Training Talk: What's the Best Variation of the Deadlift?

Roger “Rock” Lockridge
Written By: Roger “Rock” Lockridge
August 29th, 2017
Updated: June 13th, 2020
Categories: Articles Training
16.9K Reads
Training Talk: What's the Best Variation of the Deadlift?
Have you ever just sat around and thought "which variation of the deadlift is truly the best"? So do we! Let's discuss in this month's training talk!

In a previous version of “Training Talk”, we covered the king of the lifts. I’m talking about the deadlift.

We discussed whether it’s a lift best served on leg day or back day as well as whether or not you should use lifting straps.

There were two things that we came away with after that edition went live.

  1. It was among our most successful editions of “Training Talk” in terms of conversation.
  2. There’s a LOT more to cover when it comes to deadlifting.

So for those reasons, M&S is bringing back a topic to discuss for a second time.

You probably know how this works by now.

We bring up both or all sides of a discussion, you chime in by sharing your thoughts and experience in the comments section at the bottom of the page, we get to know each other a little better, and sing “Kumbaya” at the end (ok, not the last part).

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Powerlifting Competition Controversy

Powerlifters have been discussing this for decades. There are two popular versions of the deadlift that you see when athletes take to the platform. One is the conventional deadlift and the other is known as sumo deadlift. For those of you that aren’t familiar, here’s how they work.

Conventional deadlifts are performed with your feet standing with heels hip width apart, toes pointed either straight or slightly out, and planted firmly into the floor. The bar should be at least over the middle of the feet and actually closer to yourself is better.

Related: Training Talk - Do You Really Need to Squat?

Bend at the knees while keeping as straight of a spine as possible. You’ll bend at the hips too which is ok but don’t round your back. The longer your thighs, the higher your hips will be.

Take a grip of the bar outside of your legs but not too wide. You can either go double over or one hand over/one under. Don’t go double under and don’t use a thumbless grip. Both won’t serve you well and can result in injury.

Pull your shoulder blades together and stick your chest out. Push your feet into the floor and use force in your legs to pull the bar up off the floor. Once the bar passes the knees, push your hips forward to stand straight and tall with the weight at arms’ length. Lock out the weight by straightening your legs and sticking your chest out. Reverse this motion to lower the weight back to the floor.

Powerlifter resting in between deadlifts

Sumo deadlifts are performed with your feet much wider similar to a sumo wrestler’s stance when a match is about to begin (thus, sumo). The torso is more upright than with conventional deadlifts and your hips will be lower. This means your lower back is less involved in this version.

Instead, your quadriceps and groin areas are more involved since you start in more of a squat like position. Your grip would be inside of the legs instead of outside, but the bar should be in the same position as it would conventionally.

There are other factors that are involved with both versions but many of them are based on the individual performing the lifts. We’ll leave that for you guys to debate in the comments since this is about you and your expertise too.

The Controversy

Where the issue lies isn’t necessarily with the training. Most powerlifters have trained and do train with both versions because they see the benefit of both.

The disagreement starts when a lifter performs sumo deadlifts in competition. Since the feet are wider and the hips are lower, the lifter doesn’t have to pull the weight as far to lock out as they would if that person would perform the deadlift in the conventional fashion.

So, if a lifter sets a record on the deadlift sumo style, there’s an unspoken asterisk to it in the eyes of many.

Other athletes feel that if there was that big of a problem with it then sumo deadlifting would be considered illegal in competition and as of this writing, it isn’t. The other point that is made is the goal of the lift is to move the weight from point A to point B successfully.

As long as the lift is completed without cheating it up or going back down at any point, why not find the shortest distance possible? Benchers can use a wider grip and a wider stance is legal with the squat. So for them, deadlifting sumo style is deadlifting strong style.

Training for Bodybuilding

The discussion in regards to deadlifts for bodybuilding training doesn’t have the intensity that it does in the world of powerlifting but there is still a conversation. Some trainers and athletes feel that the conventional deadlift is the best way to go because it’s more of a total body movement.

Female Bodybuilder performing deadlifts

It can help the lifter achieve the maximum muscular results possible. Some others feel that going with the sumo version is better because the bar doesn’t have to travel as far. Also, the legs are more involved so there’s less of a chance of lower back injury.

