Converting to Sumo Deadlifting
By Marc Bartley
Deadlifting is one of the oldest and hardest exercises around. It’s very simple; you just pick the bar up off the ground and stand up with it. Well, you would think that but it’s not that easy for everyone. All lifts are lever situations. Put differently, if you have long arms and a short torso your deadlift is usually better than the opposite. That would be my case. I suffer from alligator arms so my deadlift has always been an issue. To compound this, my fingers are short and my hands are fat, almost paw like so grip is also a big deal. These are serious problems when you are a top ranked powerlifter and your total determines who walks away with first place. Several meets have come down to the deadlift, you can surmise the outcome. Over the years, eight to be precise, I have struggled continuously with lots of remedies and band-aids which have helped but not led me to the promised land of acceptable deadlifts. I have spent endless hours on technique, style changes, good mornings, Romanian deadlifts, Olympic lifts, high pulls, rack pulls, etc. but with limited success. It wasn’t until I made a trip to Finland for a meet that I finally saw the missing piece of the equation which allowed me to see the whole picture better than I had before. The lights came on you might say.
My squat and bench have always carried me in a meet. Without a solid effort in both of them I am done. I worked very hard on both of these lifts by utilizing the Westside Barbell system. Under this regime, you have a basic outline of two upper days and two lower days - one day is maximum upper and the other upper is a light or dynamic day where speed and form/technique are emphasized. The lower has the same combo, max effort and speed. I go into this because you need a basic background of our training to understand your own program and to make the changes I am going to suggest. The only problem with the system is adaptation after 3-5 years and basic lower body max effort work. Under the old system, dead lifting is not emphasized but once or twice every 4-6 weeks. Good mornings are the main stays which are supposed to cover the deadlifting angle and they do to an extent. I think if you have lever or timing issues in the deadlift, then you have to do more deadlifting period. You will get stronger, but you will hit the wall as I did several times - my head is riddled with lumps from this. I also discovered that I was pretty much needing life support after the squat. This is not good when you have two more events before you go have cookies and beer.
In 2005, I was up for my second WPO Super-Finals at the Arnold Classic in Columbus, OH. My first Arnold netted me second place after some big names bombed out. I still totaled 100 lbs higher then my previous best so it was a good day even though I lost by 163lbs. Now back to 2005, I improved drastically on my squat which was 1058 lbs and my bench was 699, also an increase from 2004. I got to the deadlift but I was out of gas and barely pulled 1 out of 3 attempts. My total went up 165 lbs but because of my deadlift woes, I lost again this time by 7 lbs, second again. I knew in the back of my brain that I had neglected the deadlift and again it bit me hard when it counted. So, now I had to address it. I had a meet in Finland in November of 2005 and then the Arnold in March 2006. I changed to sumo and began to work it. The lift went up, I pulled 745 in training but, it was very inconsistent-some days I could pull and some days I missed the easiest ones. I was still thrilled with the progress and devised a plan to only do three days a week-one upper, one lower and one clean up day where I dragged and pushed different sleds to give me better wind and endurance to make it during the meet. This time, in Finland, I thought I was prepared and felt okay. I struggled through the squat getting just my opener and getting called on depth on the second and missing the third outright. I felt okay still but rattled bad. I hit 2 out of 3 on the bench but could not get credit from the judges. I had not improved on this either from the Arnold. So, I was 6000 miles from home and out of the meet. I did not get to test my deadlift at all. I was upset, not only to bomb out and but also to disappoint my sponsors and friends who supported me.
I had paid attention to the Europeans pulling the three prior days and now I got to watch some of the best in Europe pull while I helped my training partner finish the meet. For years, all I heard was how much better they pulled then us. We, like most people in the USA, thought it was all the snatches and clean and jerks they do from the earliest of childhood or super strong low backs. I am sure that these are part of the equation but there is more. The Europeans have a completely different pull then we are used to or had even seen. Now, I am notorious for taking a month off after a meet and not even touching a weight. My main training partner often makes jokes about my absences saying I quit powerlifting or something else not so pleasant. That’s all right, if you have ever read my logs at EliteFTS or southcarolinabarbell.com, you know he goes by many names and I show no mercy in letting him have it. But, jokes aside, upon touching down back in America, I went right to work devising a plan using this new style of pulling, various pause/stop leg presses, speed deadlifts, gripper work, kettlebell grip work, kettlebell double snatches , kettlebell dead snatches, kettlebell double swings and a technique I learned from Pavel at Kettlebell Certification called “pullling the hips out of the socket”. This meet was the final straw that made me recognize, put up or get out of the way. You can’t go to one of the biggest meets in the World without a deadlift, so off I went.
