How to Improve the Sumo Deadlift

There is a common phrase in powerlifting circles that states, The meet doesn’t start until the bar hits the floor. I’m not sure if that’s entirely true, but I do know that the deadlift is your last chance to move up in the standings. There are two major forms of the deadlift used in competition: the conventional deadlift, where the feet are close together, and the sumo deadlift, where the feet are spread apart, much like a sumo wrestler would start in his beginning position.

Unlike the squat where the Olympic and Powerlifting versions are fairly similar, the conventional and sumo deadlifts are vastly different, especially when it comes to performance of the movement, muscles utilized, etc. However, the point of deadlifting is all the same…to stand up with the most weight possible and increase your total!

The Warm-Up

General Warm-Up

Again, a proper warm-up is going to enhance your deadlift performance, as well as your workouts in general. In my previous article I talked about performing dynamic flexibility movements, but you can also perform a med ball circuit, barbell circuit, etc. The goal here is to get the blood flowing, your core temperature up, and your nervous system primed to move some serious weight.

Specific Warm-Up

This part of the warm-up is geared towards deadlifting. Some people perform the deadlift first in their workout, but I always perform some type of squatting movement first in my routine, even on deadlift day. It doesn’t necessarily have to be heavy, but I set my workouts up this way for two reasons:

  1. You don’t deadlift first in the meet, so it helps to train the deadlift slightly fatigued, and
  2. It allows you a little more time to get the muscles of the hips, legs and torso warmed up before you actually start the deadlift portion of your workout.

You can choose any of the following, depending upon your needs and goals:

  • Back Squats
  • Front Squats
  • Olympic Squats
  • Safety Bar Squats
  • Box Squats

Following squats, go straight into deadlifts. Start with a light weight and hone your technique from the beginning. Again, don’t fly through warm-ups to get to your main sets; you’ll be setting yourself up for failure.

Body Types and Deadlifting

Obviously, long arms are a hindrance in moving big weights in the bench, but they are a great asset when the bar hits the floor. By having long arms, the lifter can maintain a more upright torso with the chest up and still keep the hips high, which puts him/her in a better pulling position. The ideal lifting structure for a deadlifter would be long arms, a short torso, and moderate leg length.

Here is a quick review from my first article regarding the biomechanics of lifting. I will give you the definition of force first, because it needs to be explained before work can be defined:

Force = Mass x Acceleration

Mass is essentially the weight on the bar, and acceleration is how fast you are moving the bar. Now before some of you get irritated with my generalization, keep in mind that this is used to prove a point. In essence, if you are moving 500 pounds, it will always be 500 pounds, but you could move it faster or slower (acceleration), depending on that particular lift. For brevity’s sake, let’s assume that the acceleration stays relatively constant at the same mass, therefore Force is relatively constant.

Work = Force x Distance

Now, with our force equation constant, the distance portion is the main part of the work equation that we, as lifters, can manipulate. If the force stays the same, but we decrease the distance traveled, we are in essence doing LESS work to move the SAME weight. If we can minimize our work performed, we save our energy for those all important final reps. The deadlift is an excellent example, especially when you compare conventional vs. sumo deadlifters. It just seems that conventional deadlifts are a lot harder, in part because the distance traveled is so much greater. I’m in no way trying to convince people that conventional deadlifts are bad, especially since so many great deadlifters pull in that fashion (see Vince Anello, Brad Gillingham, etc.). My point is simply that to perform less work, sumo deadlifting is a better option.

Muscles used in the Deadlift

Powerlifting is the exact opposite of bodybuilding when you consider the fact that most bodybuilders are trying to isolate the specific muscle group they are training. The powerlifts, even the bench, are using as many muscle groups as possible to move the greatest poundage possible. However, of all the powerlifts, I would venture to say that the deadlift is the most total body of all three lifts. The muscles used in the sumo deadlift are almost identical to those used in the wide stance squat. This is a good thing if you use both, because it allows you more bang for your training buck, so to speak.

Movement: Abduction of the Hip/Thigh

Muscles: Tensor Fascia Latae, Gluteus Medius, Gluteus Minimus, and Piriformis

When you are in the starting position, you need to flare your knees just like you would in a squat. The hip and thigh abductors give you that tight feeling and help you to explode off the floor. Besides the squatting movements I’ve listed previously, you can also perform exercises like ultra wide sumo deadlifts (with collars inside the plates), abductions with a band around the ankle, low box squats, or pause squats, which really force you to keep the hips tight.

