Converting to Sumo Deadlifting: How I Made It Work for Me

TAGS: deadlifting timing, lever problem, leg press, conventional deadlift, grip work, marc bartley, sumo, pavel, kettlebell, deadlift

COACH

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Deadlifting is one of the oldest and hardest exercises around. It’s very simple—you just pick the bar up off the ground and stand up with it. Well, it’s not that easy for everyone. All lifts are lever situations. To put it differently, if you have long arms and a short torso, your deadlift is usually better than if you had the opposite, which would be my case. I suffer from alligator arms so my deadlift has always been an issue. To compound this, my fingers are short and my hands are fat, almost paw like, so grip is also a big deal. These are serious problems when you are a top ranked powerlifter, and your total determines who walks away with first place. Several meets have come down to the deadlift, and you can surmise the outcome.

Over the years, eight to be precise, I have struggled continuously with plenty of remedies and band-aids. Some have helped, but they haven’t led me to the promised land of acceptable deadlifts. I have spent endless hours on technique, style changes, good mornings, Romanian deadlifts, Olympic lifts, high pulls, and rack pulls but with limited success. It wasn’t until I made a trip to Finland for a meet that I finally saw the missing piece of the equation. I was then able to see the whole picture better than I had before. The lights came on, as you might say.


MORE: Elitefts Deadlift Manual


My squat and bench have always carried me in a meet. Without a solid effort in both of them, I am done. I worked very hard on both of these lifts using the Westside Barbell system. Under this regime, there are two upper days and two lower days. For the upper days, one day is maximum upper and the other is a light or dynamic day where speed and form/technique are emphasized. The lower days have the same combo—max effort and speed. This is important to note because you need a basic background in our training in order to understand your own program and make the changes I’m going to suggest. The only problems with this system are adaptation after 3–5 years and basic lower body max effort work. Under the old system, deadlifting is only emphasized once or twice every 4–6 weeks. Good mornings are the mainstays. They are supposed to cover the deadlifting angle, and they do to an extent. However, I think if you have lever or timing issues in the deadlift, then you have to do more deadlifting. Period. You will get stronger, but you will hit the wall as I did several times (my head is riddled with lumps from this). I also discovered that I pretty much needed life support after the squat. This isn’t good when you have two more events before you can go have cookies and beer.

In 2005, I was up for my second WPO Super Finals at the Arnold Classic in Columbus, Ohio. At my first Arnold, I netted second place after some big names bombed out. Even though I lost by 163 pounds, I still totaled 100 pounds higher than my previous best so it was a good day. Now, back to 2005. I improved my squat drastically, which was 1058 pounds. My bench was 699, which was also an increase from 2004. I got to the deadlift, but I was out of gas. I barely pulled one out of three attempts. My total went up 165 pounds, but because of my deadlift woes, I lost again—this time by seven pounds. Second again. I knew in the back of my brain that I had neglected the deadlift, and again, it bit me hard when it counted. I had to address it.

WPO Marc Bartley

I had a meet in Finland in November 2005 and then the Arnold in March 2006. I changed to the sumo deadlift and began to work it. My lift went up—I pulled 745 pounds in training—but it was very inconsistent. Some days I could pull, and some days I missed the easiest ones. I was still thrilled with my progress though and devised a plan to only do them three days a week—one upper, one lower, and one clean-up day. On clean-up day, I dragged and pushed different sleds to give me better wind and endurance so I could make it during the meet. At the meet in Finland, I thought I was prepared, and I felt okay. But, I struggled through the squat, only getting my opener, and got called out on depth on the second. I missed the third outright. I still felt okay but pretty rattled. I hit two out of three on the bench but could not get credit from the judges. My bench hadn’t improved either since the Arnold. So, there I was 6000 miles from home and out of the meet. I didn’t get to test my deadlift at all. I was upset not only about bombing out but also for disappointing my sponsors and the friends who supported me.

During the three prior days of the meet, I had paid attention to the Europeans pulling. Now that I was out of the meet, I got to watch some of the best in Europe pull while I helped my training partner finish the meet. For years, all I had heard was how much better they pulled then us. We, like most people in the U.S., thought it was all the snatches and clean and jerks they did from the earliest of childhood or their super strong low backs. I’m sure these are part of the equation, but there’s more. The Europeans have a completely different method of pulling then we are used to in the U.S. or have ever even seen.