The first thing I did was put speed day lower back into the equation on Saturdays. For 2 or 3 years, I had left it out and was only squatting once a week. I still only squat once a week, more of a max effort day (heavy) , but now I do speed deadlifts with 515 lbs for 5 sets of 3 only on Saturday. This is about of 60% of 800 which is my ultimate goal given my terrible lever and grip situations. I mixed up conventional and sumo deadlifting doing 3 sets and 2 sets respectively. I was not quite secure with the sumo yet even though it proved to be my best pull in training or ever. With the light weights I could really focus on form and implement the European or exaggerated over pull. If you have ever watched a strongman where they throw the shoulders way back on the way up, then you have just witnessed a European pull. That’s really all there is to it. As the bar is coming off the floor right below knee level, you start going back as hard as you can. The goal is to get the shoulders as far behind the bar as you can bend your body. This basically makes the pull a quarter squat so all you have to do is standup. You want the hips under the bar as soon as you can get them there. If you are not born with good levers, your deadlift is a 2 or 3 phase lift. This means you usually pull hard off the floor or vice versa but you stall around knee level regardless and then it is fight to the finish if you can get there at all. With the exaggerated over pull style, the bar rides your legs instead of gliding up them. This will take pressure off your grip slightly if you do it correctly. A simple thing I do to get people to understand this is to get behind them as they are pulling. As soon as they start moving the bar, I grab the upper body around the shoulder and upper chest and start pulling them back. At the same time, I take my right hand and push them forward at the belt or lower back. I pull and push until they cannot go any farther either way. Make sure when you practice, to straighten your legs out or you will get a not locked out call and all this would be a waste.
The next idea is the set up on your sumo or “pulling the hips out of the socket“. I played around a lot with the sumo trying to get it to work but always seemed to find the bar drifting away from me and I would lose the pull. This is why I quit it so many times. The first time I got it to work, before I was doing the over pull from Finland, I ducked my feet out parallel with the bar and brought my feet inside the rings. To explain this, imagine your legs at 90 degrees each, a box type effect. Most sumo pullers go as wide as they can, sometimes almost touching the plates so it’s not 90 degrees. I got this idea, at Kettlebell Certification School, from Pavel who has led the Kettlebell Revolution here is the U.S. I will go more into kettlebells later in the article, if you are still AWAKE!! Back to Pavel, in teaching the box squat, which we had been using for years , he added a different twist to improve/test flexibility and performance. The idea of the box squat stays the same with the pushback of the tail, keeping the knees at 90 degrees and the spreading of the knees as you squat. The only difference is pulling from the hips, literally out of the socket as you descend to the bar. You are creating more room and flexibility from the hip socket. It’s kind of like a pliae squat only the legs stay at 90 degrees as much as possible. You pull the knees outward towards your feet from the hips if you can imagine that. This keeps your legs up under you to provide more leverage and power output and much less strain on your lower back ligaments. The only thing I do differently is turn my feet in slightly instead of ducking them completely parallel to the bar. It is too hard to over pull with the feet ducked to the bar. Once, you get this set-up, add the European style of over pulling and over extension of the back. Another thing I did was rack pulls on Squat Night. I think this is also an easy way to get the over pull from the top end perspective. Rack pulling also teaches you to dive your hips under the bar quickly or lose the lift. I tried to pull on my heaviest squat nights for 3 weeks only and then I took a week off. Do triples and add weight until your grip gives and then do a set or two more with straps. This will keep you honest for the meet and give you time dealing with the heavy weights.
