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Why you need to master the deadlift for fitness gains

Should you perform the conventional deadlift or the sumo deadlift? We look at the research and talk to fitness trainers to tell you what to do

Master the deadlift for better fitness gains.
Master the deadlift for better fitness gains. (Istokphoto)

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The number of variations that sports scientists and fitness experts have found for every exercise is enough to give you a headache. But it’s always better to have variations than not. Choosing which variation to do, and when, can almost feel like choosing a starting XI in a football match, so it doesn’t hurt to have some options on the substitutes bench. Whether it is which squats routine to do on leg day, or which type of push-up to perform on push day, and which rows to pick from on back day, remember, the more variations, the better your training.

One of the most common compound exercises is the deadlift. There are variations within this as well, depending on the equipment you are using as well as your form. It’s always tough to choose between a conventional deadlift and a sumo deadlift. The former is performed with your feet about shoulder-width apart, and the hands outside the knees, while the sumo deadlift uses a wider stance with the hands placed inside the knees.

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Both moves are nearly similar in terms of the muscles they target, but aresearch paper titled An Electromyographic Analysis Of Sumo And Conventional Style Deadlifts suggests that the sumo deadlift targets the glutes and quads more than the conventional one: “Quadriceps, tibialis anterior, hip adductor, gluteus maximus, L3 and T12 paraspinal, and middle trapezius activity were significantly greater in higher knee flexion intervals [sumo deadlifts] compared with lower knee flexion intervals [conventional deadlifts].” It also adds that conventional deadlifts showed higher activity in the “hamstrings, gastrocnemius, and upper trapezius”.

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But if you’re a beginner, how do you choose between the two? The first thing to remember, says Shalak Nelson, a fitness coach based in Vadodara, is that “one is not better than the other”. He says that the benefits could entirely depend on how you are built, a claim which is backed by the study Anthropometrical Determinants Of Deadlift Variant Performance published in the Journal Of Sports Science Medicine, which concluded that “the sumo deadlift may be slightly mechanically advantageous for individuals with longer torsos, while the conventional deadlift may be better suited for those with shorter torsos.”

“I ask beginners to lift very light weight in a conventional form and it gives me and them an idea of how far they are from proper form. If they struggle to straighten their back in a conventional form, then I make them switch to a sumo deadlift where the form is naturally created to make it easier for you to keep a straight back,” Nelson says.

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There is also the added advantage of being able to log higher numbers with the sumo deadlift since one is closer to the floor and has to lift the bar a couple of inches less than they would have to in the conventional style. “In my experience, it is easier to get injured doing a conventional deadlift with bad form which means I would always advise beginners to try out both variations and decide which suits their body,” adds Nelson. He says that one warning sign that you might need to look for during the sumo deadlift is if the exercise “presses on the inner quads rather than the posterior chain.” Switch to the conventional then and see if that works for you.

According to a article titled The Sumo Deadlift: How & Why You Should Be Doing Them, one needs to look out for warnings in the conventional form as well. “…if (they) irritate your lower back, sumos can be enough of an angle change to leave your back alone. Ultimately, your hip structure will impact your comfort level with each pulling movement, so be especially aware of any hip pain or instability when training deadlifts.”

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One might wonder if one is better than the other on the knees. After all, it’s the knees that are most prone to injuries that take time to heal. Or on the back, another problem area most people suffer from. A article titled Should You Deadlift Conventional Or Sumo addresses both issues, citing multiple research papers. “Conventional pulls are a little easier on your quads, and sumo pulls are a little easier on your back. When the bar broke the ground, knee movement was approximately 3x higher for sumo deadlifts than conventional deadlifts… spinal extension demands are approximately 10% higher in the conventional deadlift,” it states.

The article goes on to explain that, since the torso is inclined farther forward at the beginning of a conventional lift, the back contracts harder to lift it off the ground. It’s remarkably interesting how the body tunes itself to the same exercise, targeting nearly the same muscles, but with slight changes in angles and grips. Trying both these exercises will also teach you a lot about your weaknesses, which you can work over time and overcome using constant signals from trying both variations of the deadlift.

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As Nelson says, “If you’re already doing one of these and it is giving you the results you want, stick to it. Deadlifts are also about practice and while you might be able to do both perfectly, there is a high chance your body will make its preference clear.”

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.

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