Now, I am notorious for taking a month off after a meet and not even touching a weight. My main training partner often makes jokes about my absences, saying that I quit powerlifting or something else not so pleasant. That’s all right. If you’ve ever read my logs on elitefts, you know he goes by many names, and I show no mercy in letting him have it. But, jokes aside, after touching down back in the U.S., I went right to work devising a plan to use this new style of pulling. I included various pause/stop leg presses, speed deadlifts, gripper work, kettlebell grip work, kettlebell double snatches, kettlebell dead snatches, kettlebell double swings, and a technique that I learned from Pavel at Kettlebell Certification called “pulling the hips out of the socket.” This meet was the final straw and made me realize that you either put up or get out of the way. You can’t go to one of the biggest meets in the world without a deadlift so off I went.

Speed Deadlifts

The first thing I did was to put speed day lower back into the equation on Saturdays. For two or three years, I had left it out and was only squatting once a week. I still only squat once a week (more of a max effort day—heavy). But, now I do speed deadlifts with 515 pounds for five sets of three only on Saturdays. This is about of 60 percent of 800, which is my ultimate goal given my terrible lever and grip situations. I mixed up conventional and sumo deadlifting doing three sets and two sets, respectively. I wasn’t quite secure with the sumo yet, even though it proved to be my best pull in training or ever for that matter. With the light weights, I could really focus on form and implement the European or exaggerated over pull. If you’ve ever watched a strongman throw the shoulders way back on the way up during a deadlift, then you have just witnessed a European pull. That’s really all there is to it. As the bar is coming off the floor right below knee level, start going back as hard as you can. The goal is to get the shoulders as far behind the bar as you can bend your body. This basically makes the pull a quarter squat so that all you have to do is stand up. The hips should be under the bar as soon as you can get them there. If you’re not born with good levers, your deadlift is a two or three-phase lift. This means that you usually pull hard off the floor or vice versa, but you stall around knee level regardless. Then, it’s a fight to the finish if you can get there at all. With the exaggerated over pull style, the bar rides your legs instead of gliding up them. This will take pressure off your grip slightly if you do it correctly. A simple thing I do to get people to understand this is to get behind them as they are pulling. As soon as they start moving the bar, I grab the upper body around the shoulder and upper chest and start pulling them back. At the same time, I take my right hand and push them forward at the belt or lower back. I pull and push until they cannot go any further either way. Make sure to straighten your legs out when you practice or you’ll get a “not locked out” call and all this would be a waste.

Technique

Setting up on your sumo or “pulling the hips out of the socket” is the next idea. I played around with the sumo trying to get it to work but always seemed to find the bar drifting away from me. I would lose the pull, which is why I quit it so many times. The first time that I got it to work (before I was doing the over pull from Finland), I ducked my feet out parallel with the bar and brought my feet inside the rings. To explain this, imagine your legs at 90 degrees each, similar to a box type effect. Most sumo pullers go as wide as they can, sometimes almost touching the plates so that it’s not 90 degrees. I got this idea from Pavel, who has led the kettlebell revolution here in the U.S., at Kettlebell Certification School. I’ll go more into kettlebells later in the article if you’re still awake!

Back to Pavel. In teaching the box squat, which we had been using for years, he added a different twist to improve/test flexibility and performance. The idea of the box squat stays the same in that the tail is pushed back, the knees are kept at 90 degrees, and the knees are spread as you squat. The only difference is that you pull from the hips, literally out of the socket as you descend to the bar. You’re creating more room and flexibility from the hip socket. It’s kind of like a plie squat only the legs stay at 90 degrees as much as possible. You pull the knees outward toward your feet from the hips, if you can imagine that. This keeps your legs up under you to provide more leverage, more power output, and much less strain on your lower back ligaments. The only thing that I do differently is turn my feet in slightly instead of ducking them completely parallel to the bar. It’s too hard to over pull with the feet ducked to the bar. Once you get this setup, add the European style of over pulling and overextension of the back.

Another thing I did was rack pulls on squat night. I think this is also an easy way to get the over pull from the top end perspective. Rack pulling also teaches you to drive your hips under the bar quickly or you lose the lift. I tried to pull on my heaviest squat nights for only three weeks, and then I took a week off. Do triples and add weight until your grip gives and then do a set or two more with straps. This will keep you honest for the meet and give you some time dealing with heavy weights.

