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The sumo deadlift is an exercise becoming increasingly popular in the strength and conditioning environment, both for improving physical performance and as a potential rehabilitation tool. Its uses for performance and rehabilitation are primarily due to the high level of musculature recruited to perform the movement and the decreased shearing forces placed on the spine. This article provides a detailed outline of the sumo deadlift, optimal technique, variations, its role in athletic performance and rehabilitation, and the prescription of this exercise.
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ABSTRACT
The sumo deadlift is an exercise becoming increasingly popular in the strength and conditioning environment,
both for improving physical performance and as a potential rehabilitation tool. Its uses for performance and
rehabilitation are primarily due to the high level of musculature recruited to perform the movement and the
decreased shearing forces placed on the spine. This article provides a detailed outline of the sumo deadlift,
optimal technique, variations, its role in athletic performance and rehabilitation, and the prescription of this
exercise.
Key words Posterior chain, quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteal, rehabilitation, resistance training
INTRODUCTION
Deadlifts and their variations are widely used in strength and conditioning programs for an array of applications
and appear in most phases of a periodisation cycle with varying intensities and techniques (6). Currently it is
understood that when performed with proper technique, the deadlift utilises the posterior contralateral slings (a
kinetic chain that links the latissimus dorsi through the thoracolumbar fascia to the opposite gluteus maximus
and hamstrings) which provides optimised force transfer from the upper limbs, through the trunk to the lower
extremities (6,10). Due to this, it can be argued that training this movement may be useful, not only for sporting
applications, but as an effective rehabilitation tool. For example, it can be utilised in the rehabilitation of
patients with mechanical low back pain (1).
Compared to the conventional deadlift, the sumo deadlift employs a stance width which is two to three times
wider (5). It is also characterised by the hands gripping the barbell between the legs. This variation of the
deadlift has been widely popularised by the sport of Powerlifting, particularly over recent years. The main
reason for its adoption is likely due to the decreased vertical bar displacement compared to a conventional
deadlift (5); thereby reducing the overall work required by the athlete once optimal technique for individual
anthropometric variables have been achieved.
Including the sumo deadlift in rehabilitation programs for the knee (6) or lower back pain (1) would likely be
beneficial based on the kinematics and muscles activated by the movement. For example it can be used as a
part of a rehabilitation program post anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstruction surgeries in which the
development of hamstring and quadriceps strength is important (11). Furthermore, it has been shown to be
beneficial for individuals with mechanical low back pain as an exercise to increase paraspinal strength and
develop better lifting technique (1). The sumo deadlift requires a stable spine to effectively transfer force
across the body when lifting heavy loads. Spinal stabilisation primarily involves the erector spinae muscle
group; in particular multifidus, iliocostalis and longissimus (2). Additionally, the latissimus dorsi also plays an
important role in spinal stabilisation through its aponeurosis to the thoracolumbar fascia and connection with
the gluteals. Together, this interaction allows effective force transfer between the upper and lower body with
the removal of local spinal load (1,12).
Accordingly, this article aims to highlight the exercise technique, common variations, effective coaching cues,
and as a guide for appropriate prescription and progression. In addition, it outlines how to use the sumo
deadlift for improving athletic performance and as a rehabilitative exercise.
Muscles used
Agonistic prime movers quadriceps (vastus lateralis, vastus intermedius, vastus medialis and rectus
femoris), hamstrings (biceps femoris, semitendinosus and semimembranosus) and gluteus maximus.
Stabilisers erector spinae (iliocostalis, longissimus, multifidus), transverse abdominis, latissimus dorsi,
quadratus lumborum, gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, psoas, iliacus, internal obliques, external obliques,
external hip rotators (obturator internus, obturator externus, gemellus inferior, gemellus superior, piriformis,
quadratus femoris).
Benefits of the exercise
Decreased shear force on the lumbar spine (8% reduction) (2) compared to conventional deadlifting.
Strengthen posterior kinetic chain and hip external rotators.
Develop strength in quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteals to lift heavy loads (6).
Can optimise body biomechanics to allow lifting of heavier loads for sports performance.
Effective exercise for deadlift training variety due to similar activation of muscles.
Teaches individuals how to develop tension and stability throughout the body for effective force transfer
of heavy external loads across multiple joints.
Multiple applications in rehabilitation programs (as outlined below).
Coordinates body to use mechanical leverages to overcome heavy load that challenges the body’s
centre of gravity.
Useful movement pattern that can be adapted and transferred to lifting bulky and heavy loads from the
ground.
Exercise technique
The set up
Feet positioned at approximately two times an individual's shoulder width with forty-five degrees of
external rotation at both feet.
Tibias should be maintained in a vertical position both in the sagittal and frontal planes through external
rotation and abduction at the hips.
Hip starting position should be raised such that the thighs are slightly above parallel to the ground.
Grip the barbell in both hands with an overhand style or alternate grip at approximately shoulder width
apart with straight arms. We recommend using an alternate or ‘hook’ grip for heavier loads.
Shoulders should be positioned just in front of the centre of the barbell, not behind it.
