There are many ways to determine which type of deadlift is right for you. Today we are going to go over bone structure, anatomical parameters, flexibility, and muscular capacity, and how all go into determining which style of deadlift is optimal for your body. Our source for this information comes from a study conducted by Michael Hales of Kennesaw State University called Improving the Deadlift: Understanding Biomechanical Constraints and Physiological Adaptations to Resistance Science.
The Basic Problem
The shorter your arms the further you need to bend down to reach the bar, the longer your arms the less you have to bend. The more you have to squat down the more tension you put on your hip flexors. The argument at its core is really quite simple, if my arms are relatively long in comparison to my torso I will not have to squat very low to reach the bar. Comparatively, if I have short arms and a long torso I will have a considerably further distance to travel to get my hands wrapped around the bar. To compensate for this I would have to sit further down in a squatted position and ultimately put a lot of stress on my hip flexors, or induce a greater bend in my hips and tilt my back more, regardless, the stance would not put me in any position to lift heavy. Anatomical parameters play a large role in weight lifting. There are benefits and pitfalls to having both a long and short torso, as well as long and short arms, that is just how things work. For the deadlift there are two options for pulling styles, Sumo and Conventional. Anatomically one suits most lifters better than the other.
How to Determine Sumo or Conventional
As a basic rule of thumb, you should deadlift the way you feel most comfortable. If conventional pulls are more comfortable than sumo style you should stick with that, do not let these proportions mess with your current lifting techniques. With that being said you can use the following proportions as compared to height to determine if you should do conventional or sumo style deadlifts. If your torso accounts for 47% or less of your bodies length you are considered to have a “short ” torso. If you are greater than 47% you are considered to have a “long” torso. If your arms make up 37% or less of your total height then you have “short” arms. Likewise, if you’re arms are greater than 37% of your height you have “long” arms.
Measuring Your Torso/Arms/Height
To figure out what percentage your torso and arms are of your total height you will need a tape measure. To measure your torso length ask a family member or friend to help. You will need to locate the greater trochanter, the bony part on the side of your thigh. You will measure from here to the top of your head. This is the length of your torso.
To find the length of your arms you will measure from the head of the humerus to the tip of your middle finger with your arm held straight in front of you.
Your height should be taken barefoot, standing up against a wall. Or if you please, laying down.
Now that you know your height, torso length, and arm length we can do some math. Have all of your numbers in inches and follow along as we calculate my own personal proportions.
Height = 69 inches
Torso = 34 inches
Arms = 26.5 inches
The proportion of my torso with respect to my height is 34 inches/69 inches = .49 = 49%
The proportion of my arms with respect to my height is 26.5 inches/69 inches= .38 = 38%
At this point you should have two percentages, just like I do above.
What Do These Numbers Mean?
My torso came in at 49%, this is above average. My arms came in at 38% this is exactly average. Now I can take this information and apply it to this table. Since I have an elongated torso and average arms I am well suited for Sumo or Conventional deadlifts. Take your personal data and compare to the two charts. There you go, you now know which deadlift style your body is built for.
Now this should be used as a basic rule of thumb, the deadlift is a much more complex movement than we have initially made it out to be. There is a lot more involved in determining which style of pull you should use then anatomical parameters.
Flexibility and Strength Capacity
In addition to the anatomical parameters we outlined above we have flexibility and strength capacity to worry about as well. Although your bodies structure is a good, and often times the right place to start out when determining your pulling style it is absolutely not the last place to look for clues as to which method will work best for you. Flexibility plays a phenomenal role in both the conventional and sumo style deadlifts. If you are a lifter who anatomically has a body build for conventional style deadlifting, but you have fantastic hop flexibility, it may be wise lift sumo style. Conversely, if you have a body built for sumo style deadlifts but poor hip flexibility you may want to try pulling conventionally (or work on that flexibility!)
The next aspect to consider is your bodies strength capacity. Everyone is different and on everybody there are weak and strong points. The sumo and conventional deadlifts draw on different muscles to hoist the weight, and if your body naturally is stronger in one then the other, then it may be a good sign which lifting style is right for you. A lifter with strong knee and hip flexors should consider the sumo deadlift, while a lifter with strong hip and trunk extensors should look into the conventional style.
There are a few ways to look at the picture we have painted. First, if you have never deadlifted, and you really want to, listen to your body, use the charts above, and figure out which style your body is meant for. Second, if you already have a style you like, but have realized that your anatomically meant for the other, don’t sweat. As we just outlined there are more factors that go into finding the optimal deadlift style than just anatomy. Third, if everything lines up perfectly, your anatomy, flexibility, and muscular capacity, then go enter a powerlifting competition, you’re probably pretty good at what you do.