The sumo deadlift is much more than a conventional deadlift with a wide stance. When setup properly you may find that the sumo deadlift allows you to get more leg drive into your pulls, and reduces tension on your lower back given the more upright starting position. Sumo deadlifts also can favor certain body mechanics (longer femurs, shorter arms) and strengths (dominant hip strength).
To leverage the sumo’s advantages, you need to set up properly for your sumo pull.
- Foot Position:
- You are going to take a very wide stance for sumo deadlifts. Although there are not set starting points for sumo as for conventional pulls, try starting with your shins at the rings on the bar and move in or out from there, depending on the length of your legs.
- Point your toes outward sharply. As your knees should track in the direction of your toes, with a wide stance you want your toes pointed out.
- Keep the bar very close, within an inch of your shins.
- Create a solid base. When the lift is completed, your legs angled outward form the base of a solid pyramid.
- Since you do have a wide stance and there can be significant lateral force on your feet, you will want to make sure that you perform sumo deadlifts on a non-skid surface, and that your shoes are clean and free of any materials that may make them slip.
- Hand Position:
- In most cases your sumo hand position should be identical to your conventional hand position. Your arms should hang straight down to the bar giving you the maximum distance between your shoulders to the bar. This creates an advantageous starting position by further reducing the the lift’s range of motion (ROM). It also reduces non-productive lateral forces created by taking a wider than shoulder width grip.
- Grip: Your grip will be the same for sumo deadlifts as for conventional deadlifts
- Double overhand grip – Grip the bar with both hands pronated (overhand). This is the toughest way to grip the bar. As the bar weight increases, the bar will begin to roll out of your hands. It can, however, further lengthen your arm span shortening the deadlift ROM.
- Alternating over/under grip – Grip the bar with one hand pronated (overhand) and one hand supinated (underhand). Which hand you use is your preference, but generally speaking it’s more effective gripping with your dominant hand pronated. Using the over-under grip prevents the bar from rolling out of your grip.
- Hook grip – Grip the bar with both hands pronated. Instead of wrapping your thumbs around the bar, lie them along the bar and wrap your fingers around your thumbs. This is a very effective grip, locking the bar in and preventing it from rolling or slipping out of your grip, but it can be exceptionally painful.
- Setting up for the pull: I promote a three step setup for sumo deadlifts, as I do for conventional deadlifts. This allows you to tighten up before the pull and create muscle tension that will help with your pulls.
- Hinge at the hips to reach down and grab the bar. Squeeze your shoulder blades downward to tighten your back. Think about tucking them into your back pockets. Take a deep breath into your lungs and abdomen, and force it downward to create a very tight and stable core.
- Bring your hips down and chest up. Drive your knees out so you can push your hips forward toward the bar – try and drop your sack on the bar [a reference I stole from Dave Tate]. When you are set for the pull, your torso should be more erect than for a conventional pull, allowing you to drive straight up.
- Notice from the videos below that you will drop your hips much lower than you do for conventional deadlifts.
- Drive the bar straight up to lock out. Shove your knees out, and push against the outside edge of your shoes.
- Sumo deadlifts are notorious for coming off the floor very slowly. Don’t get discouraged and quit on the lift if it is stubborn off the floor. Keep pulling and you’ll find the lockouts to be stronger.
The deadlift is a technical lift whether you pull conventional or sumo. To be successful pay as much attention to your setup as you do to your weight, sets, and reps. Simple corrections to your setup and technique can add a lot of additional lbs to the bar.
A good deadlift, as with all over big lifts, starts with a good setup. There is more to the deadlift than grabbing the bar and standing up. Here are a few quick pointers to effectively find your setup position.
- Feet should be hip width apart. Line up the outside of your feet with the outside of your hips. Your legs should be perpendicular to the floor.
- Grip the bar just outside your hip width. If possible your arms should also be perpendicular to the floor. If you have relatively wide hips, your arms may angle out slightly.
When you drop into the setup position to begin your pull, here are a few markers you can use to find that good starting position for a strong pull.
- Your shins should remain perpendicular to the floor. As you rock back into the starting position, rotation should be around your knees, bringing your hips down and your head and chest up.
- Your shoulder blades should be directly over the bar. Keeping upward tension on the bar and your arms straight as your rock back, continue rocking back until your shoulder blades rotate back over the bar.
- Keep your back straight and flat. You can do this by taking a deep breath into your lungs, tightening your core, and squeezing your shoulder blades tightly downward – try and tuck them into your back pockets.
Don’t waste time thinking about your setup. Once you get your grip on the bar immediately take your breath, tighten your back, and rock back into the starting position. As soon as you are in the starting position immediately begin your pull.
