From Sumo to Stiff Leg: Which Deadlift Type is Best for Me?

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Back in 2004, way before keto diets and kombucha, an American psychologist named Barry Schwartz wrote a book called the Paradox of Choice.

In the book, Schwartz argued that as modern consumers, we want to have as much choice imaginable, but instead of making our lives more fulfilled, this plethora of possibilities just ends up creating even more anxiety and regret.

Over a decade later this is even more prophetic. From Netflix shows to Bumble dates, we’re saturated with selections. But what the heck does this have to do with fitness?

Well, this paradox of choice flowed into the fitness landscape, as we became engulfed with an excess of exercises, diets and fitness fads: from slam balls to spin classes, booty bands, chains, cryotherapy, activated charcoal and even personal trainers in the palm of your hand. Search for protein powder on Amazon, and you’re bombarded with over 2000 different options.

Sure, we’re forever grateful for some of these evolutions, but it’s also led to something that we call program-pessimism

How can we ever be truly happy with our training if we’re continually wondering if we’re doing the best exercises, if we should be hack squatting instead of back squatting, if we should really be intermittent fasting?

The deadlift is one exercise that caused plenty of workout worry in recent years. From sumo to stiff leg, there’s such a vast amount of varieties, it’s difficult to know which type of deadlift will benefit you most.

Choice is a beautiful thing for lifters, but what’s even more important is knowing the meaning of those choices. To truly get fulfillment from your training, you need to delve into the details behind the deadlift, and discover which type you should really be doing.  


CONVENTIONAL DEADLIFT


Like Tom Hanks and tacos, the conventional deadlift is one of the very few things that’s universally loved. Even bitter rivals like bodybuilders and powerlifters share a mutual adoration for the conventional deadlift, and when it comes to pure hypertrophy and adding slabs of muscle to your physique, the conventional stance reigns supreme.

The conventional deadlift has about 20-25% greater range of motion than all other deadlift varieties such as the sumo and the hex bar, meaning that you’re activating more muscles and doing more mechanical work, which is always a win for lifters. For lifters wanting to grow a Kai Greene-sized lower back, the conventional deadlift places 10% more stress on the spinal erectors than other variations, due to the more horizontal starting position.

However, these increased mobility demands can also be a double-edged sword. As you probably know, many lifters have a chequered past when it comes to back injuries, which can create a myriad of mobility issues which can be made worse by the added stress on the lumbar spine. 

BEST FOR: If you’re not plagued by serious lower back injuries and you’re searching for a great compound exercise which specifically trains the lower back, posterior chain and hamstrings, there’s nothing quite as beneficial as hauling some heavy iron from the floor.

SUMO DEADLIFT


The sumo deadlift is often misunderstood, seen as the underachieving, smaller brother of the conventional deadlift, when in reality the sumo has its own unique benefits and strengths.

Unknown to many lifters, the sumo deadlift might actually be the better option for them if they want to lift heavier, depending on their individual anatomy and soft-tissue flexibility. Your hip structure is one variation that will strongly influence your range of motion, as well as the amount of muscular tension you can develop in different hip positions.

Read here for how you can identify your individual hip structure

For lifters stronger in straight ahead hip flexion, the conventional deadlift is best, while lifters stronger in hip flexion with hip abduction should favour the sumo deadlift.

Other genetic dispositions like your limb length and height can also have a massive bearing on whether you should adopt a sumo or conventional stance.



If you’re a lifter hellbent on building tree-trunk legs, the sumo deadlift still has its place. Yes, the range of motion is less than the conventional deadlift, but due to the wider stance and deeper initial squatting position, the sumo activates the quads and hips roughly 20% more in comparison. As already mentioned, because the bar is placed closer to the hips, there’s less stress on the spine as the lifter starts in a more upright position. Again, this is hugely beneficial for lifters with lower back issues!