Maintain a neutral lumbar lordotic curve with the trunk as upright as possible.
Concentric phase
1. Inhale slightly before beginning the lift to be able to effectively brace the trunk.
2. Centre the body-weight over the midfoot.
3. Simultaneously activate the latissimus dorsi while initiating leg drive via “screwing” or “spreading” the
feet outwards on the floor to engage quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteus maximus.
4. Maintain a neutral spine posture throughout the entire movement.
5. As the load passes above the knees, aim to fully extend the knees slightly before full hip extension is
achieved to complete the movement.
6. Maintain slight scapular depression and retraction throughout the movement.
Eccentric phase
7. Gently lower the load maintaining neutral spinal posture.
8. Reset lifting posture once load is safely under control on the ground in preparation for subsequent
repetitions.
Figure 1. Start position for sumo deadlift.
Figure 2. Finish position for sumo deadlift.
Variations
Barbell (from floor).
Barbell block pull.
Barbell deficit.
Wider stance, closer stance.
Pause at various concentric or eccentric locations.
Kettlebell or dumbbell.
Key technical aspects
The focus should be on driving the knees out so the tibias are as vertical as possible in order for the
barbell to clear the knees and maximise ground reaction forces.
To initiate the lift aim to “spread the floor” via driving feet into the ground.
The torso should remain as upright as possible to focus on equal work between hip and knee
extensors.
In order to complete the movement, knees and hips should be at full extension and shoulders should
be in a slightly retracted position behind the barbell.
Coaching Cues
“Chest up”, “knees out”, “shoulders down”, “big breath”, “tight”, “balance in the mid foot”, “screw your feet into
the floor”, “spread the floor” and “hips through”
Common technical errors
Thoracic spine collapse causing an inability to complete the lift and get the shoulders behind the
barbell once knees and hips are in full extension (Figure 3).
Hips rising up from the set up position before the load moves increasing the load on the lower back and
decreasing quadriceps involvement (Figure 4).
Not externally rotating the femurs adequately to maintain vertical tibias which make it difficult for the
load to pass the knees as the barbell becomes displaced anteriorly. This in turn increases the torque
on the hips and lower back (Figure 5).
Hyperextension of the lumbar spine at the completion of the concentric phase increasing spinal
shearing forces (Figure 6).
Figure 3. Thoracic spine collapse.
Figure 4. Hips rising from the set up position.
Figure 5. Not externally rotating the femurs enough, resulting in the knee position over the bar on the left
compared to the right.
Figure 6. Hyperextension of lumber spine at lockout.
PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS
Performance
In a performance context, the sumo deadlift can be applied in two scenarios. The first is that of a competition
movement (deadlifts following the back squat and bench press) in the sport of Powerlifting where athletes are
required to successfully lift as much weight as possible. In this case, Powerlifting coaches should assess
whether the athlete is at an advantage performing the sumo deadlift (as opposed to the conventional deadlift).
This is based on anthropometric and neuromuscular factors such as moment arms at the knee, hip and ankle
(6), strength in the quadriceps, gluteals, hamstrings and erector spinae (6) and flexibility around the hip joint
(10).
Outside of Powerlifting, the sumo deadlift is an important training tool to increase lower body vertical pulling
strength from a variety of heights with a wide stance. This is important for sports which involve external
rotation, horizontal abduction and extension at the hip along with extension at the knee such as breaststroke
swimming and tennis (e.g. sliding horizontally whilst on clay, grass and hard courts). Deadlifts (conventional
and sumo stances) also strengthen trunk musculature and teach individuals how to stabilise their spine for
force transfer (6) which is vital for athlete longevity and injury prevention (9). Additionally, the sumo deadlift
can add variety in training to avoid plateaus in progress and reduce training monotony (8). Therefore, strength
and conditioning coaches should consider the addition of the sumo deadlift into strength training programs if
appropriate to the athlete’s competition and performance based demands.
Rehabilitation
Implementation of the sumo deadlift in a rehabilitation context will be based upon the phase of rehabilitation
the individual is undertaking and the clinical reasoning behind the exercise application. The exercise can be
effective for various lower limb rehabilitation needs due to its compound utilisation of the quadriceps,
hamstrings and gluteal muscles. In recent years, it has been incorporated into the exercise prescription used
in some ACL return to sport protocols (11). Sumo deadlifts are recommended during the strengthening phase
of rehabilitation. This can commence at light intensities at 6 months post-operatively, progressing to higher
intensities based on individual sporting requirements. These protocols develop fundamental strength in the
hamstrings which is considered the dynamic ACL of the knee (11). Such protocols also aim to improve the
athlete’s ability to stabilise the knee with the hip external rotators in order to resist valgus knee moments
developed by the powerful hip adductors and or from change of direction movements (6,11).