The problem: Many strength trainers spend hours, maybe weeks, researching the perfect workout or trying out the latest lifting fad. More experienced lifters focus their effort honing in the technique for their squat, deadlift and bench press. Far too many, however, miss one of the most fundamental aspects to lifting big weights – perfecting the setup.
The solution: Neglecting your setup is a huge mistake. A proper setup leads to stronger lifts. The setup is the one point in the lift you have the time (and your wits) to enable you to do everything perfectly every single time. To set up correctly your entire body needs to be tight before the bar even comes out of the rack or off the floor.
How does a tight setup aid your lift?
- Efficiency: An improper setup leaves you expending more energy than necessary before even starting to lift.
- Stability: A tight set up allows you to control the weight easily, giving you greater stability with which to start your lift.
- The Weight Feels Light: Setting up tightly gives you a mechanical advantage. The weight feels much lighter coming out of the rack, or off the floor. Although it doesn’t matter how heavy it feels, the lighter the weight feels, the more confidently you will attack your lifts.
Squat Setup: The idea for this article came up while watching one of my lifters setting up to squat. Before unracking the weight she dropped down slightly, and then slammed up into the bar. Extra movements like this do not help with the lift and by doing so she loosened up before lifting the bar.
Keeping your body tight allows you to transfer all of your power from your legs doing the work directly to the bar on your shoulders and eliminates energy leaks. Done right, the bar feels lighter and moves more easily, wastes less energy, and mentally prepares you for your lift.
- Hand Position: Bringing your hands in closer to your shoulders on the bar increases the tightness of your upper back. Bring them in as closely as your flexibility allows, while still enabling you to drive your elbows forward under the bar as you lift the weight.
- Bar Position: Bring the bar down from on top of your traps (high bar position) to the shelf between the base of your traps and your delts.
- Tight Back: Once you have your grip on the bar, and have positioned the bar on your back, squeeze your shoulder blades together to contract your lats and tighten your upper back.
- Big Air: Take a large breath of air into your lungs, and tighten your core. This will create intra-abdominal pressure, providing stability to your spine.
What is Big Air?
When I get under the bar very very tightly it feels like my body is a loaded spring. Let it go and it drives the bar up easily out of the rack, even with a loaded down bar. For more tips on your squat setup, read ‘A Perfect Setup Leads to a Bigger Squat’.
Setting up your squat
Bench Press Setup: You’ve seen a lot of guys do it, hell I used to this before I knew what I was doing: before unracking the weight, he pulls his body up off the bench and as his shoulders come back down onto the bench he unracks the weight. This is probably the worst thing you can do to prepare for your bench press. Before unracking the weight you want to have your body in the perfect position and completely tight. There is no way to properly set up with a moving target!
- Shoulder Position: Place your shoulders on the bench and squeeze your shoulder blades together tightly. Think about trying to squeeze a quarter between your shoulder blades and holding it there throughout your full set.
- Leg Drive: Place your feet under your knees with your toes pointed slightly outward. Push through the balls of your feet driving your hips towards your shoulders. This will push your lower back into a slight arch, and it will tighten your entire body from your toes through your traps. Maintain your leg drive throughout all reps in your set.
Note: If you have lower back issues, consult your doctor before benching with an ‘arch’.
- Lock Your Elbows: Squeeze the bar tightly, and try to lock your elbows before unracking the bar. You want to be able to bring the bar straight out over your chest, instead of lifting the bar up then bringing it out. This works best when you have a bench with adjustable height. With the perfect rack height you can nearly lock your elbows before coming out of the rack. Your spotter should have to just bump the bar up slightly, then help you guide the weight straight out, at which point you’re already locked out and ready to begin your first repetition.
Deadlift Setup: Deadlift setups are the trickiest. I watch deadlifters squat down to the bar loosening their entire upper body, and then jerk up as hard as they can to pull their new PR. Let’s look at this approach – loose upper back, heavy weight, jerking the bar with all their strength. Let’s say you’re going to tow your friend’s car out of the ditch with your Chevy. Do you connect the chains between the vehicles leaving 30’ of slack, then floor it getting your truck up to speed before the chain tightens and jerks the bumper off your friend’s car? My first thought is usually ‘well they won’t be wasting space in my gym too long’.
A proper deadlift starts with a tight upper body and a smooth, strong, steady pull:
- Big Air: Take a deep breath into your lungs and tighten your core. This will create intra-abdominal pressure which stabilizes your spine. This is best done before you drop your hips down into the starting position. Once you drop your hips you will be unable to pack your lungs full of air.
