, kettlebells, bands, and chains. We’ll cover those later in this article.

Muscles Worked by the Sumo Deadlift

The Sumo deadlift targets the following muscles:

  • Lower Back (Erector Spinae)
  • Lats, Traps, and Rhomboids
  • Hamstrings
  • Quads
  • Glutes
  • Adductors

Common Mistakes With the Sumo Deadlift

In many ways, the sumo deadlift couldn’t be easier. Bend down. Pick a barbell up off the floor. Stop when you are standing tall. But it’s also not a movement I like to mess around with. There are some common errors that you’ll see even experienced lifters make. If you know what they are, you can avoid them.

Watch Jeff Nippard explain some of the most common faults when deadlifting.

Rounding Your Back

This is absolutely the first common mistake you need to avoid. You do not want to injure your back!

Do not let your back round as you lift the bar.

Do Not Round Your Back

There are exercises where rounding your back is not only appropriate but required. This is not one of them. Initiate the movement with your legs, your core braced, and your spine neutral. Then pull with your back and drive through with your hips. But keep your spine neutral!

A great cue for avoiding this costly mistake is to focus on keeping your shoulder blades down and back. It’s really difficult to round your back if your shoulder blades are pinched.

The next cue is to keep your hips down until it’s time to drive them forward. I’m sure you’ve seen people attempting a deadlift and the first thing that happens is their butt shoots straight up in the air. Lift with your legs, not your back!

Caving in Your Chest

Keep your chest high and proud throughout the movement. This goes along with the last tip and will help you keep your shoulder blades down and back. Look forward, but don’t crane your neck.

Hips Rising Too Fast

The Sumo deadlift begins with knee and hip movement, not with your back. Your knees and hips should hinge at the same time. We’re not doing a Romanian deadlift here! Save those for hamstring day.

Push your feet and your knees outward as you drive your feet through the floor. Do not let your knees cave inward.

Not Scraping Your Shins

Do not start the exercise with the bar too far away from your shins. In fact, the bar should be touching your shins from the start. If the bar is too far in front you can end up with excessive forward lean and will likely be forced to round your back. Keeping the bar close can lead to both performance benefits and decreased risk of injury. (2)

Make sure and keep your shoulder blades in line with the bar and scrape those shins as you rise.

Starting With Your Hips Too Low or Too High

If you start the movement with your hips too high you increase the stress on your low back. If you start with your hips too low you are going to place too much emphasis on your leg muscles and you won’t be as strong.

Think about your knees, hips, and low back all being locked together. They have to rise at the same time!

Sumo Deadlift Benefits

Personally, I think everyone should deadlift. If you’re trying to get stronger or bigger there are few other movements that can match the deadlift. And for thickening your back it’s second to none.

And everyone should be able to lift things off the floor. That’s just a quality of life measure. You should be able to get your groceries out of your trunk and into your house without having to rely on others. Keep your back strong, be able to stand up without help, and you’ll be able to live on your own for a long time.

Here are the main benefits of the sumo deadlift.

Beginner-Friendly

There’s a lot to learn when you’re first learning to deadlift. And like I said, I think pretty much everyone should deadlift in one form or another. I like the sumo deadlift for beginners because of the upright torso and decreased risk of low back strain.

If you’re just starting out, start here. Once the movement is natural and perfect, then try the conventional deadlift. Your back will thank you.

Less Stress on Your Lower Back

The sumo deadlift starts with your hips lower to the ground. This allows your torso to remain more upright and vertical.

This position places much less stress on your lower back. In fact, researchers found a 10% reduction in the joint moment and an 8% reduction in the load shear force at the L4/L5 level when compared with the conventional deadlift. (1)

This is beneficial if you experience low back pain with the conventional deadlift or if you train multiple times each week.

Builds Incredible Strength and Muscle

The sumo deadlift is a compound exercise that is excellent for building strength, muscle, and toughness.

Depending on your anatomy the sumo deadlift may put you at a mechanical advantage and allow you to lift more weight than with a traditional deadlift. Lifting more weight makes you stronger and bigger!

Emphasizes Quads, Glutes, Adductors, and Upper Back Muscles

The feet, hip, and knee angle of the sumo deadlift emphasizes the glutes, adductors (inner thighs), and quads more than the regular deadlift does. Especially the vastus medialis oblique (VMO – Tear Drop) muscle of the quadriceps.

