Walk into any gym across the U.S., and you’ll almost certainly see someone performing one of the “big three”: bench press, deadlift, or squat.
These 3 form the backbone for the World Powerlifting Federation and have stood the test of time. Not only that, they’re all incredibly tough, multi-joint movements that require an immense amount of effort.
They’re undoubtedly popular on social media because people love to compare PRs. They also swap war stories about “the one lift that got away” (aka that time you loaded too much weight and got pinned). You’ll also find these 3 tend to generate a large number of injuries in gym trainees.
These lifts are often touted as “easy” movements, which anyone can seemingly learn in a day or two when lifting with their buddy.
While that may be true for some athletically competent individuals, most can’t grasp them in a single day, week, or month. These movements are mechanically complex, and weightlifting, in general, is a skill set that takes time to develop.
There’s a reason people get PhDs in biomechanics and exercise physiology. Lifting is much more than just picking things up and putting them down, and the deadlift is no different.
Sumo vs. Conventional
When it comes to a deadlift, the debate of the century revolves around the comparison of sumo and conventional stances.
If you talk to someone who pulls conventional, they’ll often joke that sumo is “cheating.” However, when chatting with a sumo lifter, they’ll often joke about conventional lifters being “old-school.”
Both schools of thought have a solid argument for their methodology, and you’ll find exceptionally strong lifters on both sides of the equation.
For example, Chris Duffin has pulled 1,000+ pounds with a sumo style for multiple repetitions:
Similarly, Hafthor Bjornsson has pulled 1,000 pounds for multiple reps (with ease no less!) using a conventional stance:
So, which deadlift stance is better?
To sum it up from the numerous athletes I’ve worked with, both styles are beneficial. It really depends on the athlete, their limb lengths, and the specific sport in question.
Without going too deep down the exercise physiology rabbit hole, the specific movements you choose for yourself or your client must match the required biomechanics, energy systems, and sport-specific demands. It’s much more complicated than simply doing squats and eating lots of protein.
Now that’s an article for another time, but suffice it to say, both sumo and conventional pulls have their place.
For the average lifter, consider the following:
Works better for:
- More experienced athletes who understand cueing and have excellent body awareness (proprioception)
- Taller individuals
- Those with long arms and legs
- Those with good ankle range of motion (ROM)
- Those with no pre-existing lower back issues
Works better for:
- Less experienced athletes who lack body awareness
- Shorter individuals
- Those with short arms and legs
- Those with poor ankle range of motion
- Those with pre-existing back issues
You can certainly learn or train clients on both variations of the deadlift to offset the differences in muscular activation and technique. However, that also comes down to the overall goals.
If you want to excel in powerlifting and get really good at one particular lift like conventional deadlifts, then you need to specifically train and practice that one movement over and over.
But if your main goal is muscular hypertrophy all over your body, then it may be better to alternate between different movements every 8-16 weeks, depending on the length of your training cycles. This allows for motor learning with each movement. while also changing muscular recruitment to prevent overuse of one particular muscle group.
5 Deadlift Tips & Tricks
Because both conventional and sumo pullers will read this piece, I’ll touch on a few key principles that apply to both deadlift types. Keep in mind that while the principle is similar, the application is different due to the demands of the lift.
1. Stance Width
Don’t go overboard with your width. While widening the feet as far as possible shortens the overall range of motion for the deadlift, this greatly stresses the hips because you’re lifting at an end-range position. Thus, it’s likely best to be at about 50-75% of your widest possible stance (little toes touching the inside of the plates).
Note: Some may feel best with a “hybrid” sumo stance (~50% of the stance width) given their limb lengths. While it may not look “textbook,” this is still absolutely fine from a biomechanics standpoint. Your body will tell you what feels good, but get a quick form check from a professional when in doubt.
Set up with whatever foot width you would use to rebound a basketball or jump over a small hurdle. This is usually your strongest position with your feet about hip-width apart.
2. Grip Width
It doesn’t get any simpler than this. Let your arms naturally hang straight down from your shoulders. Don’t overcomplicate it.
When using the stance width suggested above, your grip width should fall just outside your knees when you’re set up. Many lifters make the mistake of gripping too close, which drives the knees in, sacrificing power and position.
Similarly, if you grip too wide, it increases the range of motion for the pull. While not wrong, it’s much more difficult to learn and execute what’s commonly known as a ‘snatch grip deadlift.’
Remember, grip just outside the knees if you want to pull big numbers while saving your back.
3. Focus on Your Feet
This is the very first point of focus I teach to every lifter (both sumo and conventional). Why? Your feet are usually the only part of your body touching the floor. Therefore, they are your reference point for everything. If your weight is forward, that’s going to throw you off. Similarly, those who use the cue of “push through your heels” are going to limit their power production.
Focus on pushing through the entire foot. Just like when you squat down to jump and then explode up. Have the same mindset with deadlifts. Feel the floor and think about “leg pressing” the floor away rather than trying to “pull” the bar off the floor, which often results in lifters using their back instead of their legs.
4. Tension Off the Floor
You’ve likely seen videos of lifters anxiously yanking weight off the floor as their nerves get the best of them. Here’s a classic example from the YouTube archives:
The lifter initiates the movement by yanking straight up on the bar with zero regard for his position. While this obviously incorrect, it’s important to keep in mind that you need to work through the following with your deadlift:
- Set up
- Think Push (NOT pull)
Get into a good position, take a deep breath, then start applying force into the floor while holding onto the bar. Your body shouldn’t change positions. You should just start to feel your muscles engage as you apply tension.
When I teach someone this technique, I have them get in position and then apply tension to feel that engagement but not actually lift the bar. Simply get into position, feel the tension, relax, let go, and stand back up.
Once you learn that feeling of tension, it will be much easier to initiate the lift while maintaining a good position. By doing this, you’ll bypass the need to yank the bar off the floor.
5. Don’t Arch Your Back
Many old-school strength coaches love the cue of arching your back. It provides the illusion that the lifter is in a “good position” because their back is under tension and not rounded. While I understand that their intentions may be pure, this is not an ideal starting position for a deadlift.
When you’re set up prior to your pull, you should feel (somewhat) comfortable in that position before initiating tension through the floor (step #4 above). You shouldn’t have to strain to hold that position. Your body should hinge forward naturally for a conventional pull, or you should be able to bend your knees and drop your hands to the bar for a sumo pull.
Now, this cue also applies to locking out a deadlift. To simplify this point even further, the movement is complete when you stand up tall with your knees and hips locked out.
Don’t lean back. Don’t arch your back. Just stand up tall and finish the lift. The only joints that move during a deadlift are your hips, knees, and ankles. Other than that, your back maintains its same position from start to finish.
Deadlift Until I’m Dead
This simple 5-step process is a nearly surefire way to ensure your deadlift workout keeps your back feeling good and your numbers creeping up. We all love to rip a heavy deadlift off the floor. But good technique keeps us dialed in for the long run so that we can enjoy our love for iron in the later decades of life.
Move well, lift heavy, think deeply.