It is common to hear that beginners should learn to conventional dead-lift before pulling sumo. I want to show an example from today why...

Conventional or sumo deadlift?

It is common to hear that beginners should learn to conventional deadlift before pulling sumo. I want to show an example from today why this is NOT always the case.

Eddie on the left is trying his best to start his hips in the right position. Before this video, we spent quite a lot of time on learning makes a good and bad starting position, and even did a whole session of practising with a kettlebell, so this wasn’t his first time trying to deadlift.

With the kettlebell, he could get in an OK start position, MUCH better to what he could achieve when using a conventional stance with a barbell. So, he understood the starting position when using a KB, but was struggling in getting into a good position with a barbell.

Movement can emerge from the interaction of many variables coming together, for example, looking at effectors of movement which are intrinsic to the lifter –

  • Technical knowledge
  • Anatomy
  • Strength
  • Mobility

(there would be many other variables which affect movement too, but I’m just trying to get an example across)

It is likely the 3 top variables were hindering why he could not get into a good position.

  1. Anatomy, we are not able to change
  2. Strength, we can change, but it takes time.
  3. Technical knowledge, well, I think Eddie had an idea of how to get into the position, but he couldn’t do it when performing conventional. Although technical knowledge was constraining him to some degree when trying to conventional, there were probably other things that we could not control on the day, which was affecting his movement.

Because he could do a KB dead-lift fine, I decided to try a sumo lift and da-da! It was much more natural for him, and he could experience the basic concepts of what a good starting position felt like. His personal constraints were likely allowing him to get into a sumo position easier relative to a conventional.

In Eddie’s case, I’m not going to bother trying to teach a movement that feels very unnatural for him for minimal additional benefit. Sure, lifting conventional consists of training the quadriceps through a larger range of motion and probably stressors the back extensors more, but he is still getting a significant training effect from pulling sumo.

I’d argue that Eddie would get more of training effect from sumo as he’ll be able to lift a lot more load and perform significantly greater training volume at the moment.

What are the benefits of doing sumo right now?

  • He’ll progress on the dead-lifting movement pattern faster and won’t have to spend so much time figuring out the movement, as sumo is coming more natural for him.
  • He’ll get stronger overall because he’ll be able to lift more load on sumo.
  • He’ll increase his work capacity faster because of the greater overload stimulus provided by sumo.
  • He’s probably less likely to get injured pulling sumo as he’s technique is much more consistent between reps relative to conventional right now.

Rather than spending 6+ months on learning conventional and then learning sumo, we’re going to do it the other way around. I would still like him to conventional at some point so we can perform both variations, but right now, what extra benefits are we going to get trying to learn conventional versus a sumo? 

Increased quadricep and lower back strength? Well, his quadriceps are going to get stronger from squatting, and other exercises + his lower back is going to get stronger from doing heavier sumos. For the current time, I don’t think the work required of learning to conventional for its potential benefits is going to be worth the energy and time investment.

Going back to the effectors which are constraining his movement, after for example 6 months of progressing his sumo dead-lift, the increased strength + technical knowledge will likely afford a better positioning in the conventional automatically, and probably will take much less time to learn in the future, relative to trying to learn it now.

Point of all this

You don’t NEED to learn conventional first before sumo. Some lifters may be better off learning sumo first. If for whatever reason we wanted to fast track learning conventional right now, I would likely teach Eddie how to do a rack pull on one day, and sumo on another day. For now, because Eddie is learning multiple other movements like squats, bench press + OH press, I prefer not to confuse him and give to many exercises to learn.

Way up the benefits and negatives between the two. Which is going to be more beneficial for the person? In this example, the benefits of pulling sumo appear to outweigh the benefits of conventional heavily. 

Furthermore, the benefits from pulling conventional can probably be achieved from using other exercises. For Eddie, I think it seems smart to start learning how to sumo first, then use the transfer of learning and training adaptions to learn how to conventional later on.

Paul Attard
Paul Attard

Paul is the founder and head coach of SPC Performance Lab. Paul has been coaching since 2014 and has worked with all different types of people. From first timers learning the basics, all the way up to the experienced power-lifting competitors.

He tailors his approach depending on the needs, goals and experience of the individual. Paul has extensive theoretical and practical coaching experience.

- Masters of Sports & Exercise Science (Strength & Conditioning)
- Bachelor’s degree in Exercise & Sports Science with First Class Honours
- Competed and won multiple natural body-building shows & power-lifting competitions.
- Held an Australian power-lifting record.

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SPC Performance Lab is a gym in Taren Point in the Sutherland Shire, Sydney NSW. It is a private gym that offers strength training, powerlifting and body building training. The gym is open 24 hours, 7 days a week with membership options that include casual or regular visits.

Paul also provides a choice of personal training one on one or the option of online coaching.

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