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Have you deadlifted using a sumo stance before? I don’t mean just played with it once a bit during your warm up. I mean, used it, tweaked it, and tested it for a number of months, at least.

Let’s set one thing straight. The sumo deadlift is a legit deadlift variation. In fact, it’s a better option than the conventional deadlift for many who have yet to experience it. If you’ve never tried it, then I’d better not hear you dismissing it. Having said that, I’m not here to try and convince you to ditch the conventional deadlift and tell you the sumo deadlift is the best way for you to lift heavy things off the floor. Rather, I’m here to help you work out if the sumo deadlift is best for you, and why. That is going to depend on a number of things. Let’s take a look at what those are.

Key Points:

Your hip structure will impact your strength and comfort in the conventional and sumo deadlift much more than factors like height and limb lengths.
There are no factors that make either the conventional or the sumo deadlift inherently easier or harder.  It’s more a matter of individual strengths and weaknesses.
Hip extension demands are nearly identical between the conventional and sumo deadlifts.  Conventional pulls are a little easier on your quads, and sumo pulls are a little easier on your back.
To determine which deadlift style will be best for you, just train both of them for a few months, and stick with the one that’s the strongest and most comfortable with submaximal loads.  If that style is weaker with maximal loads, then it’s easy to identify the specific weakness that’s holding you back.

One advantage of the sumo deadlift for a powerlifter is that the bar has less distance to travel. You only have to look at the set up for a powerlifting squat or bench press to see that having shorter distance for the bar to travel is a significant priority. Another factor is style of lifting. The sumo deadlift requires a more precise set up. Therefore, if you are a grip-it-and-rip-it type of lifter who approaches the bar like the Wild Man of Borneo, the sumo deadlift may not be best for you.

Powerlifting records have been broken by both conventional deadlifters and sumo deadlifters, so top-level strength is not a concern. The main concern is which style helps to play on the strengths of the individual to draw out the biggest lifts.

How do you know whether you’re meant to pull conventional or sumo?

Try both out for yourself!

Train both variations equally for a few months.  Then, go with the one that feels the strongest and most comfortable with submaximal (around 70-80% of your 1rm) loads.

Generally, this will be the same variation that allows you to lift the heaviest maximal loads as well.  However, if you pull less weight right now utilizing the variation that feels the strongest and most comfortable with submaximal loads, odds are that it will catch up once you spend a little more time addressing your weaknesses.

It’s not too hard to figure out what the weaknesses are, either.  If your conventional deadlift feels better with submaximal loads, but your sumo max is higher, then odds are that your back is weak.  Conversely, if your sumo feels better with submaximal loads, but your conventional max is higher, then odds are that your quads are weak.

In the same manner, if both feel decent, the lagging lift lets you know where your biggest weakness is as well.  If your sumo pull is significantly higher, then your back probably needs more work, and if your conventional pull is significantly higher, then your quads probably need more work.

Now, in general, lighter lifters and female lifters tend to do better with sumo, likely due to back/torso weakness: Larger people with thicker torsos, in general have an easier time keeping their back extended when pulling conventional.

The exact numbers change over time, but in general, about 2/3 of female lifters and males under 100kg pull sumo, and about 2/3 of male lifters over 100kg deadlift conventional.  Nowadays, sumo is exceptionally popular.  In the late ’90s, on the other hand (at the national meet where Escamilla gathered his data), 70% of the lifters deadlifted conventional, including 85% of the lifters above 83kg, and 55% of the lifters below 83kg.

However, don’t just pick one variation over another because of your sex, size, or build.  The shift in popularity over time is, I believe, reflective of changes in popular training styles.  Heavy, frequent back work was popular in the 90s, including higher deadlift volumes, and a steady diet of rows, good mornings, and back raises.  They likely had stronger backs as a group, and consequently they largely preferred the conventional deadlift.  Nowadays, more frequent, higher volume squatting and relatively less direct posterior chain training mean current lifters have stronger quads as a group, so they prefer the sumo deadlift.

Give them both a shot.  Neither variation is inherently easier or harder than the other, and hip extension demands are virtually identical; however, one or the other will likely be noticeably stronger for you in the long run, based largely on your personal hip structure, which determines the range of motion your hips can go through comfortably, and the tension on the muscles around your hip at varying degrees of flexion, abduction, and external rotation.