Category Archives: Sumo deadlift
Those who know me from my seminars or my writings know that I’m a huge proponent of the Olympic lifts.
Sure, I’ve written about the power lifts, and have coached several powerlifters, but I’ve never competed in the discipline – until this past April 1st, that is. This article is a summary of my experience, and what I learned from it.
Just to set the stage, back in August of last year, I re-injured my left elbow trying to improve my jerk technique. I had (for unknown reasons) developed some calcification in that elbow, which had gradually reduced both my full flexion and extension in that joint.
So I found myself at a crossroads – I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to clean and jerk again, and at the same time had grown disappointed by my limited progress in the “O lifts” in recent months.
I needed a change, a new challenge.
In September, my friend and client Gene Lawrence (a world champion powerlifter in the master’s division) told me about an upcoming raw powerlifting meet: the 100% Raw! Federation’s Southwest Regional Championships in Prescott Arizona, which would be held on April 1st, 2012.
I had about six months to prepare, and the competition was only a few hours away from my home, so after some deliberation I decided to enter.
Before I share some of the important lessons I learned from training for and competing in my first powerlifting meet, I’d first like to tell you why it took me so long to finally “pull the trigger” on this adventure.
I had (and still have) an enormous amount of passion for the sport of weightlifting. I worried that dividing my attentions would hamper my efforts in that sport. Nothing could be further from the truth, as I’ll share with you shortly.
I felt I wasn’t strong enough to avoid complete embarrassment in the powerlifting world. Although I’d deadlifted 500 pounds a few years earlier, my lifetime best squat was about 365 pounds. Furthermore, while I had done a sloppy “touch and go” 300-pound bench press in my mid-thirties, at age 52, I hadn’t done any form of bench press in years due to shoulder issues. In fact, on the day I sent in my entry form, I probably wasn’t capable of a legal (paused) 200-pound bench.
I wasn’t sure I was capable of performing “legal lifts” in powerlifting. First, after several serious knee surgeries, I have very limited flexion in my right knee. I knew I could squat “close” to parallel, but different federations have different depth requirements, and I wasn’t certain that I could train at or compete with proper depth in the squat.
Second, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to bench press intensely and consistently enough to prepare for competition due to the aforementioned shoulder problems. In the past, any time I got more than 5-6 workouts into a bench press program, my shoulder would flare up and eventually stop me in my tracks.
Initial Training Approach: Linear Progression
After a short layoff from my usual training in weightlifting, I started my preparation on Wednesday, September 28, 2011 – almost 6 months to the day from the competition. (I started documenting my training right here at T Nation on October 31st, for those of you who might like to reference my training journal).
My initial training approach involved bench pressing and squatting on Mondays and Fridays, and deadlifts every other Wednesday, using a simple “linear progression” approach popularized by Mark Rippetoe here for the bench and squat. I’d work up to a challenging set of 5 on day one, and then 3×5 (with slightly less weight) on the second weekly workout, starting off with very light loads.
On deadlifts, I worked up to a single work set of 5 reps per session (again starting very light). I planned a progression of 5 pounds/session for the bench and squat, and 10 pounds/session on pulls.
Here’s what my initial training week looked like:
Bench Press 3×5
Bench Press 1×5
For squat and bench, I paired a 1×5 lift with a 3×5 lift, rather than doing 3×5 for both lifts on the same day. This was for the purpose of evenly distributing workloads.
I haven’t listed loading parameters for the Olympic lifts, chins, and curls. That’s because I purposely made these decisions intuitively, based on what felt good at the moment. If I felt great on a particular day, I’d try for something big. If not, I didn’t stress about it.
I allowed for occasional variety when it came to the non-competition lifts. The Big 3 lifts, however, were set in stone. I think that training programs should have a “compulsory” as well as an “optional” category, meaning that you should be able to discern between tasks that are central to your goal versus drills that are less critical to your core mission. Therefore, you’ll see that I eventually dropped curls, skipped chins, and so on. Great programs are characterized by a “flexible structure.”
