A deadlift, in which you grab a barbell from the ground and stand up with it, is both one of the simplest barbell lifts and one of the heaviest. But what happens if you do the lift with your feet stretched out to the sides? Does that make it any less of an accomplishment?
To hear whiny commenters on Instagram talk about it, sumo deadlifts are cheating because widening your legs gives you less distance to lift the bar. Less ROM, or range of motion, means you’re making the lift easier. It makes sense, in theory.
But does a sumo stance actually make the lift easier? And if it does, is that enough to make it cheating?
Let’s look up the deadlift rules
Recall that the concept of cheating only makes sense in the context of rules. So, what are the rules?
In the major powerlifting federations, the width of your stance is up to you. Here’s the USA Powerlifting rulebook, for example. There is a lifting federation that calls itself “Strengthlifting” that bans sumo, but they also hold powerlifting meets, and when they do, sumo is allowed.
Strongman doesn’t have a consistent set of rules, although typically sumo stance is not allowed in deadlift events. This is up to the promoter, though. If you show up to a strongman meet, make sure you ask whether sumo is allowed if you prefer to pull sumo. Sumo wouldn’t exactly be cheating, since there’s no way to get away with it to have a secret advantage; it would just earn you a no-rep.
Is one of these stances easier than the other, though? There’s an easy way to answer that question, and the answer is a clear “no.” Just look at the top powerlifters, and world record deadlifts. Heck, looking at average lifters will get you the same answer. Some pull sumo, some pull conventional. If a sumo deadlift let you pull more weight, everybody would pull sumo.
Here’s an example of what you’d see if one stance did have an across-the-board advantage: In weightlifting, people used to “split snatch” with one leg forward and the other back. When lifters figured out how to “squat snatch” with legs together, they realized that, with training, it was more effective and let lifters move more weight. Today, both split and squat styles are legal, but nearly everybody does squat snatches. That’s what happens when two styles are legal but one is clearly superior. Powerlifting simply has not experienced that with deadlift stances.
What are the pros and cons of pulling sumo?
As many a reply guy will gladly point out, one major advantage of sumo is that it reduces the distance the bar has to travel—although only by a few inches.
This reduced ROM is most noticeable with shorter lifters, which includes many female competitors. I’m convinced the reason bozos like to insist sumo is cheating is because they’re looking for a way to discredit women’s lifts. (Another common insult is that sumo is “gay.”)
But sumo has its downsides, as well. You’re in a less advantageous position for the early part of the lift, as it’s coming off the floor. For most people, sumo deadlifts are harder off the floor and easier to finish; conventional deadlifts (with your feet together) are a bit easier to get started but can be harder to lock out.
In truth, lifters’ choice of stance tends to come down to preference and body proportions. One theory holds that lifters with short arms or long torsos usually do better with sumo; those with the opposite do better with conventional. Another argues that it has more to do with the shape of your hip joint. In any case, it varies from person to person.
How to get the best of both worlds
As with anything in the gym, the best way to figure out what works for you is to try it. Get a coach or watch some good tutorials on conventional and sumo deadlift techniques, and spend some time training whichever you don’t usually do. After a while, consider switching. Chances are, one of these will work better for you than the other. If they’re both about the same, congratulations, you can flip a coin—or just choose based on what sports you’d like to do. (Have your eye on competing in strongman? A solid conventional deadlift is a good investment for you.)
So you can deadlift whichever way you like, and please don’t tell someone who uses the opposite stance that they’re doing it wrong. If you pull conventional and you’re jealous of somebody else’s sumo pull, go ahead and give sumo a try! But if you can’t move more weight than your regular deadlift, that should be a hint that sumo isn’t actually cheating. Maybe you’re just jealous.