Conventional or sumo- an easy way to know your deadlift stance

Posted on October 29, 2019

(Last Updated On: October 29, 2019)

When it comes to picking your deadlift stance, a common recommendation is train each style, sumo and conventional, for a few months each, then go with the one that feels better and or the one you’re stronger with. That there’s no surefire way to determine which style is better without testing them out for a while.

I don’t like that approach.

In many situations, one can get a decent, if not complete, answer quite quickly.

Get on your hands and knees, place your knees and feet somewhere between hip and shoulder width apart -like a conventional deadlift stance- and rock your hips back to your feet.


Next, open your knees -more like a sumo stance- have your feet more or less together (big toes touching one another is fine), and do the same thing.*


Think of the above as a horizontal deadlift.

If one position more readily makes the lower back round, if one position is clearly easier for the person to not bend their lower back -yellow arrow- then we have a clear direction for which way to go: the one where the back can more easily stay straight.

Wide stance (sumo analog) on the left; close stance (conventional analog) on the right:

In the above what we’re seeing is when this person spreads their knees more (left), they suddenly have more hip flexion range of motion. They can bend their hips more, so they don’t have to bend their lower back to keep rocking back. That when their knees are closer together (right), their lower back rounds as they bring their knees closer to their chest.

Because a deadlift requires a significant amount of hip flexion (knees brought towards chest), and we know we don’t want to lift with a rounded spine, we want to choose the position which involves the least amount of lumbar rounding.

If somebody does keep the back straight, but they complain of hip pinching / impingement / clunking, or their back looks like this:


Notice you can see the right shoulder but not the left. That’s because the person is hip shifting left.

Then those are more signs they’ve hit their hip flexion range of motion limit. (It just might be that one hip has more limitation than the other.) The pinching is either bone hitting bone, or the hip bones pinching the labrum. Between that and the likelihood the deadlift will look like this:

it’s hard to argue sticking with a conventional stance is worth it.

Poor posture influencing poor deadlift technique? (deadlifting is not only a forward and back exercise)

As you may have been able to tell, the stance way more likely to give people issues is conventional. If a sumo stance doesn’t work, if even a horizontal deadlift in a sumo-like position doesn’t work, it’s basically always because 1) the person is trying to go too wide or 2) the person just isn’t built to deadlift.

-> For some readers with more of a powerlifting background, it may be important to note here, for the purposes of this post, a conventional stance is simply legs are inside the hands, while a sumo is hands inside the legs. We don’t mean sumo in the sense your legs are as wide as possible (usually a great way to flare up your hips).

It’s critical to know we’re almost always dealing with bone structure when hip flexion limitations come about. When someone’s back rounds during this, it’s rarely because something is stiff and the person just needs to warm up or loosen up over a few weeks.

Trying to push through this can make matters worse.

A retroverted hip is one reason the spine will round sooner with a conventional stance.

My experience has been with men, you can assume a wider stance will give them more hip flexion without compensatory lumbar flexion. With women, you can assume it won’t matter. There is certainly variation, but more often than not that’s how people categorize.

I’m much more in favor of doing this simple assessment than having people go train each lift for a few months. Doing a few months of deadlifting with a rounded back isn’t something anybody would recommend, right? Even if you’re going light, that can be hundreds of pounds on a vulnerable spine.

So why not right off the bat find out if the person can even get into a conventional stance without a rounded back? If they can’t do it on their hands and knees, they won’t be able to do it with hundreds of pounds in their hands!

And sure, if there’s no difference, (maybe) feel free to try each stance for a while and see if one works better strictly because it hits different muscles. But we can’t worry about muscles before we worry about structure.

-> If you have really deep hip sockets, it doesn’t matter how flexible your muscles are, you’re never going to be able to stretch into a split. Better to know that before you waste your time / get injured.

Unless a person is demonstrably stronger in a conventional stance and they’re trying to push their strength limits, I’d still go with a sumo stance. If nothing else, it’s always easier on your spine, simply because you don’t have to lean over as much as in a conventional. In a world where 80% of us will have lower back issues, always go with the more back friendly alternative.

If you have a spine of steel, one where you never seem to have low back issues, and you’ve been around long enough to where you would have encountered them by now (say 30 years or older; been active at least a decade) then with those clients I’ll mix it up for variety, so they aren’t always moving the same way.

*An astute reader will notice in the horizontal conventional analog our feet are in a conventional stance position, but in the horizontal sumo analog our feet are together, despite the fact when we sumo deadlift our feet are not together.

The reason for this is what we’re really doing with this horizontal deadlift is testing how the lower back responds to external rotation of the hip. If we opened our knees, but brought the feet wider too, we haven’t externally rotated the hip at all; we’ve only abducted it.

That said, playing with how wide your feet are, in either stance, can be worthwhile too.

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