While it may seem excessive to squat twice a week while deadlifting during the same week, keep in mind that volume on Mondays and Wednesdays was fairly low (1×5 for each).
Some readers may notice the complete lack of a general/dynamic warm-up, foam rolling, stretching, and so forth. Personally, I’ve never experienced much benefit in any of these activities, and decided to finally listen to my inner voice on these issues. That said, if you feel you benefit from any of them, certainly use them.
My plan was to run this progression until I hit a wall (which I knew was inevitable), and then devise a new strategy when that happened.
For quick reference, my first 1×5 workouts featured the following loads:
Bench press: 170 x5
Squat: 225 x5
Deadlift: 340 x5
That should give a sense of how light I started off, although these opening workouts weren’t especially easy. I was both embarrassed and nervous on the bench press in particular, given my shoulder history.
That said, I had no pain on those initial workouts, nor did I experience any significant pain or injury during this six-month training period. The only injury I suffered was a moderately-tweaked low back on a 185-pound squat early in the cycle, and a period of 3-4 weeks where I was experiencing moderate left pec discomfort on bench presses. That’s it.
Never before have I experienced a pain/injury-free six months of training, and I sure wasn’t expecting it to occur at age 52.
Reaching A Plateau On Linear Progression
Right around mid-February, I could sense that my linear progression honeymoon period was coming to an end. It was taking all I had to continue making my 5-10 pound jumps, and an additional concern was that April 1st was coming up fast, and 5’s seemed a bit non-specific for hitting big singles in competition.
I had benched 225 x 4 (missed the planned 5th rep) squatted 300 x 5, and pulled 363 x 5, but by this time my discipline had already eroded. I was already “experimenting” (or “pussing out” to be more forthright) by either taking heavy singles, or sometimes going more than 5 reps. Basically I was just sick of 5’s. I needed a new approach before I started losing my discipline altogether.
Enter Chad Waterbury
I’ve known and respected Chad Waterbury for years and asked him if he’d help my with “last minute” peaking strategies. Chad looked at my training journal and told me that in his discussions with people like Franco Columbo and Pavel Tsatsouline, he’d developed a strong affection for a “Medium – Heavy – Medium – Maximum” type of progression.
Medium days were 3 x 3, heavy days were 3 x 2, and maximum days were mock competitions essentially, a chance to evaluate your progress. In terms of progression, each type of workout, when repeated, should be done with slightly more weight.
I immediately implemented Chad’s suggestions, and after about 10 days could feel a renewal, physically and psychologically. My numbers started moving dramatically – before I knew it I was hitting 380 on the squat, 465 on the deadlift, and 255 on the bench, and I felt less drained at the same time. I was peaking. Things were coming together.
In my last month of training, I managed to chalk up a 403 squat, a 255 bench, and a 475 deadlift (see the videos below). I simply wanted to hit these numbers (or slightly more if possible) during official competition, when the pressure was on, without getting hurt. I felt ready go, but I had a lot of unknowns ahead of me…
So How’d I Do?
In terms of expectations, I only had a few:
I really wanted a 400 squat and a 500 deadlift, and I didn’t want to get hurt in the process. I had no idea what to expect on the bench. But I felt I had to be ready for anything, given that this was my first experience in the sport, and also considering that the warm-up room was scantily equipped and crowded.
I had to be prepared for a rushed and/or incomplete warm-up. I had to be ready for the possibility that my squats might not be deep enough, or that I might not be prepared for the various technical rules I’d face on the bench, including the pause, keeping the feet motionless, and so on. I’d trained for all of this, but you never know exactly what you’re up against until it actually happens.
Here’s an event-by event breakdown of my meet:
My last warm-up was with 315, which I had to take from a very low position due to the much shorter guys who were sharing the rack with me. Nonetheless, it felt fine and I was confident overall.
