This is one of the great debates in the strength world, and the answer isn’t exactly black and white. What is clear, though, is the deadlift is a program essential if you want to build strong glutes and hamstrings. It’s a compound movement that requires work from almost every muscle in your body. If you do it right, “the deadlift, regardless of style, is the strongest exercise you’re going to do,” says Men’s Health fitness director, Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S.
The Main Difference Between Conventional and Sumo Deadlifts
The main difference between the sumo and conventional deadlift is easy to see: foot position.
The conventional variation requires lifters to stand with the feet shoulder-width apart and facing forward, while the sumo requires a wider stance, with the feet well outside of the hips and facing out. With that change comes a few key bio-mechanical adjustments. Range of motion and muscular demands both change.
Does that make one variation better than the other? Here, Samuel explains the fundamental differences between the two exercises, and which one reigns supreme.
Is the Sumo Deadlift Cheating?
“Plenty of trainers and powerlifters suggest that the sumo deadlift is an easier lift,” feeding the commonplace argument that the sumo deadlift is ‘cheating’, Samuel says.
To do sumo deadlift, your feet take a ‘sumo stance’—spread out wider than hip-width apart. When you spread your legs like this, you shorten the distance from the ground compared to when you’re standing with your feet planted directly below you. That means the bar has less distance to travel than in a normal deadlift, so the hips move through a shorter range of motion. That does mean “we’re doing less total work on some level,” Samuel says.
If sumo deadlifts were cheating, though, you’d expect to see the heaviest deadlift numbers belonging to the sumo style. That’s not the case—the record is held by Hafthor Björnsson, who lived 1,104.5 pounds conventionally. Elite lifters everywhere program both the conventional and sumo style of deadlifts into their routines because each offer different challenges.
“The sumo isn’t cheating—it’s just a different style of lift with different total body demands,” Samuel says.
Are Sumo or Conventional Deadlifts Better?
Similarities Between the Sumo and Conventional Deadlift
Since the sumo and conventional deadlifts are both variations of the barbell deadlift, they have a lot in common. Both are powered by the hip hinge motion, meaning they’ll provide significant challenge to your glutes, hamstrings, and spinal muscles of the posterior chain.
Each will move heavy weight, too. “Both lifts are going to be among the heaviest weight exercises you do, once you’ve mastered them,” Samuel says.
Differences Between the Sumo and Conventional Deadlift
The difference between the two styles lies in how they challenge your hips and spine.
The conventional deadlift will require your torso to get much closer to parallel to the ground, requiring a deeper hinge to push the butt back. This will challenge your hamstrings and glutes over a longer range of motion. Since your hips have farther to travel, the time spent through each rep will be a bit longer than the sumo style. It will also put more pressure on your mid and low back.
The sumo deadlift works through a shorter range of motion in the hips, as the torso is more upright. Because of this, you’ll work less through the glutes and hamstrings, making the style less effective for growing the muscles. Instead, the movement challenges the quads and hip adductors in a way the conventional deadlift does not. It does require a deeper range of mobility in the hips than its counterpart, though, which may be tough for some people.
Which Deadlift Is Best For You?
Which style you should be training comes down to two things: your goals and your body structure. Here’s when you should include both in your program.
When You Should Train Conventional Deadlifts
The conventional deadlift will be chief if your main goal is to build bigger glutes and hamstrings. This style puts the muscles in a better position to work through a larger range of motion, which is needed to efficiently build muscle. If another one of your goals is to get better at Olympic-style lifts like the power clean or the snatch, you’ll want to program the conventional deadlift into your routine. Many of these moves originate in a conventional deadlift position.
You’ll want to take your body’s structure into consideration, too. If you have long arms and short legs, you’ll be in an anatomically better position in the conventional deadlift to hit the glutes and hamstrings more directly. Your long arms will mean you don’t have to move through such a long range of motion, either.
Beginners should always start their training with the conventional deadlift, Samuel says. There are more nuances to learn with the sumo deadlift, and it’s not the most effective way to learn how to hip hinge. Learn the hinge motion with a conventional style before moving into other variations, like the sumo.
When You Should Train Sumo Deadlifts
If you’re struggling with low back issues, the sumo deadlift is a better barbell deadlift option for you than the conventional deadlift. There’s less overall back stress with this style, since your torso is a bit more upright.
If you have long legs and short arms, this lift might be for you. “It will be easier for you to find a naturally powerful position because of your levers,” says Samuel.
The Bottom Line:
Both deadlift styles are great exercises for challenging your glutes and hamstrings through the hip hinge position. But, neither of these lifts are necessary for general fitness, and Samuel suggests the trap bar deadlift over either of them. This variation will be easier to master for most lifters, and it’s a more functional option.
If you feel the need to pick a barbell option, though, don’t think of sumo vs. conventional as an either/or situation. Work on both exercises, Samuel says, cycling the two every six to eight weeks. The conventional deadlift will boost your strength, prevent injury, and the sumo will give your low back a break while training heavy.
Cori Ritchey, NASM-CPT is an Associate Health & Fitness Editor at Men’s Health and a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor. You can find more of her work in HealthCentral, Livestrong, Self, and others.