Training Talk: What's the Best Variation of the Deadlift?

Training Talk: What's the Best Variation of the Deadlift?
Have you ever just sat around and thought "which variation of the deadlift is truly the best"? So do we! Let's discuss in this month's training talk!

In a previous version of “Training Talk”, we covered the king of the lifts. I’m talking about the deadlift.

We discussed whether it’s a lift best served on leg day or back day as well as whether or not you should use lifting straps.

There were two things that we came away with after that edition went live.

  1. It was among our most successful editions of “Training Talk” in terms of conversation.
  2. There’s a LOT more to cover when it comes to deadlifting.

So for those reasons, M&S is bringing back a topic to discuss for a second time.

You probably know how this works by now.

We bring up both or all sides of a discussion, you chime in by sharing your thoughts and experience in the comments section at the bottom of the page, we get to know each other a little better, and sing “Kumbaya” at the end (ok, not the last part).

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Powerlifting Competition Controversy

Powerlifters have been discussing this for decades. There are two popular versions of the deadlift that you see when athletes take to the platform. One is the conventional deadlift and the other is known as sumo deadlift. For those of you that aren’t familiar, here’s how they work.

Conventional deadlifts are performed with your feet standing with heels hip width apart, toes pointed either straight or slightly out, and planted firmly into the floor. The bar should be at least over the middle of the feet and actually closer to yourself is better.

Related: Training Talk - Do You Really Need to Squat?

Bend at the knees while keeping as straight of a spine as possible. You’ll bend at the hips too which is ok but don’t round your back. The longer your thighs, the higher your hips will be.

Take a grip of the bar outside of your legs but not too wide. You can either go double over or one hand over/one under. Don’t go double under and don’t use a thumbless grip. Both won’t serve you well and can result in injury.

Pull your shoulder blades together and stick your chest out. Push your feet into the floor and use force in your legs to pull the bar up off the floor. Once the bar passes the knees, push your hips forward to stand straight and tall with the weight at arms’ length. Lock out the weight by straightening your legs and sticking your chest out. Reverse this motion to lower the weight back to the floor.

Powerlifter resting in between deadlifts

Sumo deadlifts are performed with your feet much wider similar to a sumo wrestler’s stance when a match is about to begin (thus, sumo). The torso is more upright than with conventional deadlifts and your hips will be lower. This means your lower back is less involved in this version.

Instead, your quadriceps and groin areas are more involved since you start in more of a squat like position. Your grip would be inside of the legs instead of outside, but the bar should be in the same position as it would conventionally.

There are other factors that are involved with both versions but many of them are based on the individual performing the lifts. We’ll leave that for you guys to debate in the comments since this is about you and your expertise too.

The Controversy

Where the issue lies isn’t necessarily with the training. Most powerlifters have trained and do train with both versions because they see the benefit of both.

The disagreement starts when a lifter performs sumo deadlifts in competition. Since the feet are wider and the hips are lower, the lifter doesn’t have to pull the weight as far to lock out as they would if that person would perform the deadlift in the conventional fashion.

So, if a lifter sets a record on the deadlift sumo style, there’s an unspoken asterisk to it in the eyes of many.

Other athletes feel that if there was that big of a problem with it then sumo deadlifting would be considered illegal in competition and as of this writing, it isn’t. The other point that is made is the goal of the lift is to move the weight from point A to point B successfully.

As long as the lift is completed without cheating it up or going back down at any point, why not find the shortest distance possible? Benchers can use a wider grip and a wider stance is legal with the squat. So for them, deadlifting sumo style is deadlifting strong style.

Training for Bodybuilding

The discussion in regards to deadlifts for bodybuilding training doesn’t have the intensity that it does in the world of powerlifting but there is still a conversation. Some trainers and athletes feel that the conventional deadlift is the best way to go because it’s more of a total body movement.

Female Bodybuilder performing deadlifts

It can help the lifter achieve the maximum muscular results possible. Some others feel that going with the sumo version is better because the bar doesn’t have to travel as far. Also, the legs are more involved so there’s less of a chance of lower back injury.

Lastly, since the lifter can more likely use more weight, the greater volume can have more of a positive impact. When it comes to the bodybuilding benefits, there’s an X factor that hasn’t been considered yet.

Trap Bar

You know what this is, right? The trap bar, or hex bar, is a barbell that includes a hexagon center for the lifter to stand in as well as handles that run vertically on each side for the lifter to take a hold of.

Related: Training Talk - Training Traps with Shoulders or Back?

It’s mostly used for shrugs but it's also widely appreciated for its deadlifting benefits.

  • There’s no friction between the bar and your legs.
  • Your torso can remain upright.
  • The weight doesn’t take as much of a toll on your lower back.
  • Anatomically, your arms are in more of a natural position.

All of that is great so why not just use the trap bar?

There are experts and trainers who feel trap bar deadlifts make the movement more of a squat than deadlift. Whereas the bar is in front of the lifter during an “actual” deadlift, the weight is on the sides so the impact on the body isn’t the same.

Rack Deadlifts

Finally for the bodybuilding portion of the conversation, we must cover these. Rack pulls are performed from knee level and can either look very impressive or very foolish and the perspective depends on who is watching.

Rack pulls are popular because they are safer and can help isolate the lower back with less of a risk of injury. Ok, that’s all true but let’s get real. Most of these dudes do them because they can pile on the plates and feel like an iron god when they stand up with it.

Novice trainers and those who don’t lift might be impressed but iron veterans know better. If you’re doing them for the right reasons then the weight isn’t going to be as much of a concern.

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Your Opinion Matters Here

As much fun as it is to talk about this stuff, the fact is what YOU think is what matters here on Training Talk. It’s now time for you to continue this discussion and tell us what you know or believe. This time, the questions vary by what you do in the gym.

If you’re a powerlifter, here’s what we want to know:

  • Do you think that lifting sumo is legal cheating and not a true deadlift or is it as much of a deadlift as the conventional version?
  • Which version do you use and why? If you use both, which is better for you?

Now for those of you who are bodybuilders, we would like to see your thoughts on these topics:

  • How do you deadlift and why?
  • Do you see benefits from trap bar deads or rack pulls?

And if anyone wants to chime in with their particular deadlift workout, that would be great too. I’m looking forward to seeing all the responses. If you guys like, share this on your social media pages and invite your training partners to join the discussion. The more, the better.