I opened with 340, which felt about as heavy as I expected, and much to my relief I got three white lights – my depth was legal.
My second attempt was with 369, and now that I knew my depth would pass muster, I felt energized and confident. I probably could’ve hit it for a triple if I’d needed to. Three whites.
I went to the administrators’ table and asked for 402, one pound less than my PR in training, but I didn’t want to get greedy. I would’ve been super happy to hit 400, but had I tried, say, 415 and missed, I’d be in a bad mood for the rest of the meet.
402 was heavy and slow. I struggled out of the hole, and waited for what felt like an eternity for the head judge to signal me back to the rack. I think my spotters and I got the bar back on the stands about a second before I nearly passed out from pressurizing against that load. Three whites! I was off to a great start – 3 for 3, no red lights.
You can see my 402 attempt below:
My last warm-up backstage was with 205, and it felt uneventful. My first attempt was 225 pounds – a weight I’d hit for 4 reps in training. I smoked it easily for three whites.
Second attempt: 245. This went up okay, but not as well as I’d expected. Somehow my placement on the bench was off – I reasoned that
I needed to be closer to the uprights for my final attempt. Due to the difficulty of this attempt, and also because I was 5 for 5 at this point, I asked for 253 for my final attempt – 2 pounds less than my training PR.
As I positioned myself on the bench, I remembered the positioning error I wanted to correct, and moved a bit closer to the uprights. Two fifty three went up with ease – the adjustment paid off better than I’d anticipated. On the bench, I again went 3 for 3, and no red lights. My only small regret is that I was probably good for 260, which would’ve been a new PR. That’s what the next meet is for I guess.
You can see my 253 attempt below:
By this point in the day I was pretty wiped out, and my low back and hamstrings were toasted from the heavy squats. One of the unknowns I knew I’d be facing today was that I’d never maxed out my squat and deadlift on the same day.
There was a war going on in my head: a struggle between wanting to play it safe and hit 500, and the desire to get a new PR, say 510 or so. At this point I’d gone 6 for 6 with no red lights, so I decided to commit to a “perfect meet” – going 9 for 9, no red lights, and at least meeting (if not exceeding) training PR’s.
My last warm-up in back was with 405. It was clear that I could’ve hit at least 5 reps with that, so I felt ready for my 440 opener. After I set that down, I was warned by the head judge to lower the bar with more control, which took me by surprise, but nonetheless, I earned three whites for my effort, and asked for 469 for my second attempt, which I handled successfully. The trick of course, is to optimally bridge the gap between my second attempt and my goal for my final lift, which was 501.
Walking out to that 501-pound barbell, I had confidence that I’d already hit that weight before in the past, but also felt pressure that until this point I’d been running a perfect meet. To say that I was determined to make this lift would be a gross understatement.
Internally, I’d worked myself into such a frenzy of effort that I honestly don’t remember feeling the bar in my hands. As I began pulling, I felt relief that I at least got the weight moving upward, but it felt significantly heavier than I expected. I kept pulling, however, knowing that my deadlifts usually move faster than what it feels like.
As the bar passed my knees, I thought, “Okay, I’m home free now,” but my improved leverage was offset by the mounting fatigue. The pull was a grind from start to finish. Finally, I locked it out, and remembering my earlier admonition from the head judge, did my best to lower the bar under maximum control. Hands on knees, I looked back at the scoreboard – three whites! A perfect meet!
In summary, the only change I would’ve made would’ve been to take a heavier final bench attempt, but as the old saying goes, hindsight is 20-20. I felt I’d performed a perfect meet, but what I learned from the experience was far more valuable than winning my first powerlfting meet (oh, did I forget to mention that detail?).
Injury Avoidance: I had virtually no pain during this 6-month training cycle, despite performing nearly every “challenging” lift in the book (squats, deadlifts, bench presses, two Olympic lifts, rows, and chins) hard and often. There are three plausible explanations for my injury-free experience.