- Tight Back: Squeeze your shoulder blades together tightening your back. As opposed to your bench press technique, where you try and pinch a quarter between them, try and tuck your shoulder blades down into your back pockets. This will reduce the shortening effect on your arms while still allowing you to tighten your upper back (shorter arms equals a longer range of motion).
- Pull the Slack out of the Bar: Pull upward on the bar before starting your deadlift eliminating any slack between you and the bar. You should have a smooth, strong pull when you start your deadlift, and not jerk the bar upwards.
- Don’t Squat to the Bar: Rock back bringing your hips down and your head and chest up. Keep your back tight and upward tension on the bar as you rock back, dropping your hips to the starting position. Don’t squat down to the bar letting your knees drift forward over the bar and loosening your back and arms.
A tight setup on the deadlift allows you to transfer all of your pulling power directly from your legs to the bar. It allows you to turn your upper body into a solid lever, minimizing energy leaks as you begin your pull.
I probably frustrate many of my lifters. When squatting I’ll make them rerack and start over several times before they even take their first repetition, but the setup is that important. A proper setup can easily be the difference between a missed lift and a new personal record.
The solution: Identify and overcome the weak link in your deadlift power – being able to lock out 500lbs doesn’t do you a bit of good if you can’t break it from the floor. As I have previously done with the Bench Press here I tear your deadlift down into the potential problem areas and recommend approaches to overcome them. It is possible that these strategies may overlap.
Training Maturity: To effectively eliminate weakness in your deadlift, you should be at a relatively mature level as a lifter. Before you start working on your deadlift weaknesses:
- Perfect your deadlift technique. You will have the greatest gains, and slightest chance of hurting yourself if you first focus on deadlifting properly. The deadlift is one of the most effective exercises on the books, but performed incorrectly it can have the greatest potential for injury.
- Build a solid foundation of strength. Before correcting weaknesses, develop the sufficient level of pulling strength. Work on your fundamental deadlift strength until you are at least an intermediate level on the deadlift with proper technique. You can find a good Strength Standards for Deadlift at http://www.exrx.net/Testing/WeightLifting/DeadliftStandards.html.
The two common deadlift weak points:
Now that your technique is fundamentally sound, and you have a solid strength base, let’s look at where your weak points may lie and how to improve them.
- Weak off the floor
- Difficulty locking out
Weak off the Floor:
Breaking the bar slowly off the floor does not necessarily indicate significant weakness. However, more explosive power off the floor inevitably leads to bigger pulls.
Key Technique Points: To improve your power off the floor, perfect your setup technique.
- Don’t waste time setting up. Once your hands are on the bar you should be dropping your hips to the starting position then pulling without hesitation. I see far too many people pause at the bottom thinking about the lift before pulling (far too many = almost all). Nothing good can happen here:
- By thinking about the pull you are talking yourself out of it.
- You cannot fully fill your lungs with air with you core compressed at the bottom of the lift.
- Fill your lungs fully with air before dropping into the starting position. Big air in your lungs will provide intra-abdominal pressure protecting your spine, and giving you great stability.
Demonstration of Big Air
- Tighten your upper back. Squeeze your shoulder blades tightly and drive them downward. Think about tucking them down into your back pockets.
- There is no stretch reflex in your first deadlift repetition. Work on creating a stretch reflex by dropping your hips quickly into the starting position, and immediately pulling explosively back up.
- Don’t squat to the bar (characterized by your knees coming forward as you drop your hips down), this leaves you loose at the bottom. Grab the bar and rock back bringing your hips down and your chest up. This allows you to stay tight and keep upward tension on the bar as you set up for the pull.
- Drive your hips forward hard to engage you quads in the initial pull off the floor.
Strength Improvements and Training: Improving your strength in certain areas can help you build more power off the floor.
- Quad strength: If you’ve properly built a solid foundation of strength this is likely not your primary issue but it bears mentioning. If your quads are weak initiating the pull off the floor may be more difficult.
- Stretch reflex: Train every rep without the advantage of the stretch reflex; start every rep in training from a dead stop. I use a technique I call the 3 count setup.
- Deficit deadlifts: Training your deadlifts from a low platform, or standing on 1 or 2 plates, can help you build low end power.
- Pause deadlifts with a low pause: Pause deadlifts with a low end pause can help build low end power in your deadlift.
- Pause squats and box squats: Building low end strength in your squats with pause and box squats can carry over to power off the floor in your deadlift.
Explosive Training: Improving the explosiveness in your lower body will help you to condition your body and central nervous system to engage all of your muscle fibers at once giving you a powerful initial pull. Concentrate on an explosive pull off the floor without ‘snatching’ or jerking the weight by pulling all the slack out between you and the bar and maintaining upward tension on the bar until you begin the pull.