BEST FOR: Lifters with mobility restrictions still looking to crush an explosive, compound leg workout. For gym goers searching for a more quad-dominant pulling exercise with less stress on the lower back, make the shift to sumo!

TRAP BAR DEADLIFT


If the sumo is the neglected younger brother in the deadlifting family tree, the hex bar is the quiet, awkward cousin gathering dust in the corner of the gym.

But like your cousin, the trap bar is actually super cool once you get to know it!

Of all the deadlift variations, the hex bar is possibly the best for athletic performance, with one study finding that mean force, velocity, power, total work and time spent accelerating were all greater with the trap bar, even when using the same percentage of 1RM. For lifters who want to improve their explosiveness, sprint speed and vertical jump for sports, the trap bar is the cream of the deadlifting crop.

Trap Bar deadlifts offer the possibility to keep an even more upright torso and neutral back than the sumo and conventional, due to the hand position and higher handles. This makes it more of a hybrid between a squat and hinge movement, reducing the risk of hyperextending your back at lockout. However because of this, lifters searching for back-blasting exercise are unlikely to get the same benefit as easily as they could from a multi-joint, compound movement like the conventional deadlift.

For lifters chasing a thicker, awe-inspiring physique, the trap bar deadlift also pales in comparison when it comes to muscular activation through the back and hamstrings, with a study revealing that biceps femoris activation was 28% higher off the floor and through the top half of the lift in the conventional deadlift.

BEST FOR: Lifters who want to improve their explosiveness and power for athletic performance, working the anterior chain. Trap Bar deadlifts are also perfect for beginners and people who struggle to get into the correct position from the floor using a barbell (typically taller people with longer legs). Additionally, for those with back mobility issues who still experience discomfort with the sumo stance, the hex bar could be your saviour!

ROMANIAN DEADLIFT


While the Romanian Deadlift does follow a shorter version of the conventional deadlift movement pattern, it offers far more isolation of the hamstrings and glutes, due to having to keep your knees bent throughout most of the movement, as well as increased total time under tension.

While you can use it as a heavy, explosive exercise to increase power and rate of force development, Romanian deadlifts can also teach lifters how to coordinate spinal movement and motor control skill, stretching the hamstrings and targeting the spine less. Because of this, the Romanian Deadlift is the perfect gateway exercise to the conventional deadlift, for anyone returning from injury or just starting their fitness journey.

BEST FOR: This lift is an excellent accessory to any leg day program, especially for those who want to improve Olympic lifts like cleans and snatches. Romanian deadlifts are perfect for anyone coming back from injury or who hasn’t mastered the conventional deadlift, as well as those wanting to isolate their hamstrings and glutes.

SINGLE LEG DEADLIFT

While your Single-Leg Deadlift 1RM might not gain you hordes of Instagram admirers, it’s one of the most functional deadlift variations you can do.

Single leg deadlifts are all about improving balance, core stability and flexibility. During barbell variations like the sumo and conventional, lifters tend to cheat on form and rely on brute strength to lift the weight, losing the essence of the movement. But if you’ve become too fixated on the numbers instead of the movement itself, you won’t get the functional strength you need beyond the gym.

Like the Romanian Deadlift, the Single-Leg Deadlift isolates the hamstrings and glutes, with the added element of balance, being a unilateral exercise. However unlike the Romanian Deadlift, the Single-Leg is best used as a progression from conventional. While lots of serious lifters can squat five plates, they don’t know how to hinge on one leg, keep hip flexion on one side or have the mobility to fully reap the benefits of the Single-Leg Deadlift.

BEST FOR: Serious lifters looking for an athletic, functional progression from the conventional deadlift, who want to isolate their hamstrings and glutes

Choice gives us control over our future, knowledge makes sure we take the right path.

Whether you’re in pursuit of a bigger, thicker physique or want to improve your athletic performance, there’s a deadlift variety to satisfy you and help you take your training to the next level!

Tags: Training