First, I started well below my abilities. Second, I progressed very gradually – only 5-10 pounds per session. Third, I didn’t do any “junk” work, which limited my overall wear and tear.
I didn’t do accessory single-joint lifts, nor did I perform “advanced” techniques like eccentrics, plyometrics, chains/bands, partials, or forced reps. I simply did super-basic exercises using tried-and true programming principles, and I did it consistently and progressively.
I never took a single ibuprofen, never iced anything, and I never missed a single workout or failed to hit my numbers because of pain or injury. In short, my training was remarkably low-tech and the only thing exciting about it was that I got bigger, stronger, faster, and leaner; and I did it without injuring myself in the process.
A note about bench pressing: I noted that my traditional experiences with all forms of bench pressing were characterized by shoulder pain and injury. I can attribute my sudden good fortune to only one thing: since September 28th, all of my benches have been done with a pause, as is required in competition.
I believe this pause helps mitigate the high tensions that occur when the shoulder is at its weakest position (when the bar touches the chest). If you’re having issues with your shoulders when you press, put your ego aside and implement the pause – it took me until age 52 to figure that out, so consider this a head start!
Body Composition: Body comp has never been my strong suit. When my focus was primarily on the Olympic lifts, things like squats, presses, and pulls received only cursory attention – by the time I got to squats, I often had nothing left in the tank.
But by putting my primary focus on “big” multi-joint movements done for higher volumes and longer time-under-tensions than what I was used to, lo and behold, I actually started developing a physique. And while I’ve never particularly cared much about aesthetics, I have to admit it’s fun to at least look like I spend time in the gym.
Improved Olympic Lifts: Perhaps the most pleasant outcome occurred as I gradually started reintroducing power snatches and clean and jerks into my prep. Not only did I discover that I could still perform a workable clean and jerk despite my elbow issues, but in late April – after just five sessions and not having performed a single C&J for more than 6 months – I reached 95% of my best C&J ever, despite weighing significantly less and having not practiced that lift in months. I also reached 98% of my best snatch, after only a handful of sessions on that lift as well.
An even more remarkable surprise was that, for years, both snatches and jerks have been problematic on my shoulders, particularly my left shoulder. Remarkably, I found that suddenly, I’m performing very heavy snatches and jerks completely pain free.
This was one of the most gratifying things I’ve experienced in my entire training career. I attribute this to the 6-month break away from these lifts that allowed my old shoulder injuries to heal, but I also believe that bench pressing contributed to my overall shoulder integrity. Furthermore, I became much stronger as a whole, which certainly contributed to my shoulder health and integrity.
Prologue: What I’m Up To Now…
My current goal is to be ready to do either a powerlifting meet or a weightlifting meet at short notice, any time of the year, while continuing to improve my body comp and staying injury-free at the same time. In other words, I want to be a bit more well-rounded as I get older, and I’m having a lot of fun getting stronger in my 50’s without nursing injuries in the process.
The take-home lesson is, there’s lots for all of us to learn, even if we’re well-known experts who’ve been training for decades. I humbly hope that this story has inspired you to reach out and seek new challenges for yourself – no matter how good you are, no matter how much you may know, no matter how old you are, there are new heights for all of us to reach.
Which type of deadlift is best?
Trap bar? Conventional? Sumo?
I get this question almost daily. And like most training questions, the best answer typically is, “it depends.”
But when that won’t suffice, here are my follow-up questions:
Once you start answering those questions, we can start to figure out which type of deadlift is best for you.
The Big Assumption(s)
I’m going to make two big assumptions:
- When discussing the trap bar deadlift, we’ll focus on how most people perform it: high handles, hips down, more dorsiflexion, and a more upright torso.
- When discussing the conventional deadlift, we’ll focus on how most people perform it: hips high, minimal dorsiflexion, and a much more bent-over torso.
I’ve seen people trap bar deadlift with no dorsiflexion, a vertical tibia, and using all glutes and hams, and I’ve seen people who start their conventional deadlift with their thighs parallel to the ground.