- Speed Deadlift: Include speed, or dynamic, work in your training program with some type of deadlift variety. The weight should be light enough so that you can drive the bar up explosively while maintaining perfect deadlift form. Condition yourself to start your pull off the floor with 100% of your muscle mass regardless of the actual weight you are pulling. For example if you are deadlifting 50% of your 1 rep max (1RM) the bar should move twice as fast as when you pull your 1RM.
- Vertical Jumping: Vertical jumping varieties can help you generate the instantaneous explosive power you need to initiate a heavy pull. Jumping higher requires more power, so your goal over time is to increase the height of your vertical jumps. Some effective jumping exercises include:
- Box Jumps
- Depth Jumps
- Box Squat Jumps
- Accommodated Resistance: Using bands and chains in your deadlift training can help you build more power off the floor. Since the weight is lighter at the floor, you should concentrate on starting the pull off the floor with as much speed as possible, using this momentum to complete the lift as the weight increases.
Let’s start with the proper definition of a deadlift lockout: standing fully upright, chest up and shoulders back, hips and knees fully extended (locked out). A strong lockout requires a strong posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, and lower back), and powerful grip.
Key Technique Points: Lockout technique in the deadlift requires you to be able to keep your chest up and drive your hips forward once the bar passes your knees.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together tightly and keep your head and chest up.
- Engage your glutes at the end of the pull to lock your hips and knees out to finish the pull powerfully.
- Grip: Once your grip begins to slip, your body will tendency to stop pulling even if you had the strength to complete the lift. Here are a couple of techniques to improve your grip on the bar.
- Alternating over/under grip: Over-Under Grip: Grip the bar with one hand pronated (overhand) and one hand supinated (underhand). Which hand you use is your preference, but generally speaking it’s more effective gripping with your dominant hand pronated. Using the over-under grip prevents the bar from rolling out of your grip.
- Hook grip: Grip the bar with both hands pronated. Instead of wrapping your thumbs around the bar, lie them along the bar and wrap your fingers around your thumbs. This is a very effective grip, locking the bar in and preventing it from rolling or slipping out of your grip, but it can be exceptionally painful.
Hook Grip Demonstration
- Chalk: Be generous with the chalk, its usefulness cannot be underestimated. Every surface of your hand that touches the bar should be coated with chalk (and preferably only the surfaces of your hand, not the bench, the floor, the mirror…). Once you’ve chalked your hand nothing touches your hands except the bar! If your gym does not allow chalk, try liquid chalk.
- Gloves: The bar slides relatively easily across the surface of your pretty gloves. It does not slide easily across the surface of a well chalked hand (without taking chalk, skin and calluses along with it).
- Wrist straps: No
Strength Improvements and Training: The muscles in your posterior chain are the primary movers to lock out your deadlift. With proper training you’ll find your deadlift actually accelerating once the bar crosses your knees.
- Posterior Chain: The posterior chain is greatly overlooked aspect of your training plan – yes, yourtraining plan. Your glutes and hamstrings should get just as much attention as your pecs and your quads (they don’t, do they?). My rule of thumb for glute and ham training volume is 8-12 sets per week depending, of course, on where I’m at in my training cycle. The most effective posterior chain lifts I’ve found are:
You don’t need a GHR bench to incorporate this effective exercise
- Hip thrusters
- Grip Strength: Have you ever shaken a great deadlifter’s hand? Chances are they crushed your mortal hand. If you want a strong deadlift, you need a strong grip.
- Deadlifts: Use double overhand grip as you warm up until you cannot hold the bar any longer. Then use alternating grip without chalk until you absolutely need the chalk.
- Farmer walks: In addition to some great conditioning, farmers walks can do wonders for building your grip.
- Wrist straps: No
There are other implements aimed at helping you build your grip strength, but my preference is grabbing a bar and holding on to it as you work through your training.
- Upper Back Strength: Although your upper back is not actively involved in the pull, statically it needs to be strong enough to support the weight. As with your posterior chain, your back should get as much attention as your pecs in your weekly training plan. I also like to balance my training volume in the frontal or vertical plane (ie pull-ups) with volume in the sagittal or horizontal plane (ie barbell rows).
For more on back training, check out my Back Workout of the Week.
- Lockout specific strength: You may want to include lifts in your program that directly train your lockout strength:
- Accommodated Resistance: Using bands and chains in your deadlift training can help you overload your deadlift lockout. Since the weight is lighter at the floor, you can lift weights that are heavier at lockout than you would normally be capable of.
