Among the many variants of the standard deadlift, the sumo deadlift is considered the second closest alternative to the conventional barbell deadlift - though some amount of controversy surrounds its practice, especially in regards to whether it is “easier” to perform or not.
For the most part, the sumo deadlift indeed allows the exerciser to move more weight with less exertion than they would normally be capable of with the conventional deadlift exercise instead.
However, a multitude of factors go into this particular attribute of the sumo deadlift, requiring not only that the exerciser be compatible with the sumo deadlift in order to take advantage of its ease of performance, but also that they be cognizant of the differences and therefore results of the conventional and sumo deadlift.
For exercisers who are unaware, the sumo deadlift is a variation of the traditional deadlift that utilizes a wider leg stance and the exerciser’s arms being between their knees instead of on the outside, thereby altering the leverage mechanics of the exercise and shortening its range of motion.
Being a closed kinetic chain compound exercise usually performed with a barbell at high levels of resistance, the sumo deadlift may be performed by practically any individual capable of the standard deadlift itself.
The sumo deadlift is usually used either as a supplement to the conventional deadlift during powerlifting or strength building training routines, or as an entire substitute for the conventional deadlift in certain cases.
The altered mechanics and range of motion involved during a repetition of the sumo deadlift, by certain measures, may make it easier to perform or otherwise recruit specific muscle groups to an extent that is not reproducible with the sumo deadlift’s conventional counterpart, making the sumo deadlift a controversial yet doubtlessly useful exercise.
Generally, the most valid reason why an exerciser would utilize the sumo deadlift instead of the conventional deadlift is due to their own body proportions and biomechanics, with said exercisers finding the narrow stance and wide hand grip of the conventional deadlift rather uncomfortable - thereby necessitating its substitution with the sumo deadlift instead.
In relation to mechanics, the particular form and wider base of stability utilized by the sumo deadlift allows for greater quadriceps femoris muscle group recruitment throughout the exercise, also presenting a valid reason why some exercisers choose to substitute the traditional deadlift with its sumo counterpart.
Finally, there is indeed the case of exercisers alternating out the conventional deadlift with the sumo deadlift due to the sumo deadlift’s ability to increase how much weight the exerciser may move - therefore being “easier” or otherwise allowing for so called “cheating” in certain aspects.
The rate of perceived exertion scale or RPE is one of the best established methods of measuring physical exertion by an individual, with the RPE of a certain activity or exercise corresponding with how “hard” or “easy” it is in relative comparison to the individual’s own athletic abilities.
This is usually calculated by the exerciser’s own perception of exertion, as well as the utilization of certain factors such as the exerciser’s heart rate, muscular fatigue and rate of breathing so as to achieve a numerical quantification on the individual’s level of exertion.
In terms of the sumo deadlift being easier than other deadlift variations, studies conducted utilizing the RPE scale consistently show small but consistent differences between the two, with a one repetition maximum of test subjects being somewhat easier with the sumo deadlift in comparison to the conventional deadlift.
Though the majority of exercisers refer to the sumo deadlift as “easier” due to its reduced range of motion and similar mechanics, another characteristic that the sumo deadlift is easier in has to do with its particular mobility and flexibility requirements.
When performing the conventional deadlift, the exerciser will bend forward at the knees and hips more, placing more pressure on the lower back, hips, and various other joints throughout the body in order to perform the exercise with correct and stable form.
This is not entirely the case in the sumo deadlift, with the exerciser needing to bend the knees and back to a far lesser degree due to the lower position of their body in relation to the barbell, as well as the fact that the arms are longer vertically - reducing stress placed on the shoulder joints and hips.
Another manner in which the sumo deadlift is in fact easier than the conventional deadlift is the relative complexity of its form, wherein the greater stress placed on the lower back and knees during the conventional deadlift make its form cues somewhat more difficult to adhere to, especially for exercisers of a certain body type.
As such, individuals whom are physically unable to perform the conventional deadlift’s form without issue, or for novice exercisers with difficulty understanding the form cues of said conventional deadlift - the sumo deadlift is an easier alternative that may aid in retaining a similar training stimulus without the risks involved in performing a traditional deadlift with improper form.