Looking at all the possible variations would be ridiculous, so we have to use a few generalizations to get everyone on the same page.
Experienced powerlifters aside, I want lifters to deadlift with a neutral spine or flat back. One of the biggest issues we see when deadlifting is that many lifters don’t have adequate mobility to deadlift safely and effectively because they can’t get into an initial neutral spine posture.
For this reason, coupled with the fact that very few people can hip hinge and load their hamstrings effectively, we start most clients off with a Romanian deadlift.
From there, the trap bar deadlift is an ideal progression. The high handles minimize mobility demands while still allowing the lifter to learn the deadlifting pattern within their functional range.
This makes sense – high handled trap bar deadlifts are almost like a rack pull. But what comes next, sumo or conventional?
The sumo deadlift is easier for most lifters to learn. This may not be how they end up handling the most weight, but many will have an easier time getting into position on a sumo deadlift than a conventional one. The major limiting factor here will be groin flexibility.
A big component of this is also hamstring strength. To get into a flat back position on a conventional deadlift, you not only need a tremendous amount of hip mobility, but also hamstring strength. If your hamstrings aren’t strong, chances are you’ll turtle up and start from a horrible low back position.
|Less Mobility||Mobility Demands|
Anterior or Posterior Chain
I hate the question, “Which type of deadlift is best?”
Which is why I typically answer with something like, “Best for what purpose?”
When most people trap bar deadlift, it’s like a reverse squat. There’s a lot of dorsiflexion at the ankles and the spine is very upright, and as a result they get considerable quad and anterior chain development.
The conventional deadlift is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Most have a tendency to shove their hips way back, incline their torso to a much greater degree, and start with their hips much farther back from the bar.
The end result is a tremendous exercise for building the entire backside of the body (glutes, hamstrings, and spinal erectors).
The sumo deadlift really is a hybrid between the two. Your hips start closer to the bar (especially if you think about pushing your knees out to get to the bar, versus pushing your hips back), and you’re also much more upright.
In the end, the sumo gives you this weird blend of quad, glutes, hamstring, some lower back, and even some adductors.
|Anterior Chain||Posterior Chain|
Stress on the Spine
Another quote likely disregarded by T Nation readers for years. While we’re busy paying our dues and getting bigger, leaner, or stronger, these people are reading trusted fitness resources like MSN and Yahoo to keep them firmly entrenched on the treadmill to mediocrity.
Still, there’s definitely a risk/reward trade off when it comes to deadlifting – but if there was no risk and all reward, everyone would be peacocking around with Inflated Lat Syndrome and a 500-pound pull to back it up.
Let’s get one thing straight: Your lumbar vertebrae are pretty friggin’ huge and are meant to deal with compressive forces. Compression is just like it sounds – when your vertebrae and discs are pushed closer together vertically, that’s compression.
And anything you do will result in some compression. Simply tensing your abs and lower back muscles will result in compression, not just loading your spine vertically (as in a squat).
The key distinction here is load. The more load you have, the more compressive forces on your spine.
Let me be clear: When it comes to people in back pain, the last thing I’m worried about is compressive force. There are positions that are far more worrisome to me than compression.
Shear force is where many get into trouble. Shear forces occur whenever the torso is inclined to a high degree. As we bend over (or hip hinge), our vertebrae have a tendency to drift or slide forward on one another.
Unfortunately, most people don’t tolerate shear forces very well. One of the biggest reasons is they simply don’t have a good strategy to deal with it – they have no anterior core, no glutes, and no hamstrings, so their only strategy is to arch the low back as hard as possible.
In doing so, they combine compression with shear, thereby grinding their spine into a fine powder. It’s about this time that I hand them my business card and tell them to call me when the time is right.
The more upright we are, the less shear we have to deal with. This is why someone predisposed to back pain can often get away with front squats yet back squats causes them pain or discomfort.
