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Starting Strength in the Real World

The “Sumo” Deadlift: What's the Point?

by Mark Rippetoe | April 12, 2023

a guy locking out a sumo deadlift

The “sumo” deadlift (hereafter referred to as just sumo, to save some typing) was invented in the late 70s/early 80s as a clever way to circumvent the rules in powerlifting. The name refers to the western perception of the start position in the Japanese sport of Sumo wrestling, because we had to call it something (“wide stance” being insufficiently novel). The first high-level lifter I remember using it was Mike Bridges, and it has become so popular since then that most high school kids and their “coaches” don't know that there's another way to pull the bar.

By taking the widest possible stance between the plates on the floor, you can 1.) shorten the distance between your hips and the bar and reduce the moment arm between the gravity vector and the hip and knee extensors, 2.) make the back more vertical/the hips and knees more extended when the bar comes off the floor, drastically improving your pulling position, and 3.) significantly shorten the range of motion of the pull, since you are effectively shorter in this position. So the sumo stance makes the deadlift easier for lots of people. And easier is what people want.

If you're already short, this can result in deadlifts pulled less than 2 inches. If the rules of Your Federation Of Choice are so poorly-written that this is legal, go ahead. It's clearly not a deadlift in the common understanding of the term, but you get your trophy. And trophies are the whole point, right?

The recent phenomenon of “spotting” the deadlift is the direct consequence of looking up at the ceiling while sumo-ing the deadlift. The wide toe angle reduces the sagittal distance covered by the feet, reducing stability at the lockout position, the hands in contact with the thighs increases the need to shrug back at the top, and looking up compounds the instability.

But for strength training purposes – making yourself stronger for picking things up off of the ground – sumo is almost useless, because you can't pick things up off the ground and then do anything with them with your feet splayed out like that. No sport – not even sumo wrestling – applies force from this position. It is not “functional” in any sense of the word. Sumo serves one purpose: the total in a powerlifting meet. It is, quite simply, a way to cheat that has not been corrected by Your Federation Of Choice. It does not meet the requirements of strength training since it does not strengthen a normal human movement pattern.

One other thing: the heaviest deadlifts ever pulled have been performed with the feet inside the hands on the bar – “conventional” as it is known. This might be significant.

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