Lastly, since the lifter can more likely use more weight, the greater volume can have more of a positive impact. When it comes to the bodybuilding benefits, there’s an X factor that hasn’t been considered yet.

Trap Bar

You know what this is, right? The trap bar, or hex bar, is a barbell that includes a hexagon center for the lifter to stand in as well as handles that run vertically on each side for the lifter to take a hold of.

Related: Training Talk - Training Traps with Shoulders or Back?

It’s mostly used for shrugs but it's also widely appreciated for its deadlifting benefits.

  • There’s no friction between the bar and your legs.
  • Your torso can remain upright.
  • The weight doesn’t take as much of a toll on your lower back.
  • Anatomically, your arms are in more of a natural position.

All of that is great so why not just use the trap bar?

There are experts and trainers who feel trap bar deadlifts make the movement more of a squat than deadlift. Whereas the bar is in front of the lifter during an “actual” deadlift, the weight is on the sides so the impact on the body isn’t the same.

Rack Deadlifts

Finally for the bodybuilding portion of the conversation, we must cover these. Rack pulls are performed from knee level and can either look very impressive or very foolish and the perspective depends on who is watching.

Rack pulls are popular because they are safer and can help isolate the lower back with less of a risk of injury. Ok, that’s all true but let’s get real. Most of these dudes do them because they can pile on the plates and feel like an iron god when they stand up with it.

Novice trainers and those who don’t lift might be impressed but iron veterans know better. If you’re doing them for the right reasons then the weight isn’t going to be as much of a concern.

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Your Opinion Matters Here

As much fun as it is to talk about this stuff, the fact is what YOU think is what matters here on Training Talk. It’s now time for you to continue this discussion and tell us what you know or believe. This time, the questions vary by what you do in the gym.

If you’re a powerlifter, here’s what we want to know:

  • Do you think that lifting sumo is legal cheating and not a true deadlift or is it as much of a deadlift as the conventional version?
  • Which version do you use and why? If you use both, which is better for you?

Now for those of you who are bodybuilders, we would like to see your thoughts on these topics:

  • How do you deadlift and why?
  • Do you see benefits from trap bar deads or rack pulls?

And if anyone wants to chime in with their particular deadlift workout, that would be great too. I’m looking forward to seeing all the responses. If you guys like, share this on your social media pages and invite your training partners to join the discussion. The more, the better.

Posted on: Sun, 10/01/2017 - 14:55

I totally agree that there is nothing wrong with the sumo deadlift in competition. To be honest, I prefer sumo deadlift even though I'm not a powerlifter. This is because it has improved my strength effectively.
Besides, wearing a weightlifting belt is very important as I had gone through back pain when do the deadlift in the past.

Ben Blue
Posted on: Mon, 09/04/2017 - 11:28

I'm a powerlifter, and I can tell you that generally the stigma surrounding sumo deadlifts doesn't actually exist so much in the actual powerlifting world as much as it exists with others looking in. Lifters who don't even perform deadlifts regularly, can't pull even double their body weight, and have piss poor form in either stance. There are some powerlifters who still look down on sumo, but for the most part it's widely accepted, because those who actually train the sport understand that everyone has unique leverage, and taking the stance of "sumo is easier bc it limits the rom" is another way of saying you have no idea what you're talking about. Sumo is not inherently "easier" than conventional. Yes it's a shorter rom, but not all lifters are predisposition to be stronger sumo. Ever wonder why the majority of heaviest record setting lifts were performed conventional? In any case, as long as it's within the rules, the name of the game is to move as much weight as possible. So if you're a powerlifter and you think sumo is easier, but you choose to pull conventional, than you're just an idiot who's limiting your total. Fact is, it's an even playing field, and lifters are free to choose the style that they perform the best at. Since everyone has the option to pull in either style, the complaints are moot. I personally perform both in training. They compliment one another incredibly. Yes, I can pull more sumo, but not by much. Last tested maxes had me pulling 25 lbs more sumo. That is me and my leverages. I know lot's of lifters who can't pull sumo for shit, but have excellent conventional pulls. This debate is tired.

Posted on: Sun, 09/17/2017 - 11:09

very well said, i consider myself a powerlifter but also do strongman and bodybuilding. your reply sounds alot like my thoughts on this topic.