The wide foot placement forces your hips into external rotation, which activates the glutes more than with a deadlift. The wide stance and lower hips also cause more of a bend in your knees. This forces your quads to work harder to extend your knees than either the traditional or Romanian deadlifts.

And because the sumo deadlift places your trunk in a more upright/vertical position, more emphasis is placed on the traps and upper back muscles.

This is a great movement to add to your routine if these are areas that you need to focus on or bring up. Variety is always a good thing!

Even if you’re competing in a sport that only allows the conventional deadlift, using sumo deadlifts in your training can help strengthen muscles that the deadlift doesn’t emphasize. It’s also amazing for improving your lockout.

My Best Tips for a SAFE and Effective Sumo Deadlift

These are actually tips for any kind of deadlift. If you follow these you will reduce your chance for injury. Actually, most of these are good tips for ANY exercise

Tip 1: Dead Stop Deadlifts Only – NO REBOUNDING!

Do Not Rebound Your Deadlift

No rebounding off the floor. You’ll see this in gyms everywhere, and especially in competitions where the exercise is done for multiple reps, and especially when done for time. Sports like GRID, CrossFit, and Strongman are notorious for this.

Rebounding is when you complete a repetition (standing tall with the barbell in your hands) and then you lower the weight back to the floor quickly, bouncing the weight off the floor and rebounding into another rep.

Yes, you’ll likely be able to do more reps this way. But you also increase your chance for poor form, especially a rounded back. And, when the weight hits the floor hard it causes vibrations in the plates and barbell, causing the barbell to whip. The more weight you are lifting and the harder you hit the floor the more intense the whip. This whip can cause the bar to momentarily pull you back down while you are pulling the weight up. This causes two opposing forces on your body. Not good! You’re pulling up and the bar quickly and forcefully pulls you back down.

Dead stop means you will reset after every rep. Lower the weight under control, reset with a perfect setup, and then pull as if it is your first rep.

Tip 2: Don’t Drop the Weight

This tip may be unpopular. I’m all for dropping the Olympic lifts! But not deadlifts. At least for most people most of the time.

First, using the eccentric portion of the movement (lowering the weight back to the ground) is a great way to increase muscle activation, strength, and hypertrophy. By dropping the weight you are missing out on these benefits.

But you also increase your chance of injury. If you can lift the weight, especially with a deadlift, you should be able to lower it back to the ground with a reasonable amount of control.

Dropping the weight from the top of the movement places the bar and plates in an uncontrolled state of flux. This increases your chance of injury due to bouncing weights and bar whips.

Dropping Barbell

But it also causes a violent release of energy. Pretty much all of the muscles in your body are fully contracted at the top of a deadlift. Lowering the barbell allows you to control the release of that energy. Dropping the barbell quickly releases the external force your body is contracted against much faster than you would release it naturally. This can likely cause your muscles to relax much faster than they can handle, which can easily cause injuries.

It’s one thing to contract and relax your muscles. It’s a completely different thing to contract against an external force that is violently ripped away from you.

You also run the risk of your hands not releasing the bar at exactly the same moment. Especially with a mixed grip. This can cause the barbell to fall out of one hand faster, torquing your back.

Tip 3: Leave Your Ego at the Door

Maximal lifts are for competitions when you are well trained and prepared to compete. Form first! Training lighter than you think you can will keep you healthy and allow you to continue to progress for years to come.

Tip 4: Get a Coach

If this is all brand new it may be beneficial to get a coach, personal trainer, or ask someone in the gym who is doing these right.

Now that you know what proper form looks like, see who is doing these perfectly in your gym. Then ask them! Gym bros are usually dicks and are only there to impress others. Those aren’t the people I’m talking about. Those who have mastered this lift love to help. GUARANTEED!

Look around. Wait until their workout looks finished. And ask.

Sumo Deadlift Set and Rep Schemes

We all have different goals. Your goals will determine exactly what you’re trying to get out of the sumo deadlift. This impacts your sets, reps, and training frequency.

Here are some possible scenarios, along with set and rep schemes that you can use as a starting guide.

To Build Strength

Sumo Deadlift Barbell Approach Rear View

The sumo deadlift is one of the best compound movements for building strength in your lower body and posterior chain. You can expect to get strong fast with this sumo deadlift progression.

