Our athletes perform many different variations for both squatting and deadlifting. Conventional deadlifts, sumo deadlifts, quarter squats, narrow squats, anderson squats, wide squats, wide box squats, etc. However, one of the most prominent positions we use is a wide sumo stance box squat and sumo deadlift. We do not use these variations for everyone all the time. But this position is extremely helpful and often overlooked because it is not as aesthetically pleasing to what most believe a “good squat” should look like. Many strength coaches think that sumo deadlifts and box squats are considered “cheating” because they are often more focused on depth and how the athletes look rather than being focused on results and adaptations.

During a sumo style box squat, the athlete should be instructed to press their feet down and outward during both the eccentric and concentric phase of the lift. When they sit back onto the box, the quadriceps are less involved in the movement compared to a regular squat. The hamstrings and gluteus should relax briefly on the box. This causes a static overcome by dynamic muscle action. This type of muscle action happens often during sprinting, jumping, etc. After the hamstrings and gluteus relax on the box, the athlete must then reverse the weight from a relaxed state. They must produce enough force in a small amount of time to overcome the load and accelerate fast enough to get to the top of the lift. On the ascent, the athlete should not lean too far forward and force the quads to take over. Rather, try to stand straight up as they simultaneously bring the pelvis forward and press the feet outward.

During the sumo deadlift, the quads will be used slightly more then conventional due the nature of the pull. Similar position as the sumo squat, but the bar is still being pulled off the ground in front of the body, requiring extreme work from the hamstrings and gluteus, almost identical work compared to the conventional. The main difference is the intent behind the pull. Again the athlete should be taught how to slam the feet down and outward while bringing the pelvis toward the bar. This requires an athlete to access external rotation and abduction. We know that gluteus medius is used more for hip abduction. If they can’t obtain that ROM then they are basically just doing a very wide conventional deadlift. During the conventional deadlift, the chest will be slightly further over the bar and legs closer together. This will slightly increase the ROM and require more work from the spinal erectors to keep the back from going into severe flexion. Just because sumo is a slightly shorter distance to pull, this doesn’t mean it is easier. If it did, every power lifter in the world would pull sumo. Which just isn’t the case.

I’ve spoken a lot about accommodating resistance in the past, nonetheless it’s important to touch on here as well. If bands are on the bar, the athlete must accelerate through the full ROM which teaches an athlete to do just that. Accelerate. If the athlete is attempting to move a lighter load for speed on the squat, with out bands lighter loads will bounce on the athletes neck when trying to move the bar as fast as possible. With out using bands for the deadlift the athlete will only accelerate enough to lock out. Adding bands changes the environment and the athlete will adapt by accelerating through the full ROM like their life depends on it.

If an athlete physically cannot get into a wide sumo stance for either their squats or deadlifts with out their knees caving in and chest falling forward significantly, don’t force feed it. An athlete won’t be able to access a range of motion (ROM) that they can’t access. Screaming “KNEES OUT!” 10 times won’t help the situation if the athlete physically can not access that ROM. If an athlete lacks external rotation and/or abduction, then I would recommend implementing CARs or PAILs/RAILs (Functional Range Conditioning methods) to open up a new ROM and then immediately load the athlete into external rotation and/or abduction directly after to layer strength in that temporarily new ROM. You may need to manipulate the height of the pull or squat to do so, which is fine. Overtime the body will adapt to this stimulus like anything else and be more accepting in these wider positions.

Not every “sumo” is the exact same. What’s wide for one athlete may be too wide for another. Some athletes may have either structural or mobility limitations like femoroacetabular impingement (FAI) that restrict them from being able to squat ass to grass with out pain. Some athletes will also have structural or mobility restrictions that limits their ability to obtain external rotation or abduction in a wide sumo stance with out pain. With that said, the application of these methods and exercises should be individually based and adjusted to fit the athletes needs. Most athletes won’t go get an X-Ray on their hip sockets and bring the results to their strength coach. So coaches need to improvise and be willing adjust their program on the fly for the athlete. With that said, there are ways to limit and/or manipulate the ROM in both exercises to train both options regardless of limitations. Such as squatting to higher box heights or elevating the weight to a higher position for the deadlift. Athletes should train with both the sumo and conventional options. However, I prefer sumo work to take priority a majority of the time with most of my athletes because of the need to maintain hip abduction and external rotation. 