WPO Marc Bartley

Kettlebells

Now, on to the good stuff—the kettlebells. Couldn’t wait, could you? For those who don’t know what a kettlebell is or even where they came from, the explanation is very simple. A kettlebell is basically a cannonball with a handle on it. This weapon of ass destruction has been around since the 1700s when it was first mentioned in a Russian dictionary. It has survived three hundred years because of its simplicity and effectiveness in crushing your body from all angles. Kettlebells can be used in any sport or weightlifting program and for top conditioning in any type of person or athlete. We use them to build muscle, hone speed and technique, and, of course, condition. If you can’t finish the meet, then it doesn’t matter how strong you are. Trust me. I‘ve been on the end of this one several times, and it has always been at the most critical time—the deadlift.


EXERCISE INDEX: elitefts Kettlebell Swing 101


The main kettlebell exercises that I think are applicable to the deadlift are conventional double snatches, snatch presses, front swings, sumo double swings, and dead snatches. There are many more kettlebell exercises, but these are the main ones that we used. The nice thing is that the kettlebells also build the upper back and traps along with building hip speed and glute and hamstring strength. I would attribute the near 50-pound gain in my bench press in this training cycle to the kettlebells.

Through trial and error, I learned when and how to put kettlebells into a training schedule. I found that the double snatches, snatch presses, and front swings (the kettlebell from hell routine) worked best on our light/speed upper body day, which was Friday. We would do floor presses with chains for speed work, heavy triceps work, back work, and then the kettlebell from hell routine at the end. We did three rounds of each exercise for 6–8 reps. For me, round one consisted of the 53-pound kettlebell for double front swings first. Then, I took a break and let my training partners leave, and finished with the double snatches second and the snatch presses last. Rounds two and three were the same, but I went up to 72-pound kettlebells. This doesn’t seem like much, but let me tell you, it was nap time after that.

Double Front Swings

The double front swings are basically front raises done ballistically where the kettlebells fly behind you as you push your tail back and down. If you feel too much low back, then you’re not dipping and pushing back correctly. The snatch has the same push back with the legs except that you pull the kettlebells up your body like an upright row. As the kettlebell is moving up, it will start to flip from its own momentum. Take the momentum and stick your hand under it as it travels up past your head. The end of the motion is where the arms are fully extended and the kettlebell is resting against the back of your wrist and forearms. Use a light kettlebell until you get the motion or it will tear up your wrists and forearms.

Snatch Press

The snatch press is the snatch motion I just described except that once locked out at the top, bring the kettlebells all the way down to your upper chest and lean back slightly. Leaning back will load the lats and create an anchor point. Once you have the kettlebells down, press them back to the top, pushing off the lats and then start over. If you feel too much shoulder, then you have not engaged the lats. You will get weird looks while you are doing these exercises, but get used to it! The bruising may be a little harder to explain. You’re on your own with that.

Dead Snatch

The dead snatch and the double sumo swings are the two lower body drills. The dead snatch is more difficult than the regular snatch because you don’t have the momentum from the swing. Place the kettlebell between your legs using either a conventional or sumo stance. I used the sumo style stance because that’s what I wanted to improve. Now, here’s the easy part. You simply get into deadlift position, grab the kettlebell, and snatch it up your body until lockout like the regular snatch.

Double Kettlebell Sumo Swing

The double kettlebell sumo swing is much easier to do but more taxing then the dead snatch. Take two kettlebells in a sumo stance, and begin to rock them into motion to get them going. Once you have some momentum, it’s the same push back and down with the tail motion, and then you snap the hips and pull them through. Snap as hard as possible, as if you were trying to break your hips off when you stand up. This is the most important part of the swing. This will solidify your technique and ensure that your glutes are doing their job. The glutes are the main anchor point. If they’re not working fully, the back or legs will take too much of the load.

When performing the swing, watch for even load distribution among all the muscles groups. I like to go really heavy on these so that they will not go as high on the snap. If you go lighter, the kettlebells will get away from you or, in my opinion, go too high when you snap the hips. The objective is to develop hip speed and to pull through on the motion. I did the dead snatches on squat night with three sets of 3–5 reps per set working up to 106. On my lower speed days, I did the double sumo swings with 3–5 sets of 10 reps after all of my other work. I tried to do three-week runs and then take a week off. Most of the time, I stuck to this, but sometimes I took off two weeks in a row. Five weeks from the meet, I completely quit them.

Leg Press

Other important exercises I used were various leg presses, gripper work, and other grip work with kettlebells. I have a slight advantage on the leg presses because my gym has four different leg press machines. But any basic type will do fine. I rotated leg presses for three weeks at a time with some wide stance and some close stance work, but for all of them, I made a complete stop at the bottom of the movement. I got this from Glenn Herring’s article in Powerlifting USA. His ideas made perfect sense to me because the deadlift is much the same as a pause/stop leg press. Most of the movement is concentric with limited eccentric input. The yielding phase, like the descent of the squat or bench, doesn’t produce the same muscle loading effect so it’s much harder to complete. I wanted to work my explosiveness off the stop to improve my leverages and output from the poorest angles of the deadlift.