Movements: Hip Extension & Knee Flexion

Muscles: Biceps femoris, semitendinosus, semimembranosus; gluteus maximus (hip extension only)

The hip extensors and knee flexors are the prime movers in the sumo deadlift. To bring up these muscle groups you can perform all the squat versions listed before, as well as glute-ham raises, reverse hypers, lunges, Romanian or stiff-leg deadlifts, good mornings, pull-thrus, rack pulls, Zercher squats, etc. Again, since both the glutes and the hamstrings perform hip extension, usually when one muscle group is recruited the other is as well.

Movement: Trunk Extension & Maintenance of Erect Posture (when used bilaterally)

Muscles: Iliocostalis lumborum, Iliocostalis thoracis, Iliocostalis cervicis, Longissimus thoracis, Longissimus cervicis, Longissimus capitis, Spinalis thoracis, Spinalis cervicis, Spinalis capitis, and Multifidus

In the deadlift, the erectors tend to work both statically and dynamically. However, your personal deadlift style can dictate which one is dominant. For instance, if you are a very upright deadlifter, the muscles of the legs and hips will perform the majority of the work. The back extensors will be working in a more static state, trying to keep good posture and your chest up. However, if you have a more bent-over style where your legs lock out quickly, your back extensors will work more dynamically to finish raising the weight to the locked out position. Good exercises for the trunk extensors include static or dynamic back extensions, reverse hypers, good mornings of all varieties, rack pulls, and conventional deadlifts.

Movement: Stabilization of the spine

Muscles: Rectus abdominis, external obliques, internal obliques, transverse abdominus and quadratus lumborum

Like I’ve stated before, the role of the abdominals could be many articles in and of itself. Bomb your core with a variety of exercises in all planes to enhance your overall strength and performance. A solid ab program would train the abdominals in the following fashions: linear, rotation, lateral flexion, compression/stabilization (e.g. TVA work), and co-contraction exercises. Good exercises for the abdominals include weighted crunches, bent presses, saxon side bends, full-contact twists, hanging leg raises, and the Evil Wheel.

Movement: Scapular retraction

Muscles: Middle Trapezius and Rhomboids

In the squat, the muscles of the upper and middle back are key because they improve the comfort of the squat by giving you a shelf to set the bar on. In the deadlift as well, the muscles of the upper/mid-back work to keep the shoulder blades retracted and the chest up throughout the movement. Good exercises for the upper back include face pulls, Olympic pulls, cable rows to the neck or abdomen, supine shoulder shrugs, and bent-over rows.

Movement: Static holding of the bar

Muscles: Forearm; upper and middle trapezius

To save some space, I’m going to group these two muscle groups together, even though they are totally different areas of the body. Both the upper traps and forearms play a static role when deadlifting. The forearms are obvious: they grab the bar and hold on to it. The traps play a static role, also, throughout the lift. Unlike a shrug where you move your traps up and down, the deadlift calls upon them to help you raise and lower the weight, without necessarily moving themselves. The forearms can be trained using basic flexion and extension exercises, while the grip can be trained with exercises like the Captains of Crush™, fat bars, towel chin-ups, or a gripping machine. The traps can be trained using barbell shrug variations, shrugs on a standing calf raise machine, Farmers walks, pushing a wheelbarrow, shrugs on a prone row machine, or just holding heavy amounts of weight for time. The great thing about this last exercise is that it works both the grip and the traps in a form very similar to the deadlift, since both muscle groups are held statically throughout the exercise.

Deadlifting Technique

When reviewing the articles and presentations of Ed Coan and Rickey Dale Crain (who are both fabulous sumo deadlifters), they stated to think of the deadlift as a reverse squat. I set my stance up with approximately the same width as I do my squat, but you have to find what is comfortable and works best for you. Stand with your shins close to the bar, squat down with your chest and head up, and grab the bar. I try not to look down because sometimes this causes you to drop your chest and decrease the chances of a perfect pull. Once you’ve grabbed the bar and have your chest and head up, I flare my knees to activate my hips, sit back to the perfect position, and then it’s go time. Finally, you want to have your hips as high as possible, while still keeping your chest up. Think about it: You are a lot stronger doing a ½ squat than a full squat, mostly because your hips are higher, putting the posterior chain in a more advantageous position biomechanically. However, as soon as your head and chest start to bend over you take away that biomechanical advantage; your hips are now too high and your chest is bent over. You might smoke the weight off the floor, but the weight tends to get out in front of you, your legs lock out too soon, and the low back has to work overtime to correct the line of pull.