Now, on to the good stuff the kettlebells. Couldn’t wait, could you? For those who don’t know what a kettlebell is or even where they came from, the explanation is very simple . A kettlebell is basically a cannonball with a handle on it. This weapon of ass destruction has been around since the 1700s when it was first mentioned in a Russian dictionary and has survived three hundred years because of its simplicity and effectiveness in crushing your body from all angles. Kettlebells can be used in any sport, any weightlifting program and for top conditioning in any type of person or athlete. We use them to build muscle, hone speed and technique and of course, conditioning. If you can’t finish the meet, then it does matter how strong you are. Trust me, I have been on the end of this one several times and it has always been at the most critical time, the deadlift. The main kettlebell exercises I think are applicable to the deadlift are: conventional double snatches, snatch presses and front swings, sumo double swings and dead snatches. There are many more kettlebell exercises, but these are the main ones we used. The nice thing is that the kettlebells also build the upper back and traps along with building hip speed and glute and hamstring strength. I would attribute the near 50 lb. gain in my bench press this training cycle to the kettlebells.
When and how to put kettlebells into a training schedule was trial and error. I found that the double snatches, snatch presses and front swings (the kettlebell from hell routine) went best on our light/speed upper body day which was Friday. We would do floor presses with chains for speed work, heavy triceps work, back work and then do the kettlebell from hell routine at the end. We did three rounds of each exercise for 6-8 reps. Round one, for me, was the 53 lb. kettlebell for double front swings first, take a break and let my training partners go, then the double snatches second and the snatch presses last. Rounds two and three were the same but I went up to 72 lb. kettlebells This does not seem like much but let me tell you, it was nap time after that. The double front swings are basically front raises done ballistically where the kettlebells fly behind you as you push your tail back and down. If you feel too much low back, then you are not dipping and pushing back correctly. Invest in a good kettlebell training DVD from www.dragondoor.com, you won’t be sorry. The snatch has the same pushback with the legs only you pull the kettlebells up your body like an upright row. As the kettlebell is moving up it will start to flip on its own momentum, take the momentum and stick your hand under it as it travels up past your head. The end of the motion is where the arms are fully extended and the kettlebell is resting against the back of your wrist and forearms. Use a light kettlebell until you get the motion or it will tear your wrists and forearms up. The snatch press is the snatch motion I just described only once locked out at the top you bring the kettlebells all the way down to your upper chest leaning back slightly. The leaning back will load the lats and create an anchor point. Once, you have the kettlebells down, you press them back to the top pushing off the lats and start over. If you feel too much shoulder, then you have not engaged the lats. You will get weird looks while you are doing these exercises, get USE TO IT! The bruising may be a little harder to explain, you are on your own for this.
The lower body drills are the dead snatch and the double sumo swings. The dead snatch is more difficult then the regular snatch because you don’t have the momentum from the swing. Place the kettlebell between your legs with a either a conventional or sumo stance. I did the sumo style because that’s what I wanted to improve. Now the easy part. You simply get into the deadlift position, grab the kettlebell, and snatch it up your body until lockout like the regular snatch. The double kettlebell sumo swing is much easier to do, but more taxing then the dead snatch. Take two kettlebells in a sumo stance and begin to rock them into motion to get them going. Once you have some momentum, it’s the same push back and down with the tail and then you snap the hips and pull them through. Snap as hard as possible like you are trying to break your hips off when you stand up. This is the most important part of the swing. This will solidify your technique and make sure your glutes are doing their job. The glutes are the main anchor point, if they are not working fully then the back or legs take too much of the load. When performing the swing look for even load distribution among all the muscles groups. Now, I like to go really heavy on these so they will not go to high on the snap. If you go lighter, when you snap the hips, the kettlebells will get away from you or, in my opinion, go too high. The objective here is just to develop hip speed and pull through on the motion. I did the dead snatches on Squat Night with 3 sets of 3-5 reps per set working up to the 106. The double sumo swings were done on my lower body speed days with 3-5 sets of 10 reps after all other work was done. I tried to do 3 week runs and then take a week off. Most of the time, I stuck to this but sometimes I took off 2 weeks in a row and I completely quit them five weeks from the meet.
Other important exercises I used were various leg presses, gripper work and other grip work with kettlbells. I have a slight advantage on the leg presses because my gym has four different leg press machines but any basic type will do fine. I rotated leg presses for three weeks at a time with some wide stance and some close stance but all with a complete stop at the bottom of the movement. I got this from Glenn Herring’s article in Powerlifting USA. I hope I spelled his name right, if not I apologize. His ideas made perfect sense to me because the deadlift is much the same as a pause/stop leg press. Most of the movement is concentric with limited eccentric input or another way to say it would be that the yielding phase, like the decent of the squat or bench, does not produce the same muscle loading effect so it’s much harder to complete. I wanted to work my explosiveness off the stop to improve my leverages and output from the poorest angles of the deadlift. I did these for the entire cycle on lower speed days until 3 weeks from the meet. The work was only 3-4 sets of 6 reps with the weight staying in the 800-1200 lb. range. Sometimes, I would do weight only and sometimes I would use lighter weight and 200lb band tension. The most important part is the PAUSE/STOP. If you don’t do this, then it is a waste of time and effort and you are no better than the bodybuilders who hide from the squat and do leg presses and knee extensions all day long. Sorry guys, it is what it is.