Both gluteus minimus and gluteus medius are used to maintain proper hip abduction while running and jumping. The most common way of “strengthening” these muscles is to work on abduction of the hip with lateral band walks or side lying clams. Coach sees knees caving inwards (valgus) usually the go-to is to implement booty bands! These methods are far from optimal. These muscles (among others) are partially responsible for some of the most dynamic movements in sports like jumping and sprinting. The gluteus medius specifically affects the gait cycle by preventing the opposite side of the pelvis from sagging while one limb is suspended in mid air.

Quickly, I would like to touch on why we don’t use booty bands for warmups or “activation” of the gluteus medius or gluteus in general. It’s really simple to understand. THERE ARE BETTER WAYS TO DO THAT. If I am going to potentiate a tissue, it’s because it’s weak and I’m going to strengthen it (requiring more load then a booty band) and get it ready for the task at hand that day. Example, if I want to potentiate the gluteus medius prior to a wide stance box squat, the warm up may look something like this.

Note: The warm up obviously wouldn’t be limited to this.
This is just an example of a couple things it would include and why.

 

  • Belt Squat Marches 3×1 min – light load (10% + bands)
  • Belt Squat 3×20 – light load (10% + bands)

 

During the belt squat marches, the belt tugs down on the pelvis while one limb is in the air. The gluteus medius works to prevent the pelvis from tilting as the belt trys to pull it down. Stabilizing the hip and firing like crazy. If you have ever done belt squat marches, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t. Your gluteus medius will fire more in those 60 seconds than it ever will with a booty band. The belt squat would be done wide, mimicking the positions of the main lift that day. Avoiding compression by not being under the bar more then the athlete needs too. This will not only accumulate a ton of volume, but it will strengthen the weak points, groove the main lift positions, and potentiate the tissue the athlete will use for the main lift that day.

This article was written to encourage more strength coaches to think critically about their exercise selection. It’s not always about aesthetics. Lately, I have seen a trend that is discouraging. Assigning a modality for the athlete because they are “good at it” is not the goal of training. We should assign exercises based of the athletes weaknesses and needs for their sport. Creating better movers and more resilient human beings will require the athlete to suck at stuff for a while before they can get good at it.

The trap bar deadlift wasn’t discussed much in this article because it’s the most common way to deadlift. This lift is pulled from the midline of the body. Anything pulled from in front of the body will require more use of the posterior chain.  I’m convinced it’s implemented more because it is much easier to learn on the athletes end (not a bad thing) and is also easier for the coach. Especially if they are working with large groups, it’s harder to provide the technical instruction needed for the other variations. Unfortunately, many coaches use this as a crutch, if they see an athlete suck at the other variations, throw em on the trap bar for convenience and safety. Rather then trying to find out why the athlete sucks at the other variations and then taking the time to improve those dysfunctions/weaknesses. A lot of athletes simply haven’t been taught how to hinge correctly and/or have an extremely weak posterior chain. This lift requires less from the posterior chain than pulling a bar from in front of the body, and often the athlete just turns it into a heavy squat.

Is it safer? No. Weakness is still weakness. Just because something is easier, doesn’t automatically make it better. When an athlete breaks down on the trap bar they still break down. Technically it’s less demanding on the spinal erectors and hamstrings compared to a conventional or sumo deadlift. So the theory for safety isn’t wrong per say, because most athletes are generally weak in their posterior chain and lack the ability to do the other variations with as much load. So when they pull a bar from in front of their body, they aren’t as strong and weakness is much easier to see. But isn’t that the point to training? Train the weakness. Not just play to the strengths. A bar that is pulled from in front of the body will improve technical skill in the hinge pattern which is vital for sports. The ability to strain using predominately their posterior chain. Improve the strength of their gluteus, hamstrings, and spinal erectors as well as force production and rate of force development from their posterior chain. So, is the trap bar deadlift a bad exercise to use? Nope. Just like anything it’s another tool in the toolbox. As long as you don’t use it as a crutch because you suck at those other variations and are avoiding training your weaknesses. But that’s probably not what you want to hear.

I’ll end this article on that note.