I did these for the entire cycle on lower speed days until three weeks from the meet. The work involved only 3–4 sets of six reps with the weight staying in the 800–1200 pounds range. Sometimes I would do weight only, and sometimes I would use lighter weight and add 200 pounds of band tension. The most important part though is the pause/stop. If you don’t do this, then it’s a waste of time and effort. You are no better than the bodybuilders who hide from the squat and do leg presses and knee extensions all day long. Sorry guys, it is what it is.

WPO Marc Bartley

Grip Work

Grip work is something I just have to do because of my hand strength. If this is not an issue for you, then don’t worry about it. However, if you do some of this work, it will improve all your lifts and other auxiliary moves. This is due to the law of irradiation, which simply means that the harder you can grip and hold something, the more muscle you can recruit and use. Of a human’s total muscular capacity, the average person never taps into 20 percent of it. EVER. The best athletes in the world only get to 50–60 percent. Improving your grip and forearm work will increase your chances of being better than average.

Moving on to some things I did during the cycle, one was the Captains of Crush grippers. I have the first four. I don’t think I will ever get to the fourth, but I can at least dream. There’s a nationally ranked arm wrestling champion at my gym so I sought some advice. His forearms are very much like Popeye’s, and he looks like Yosemite Sam from the Bug’s Bunny cartoons. Imagine that.


RELATED: Get a Stronger Grip


An over crush is just squeezing the gripper as hard and fast as you can. Once it is closed or as close to closed as you can get it, hold it for 5–10 seconds. The negative is mostly a joke for me because I can’t get anywhere near closing it. But, you take the gripper and use both hands to close it as far as you can. Then hold it closed with one hand for 15 seconds.

I did alternating sets of over crushes first and then negatives. I did three rounds of each for 3–5 reps each round. I also did blob pickups with the 26-pound kettlebell. For these, you grab the base, pick it up, and then hold for 15 seconds. To make it harder, I added one to two, 20-pound chains and tried to hold it. This was very difficult. Most of the time, I just barely picked it all the way up before I dropped it or let it go. I also have a wheelbarrow at the gym with weight posts on it. I would load it up with 200 pounds or so and go around the gym parking lot, which is about a third of a mile. This is very grueling but also very effective.  I used to do this religiously several years ago, but now I just do it occasionally. I think we logged 105 miles one year back when I was 75 pounds lighter and not so old. These are all very easy things that you can do to improve your grip and forearm strength. If you’re doing wrist curls still, then you know where you belong. I’ll give you a hint—it starts with the letter “b.”

The Results

What was the outcome of all this hard work? Well, at the 2006 Arnold Classic, I squatted 1107 pounds, benched 744 pounds, and pulled 711 pounds. My squat and bench improved by about 50 pounds each, but the number for my deadlift doesn’t reflect my true progress. This is just what I was given credit for by the judges. I actually pulled 738 pounds but was turned down on a technicality. The best part was I pulled the 738 pounds with ease. Usually, I die right after the squat and fight to the end, barely getting my first deadlift. This time I went two for three in the deadlift and felt like I had at least two more pulls in me!

So, does sumo pulling work? Absolutely, beyond a shadow of a doubt. If you try any of these suggestions, your deadlift will improve. Will this continue to work? Yes and no. Like anything else in training, it’s a constant battle. Adaptation is part of training so I will have to evolve and try other things to improve. Take what you can use from this article and make it work for you. That’s the best information I can give to you.

I improved not only physically but also mentally. I now feel that the deadlift is not my worst problem—it is my HARD HEAD. It took all of these obstacles and poor performances to light the fire under my ass. Crossing boundaries involves more than just lifting the weight. You have to analyze everything without EGO! Your body will do whatever you tell it to do. This has been proven time and time again throughout history by all types of people. It just takes us humans falling down many times to make the effort to change, if at all. I am no exception to this, which is why it took eight years to get this far.

Where am I now? To tell you the truth, not much farther than I was before. On a scale of one to ten, ten being the highest level of understanding of weightlifting and sport, I am about a two, maybe a three some days. Life, on the other hand, is a completely different story. But I’ll have to save that for another day. I know you have taken at least five naps trying to get through this article. I hope you get as much out of it as I did writing it.

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