By Tate Fox
In the health and fitness space, there are a number of fearsome ideological match-ups: dumbbells vs kettlebells, plant vs animal protein, the front squat vs back squat. Among these titanic topics, however, few can rival that of the sumo vs conventional deadlift.
Enter any weight room (or internet discussion) and you'll be sure to hear the sumo vs conventional deadlift argument punctuated by the sound of clanging plates. Sumo is cheating! Conventional is dangerous!
The list of accusations leveled against each of these deadlift variations is virtually endless. Sift through the accusations, however, and you'll find that the movements have more in common than their respective fan bases understand.
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While there are meaningful biomechanical differences between the sumo and conventional deadlift, “neither is superior to the other," according to Personal Trainer and Wellness Coach Brandon Kwong, CSCS. Rather, each movement has its own unique set of benefits, and the “right" deadlift variation is the one that “works for your goals, makes sense biomechanically, and can be performed both comfortably and confidently."
Ultimately, Kwong says, the “best" movement comes down to the goals and abilities of the individual. “Spend a few months on each type of deadlift focusing on good technique, and get a feel for which is more comfortable." Testing the sumo vs conventional deadlift waters here may also point out “weakness in your back or quad muscles," which the right accessory movements can help strengthen.
With that being said, here are some key differences between the two variations.
This one also comes down to your biomechanics, though the one-rep max record (held by Hafthor Bjornsson) sits at 1,104 lbs employing a conventional stance, while Chris Duffin's record one-rep max sumo deadlift is just a bit more than 100 lbs lighter.
Despite this, Kwong points out that “the sumo deadlift's shorter range of motion due to its wide stance means the weight travels less distance," in theory making it easier to move heavy weight repeatedly for most people.
The conventional and the sumo stance are both effective muscle-builders and should have places in your training plan. Together, they will help you achieve the variety necessary to optimize muscle growth.
In terms of building strength, however, the conventional stance has the upper hand. The sumo deadlift is still a great exercise to improve lower-body strength, but the conventional deadlift is a foundational movement that should be at the core of your strength training program. It helps you build more functional strength than its sumo counterpart because it more effectively utilizes the hip hinge, a fundamental movement pattern of functional fitness.
In short, the training adaptations you get from the conventional deadlift have more real-world applicability — from sports performance to day-to-day life.
Trainers recommend mastering the conventional deadlift before progressing to its variations. Once you've perfected the movement, Kwong says the difference between the two comes down to the people performing them.
“If you're a powerlifter and the goal is to pull the most weight off the floor, and you're comfortable with sumo, go for it," he says. "At the end of the day, it's about providing the most stimulus with the least risk of injury."