Sumo Deadlift: EliteFTS Roundtable Discussion

TAGS: Tim Harold, roundtable discussion, Mark O'Shea, J.L.Holdsworth, sumo deadlift, james smith, marc bartley, Jim Wendler, dave tate, Brian Schwab

 elitefts™ Sunday Edition
This article originally appeared on the site in 2007.


James Smith: Elite level lifters who pull sumo, what have you found to be the most effective means of increasing your pulling strength off the floor? My technique is solid so I'm looking for insights on any special exercises that have yielded you significant results in the low end/off the floor strength component.

Dave Tate: The best thing I've found is getting stronger. This sounds very simple but has worked for so many lifters. What I mean by this is that you have to increase your overall body strength. This would be quads, hamstrings, low back, abs, etc. This is really basic stuff, but something that people may forget. The start depends on position. If your hips are off, they move too far back and you lose your force. If you can film the pull, let me see it. I have to see what's going on to make any type of assessment.

J.L. Holdsworth: I used to suck at these, but then I started pulling my sumo deadlifts off of mats and it seemed to make a big difference. You can try three inches or so (three mats). You can also get a similar training effect by using 35-lb plates on the bar rather than 45-lb plates. The 35-lb plates are obviously smaller and will require larger ROM. Or you can just put on more equipment like Dave does.

Dave Tate: I don’t even take that as an insult.

J.L. Holdsworth: It's not. I admire that in you.

James Smith: JL, thanks brother. I actually tried pulling sumo off of elevated surfaces. I just didn’t keep it around long enough to experience any significant training effect. My dumb ass fault. I think I'll perform a cycle of those for my next training block.

That's also my logic for increasing pulling strength off the floor - increasing the ROM. I just didn’t know if maybe I had overlooked or was unaware of another means of strengthening the bottom end such as using a cambered bar bench press. For strengthening the low end press, I've also thought of performing low wide stance squats (although these are hell on the hips) and perhaps even a repetition version of partial deadlifts such as dumbbell presses and suspended push-ups.

Jim Wendler: I agree with Dave on this one. Sometimes we're too busy looking for the magical exercise rather than doing the ones that we know work - and doing them hard and with purpose. My deadlift went up simply because I quit screwing around with the light weights on my assistance work and did movements and weights that were challenging and had a great carryover. Remember, there is a difference between training with exercises to get stronger and training to rehab a muscle group. I think these lines get crossed too much.

I've also found that sumo deadlifting is more technique than conventional pulling. You have little room for error when pulling sumo. A conventional deadlift is more of a grunt, caveman lift. So if your technique is even slightly off, an easy pull can turn into a max effort. Unfortunately, most people think they are going to be great sumo pullers when they do their speed deadlift work. This is because it's easy. It's only when you start pulling around 85 percent does the form start really making a big difference.

J.L. Holdsworth: Never forget that the special exercises are for refining problems. Nothing fixes getting a sumo dead off the floor like getting stronger hips and legs (if you're in the position). All of your basic accessories are still the best ways to increase the deadlift. I think so many times we get caught up in being so smart about training we forget that grabbing a heavy ass deadlift and pulling is a great way to get stronger. Even the simple things like shooting hoops helps with the basic conditioning and muscle coordination. The bottom line is that you shouldn't leave your glute hams, reverse hypers, and other basic accessories for the magic bullet exercise.

Jim Wendler: Isn't that what I just said?

J.L. Holdsworth: Sort of but different.

Jim Wendler: And when did you start shooting hoops?

J.L. Holdsworth: When you started losing weight.

Jim Wendler: Touché.

James Smith: JL, good stuff. I appreciate your comment regarding the role of special exercises. I really need to make a trip to see you guys at WSB/EFS. All this time I've developed my technique by studying videos and illustrations. I was fortunate to have lifted with some very strong elite lifters when I was in San Diego, but for the last year, I've trained alone. The good thing is I've gotten stronger. The bad thing is I have no one to watch my form. I video stuff but as you guys know it's not even close to having an elite or stronger lifter coach your ass.

Brian Schwab: I pull sumo and there are a couple exercises that have really helped me. First, is training my abs. These exercises made my mid-section extremely strong:

  • sit-ups with a plate behind your head
  • spread eagle sit-ups
  • medicine ball throws
  • incline sit-ups
  • hanging leg raises
  • pull-down abs
  • sit-ups on the glute ham raise

For your hips, I think people need to try these exercises:

  1. Band abduction and adduction: Try not to make this more complicated than it is. To do this, there are several ways you can rig the bands up with a power rack, bench, or jump strength platform. Just pick one for each muscle group and a do a couple sets for each.
  2. Light sumo pulls standing on blocks: This is done exactly as it sounds. Keep the weight light and work on keeping a tight arch and working the range of motion.
  3. Pull thrus with a wide stance: This is great for the hip drive needed to finish the sumo deadlift.
  4. Duck under: This is a great/mobility movement. Set a power bar up in the power rack so that it's chest level. Stand off to the side and squat down, side step and duck under the bar while keeping the chest up. This is great for hip mobility. As you get better, lower the bar.