Do 3 to 4 sets of 1 to 5 repetitions, with heavy loads (80 percent or more of your one-rep max), resting as needed between sets. Continually work up in weight until you reach the highest weight you can safely move for 3 to 5 reps.

If you’re training for explosive power, perform 1 to 8 reps (yes, I know that’s a huge range!) with 30 to 40 percent of your 1 rep max. These are great for teaching your body to explode off the floor.

To Build Muscle

Build a Muscular Back

The sumo deadlift is a great mass-building movement! Few exercises will thicken your back as well as these.

Do 4 to 6 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions, with moderate loads (50 to 60 percent of your one-rep max), taking shorter rests between sets. Rest 90 seconds to 2 minutes. You can also do higher reps (15+) with a lighter weight for muscular endurance.

This is the one time that rebounding can be okay, as long as done very safely. When building muscle you want time under tension. Lower the weight slowly, gently tap on the floor (don’t forcefully rebound), and then rise tall again.

Advanced Techniques

Ready to push your sumo deadlift to new heights? Try these advanced techniques.

Deficit Sumo Deadlift

Set a weight plate underneath your feet. This will make you have to lower further to reach the bar. The increased range of motion makes this a great movement for increasing your pulling strength off the floor. And, unlike Olympic lifting, where you increase speed as the barbell moves higher, the first pull with the deadlift is essential.

Resistance Band or Chain Sumo Deadlifts

Sumo Deadlift With Resistance Bands

Training with bands and chains are advanced techniques that should be reserved for those that are very experienced with this movement.

Bands and chains help you develop your lockout. As you raise the barbell from the floor the band gets stretched or there is less chain on the floor (depending on what you’re using) so the resistance increases. This allows you to work with a weight at the top of the movement that may be heavier than you’re used to, but light enough at the bottom of the movement that you can lift it off the floor.

If your deadlift platform has band pegs, wrap a resistance band around the pegs and loop over the ends of your barbell. Make sure there is little or no slack in your band. Deadlift as normal and lower the weight slowly, under control.

If you don’t have band pegs, drape a resistance band over your barbell and then stand on it.

If you are using chains, either drape them over the ends of your barbell or in the very center of the barbell. Deadlift like normal.

Sumo Deadlift Variations

The barbell sumo deadlift is the most common variation, but it can be performed with other pieces of equipment as well. Once you’ve got the barbell mastered, give these a try!

Kettlebell Sumo Deadlift

KB Sumo Deadlift

This version can be done with one kettlebell (KB) or two.

Straddle your single or dual kettlebells with the exact same foot width and placement as with the barbell sumo deadlift. Lower down to the weight in the same manner as described above and grasp the horn(s) of your KB.

Drop your hips, keep your chest proud and eyes forward, and lift the weight by extending your knees, hips, and back at the same time.

Dumbbell Sumo Deadlift

These are performed exactly the same as with kettlebells but will force you to lower much closer to the ground. Place one or two dumbbells on the ground, lower and grasp the dumbbells, and lift.

Follow all of the same form tips we’ve discussed.

These can be great for forcing you into a very low starting position.

Some people will do these holding the dumbbells on their shoulders, but that is more of a sumo squat than a deadlift. It will work the same legs muscles, but less of your back muscles.

Safety and Precautions

Be smart in the gym. Start light and only progress when you have perfect form. It is imperative that you maintain perfect form with the sumo deadlift to avoid injury.

Never train sumo deadlifts to momentary muscular failure. That’s a low back or inner thigh injury waiting to happen.

And save 1 rep maxes for competitions.

Are Sumo Deadlifts Cheating?

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Are these cheating?

Well, that depends! These are 100% legal in all powerlifting competitions. People that compete choose and train the form that gives them the best advantage to lift the most weight.

Some will say that you can always lift more weight with the sumo deadlift. That’s not true! Yes, you end up closer to the ground with the sumo, causing a shorter bar path, but whether or not you are stronger at it depends on your body mechanics.

Switching to the sumo deadlift won’t automatically equate to lifting heavier weight.

I am stronger at the conventional deadlift. I have long, weak legs and a very strong back. The conventional deadlift allows me to play to my strengths.

But I have never had a back injury with the sumo deadlift because my short upper body doesn’t end up with an excessive forward lean like with the regular deadlift. At 42 years old the sumo deadlift is the only style I train anymore. Just because it’s safer for my back given my body structure.