The grip work is something I just have to do because of my hand strength. If this is not an issue for you, then don’t worry about. I will say this though, if you do some of this work, it will improve all your lifts and other auxiliary moves. This is due to the Law of Irradiation which simply means the harder you can grip and hold something, the more muscle you can recruit and use. The average human never taps into 20% of its total muscular capacity EVER. The best athletes in the world only get to 50-60%. Improving your grip and forearm work WILL increase your chances of not being AVERAGE. So, moving on to some things I did during the cycle. One was the Captains of Crush grippers. I have the first four. I don’t think I will ever get to the fourth but I can at least dream. There is a nationally ranked Arm Wrestling Champion at my gym so I sought some advice. His forearms are very much like Popeye’s and he looks like Yosemite Sam from the Bug’s Bunny cartoons, imagine that. He gave me a little program which is listed on my website: www.southcarolinabarbell.com. If you would like to see his whole training program it is there also. What he gave me was mostly over crushes with the #2 gripper and negatives with the #3 gripper. An over crush is just squeezing the gripper as hard and fast as you can, once closed or as close to closed as you can get it, then you hold for 5-10 seconds. The negative is mostly a joke for me because I can’t get anywhere near closing it, but you take the gripper and use both hands to close it as far as you can and then hold with one hand for 15 seconds. I did alternating sets of over crushes first and then negatives. I did three rounds of each for 3 to 5 reps each round. I also did blob pickups with the 26 lb. kettlebell where you grab the base, pick it up and then hold for 15 seconds. To make it harder, I added one to two 20 lb. chains and tried to hold it. This was very difficult and most of the time, I just barely picked it all the way up before I dropped it or let it go. I also have a wheelbarrow at the gym with weight posts on it that I would load up with 200lbs or so and go around the gym parking lot, about a third of a mile. This is very grueling but also very effective. I used to do this religiously several years ago but now I just do it occasionally. I think we all logged 105 MILES one year back when I was 75lbs lighter and not so old. These are all very easy things you can do to improve your grip and forearm strength. If you are doing wrist curls still, then you know where you belong. I give you a hint, it starts with the letter “b”.
What was the outcome of all this hard work? Well, at the 2006 Arnold Classic, I squatted 1107 lbs., benched 744 lbs. and pulled 711 lbs. The squat and bench improved about 50 lbs each , but the deadlift number does not reflect my true progress. This is just what the judges gave me credit for. I actually pulled 738 lbs. but was turned down on a technicality. The best part was I pulled the 738 lbs. with ease. Usually, I die right after the squat and fight to the end barely getting my first deadlift. This time I went 2 for 3 in the deadlift and I felt like I had at least two more pulls in me!! So does sumo pulling work, absolutely beyond a shadow of a doubt. If you try any of these things, your deadlift will improve. Will this continue to work, yes and no, like anything else in training it is a constant battle and adaptation is part of training so it will have to evolve again and I will have to try other things to improve. Take what you can use from this article and make it work for you, that is the best information I can give to you. I improved not only physically but also mentally. I now feel that the deadlift is not my worst problem, it is my HARD HEAD. It took all these obstacles and poor performances to light the fire under my ass. Crossing boundaries involves more than just lifting the weight. You have to analyze everything without EGO!! Your body will do whatever you tell it to. This has been proven time and time again throughout history by all types of people. It just takes us humans falling down lots of times to make the effort to change, if at all. I am no exception to this and that is why it took 8 years to get this far. Where am I now? To tell you the truth, not much farther then I was before. On a scale of one to ten, ten being the highest level of understanding of weightlifting and sport, I am about a two, maybe three some days. Life, on the other hand, is a completely different story and I will have to save that for another day. I know you have taken at least five naps trying to get through this article! I hope you get as much out of it as I did writing it