James Smith: Thanks, Brian. I'm going to have to try some of those exercises.

Jim Wendler: You can do something other the train heavy?

J.L. Holdsworth: I can see the light bulb flickering over your head.

Tim Harold: Damn it! I saw this thread, and my eyes lit up. Why is Dave the only one who said anything about form? Special exercises are great, but you can throw that into the water if your technique isn’t up to par and you're unable to use the strength you've worked so hard to develop. If your form is off because of a weakness somewhere in your body, that's another story. Make sure your form is correct before you start trying all these cool exercises. Otherwise, you'll end up with a great good morning but your deadlift will still suck because you can't do it right. Once your form is correct then we can talk about exercises to make you strong and raise your deadlift.

What's good form? Well, I don’t necessarily think that I have the best sumo form in the world. However, I don’t think there are too many people who can rip big weights off the floor with the speed that I do. How do I do it? Before every deadlift attempt, I have Joe Bayles and Bob Coe shove a grenade up my ass. It's simple. I see all these people who want to ease a sumo deadlift off the floor because somewhere along the timeline of weightlifting some fucking jerkoff said that sumo is hard off the floor and easy at lockout. Also, they said that conventional is the opposite - easy off the floor and hard lockout. BULL FUCKING SHIT! Maybe that's why there are only a few people who have pulled 900 pounds with sumo style. I'm really rambling but hopefully you'll learn something to take to the gym with you. The deadlift, whether you're pulling sumo or conventional, is about attitude. Every time you pull a deadlift, snap it off the ground! But to do that, you have to have perfect form.

When I pull, this is what I do:

  1. I set my feet. ALWAYS have your toes pointed outwards, never straight on the sumo deadlift. You can't get your knees out wide enough to get your hips as close to the bar as possible if they're pointed straight ahead.
  2. Take a breath into your gut. Flail your arms if you do that faggot shit and whatever other tai chi-like dance moves some people do before they grab the bar.
  3. Bend over and grab the bar semi straight-legged. Don’t squat down. If you do, you'll defeat the purpose of why I pull this way. While you're grabbing the bar, start tightening up your lats, erectors, etc.
  4. This is the secret right here. Take another very quick breath into your belly if you can and the sit back and SNAP. Push your knees and feet out as hard as you can while sitting back and pushing your hips to the bar, staying back on your heels.

If you do this right and in one seamless motion, which will take time, the weights will jump off the floor. You should wear gear for this for sure. I'm kind of weird, but I like the Metal deadlifter for this and maybe a thin pair of briefs underneath. You need tons of tightness in your hips. Because of the way the Metal deadlifter is cut with the straps and that groin shit, it will help push your hips forward, and if you're lucky, castrate you.

I'm going to post more if you guys want to ask questions. This just popped into my head, but I have to run. I have a date with a girl who has TMJ. I think she might come down with a serious case of lockjaw by the morning.

I forgot one tidbit about why I pull that way…

The bending over and then sitting back is kind of like levering yourself off the floor. It reminds me of school when we learned about fulcrums. I don’t remember what that means but just go with it. When you have your belly full of air and you're leaning and sitting back, a tremendous amount of force against the bar is created before you snap off the ground if you're wearing enough gear and you've even started to use your strength yet. If you can get the timing down by practicing with moderate to heavy weights (never light weights because I don’t believe in light weights for mastering form), then you're well on your way to leaning how to have a much bigger sumo deadlift.

I don’t pull every week. I think that would be too stressful on the body. I do think that pulling heavy twice per month is okay though. If you need to work on your sumo technique, focus on a few keys every time you pull. Record some of your sumo deadlifts and post them on your myspace page or somewhere I can see them. Maybe I'll be able to give you some key points to focus on while you’re pulling. I think you can deadlift every week if you really want to, but you shouldn’t do it for too long. You'll also need a decent deload period. Typically, I have only pulled when I felt like it.

But for seniors, I'm going to try a few ideas that I've gathered from conversations with other lifters. I'm going to apply them to deadlift training and see if can pull three times per month without affecting my overall training too much. I would like to get two good pulling sessions on DE day per month. I want to work up to a moderately heavy weight for a few singles, and then take another good jump for a big single and stop. Nothing too hard. But when I'm fully jacked and ready for seniors, I'd like my last pull workout to be 800 lbs for 3-4 singles and then 845-865 for a single. This won't be necessarily be a full bore max workout, but if it's heavy enough, I think I can get some good form work in. (Also, for WIW, I don’t think you'll need to do speed pulls at all. I really haven’t done them in a long time. I believe that if you're training your squat properly and not squatting on too high of a box, force development will transfer to the deadlift.)