Regarding the deadlift, these lifters will probably do better with either a trap bar or sumo style lift, at least in the short-term, to reduce shear forces.
|Less Shear Force||More Shear Force|
Deadlifts for Reps?
I hate performing deadlifts for reps.
There’s really no two ways around it – anything over three reps of deadlifts feels like torture, or at the very least, cardio.
In fact, I modified Jim Wendler’s 5-3-1 on the deadlift day, switching it to 3-2-1, because I thought I might die on the 5’s day – even when using quite a bit below my 1-RM.
Somewhere in Texas, Jim is laughing his ass off and thinking I’m just barely NOV.
If working with a fat loss or physique-focused client, higher-rep sets of deadlifts are something to consider. But I wouldn’t be a very good “corrective” or “rehab” guy if I got my clients injured a lot, and I know doing higher-rep sets of deadlifts is like playing with fire.
For that reason alone, I do my best to keep clients out of precarious positions. On sumo and conventional deads, I rarely (if ever) prescribe more than five reps per set.
But on a trap bar deadlift, though, I’ll often go as high as 10-15 reps in a set, especially if the end goal is fat loss.
I’m just a lot more comfortable as a coach with the upright posture and less technical nature of the trap bar, which allows for more wiggle room.
Feel free to make your own decisions here, but I firmly believe this is the way to go.
|Best Choice||Worst Choice|
|Trap Bar||Conventional & Sumo|
We can talk about joint stresses, mobility needs, anterior versus posterior chain and what not, but at the end of the day, what really matters is how awesome you look deadlifting.
For the record, I pull sumo. I do this partly because it’s the way I was taught, and partly because it feels the most natural to me.
I also realize that some people call this “cheater style,” and it’s not as awesome as hoisting a monster deadlift conventional style. I’m okay with that – my best pull is 545 and was done at a bodyweight of 180.6, getting me into that exclusive 3x/body weight club.
However, one of my pet peeves now is people’s obsession with the trap bar. Here’s my two cents on the matter.
I only use the trap bar if:
- The client doesn’t care how much they deadlift.
- The client is an athlete and I deem the risk: reward to be too great to use other styles.
- They don’t currently have the mobility to sumo or conventional deadlift with a neutral spine.
- Their primary goal is fat loss.
If your goal is to be big and strong, learn how to sumo or conventional deadlift with good technique.
Because honestly, anyone who lifts heavy stuff doesn’t care how much you trap bar deadlift. (Insert smiley-face.)
A great question, and I’m pretty sure there’s no great answer.
I know a lot of super strong guys that pull conventional in meets but pull sumo in the off-season, claiming it brings up their weak points.
In fact, I just had this discussion a few weeks back with Jeremy Hartmann, a 220-pound lifter who has pulled 788 in competition. He pulls conventional in meets but does a lot of sumo pulling in the gym.
For instance, if you typically pull conventional with the hips starting high, you’re used to smoking weights off the floor and struggling at lockout.
In contrast, someone who pulls sumo with a lower hips position is used to struggling with weights off the floor, but anything that breaks the floor is getting locked out.
In this case, it’s not so much that they’re using an alternate style, but training for the specific areas where they’re weak that’s most important.
Mike Tuscherer once told me that you pick your poison when deadlifting. Either you get your ass down, chest up, and struggle off the floor, or you round over to get the bar rolling off the floor and struggle at the top.
If it comes down to specificity, you’re going to see a high transfer between trap bar and sumo deadilfts, or between sumo deadlifts and conventional deadlifts.
The differences between the trap bar and conventional deadlift are a little bit too big to see massive carryover, but nobody said it couldn’t work for you.
And I’m Out
There’s no shortage of deadlifting articles at T Nation, and for good reason – the deadlift is many a strong guy’s favorite lift. I think even the most diehard deadlift fan will appreciate this concise breakdown on the similarities and differences between the trap bar, sumo, and conventional deadlifts.
The question is, will they agree? Good or bad, I await your comments in the LiveSpill.