This or That: Deadlifts vs. Sumo Deadlifts

By Devin Wicks

Welcome to "This or That?", a weekly series in which I will try to help demystify the different exercises you can do in the gym. There are many familiar exercises that seem very similar. But which should you do to accomplish what result? In this series, I'll try to give some answers. This week I'd like to take a look at an exercise that is widely misunderstood, and often done incorrectly: the deadlift. As I'll demonstrate, two different versions, the deadlift and the sumo deadlift, offer enough variety to take you from beginner to advanced with this basic lifting movement. Grab a barbell and let's learn our deadlifts.

The basic deadlift is a deceptively simple exercise. Stand with your feet slightly apart—just a bit narrower than shoulder width, with the bar resting in front of you on the ground or on scoops (depending on your flexibility). Inhale and bend forward at your waist with your chest forward. Keep your back arched and your legs as straight as possible without rounding your back. Grab the bar with an overhand grip (palms down) and, while keeping your arms relaxed, stand up, drawing your hips under you. Keep your core contracted and your back slightly arched during the movement. Slowly return to the start position without letting the bar come to rest on the floor.

There are some subtleties to this basic movement that guys who workout a lot should be familiar with. Let's break it down:

  1. Works your behind: The targeted groups of this exercise include the gluteus maximus and the hamstring group (except the short head of the biceps femoris) and the deep spinal muscles that run along the spinal column and help straighten the spine.
  2. Handle with care: A lot of guys are wary of deadlifts because of the strain they can put on your back. As long as you are careful about your form, you will be fine—but form depends on using an appropriate amount of weight. In this exercise, the greater the weight, the more your glutes will take over the workload from your hamstrings to help straighten the pelvis to vertical. And that in turn makes it more likely you’ll round your back. In short: start with less weight and work your way up.
So, the basic deadlift will work the butt and back of the legs as it develops functional back strength. But you need to be careful about weight and form as you do it. For muscle variation, or for those new to a deadlift and concerned about mastering the form, there is another, simpler option: the sumo deadlift.

Sumo Deadlift
Sumo deadlifts are different from the standard in that they begin with a squatting movement. Stand with the bar at your feet, your legs wider than shoulder width and your toes pointing out in line with the knees. Inhale to stabilize your core and bend with your legs until your thighs are horizontal to the ground. Grab the bar with an overhand grip (alternating grip if the weight is heavy) and your hands about shoulder width apart. Keeping your chest lifted and back straight, contract the core and pull up into a standing position, drawing your shoulders back and bring the torso to vertical. Exhale at the end of the pull. Slowly return the bar to the floor without rounding your back.

Here's what's different in a sumo deadlift:
  1. Works different muscles: This version of a deadlift focuses work on the quadriceps and adductor muscles of the legs; the initial squat pose puts more of the work on the front and inside of the leg, as opposed to behind.
  2. Less back work: This exercise may be safer for beginners. In the Sumo Deadlift, there is less back involvement as you do not bend forward as much as in a standard deadlift.
The deadlift in general is a great way to develop functional lifting strength for the back of the middle body. But it can be intimidating for beginners and tricky if too much weight is used. To ease into deadlifts, try starting out with a sumo version. This version is also good for focusing on the quadriceps more than the glutes and hamstrings.

About Devin Wicks: Devin Wicks (ACSM-HFI, USAW Club Coach) is creator of the RealJock Strength Foundation 12-Week Workout program and the fitness operations director at the University of California, Berkeley, where he acts as specialty strength coach for some of the university's premier sports teams, and is coordinating a pioneering new campus employee wellness program.