I also hope to get in one pulling sessions on ME day per month where I'll do something fun like reverse band deadlifts of a box deadlift for an absolute max. This might also be the only max effort work I do at all leading up the seniors too. The rest of the ME days will be rest pause workouts on the back attack. I'll talk more about the rest pause later, but it's a training method that I picked up from Dante Trudel (who owns I can tell you it's the real deal, and it's fucking hard. It's working so far, and I believe it will be rewarding on meet day. It's also the perfect compliment to the Westside style do training, although some may disagree. I think it used properly it will make you brutally strong and BIG. This stuff is the best of both worlds. Powerlifters make fun of bodybuilders and vice versa, but there are many things we can learn from each other.

Dave Tate: I agree 100 percent with Tim, and I'm actually kind of proud of him for his great advice. Tim has come a long way since I first met him, which proves that you need to keep learning to get stronger. Very few get as strong as he is without figuring some shit out along the way.

The only thing I would add is that with speed work, you should reinforce your technique with each and every rep. Make damn sure that they are all dead on. If you ever pull for one more rep, let go of the bar and reset each rep. This way you'll learn to pull one rep. Also, when you do speed pulls, you should use 40-60 percent weights to work on technique. For most, this will be okay, but some will need to work up to heavier pulls to the get the full effect. In other words, some will look great with sub-maximal weights while others will look like crap with bigger weights.

There are two ways to avoid this. One, you can always pull in a slightly fatigued state (same as meet) such as after a speed squat session. If you pull on ME day, do more warm up sets then you do now (double them). Second, you can work up the weights on the days that your speed pulls feel great. Most of the time, they feel great because your form is on. Work up to see if it will transfer to bigger weights. If it does, that's great. If not, analyze the breakdown and you'll discover your muscular weak points. When you find your weak points, add in some special exercises to bring them up.

This is why it’s useful to see training videos. You can look for the breakdowns to see if they're technical or muscular. When you do post them, post some speed sets and also some heavy sets. Don’t post any reverse band or against band stuff. They will only alter this to a certain degree. It's hard to see from video because you can't determine how much the tension is affecting you without seeing every warm up set.

Here's another tip that I picked up from Louie. Take your Chucks to a shoe repair shop. Have them build the front up two inches higher in the back (on the slope). This helped me to pull back better.

Tim Harold: Here are some of the common sumo pulling problems I see. I'd like to see a lot of sumo lifters point your toes outward and think about a slightly wider stance. Their hips can be much closer to the bar during the pull. They're pulling straight up and slightly forward. I'd like to see them pulling up and back instead. A wider stance as well as getting their hips closer to the bar and pointing their toes outward more should help this.

Also, lifters often spend way too much time bent over trying to position themself. For fuck's sake, they look like one of those cats that has to step on the pillow for an hour before it decides to lie down. Shit or get off the pot. You don’t realize how much energy you're wasting by taking so much time to get to the bar and set your grip. Without gear, this takes a lot out of you and even more when you're in tight gear. Get your feet set, grab the bar, and go.

Another thing to consider is the angle of your shins. They should be perpendicular to the bar when you break ground. By not doing this, you're not taking advantage of those leverages and you're hindering your pull a great deal. If your knees are over the bar, that means that you're leaning forward. And that means your back is hunched over, you're not arching enough, and you're on your toes. Basically, you're fucked from the get-go.

Let's recap some things for you to work on:

  1. Feet pointed outwards, wider stance: This will get your knees out more and your hips closer to the bar, which makes it easier to keep your shoulders behind the bar. This really takes advantage of the strong back, ass, and hamstrings that we spend most of our time developing. This also helps with getting back on your heels and not up on your toes.
  2. Sit back more before you break the ground: This should feel very tight (while sitting back, you're pulling the slack out of the bar). This will get your shins perpendicular, and improve your arch and hip position (which should still be as high as possible without leaning over or losing your arch).
  3. Get your fucking head up: We all know this, and we all still need to be told about it from time to time. Fucking do it.

This is going to be a process, but eventually, you'll start feeling how everything works together and your deadlift will improve a great deal. I think when seniors come around you should be able to really grasp my concept on sumo pulling and hit a big PR. That's if your fat hands can hold on to as much weight as you'll be able to pull.

Mark O'Shea: Tim, ages ago you posted the routine you used when you switched from regular to sumo. I'm not sure if you remember it, but it was something like this:

  • DE cycle
  • ultra-wide, 70 percent
  • feet raised on platform, 70 percent
  • bands, 70 percent
  • sumo, 90 percent before beginning circa max

How did this go, and what changes have you made?

