Sumo Deadlift: Benefits, Muscles Used, and More

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
June 1, 2022

The sumo deadlift is the controversial yet nonetheless effective counterpart to the conventional deadlift, with a highly intense level of training stimulus and a nearly body-wide muscular activation pattern that make it an excellent addition to any strength training routine.

However, due to its risk of injury when performed incorrectly, as well as the fact that the sumo deadlift can in fact be a very effective exercise - it is important for all exercisers to understand the underpinnings and characteristics of the sumo deadlift.

The main aspects of the sumo deadlift are in its high level of intensity per set, as well as the fact that practically every muscle group in the body is activated at some point during its performance, marking it as a compound exercise by definition.

What is the Sumo Deadlift?

By its technical definition, the sumo deadlift is an open kinetic chain free weight resistance exercise of the compound type, with an intermediate level of difficulty and usage of nearly every joint in the lower body during each repetition.

sumo deadlift form

In terms of relative exertion, the sumo deadlift is usually meant to be performed anywhere between a 7 and a 9 on the modified Borg’s RPE scale, placing it squarely in the highly intense to maximal effort category of exercises.

Muscles Worked by the Sumo Deadlift

As one of the most quintessential compound exercises out there, the sumo deadlift is capable of activating a truly large number of muscle groups throughout its performance - though the capacity and manner to which these muscle groups are activated will depend on the muscle group itself.

In order to differentiate which muscle groups are trained to a greater extent than others during the sumo deadlift, they are classified according to the amount of force they are responsible for outputting during each repetition; with the muscles working the hardest being dubbed primary mover muscles.

Subsequently, muscle groups contracted in a dynamic capacity but not to the extent or length as the primary mover muscles are thereby dubbed the secondary mover muscles -  and with synergistically contracting muscle groups meant to stabilize the joints and source of resistance being called stabilizer muscles.

Primary Mover Muscles

The sumo deadlift is first and foremost the very definition of a posterior chain exercise, wherein it recruits the muscle groups of the hamstrings, the majority of the lower and mid back, the glutes and the hamstrings to a significant extent throughout each repetition.

In comparison to other deadlift variations, the sumo deadlift recruits the quadriceps to a far greater extent as well - a change in muscle group activation primarily caused by the wider and more outward knee angle of the exerciser.

Secondary Mover Muscles

Though secondary mover muscle groups are not as heavily recruited as the primary mover muscle groups, they are nonetheless vital to the performance of the sumo deadlift and will also receive a noticeable level of training stimulus.

These are primarily the trapezius, erector spinae and hip flexors - all of which are activated during certain portions of the sumo deadlift’s form, aiding the primary mover muscles in producing counteracting resistance as well as stabilizing the body.

Stabilizer Muscles

Contracted in a static or isometric capacity as opposed to a dynamic one, stabilizer muscle groups ensure that the exerciser does not injure themselves by overextending the joints, as well as ensures that the source of resistance is maintained evenly so as to aid the primary and secondary mover muscles.

These are, for the most part, the abdominals, obliques, the various muscles of the forearms, the deltoids and the erector spinae (of which is also a secondary mover muscle during certain portions of the sumo deadlift).

What are the Benefits of the Sumo Deadlift?

The sumo deadlift, much like other intense compound exercises, is capable of inducing a number of benefits in relation to the training stimulus provided by the exercise - with more obvious results such as an increase in muscle mass being just as important as the smaller and lesser known benefits, such as reinforcement of proper movement patterns.

barbell sumo deadlift form

However, with such a large number of benefits, we have instead elected to list only those that are unique to the sumo deadlift and exercises similar to it - as these are likely what an individual may be searching for when deciding on whether or not to add the sumo deadlift to their training routine.

Functional Strength Building

Because of its nature as a compound exercise, the sumo deadlift is capable of greatly improving the functional strength capacity of the exerciser - especially in regards to the performance of pulling movements that involve the posterior chain and back.

As such, athletes seeking a boost in their performance or individuals with physically intensive jobs will both see a significant improvement in their functional strength with regular performance of the sumo deadlift.

Highly Efficient Muscle Group Activation Pattern

Though many other exercises share the sumo deadlift’s characteristic of activating multiple muscle groups simultaneously, few do it as well as the sumo deadlift itself. 

This is due to the body-wide muscular activation involved in the exercise, whereas one or two different exercises will be required in order to recreate such muscular recruitment - the sumo deadlift does so in a single movement instead.

Such an efficient muscular recruitment pattern will not only save the exerciser time, but also condition the central nervous system to activating a larger number of muscle groups simultaneously, thereby reducing total accrued fatigue during the performance of other compound movements.

Reinforcement Against Injuries

As some of the most common injuries caused by athletic endeavors involve the lower back, knee or hip joints, the muscular hypertrophy and connective tissue reinforcement slowly induced by the sumo deadlift can help mitigate the risk of developing these injuries.

This, of course, must also be combined with preparatory work and a stretching routine in order to maximize the reduction of injury risk.

What is the Difference Between the Conventional Deadlift and Sumo Deadlift?

The conventional and sumo deadlift are considered counterparts of each other, with the sumo deadlift mostly differing from the conventional deadlift in terms of form and muscle group activation.