In addition to this, the majority of novice exercisers have trouble recruiting the various muscle groups of the lower posterior chain (namely the glutes and hamstrings) due to insufficient familiarity with their own body, making the sumo deadlift’s more quadriceps femoris focused muscle group activation a boon for such individuals.
The primary reason why the sumo deadlift is considered easier than other variations of the deadlift is due to its shorter range of motion; a natural consequence of the exerciser squatting lower by widening their leg stance and lengthening their arm span by placing their grip between the knees.
A shorter range of motion equates to a shorter time under tension placed on the various muscle groups activated by the deadlift movement, of which will therefore allow for more weight to be moved per repetition as energy is freed up in said muscle groups, increasing the total amount that may be outputted towards dynamic muscular contraction.
In addition to these benefits of the sumo deadlift’s reduced range of motion is also the lesser muscle group coactivation requirement throughout each repetition, reducing the need for synergistic muscle group joint stabilization and therefore reducing the total energy expenditure in the movement - also allowing for more weight to be moved.
All the aforementioned factors added onto the fact that the sumo deadlift’s form mechanics allow for greater utilization of leg drive equate to the exerciser being able to pull significantly more weight than they would in the conventional deadlift - providing certain alterations in training stimulus.
The particular muscle group recruitment pattern of the sumo deadlift will largely depend on a variety of biomechanical factors unique to the exerciser performing it - though that is not to say that the positioning and form of the sumo deadlift do not play a part in what muscle groups are utilized to a greater capacity during each repetition.
Unlike in the conventional deadlift, the sumo deadlift’s wider leg stance and more outward facing knees will recruit muscle fibers of the quadriceps femoris muscle group to a greater capacity, drawing less force utilization from the various muscle groups of the lower back and other constituent members of the posterior chain.
This, while not only reducing the risk of lower back injury, will also allow for more weight to be used - so long as the exerciser is more quadriceps-dominant in regards to the muscle groups of their legs.
Exercisers with glutes muscle groups, hamstring muscle groups or weaker quadriceps will find that they do not receive this benefit of the sumo deadlift’s wider stance, thereby making the movement less easy in their particular case.
Not all exercisers are built the same or possess the same bodily proportions, some of which may find the conventional deadlift to not only be more uncomfortable than the sumo deadlift but also more dangerous in regards to the particular positioning it places the exerciser’s spinal column in.
As such, another factor that aids in the sumo deadlift being somewhat easier than the conventional deadlift (at least for certain individuals) is its compatibility with the bodily proportions and biomechanics of exercisers with longer limbs and shorter upper bodys.
In the performance of the conventional deadlift, individuals with long arms and long legs will find that the exercise places their lower back and knees at significant risk of shear force related injuries due to how low they have to bend in order to properly retain a stable base from which to pull the barbell upwards.
In the sumo deadlift, this is not so much the case, with the wider leg positioning and more narrow hand grip distance allowing the exerciser to retain an upright chest and neutral spinal column curve without the legs coming into contact with the arms as the exerciser sets up the repetition.
The actual difference in total one repetition maximum weight between the conventional deadlift and sumo deadlift will depend on many of the factors mentioned in this article, especially in regards to the exerciser’s own biomechanics and bodily proportions, with certain individuals receiving less of a “benefit” from performing the sumo deadlift over others.
However, if looking in totality at the majority of logged one repetition maximal loads between the conventional and sumo deadlift variations, one would find that an average increase of 6% between elite level lifters is statistically visible.
When accounting for lifters of all experience levels and training ages, we see an even larger difference of 7% when comparing maximal weight loads of the sumo deadlift and the conventional deadlift - even when accounting for relative average body weight as well.
The answer to whether the sumo deadlift is actually easier or more difficult would be a yes - though only if the exerciser performing said sumo deadlift fulfills the requirements of an individual compatible with this particular variation of the conventional deadlift.
Such compatibilities are that of the exerciser possessing long limbs and a relatively shorter torso, lesser lower back mobility, greater hip joint stability, quadriceps femoris dominant leg musculature and difficulty performing the conventional deadlift with correct form.
All in all, it is less a matter of whether the sumo deadlift itself is easier, and more of which exercise presents a more comfortable and safer movement for the particular exerciser in question; while total and maximal weight being moved should be seen as only a secondary characteristic unimportant to the training itself.
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