Tim Harold: As far as the post I made about training sumo deadlift some time ago, don’t pay attention to it. I don’t even remember what's in the post. I don’t remember what the reasoning behind what I was doing at the time was or whether or not it would work now. Every time I train for a meet or talk to lifters from around the country, I learn new things. My training is CONSTANTLY evolving. I take what works and keep it in and throw away what isn’t cutting it. As my training evolves, so does my philosophy on training. What I said 1-2 years ago may not jive with what I would tell you today. Scrap that article or read it and try some of it out to see what works for you! Evolving as a powerlifter involves immeasurable amounts of trial and error. You will and should try everything that Louie, Dave, or the other great minds of the sport have already said is retarded and don't work or will get you hurt, especially the hurt part. Dave's crippled ass has a PHD in fucking yourself up.

The ultra-wide speed pulls are gold. Do them as a special exercise or do them hardcore for a month or two until you start getting strong on them. After you've done them for 1-2 sessions and your progress stagnates (or you're just flat bored with them), drop them completely for a while. When you come back to them, you probably won't be right where you left off - you may only be at 90 percent from where you stopped - but you'll surpass that easily when you train the ultra-wide hard again. I FIRMLY believe in the saying, "One step back to take two steps forward."

In other words, look at it like this. As a lineman in high school, we used a technique when we were down blocking called the drop step. You take one step with your outside leg (whichever way you're going). This gives a little ground but you've positioned yourself to get on that guy's outside shoulder more quickly so that you can take him out of the play. Give to take. Enough rambling. I do that too much sometimes.

Jim Wendler: Spud, you had some tips on the Q&A about sumo deadlifting. And since you have perfected your style, what are some tips? I know you have some unique views on this.

Marc Bartley:

  1. Speed deadlift work. This was a tremendous help. I went up to 500 lbs and did five sets of triples for five or six weeks. I didn’t squat on this day. I did wide-stance leg press with a dead stop in the bottom. Sometimes, I would mix in conventional speed pulls with the sumos. Check out my Saturday logs.
  2. The sumo is mostly a pinch off the bottom and then you slam the speed to it. So don’t worry about speed out of the hole. Form must be first. Drive the head and back up the whole time so that when you get to the suit, it won't pull you over. The sumo is basically a wide-stance squat so you have to treat it as such. Take your suit straps and put them right over your delt, not the traps. When you go to pull, lift your arms over your head. This will cause an erector shirt type effect to help hold your shoulders back even more.
  3. Line your feet up pigeon toe if possible. Or, in other words, try to line up your feet parallel to the bar as much as you can stand it. You'll have to practice this. It's very uncomfortable, but it will keep you in line better to lockout the bar. When you put the suit on and line up on the bar, spread the knees out towards the plates and push back. This will eliminate the tail tuck caused by the suit. I like the Metal deadlifter or one ply squatter suit for this type of pulling.
  4. Over exaggerate the top of the movement. I learned this by watching the Europeans in Finland. Right above the knees, they throw the shoulders back as hard as possible so that the upper body is slightly behind the hips. It's old-school deadlifting like the Strongmen do on car deadlifts. This shortens the lockout distance and puts your hips and lower body into a better position to lockout (squat-like). Do lots of rack lockouts for threes right above the knees on ME day and remember to over exaggerate.

Jim Wendler: What about people who get stuck the last couple of inches?

Marc Bartley: I would say the tightness is hip flexor related. There are a couple of dudes at the compound with the same thing. You might try some good hip flexor stretches before and after squat/pull. Don't do too much during but do a lot after. I had the same problem with the ducking feet. It's very hard to over pull at the top. I pull my toes in slightly so that I can get more overextension at the top. I wouldn’t say that you're weaker with the extra weight but less coordinated. Work on speed deadlifts on DE day first to cement the form and lockout. I'm also deficit pulling speed off a three-inch box for three-week waves. This seems to help on both ends.

Jim Wendler: I know you have sausage fingers. What are some grip exercises that you do to help you when pulling?

Marc Bartley: I would do rack pulls just below the knees. This will help with the lockout and holding weight. Do triples without straps until you can't hold anymore, and then go to the straps and continue doing threes. This is what Steve Goggins suggested to me, and it seemed to help me out. Another thing is to do soap swings one-handed sumo style with heavy kettlebells. Go outside somewhere and out of the way, soap your hands thoroughly, and do 8-10 violent swings on each hand or until the weight pops out of your hand. My grip has always been an issue because of my short arms and fat fingers, which I do believe limited my lockouts. If I could use straps in a contest, I know I could pull well into the 800s so this tells me the grip is limiting me.

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