- Rest: You will find that deadlifts work your entire body. You, therefore, use your entire body when deadlifting. If you are not allowing yourself sufficient recovery, and not promoting proper recovery (ie rest, diet, supplementation), your deadlift strength will suffer. If you find yourself struggling with a rep weight, back off, recover, and come back stronger.
Take action: Assess where you have the greatest potential for improvement. Rework your training program with a strategy to eliminate weak links in your pulls, and get your deadlift progress back on track.
The deadlift is a simple exercise, right? Just grab a heavy bar and stand up. To advance from a good deadlifter, to a great deadlifter, you really have to understand all the mechanics of the lift, which actually are somewhat complex. I’ve broken the deadlift into 21 separate steps to help you master every nuance of the lift.
There is no reason your setup should not be perfect every single rep of every single step. You are able to stop and think about every step in the setup as you are doing it. Setting up properly can make a significant difference in how much iron you can pull.
- Select the right bar
- Pick a bar that is not bent; if you cannot find a bar in your gym that is not bent (uh, terribly sorry about that…) make sure the bend is positioned upward so the bar does not roll as you lift it
- Choose a bar with most pronounced knurling, it should be somewhat sharp; yes, this will tear your hands up, but you will hold onto the bar.
- Foot placement
- Feet should be at hip-width (inside shoulder width)
- Point your toes forward
- Bend at the waist, rotating at your hips, to grab the bar
- Hand Placement
- Grip the bar at shoulder width
- Hands should be outside your thighs so they don’t slide across your legs during the pull, as this can cause your grip to loosen
- Arms should hang straight down from your shoulders, close to the thighs
- Get a good grip on the bar
- Use an over/under grip to prevent the bar from rolling during the pull
- Try to keep both hands on the knurling
- For heavier sets, chalk up your hands to prevent the bar from sliding away from you
- Pull the bar close to your body
- Bar should be within an inch of your shins before you start the pull
- Center the bar over the arches of your feet
Basic Deadlift Technique
Try and master the basic deadlift technique before starting to add more advanced techniques to your pulls. This will give you a great foundation, and very solid deadlifts.
- Pull the ‘slack’ out between your body and the bar
- Pull upward slightly on the bar so there is no slack between your arms and the bar, or between the bar and the plates
- Rock backwards dropping your hips down, and bringing your chest up
- Rotate around your knees bringing your hips downward
- Keep your arms straight and your back tight, and maintain upward tension on the bar as you rock back
- Drive through your heels as you start your pull; use your legs to break the bar from the floor
- Continue pulling until you are standing fully erect with your knees locked, your hips forward, and your shoulders back
- Lower the bar back to the floor and reset for your next repetition
Advanced Deadlift Technique
Once you have the basic deadlift technique mastered, and the steps are automatic, begin working on the advanced techniques that will take your pulls to the next level.
- Once you are set up for your pull, and have removed the slack from the bar, tighten your back
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together and down to keep your back tight
- Activate your lats to keep the bar tight against your shins
- Take a deep breath into your lungs and tighten your abs to create intra-abdominal pressure and a solid core just before dropping your hips to the starting position
- Hold the air in your lungs until the bar passes your knees
- Exhale slowly as you lock the bar out
- As you rock backward, continue bringing your hips down until your knees and shoulders are behind the bar
- Concentrate on tightening your glutes and hamstrings as you bring your hips down
- Begin pulling as soon as your hips drop to the starting position
- Remaining too long at the bottom of the lift will allow your glutes and hamstrings to loosen, and let your head talk your body out of the lift
- Keep the bar close to your body, the bar should ride up your shins as you pull
- Concentrate on completing your pull with one smooth motion
- Your shoulders, hips and the bar should rise at the same rate
- Your hips should not come up first, leading to your knees to lock out before your upper body is fully erect
- As the bar passes your knees, drive your hips forward by squeezing your glutes
- Do not shrug the bar or lean back excessively at the end of the lift, instead complete the lift by popping your chest up
- Do not let the bar rest on your thighs (hitching) at any point during the lift, continue pulling steadily even if the bar slows and stops; if you cannot complete the lift without hitching, set it down and try again another time!
Although a seemingly simple lift, there are many nuances to the deadlift that may be difficult to learn all at once. By breaking the deadlift down into separate phases, you can master each portion of the technique and build solid foundational skills before attempting more difficult and complex steps. Just as Brute Force Rule #4: Expect Steady Progression – following this approach, you may apply this rule to your deadlift as well.
You may download a deadlift technique checklist and take it with you to the gym: Lifting Checklist – Deadlift