A question I know a lot of people have is how do you decide if you should pull sumo or conventional? And the answer is…..there is no real good answer.
While I am sure everyone would love a clear cut answer, like people with long legs and short torsos should conventional and those with long torsos and typically cheat on math tests should sumo, I haven’t really found any perfect correlation. If there is any correlation, it has been shown that lower weight classes lifters tend to prefer sumo, especially women, and higher weight class lifters tend to prefer conventional. Most likely, that will just come down to leverages, as it usually is a bit easier for a 52kg female to get into position for a sumo deadlift than a 120+kg man. But getting back to the main question, how do I decide which is best? Let’s run down the list of things that I am going to consider:
1.) The first and foremost answer is what can keep you training pain free. I personally am stronger sumo, but it kills my hips and within just a couple sessions I have such significant pain that it is not feasible for me to continue to train sumo. I have others that are the opposite. The number 1 priority is to stay injury-free, so if one or the other gets in the way of that, it makes the decision easy.
2.) Next up is training age. If I have someone that has never deadlifted before and is wanting to get into powerlifting, I will start them with conventional deadlifting. It is easier in my opinion to teach and learn, and technically there is a bit less going on. The conventional deadlift or hinge pattern is a basic, fundamental, and natural movement pattern that all humans use on a daily basis, so all lifters should be able to perform it correctly. It doesn’t mean that is what we will stick with long term, but if someone is brand new to deadlifting, lets master the conventional deadlift first before trying out sumo.
3.) The weight class correlation is very much true, and something I definitely take into consideration. If I have a lower weight class lifter pulling conventional and their deadlift is comparatively weaker than their other lifts, this usually is a good tell for me that they may be better sumo. Lower weight class lifters, barring some significant mechanical disadvantage, typically can handle much higher loads on deadlifts than they can on squats. As the weight classes go up, the two start to get closer and closer, and many times when you get to the heavyweights the squat will actually surpass the deadlift. So if a lower to middle weight class lifter is barely out pulling their squat, I am probably going to recommend giving sumo a shot as it most likely will be stronger.
4.) This is a very subjective answer, but I put a big emphasis on what looks natural. This is very much a case of “coach’s eye” and comes from experience in coaching the deadlift and just having that instinct. While I do not think there is a set in stone answer for this, leverages do play a role. And those leverages can be an advantage or a disadvantage to either the conventional or sumo deadlift. For instance, a long torso means there is a greater moment arm from the shoulders to the hips. This is going to place a greater strain on the back, and it would be advantageous for a long torso lifter to find ways to be as upright as possible to decrease that moment arm. So which variation would keep them more upright? Sumo of course. This isn’t a one size fits all answer though, but I would say more often than not sumo is going to be a more natural position for someone with a long torso. This is just one example, and I could go through every biomechanical leverage difference and give my opinion, but it still doesn’t give set in stone rules. It really comes down to what feels and looks natural, as this most likely will be the safest and least stressful position for the lifter to be in.
5.) To piggy back off the last point, the best choice will usually be the one that allows the lifter to get into the best position possible. If someone has terrible hip mobility, whether it be structural or because of tissue tightness, they probably are going to have a hard time getting into position for a sumo deadlift. Or how about someone with really short arms? For them, a conventional deadlift is going to feel like a squat versus a deadlift, and possibly for them using sumo for the decreased range of motion would be advantageous to allow them to achieve better positioning.
6.) Something I have found that decently correlates is squat stance. If someone tends to be a wider stance squatter, I find that usually they will pull better sumo, and vice versa. This is for a couple reasons. For one, if they have the hip mobility to squat with a wide stance, they probably also have to mobility to sumo deadlift. And second, if they are stronger in that wider stance, it only makes sense that it would carry over to their sumo deadlift. The fact is that the motions will be similar, and the transfer effect from squats the deadlifts is going to be higher.
7.) If someone is having a world of trouble learning how to drive with the legs off the floor on a conventional deadlift, sometimes I’ll have them switch to sumo just for the reason that it will force them to use their legs more. The thought of leg pressing the floor away is a harder process to implement on a conventional deadlift, just because naturally there is less knee flexion and more hip flexion on a conventional deadlift. I’ve had instances where the leg drive on conventional just never clicks, so we switch to sumo and all of a sudden the lifter starts using their quads like never before and their numbers skyrocket. And this wasn’t so much because one was superior strength wise, instead one was superior form and mechanical tension wise.
8.) After taking all these things into consideration, it comes down to which is stronger. Some people are just way stronger at one, and as long as it doesn’t cause pain, then that is the way to go. It seems for most lifters who are debating this topic, they are currently doing conventional and are debating trying sumo. My general theory is that when they try sumo, if their strength is within 90% of their conventional deadlift, there is a good chance it is going to be stronger or at least as strong if consistently trained. If it is even closer than 90%, then there is a really higher chance it will be better, and that probably means I will have them switch immediately. And if it is lower than 90%, its kind of up in the air and could go either way. But usually if I find that it is lower than 90%, its usually because they are having trouble getting into position or that it is causing pain and conventional is the more natural movement for them.
Like I said, there is no good answer, and for me as a coach it is very subjective on how I decide, but hopefully this breakdown gave you some insight on what to look at when deciding between the two. If you have any questions on which stance might be right for you, feel free to shoot me a message on instagram or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’d be happy to help!