And all of the world record deadlifts on the men’s side of competition have been completed with conventional deadlifts.

Outside of powerlifting competitions it completely depends on your sport or completion.

CrossFit mandates conventional style deadlifts. So does Strongman. And I believe GRID does as well. This is mostly because traditional deadlifts are easier to judge at the lockout position when many reps are completed at a very fast pace.

If you’re training for bodybuilding, choose the method that will focus on the muscles you want to build.

If you’re just lifting for yourself and your health, choose whichever style you are the most comfortable with and that has the least chance of injury.

Bumper Plates

Titan Fitness 230-pound economy bumper plate set – This is the set I have at home.

Rogue Crumb Bumper Plates – Crumb bumpers are amazing for home gyms! They are incredibly durable and are much quieter than typical bumper plates. And, if you plan on training outside at any point, these are the plates you need.

Weight Plates

Titan Fitness 245-Pound Cast Iron Plate Set – Steel for strength! These are great if you don’t plan on dropping your weights.

Rogue Fitness Cast Iron Olympic Plates – These are high quality and slightly less expensive than bumper plates. Again, great if you’re not going to drop them.

Barbells

Again Faster Team Barbell 2.0 – This is the barbell I have and use at home.

Rogue Bar 2.0 – This is another incredible all-purpose barbell. Some of my closest friends own this one and use it as their daily bar.

Titan Fitness Olympic Barbell – My local CrossFit gym has this barbell and I use it often. It’s a great all-purpose barbell.

Sumo Deadlift Frequently Asked Questions

Should I do sumo deadlifts? Which style is best for me?

This depends on your experience, goals, and body mechanics. Whether you’re a beginner or an expert, the deadlift is a fantastic exercise for building powerful muscles and conditioning your lower body. If you’re new to deadlifting, you might find the sumo style easier to learn and safer than a typical deadlift. That said, you’ll only figure out how to do them by attempting different deadlifts. If conventional or trap bar deadlifts feel best for you, perform them.

Can I alternate between sumo and conventional deadlifts?

Yes! Sumo deadlifts may even help your standard deadlift (and vice versa). However, if you’re a competitor, you may want to stick with one type for a few training cycles. That’s because both exercises need technical expertise and can only be obtained by repeating them over and over and over.

Is a sumo deadlift a real deadlift?

Yep. Sumo deadlifts are a variation of the conventional deadlift. They emphasize different muscle groups than a normal one, but the general movement and main goal of the exercises are the same. They are unique, though, in that they aren’t only a hip hinge movement. They also include knee-hinge-initiated movements.

Are sumo deadlifts harder than regular deadlifts?

This depends on your experience and body mechanics. When you are first learning anything it feels a bit awkward and difficult. But give it some time and attention and will begin to feel like second nature. That said, people with longer legs and arms may find sumo deadlifts easier or safer because they will cause less forward lean.

Now that you know how to thicken your back, widen it with these pull-up variations.

Sumo Deadlift Conclusion

The sumo deadlift is a variation of the standard or conventional-style deadlift that emphasizes different muscles groups and uses knee-hinge-initiated movements. The sumo style may be awkward and difficult to learn in the beginning if you’re used to conventional deadlifts. But they are very beginner-friendly if you are just starting out! If you have long legs and arms you should definitely give these a shot because they can cause less forward lean than other styles. If your goal is to build powerful muscles and condition your lower body, give sumo deadlifts some time and attention to see if they work for you!

What is your favorite deadlift variation?

Learn how to correctly perform the power snatch
Learn how to perform and program the hang clean
Learn how to perform the snatch
Learn how to perform and program the barbell row

Resources

  1. Cholewicki, J et al. “Lumbar spine loads during the lifting of extremely heavy weights.” Medicine and science in sports and exercise vol. 23,10 (1991): 1179-86.
  2. Escamilla, R F et al. “Biomechanical analysis of the deadlift during the 1999 Special Olympics World Games.” Medicine and science in sports and exercise vol. 33,8 (2001): 1345-53. doi:10.1097/00005768-200108000-00016
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AUTHOR

Matt has been a personal trainer for more than 18 years. He is also a Certified Holistic Nutritionist, has a master's degree in teaching, and is a former competitive powerlifter and CrossFit athlete. His passion is helping others get in shape from mid-life and beyond.

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