Deadlifts have been shown to be effective in reducing pain and disability in those suffering from a mechanical
pattern of low back pain (1,3,7). They also show a greater muscle activation of the trunk than traditional
exercises (quadruped, side bridge, glute bridge and back extensions) prescribed for lower back pain,
particularly within the main spinal stabilisers and gluteals (13), which may lead to greater strength
improvements. Subsequently, deadlifts have also been shown to increase the strength and endurance of the
trunk musculature (3,7) with no difference in activation between sumo and conventional stances (6). However,
biomechanical analysis showed that the trunk posture is significantly more upright in the sumo deadlift leading
to a decrease in the shear forces (8% reduction compared to conventional stance) placed upon the spine
(2,5). Therefore, using the sumo deadlift may be a safer lifting technique in occupations where people are
often required to lift bulky or heavy objects from the floor. Consequently, choosing the sumo deadlift as a part
of higher-level lower back injury rehabilitation program could be highly beneficial.
Sets and repetitions
The sumo deadlift is an exercise which has a high demand on technical expertise; therefore the focus on all
training sessions should be to maintain optimal technique whilst avoiding fatigue. Sets that are performed to
fatigue will dramatically alter bar kinematics and reduce technical efficiency (4). From practical experience, the
sumo deadlift is best trained with <3 repetitions per set independent of intensity to reduce the risk of technical
breakdown (4). However, when learning the appropriate technique, more repetitions per set can be performed
as the low intensity should not fatigue the individual. When the individual is proficient with the technique,
volume can be accumulated at lower intensities (<80% of one-repetition maximum (1RM)) with a large number
of sets (>5 to 8, can be as high as 10 depending on the load and time-constraints). Coaches can also
manipulate time-under-tension characteristics to further accrue volume (e.g. extended eccentric phase,
pausing on the concentric phase). Conversely, higher intensity protocols (80%+ of 1RM), should be performed
with a reduced amount of sets and repetitions to decrease the likelihood of technical breakdown (<5 sets of <3
repetitions).
The exercise should be performed once or twice per week depending on training demands, skill level and time
restraints. Once per week is adequate for most power-based sports, if strength and power is deemed
important, twice per week is recommended. For team sports, sprint and combat sport athletes (typically
explosive sports), a sumo deadlift that is 1.5-2.5 times the individual’s body weight for male and female
athletes is a reasonable strength level. For endurance athletes (e.g. distance running, rowing and swimming),
a sumo deadlift of 1.5-2 times bodyweight is a reasonable strength level.
Progressions
There are two methods of progression depending on the individual’s mobility at the hip.
Flexibility exercises to achieve adequate amounts of hip external rotation and abduction are required to
maintain vertical tibias. Therefore focusing on mobilising the internal rotators and adductors of the hip are
essential for an individual to perform the sumo deadlift as efficiently as possible (see Figures 7-9). Additionally,
when an individual is learning the sumo deadlift it is common to mistime the movement. Table 1 outlines
progressions for both poor hip range of motion and inappropriate timing of the lift.
Table 1. Sumo deadlift progressions for common deficits.
Poor Hip Range of Motion
Inappropriate timing
Stage 1: Close-stance sumo deadlift from 4” block
Stage 2: Close-stance sumo deadlift from 2” block
Stage 3: Close-stance sumo deadlift from floor
Stage 4: Increase stance width, sumo deadlift from 4”
block
Stage 5: Sumo deadlift from 2” block
Stage 6: Sumo deadlift from floor
Stage 7: Slightly increase stance width until the
athlete is comfortable, sumo deadlift from 4” block
Stage 8: Sumo deadlift from 2” block
Stage 9: Sumo deadlift from the floor
Stage 1: Sumo deadlift to knee level (cue the
maintenance of an upright trunk throughout the entire
movement)
Stage 2: Pause sumo deadlift at the knee
Stage 3: Pause sumo deadlift as the bar begins to
leave the floor
Stage 4: Full sumo deadlift from the floor
Figure 7. Hip adductor mobilisation using foam roller.
Figure 8. Static hip adductor and internal rotator stretch in sumo deadlift start position.
Figure 9. Dynamic hip adductor and internal rotator stretch. Athlete starts in high hip position and rhythmically
squats into low hip position.
Video 1. Sumo deadlift progression for poor hip range of motion.
Video 2. Sumo deadlift progression for inappropriate timing.
CONCLUSION
The sumo deadlift is a technical movement with close similarities to the conventional deadlift which can
optimise individual biomechanics, thus improving an individual’s ability to lift heavier loads. It has numerous
applications for building strength in the posterior chain and quadriceps while reducing shear stress on the
spine. Therefore, this exercise can be effectively used as part of a rehabilitation program for patients with
lower back pain and for sports performance. Consequently, coaches and practitioners should consider the
inclusion of the sumo deadlift within strength and conditioning programs so that clients can benefit from the
advantages of the sumo deadlift.
Acknowledgements
The authors wish to acknowledge strength and conditioning coach and two-time under 66kg class International
Powerlifting Federation (IPF) Junior World Powerlifting Champion, John Paul Cauchi, of Obsidian Strength and
2014 under 52kg class Powerlifting Australia (IPF affiliate) Junior National Powerlifting Champion, Olivia
McConnell, of Bond Strength Sports Club for providing the photographs and videos illustrated in this article.
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