These differences are due to the wider leg placement of the sumo deadlift, alongside the fact that the exerciser’s hands are placed between their knees instead of on the outside as would be the case with a traditional deadlift - thereby altering the mechanics of the movement significantly.

With a wider leg stance, the exerciser will be forced to thrust their hips further backwards, recruiting the quadriceps femoris muscles to a greater degree and also reducing the total range of motion of the exercise, of which should allow the exerciser to move larger amounts of weight for more repetitions.

Who Should Use the Sumo Deadlift?

Though the sumo deadlift is perfectly suitable for most healthy individuals, it is particularly useful to certain types of exercisers whose training goals will be met more efficiently with the usage of this particular deadlift variation.

For the most part, exercisers who find the conventional deadlift to be uncomfortable due to their own unique bodily proportions may instead use the sumo deadlift, as well as in the case of athletes seeking greater quadriceps femoris activation in a deadlift.

Other individuals who may find the sumo deadlift to be especially applicable in their circumstances are those seeking to lift a larger amount of weight than they would be capable of with the conventional deadlift.

Is the Sumo Deadlift Easier than the Conventional Deadlift?

The sumo deadlift may in fact be easier to perform than the conventional deadlift in terms of total weight moved, as its reduced range of motion will also reduce the total time under tension of each repetition, allowing for greater resistance to be utilized as the muscle groups are fatigued to a lesser degree.

barbell deadlift movement

However, in terms of exercise complexity and relative caloric expenditure, the sumo deadlift is equivalent to the conventional deadlift.

Can the Sumo Deadlift Substitute for the Conventional Deadlift?

Whether or not the sumo deadlift can substitute for the conventional deadlift will depend on the particular needs of the exerciser and their training program.

Exercisers with bodily proportions more suitable for the sumo deadlift may very well be better served substituting out the conventional deadlift with its sumo counterpart - or for exercisers that otherwise do not desire to utilize the conventional deadlift as a matter of personal preference.

How to Program the Sumo Deadlift

The sumo deadlift’s high level of intensity and wide muscle group recruitment pattern usually cause it to be placed first in a workout session’s order of exercises, wherein it may take advantage of the relatively fresh and unfatigued musculature of the exerciser.

The sumo deadlift is performed on pull days, or back days if so required - though it is important for the exerciser to ensure that there is a day of rest between workout sessions of the sumo deadlift and other lower body exercises so as to avoid overtraining and excessive muscular fatigue.

In the case of training programs making use of periodization, sumo deadlifts are primarily performed during the pre-season block or strength building block, wherein its high intensity can allow the exerciser to condition their body in an efficient and effective manner.

Common Mistakes of the Sumo Deadlift

Certain errors in form or mechanics can potentially place the exerciser at risk of injury, as well as possibly reduce the total training stimulus accrued during the exerciser. As such, it is important for the exerciser to avoid the following errors, as they are among the most likely to be committed by an individual.

Hips and Knees Bending at Different Times

Exercisers with poor bodily coordination or without a firm grasp of proper exercise mechanics may find themselves bending the hips or knees improperly, as the correct manner of doing so involves evenly distributing the shear force and resistance of the sumo deadlift across both joints simultaneously.

This is done by bending at both the knees and hips at the same time throughout the exercise, of which will also aid in reducing mechanical stress placed on the lower back as well.

Improper Spinal Positioning

Not only a common mistake but also one of the most dangerous ones an exerciser can make while performing the sumo deadlift; improperly bending the spine while it is placed beneath such an amount of resistance that is characteristic of the deadlift can result in serious injury.

The exerciser must always take care to ensure that their core is properly braced and that the spine is kept in a neutral position, whether it be during a set of sumo deadlifts or practically any other resistance exercise that involves the spinal column.

Overextension of the Back

Another mistake often made during the sumo deadlift is that of the exerciser overextending their back and leaning backwards at the top of the repetition, an unnecessary movement that is mistakenly believed to improve the training stimulus of the exercise.

Upon lockout of the knees and hips, the exerciser has already completed the first phase of the sumo deadlift’s repetition, and may proceed to once again lower the barbell back downwards - with no need for an overextension of the back, as this will only place further strain upon the spinal column and shoulders instead.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the sumo deadlift is no doubt an excellent movement that can take the place of the conventional deadlift in any training program - so long as the circumstances are correct, and the exerciser is fully aware of the sumo deadlift’s own characteristics.

As always, seeking out the advice and coaching of a certified professional will not only maximize the effectiveness of the sumo deadlift, but also ensure that they are safe from injury and overtraining as they perform the exercise.

References

1. Martín-Fuentes I, Oliva-Lozano JM, Muyor JM. Electromyographic activity in deadlift exercise and its variants. A systematic review. PLoS One. 2020 Feb 27;15(2):e0229507. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0229507. PMID: 32107499; PMCID: PMC7046193.

2. Escamilla RF, Francisco AC, Fleisig GS, Barrentine SW, Welch CM, Kayes AV, Speer KP, Andrews JR. A three-dimensional biomechanical analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2000 Jul;32(7):1265-75. doi: 10.1097/00005768-200007000-00013. PMID: 10912892.

3. Kasovic J, Martin B, Fahs CA. Kinematic Differences Between the Front and Back Squat and Conventional and Sumo Deadlift. J Strength Cond Res. 2019 Dec;33(12):3213-3219. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003377. PMID: 31567791.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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