In the perfect pulling position, your chest and head are up, back arched, arms straight down from your shoulders and locked, knees flared, and weight balanced over the middle of the foot or shifted slightly towards your heel. Now remember, the deadlift is a TOTAL BODY LIFT!!! I think of an explosion from the middle of my body…my feet are driving through the floor, my upper back is tight and pulling back, and I’m trying to force my chest and hips through to the top. Synchronicity is key here; since you don’t have a stretch reflex like the squat, your have to have everything firing at once to move the heavy tonnage.

Some people state that you should only perform singles when doing deadlifts. I agree to an extent, but I think there are times when doing no-pause deadlift reps are good as well. Beginners, especially those just learning the powerlifts, can benefit from doing continuous reps without a pause for several reasons: 1) It teaches them the most efficient position to pull from, especially since you can’t always get that feel on the first one, 2) It allows you to go slightly heavier than you normally would, and therefore overload the muscles necessary for deadlifting (assuming you can get the first one up!) However, for most advanced trainers who have no prominent muscle imbalances or technique issues, I would stick to sets with pauses in-between reps or singles to further increase performance.

My deads aren’t moving…what do I need to do?

Like I stated in my previous article regarding squatting, there are tons of reasons why you could have plateaued in a lift (or lifts). Just some of these reasons are:

  1. Poor technique
  2. Overtraining
  3. Poor planning of workouts
  4. Poor recovery
  5. Muscular imbalances or weak points

Now keep in mind these are just a few of the reasons someone’s progress can stall, and all of the above can keep you from achieving your goals. For most powerlifters, however, I most often see #1 and #5 as the limiting factors in training, especially with the wealth of knowledge available on program design, recovery etc. Therefore, the last part of this article will deal with specific sticking points, and what you can do to correct them.

If you miss at the bottom and can’t move the weight off the floor:

Several things could be the culprit here. First of all, you might not be turning on your body at the same time. Since there is little or no stretch reflex, you have to think of an explosion coming from the middle of your body. Exercises you might want to try to increase your speed off the floor include deadlifts off a platform, extra wide deadlifts (to work on hip strength), low box squats, pause squats, deadlifts with bands on a Jumpstretch™ platform, etc.

If you miss at the midpoint, around the knee area:

Usually if you miss here, it’s because the weight has gotten out in front of you. Part of the problem is technique and timing: If your legs lock out too soon, your lower back has to work overtime to pull the bar back into your body, as well as pulling it up. Since this was my particular sticking point, I know of several routes to get you past this point. First off, try to sit your hips a little lower in the start, and/or getting your chest nice and high before you pull. Another option is to really try and retract your shoulder blades, keeping them back and tight. Finally, be sure to initiate your pull with the hip and leg muscles so that you are moving in a straight line, versus jerking with your back.

Other options for improving this part of the pull are rack pulls. Some people don’t think rack pulls are a good option because it puts you in a position that you would never be in at a meet. Think about it like this: Why can’t you be in that optimal position? Rack pulls not only get you used to heavier weights and overload the body, but it also teaches you the optimal position for your body at that point in the lift. You also might be lacking some low back strength, so back extensions, reverse hypers, and conventional deadlifts could help.

If you miss at the top of the lift and can’t lock the weight out:

The weakness here could be in the legs (see hamstrings and glutes), or it could be in the lower back. This is something that you will have to figure out for yourself. It could be that you need to force your chest and hips through sooner in the lift. Again, it could be specific muscle weakness as well. Rack pulls, again, could be a good option since they help your body acclimate to heavier weights. Options for the low back could be any type of good morning, stiff leg or Romanian deadlifts, back extensions or reverse hypers. For the legs, all of the above are good exercises, as are glute-ham raises and pull-throughs.

Final Thoughts

The first time I ever pulled heavy in practice, I pulled 275 pounds, but it took about 4 seconds. I KNEW I was stronger than this, but the weights just kept coming up slow. My coach, Justin Cecil, gave me a great pointer, he said: Don’t mess around with deadlifts: Get in a rage, and use your aggression to pull that weight. I went on to pull 335 that same day, even after struggling with 275 just minutes before. About a year later when training with Louie Simmons at Westside, we were having a pulling contest (approximately four hours after a dynamic squat workout). My buddy had just missed 455, and it was my turn to pull. They got in my face and said Now it’s your turn, he’s at your mercy. This is exactly the kind of attitude it takes to pull…technique is important and will in the long run make or break you, but using that rage and aggression can take you to the next level.

The deadlift is the lift that decides where you finish in a meet. Just like every other lift, the deadlift fits some body styles perfectly, while it is very difficult for others. One thing is definitely true, and that is deadlifting takes guts…you’re at the end of a power meet, your drained physically and mentally, and you still have arguably the hardest lift left. Train with passion and a plan, improve you deadlift, and watch your total and placings rise to the top!


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