Ian Schmidt
Posted on: Sun, 09/03/2017 - 18:06

Sumo deadlifts in a series for glute training and strengthening.
Conventional and Olympic as well, In a series for pure overall strength
Rack pulls at knee height for mid back development
Rack pulls at varied heights to hit weak points in the chain.

No real wrong or right answer to the best deadlift. Depends on where the weak points are and overall goals
Trap/hexagon bar is a nice change, and an addition to standard

Posted on: Sun, 09/03/2017 - 14:25

Sumo deadlifts are legal and rightfully so. A person's anatomy is a large part of which variation is more efficient for them (leg length, torso size, arm length) as well as mobility.

As a 5'7" powerlifter at 150-155 (with long legs compared to upper body) I do either sumo deadlift once a week following squats. My other leg day, squat is usually followed by a less intense version of deadlift such as deficit or rack pull in conventional stance. On occasion I will conventional and sumo deadlift each in the same week. For competition I've switched to sumo.

Posted on: Sun, 09/03/2017 - 12:55

For an athlete who lifts as a supplement to my main sport I am looking for lifts that compliment my performance and add speed and power while protecting my body. To this end I personally love deadlift complexes but my favourite is the following.
Superset the following to work the entire posterior chain
Basic Deadlift (preferred over Sumo)
Snatch Deadlift

I use the same weight for each lift, number of reps per set, rhythm of the lift, and the intervals between the lifts and sets depends upon the purpose of the lift and the periodization plan for the season.

I avoid Rack Pull and Trap bars, but often will work Bulgarian Split Squat and Front Squats as well as dumbbell jump Squats into my leg day sessions after Deadlifts.

Like coach always says, "It's useless unless you find it useful."
All the best

Posted on: Thu, 08/31/2017 - 04:56

For bodybuilding,
Rack Pulls Above the Knee, RDL's and Hack Deadlifts with bands. AlphaDestiny style!

Within a heavy full body workout I would do:
-Hack Deadlifts for a 3RM
-Rack Pulls 3x5
-RDL's 3x8 + stretch at the end

Roger Rock Lockridge
Posted on: Thu, 08/31/2017 - 14:23

Right on, Matt. I appreciate you sharing your workouts. Hopefully someone can benefit from your experience. Thanks for being here and supporting M&S!

Joe C
Posted on: Wed, 08/30/2017 - 00:32

I personally think all deadlift movements should be incorporated into training. My goal is functional strength and in life we don't always get to chose our perfect setup or leverage points outside of the gym. So I like to work every angle. That said, I do believe conventional is king and would support a separate record place for sumo. I still think sumo is important though. When I first started I struggled a lot with deadlifts. I would superset conventional followed by sumo (4 sets of 3 X 3) until I got strong enough to tackle 5 X 5's of heavy loads conventional style. i also use snatch grip occasionally when staying lighter and going for reps.

As always, great article and thanks for getting the conversation started. Can't wait to see what others have to say. As a side note, would love to see a training talk about nutrition and macros.

Roger Rock Lockridge
Posted on: Wed, 08/30/2017 - 15:50

Joe C, thanks for joining us and sharing your own knowledge. Many people reading this will likely have their own deadlift issues so your plan can help them out.

As for that side note, maybe M&S will start a Kitchen Talk about nutrition. In the meantime, I'll speak to my editor and see if we can include your suggestion down the road. Thanks.

Trevor B
Posted on: Tue, 08/29/2017 - 14:27

I enjoy powerlifting more than I do bodybuilding. However, the half-sumo deadlift is my friend, more so then the conventional deadlift.

I prefer to treat the deadlift as a leg workout rather than a back workout. the sumo/half-sumo lets me get my hams and glutes more engaged.

As far as wraps and belts go, I try to avoid them since my back injury a few years back. if that seems backwards, its because I try to pace my deadlift by my weakest link. if its front core or grip that gives out before my legs or back, then i work on those.

Its cool to chase the biggest lift you have ever done, but whats more cool is sustainability.

Good Article as always Lockridge.

Roger Rock Lockridge
Posted on: Wed, 08/30/2017 - 15:47

Thanks, Trevor. I appreciate you chiming in and sharing your thoughts and I agree. Sustainability should come first.