Is sumo really cheating?

World famous bodybuilder Chris Bumstead has come under fire from the general fitness community for his response to my titular question. “CBum”, as he is better known, when asked his opinion on why people consider the sumo deadlift to be cheating, responded “Because it is cheating,” reigniting one of the most consistent debates among fitness gurus of all types. In response, Jeff Nippard, a reputable YouTuber known for using scientific sources to back up his fitness and dietary claims, made an intriguing video on this very topic in which he analyzes the biomechanics of each movement before rendering the judgment that sumo is in fact not cheating. In my article this week, I’d like to look into the two foundational arguments he makes and see if they hold any water. 

Before I begin, I want to acknowledge that I am not here to say there is no place for sumo. It is a valid lift in its own right. It just simply does not belong in the same category as the conventional deadlift, as I will argue in this piece. 

The first argument Nippard presents is basic empirical evidence surrounding the percentage of lifters that deadlift using a sumo stance versus a conventional stance in top level powerlifting. Across both genders, the trend reflected appears to be that at lower weight classes, sumo is the dominant choice, while at higher weight classes, the opposite is true. He then compares this data to using an arch in the bench press, a technique widely accepted as a technique to lift more weight, which is used by 100% of lifters from the same data set. The conclusion he draws is that if sumo made lifting more weight easier like arching does, why don’t all lifters choose the wider stance to be more successful? 

I believe the answer simply lies in the repetition, and therefore the comfort, associated with each movement. The bench press argument Nippard puts forward actually falls flat when looking into the research. Amador García-Ramos and some colleagues published a study in 2018 in which after testing 11 competitive male powerlifters, there was no difference in either weight lifted (115.9 +/- 17.9 kg versus 115.7 +/- 18.4 kg) or bar velocity when testing one rep maxes on the bench press between benching with a flat versus arched spine. But given that arched benching puts the shoulders in a safer position, as well as allowing for greater bracing and stability, the arched bench is often taught and accepted as the proper way to bench press, as Nippard’s data show. It doesn’t make the bench easier, unlike the sumo deadlift. 

One possible argument worth consideration here is that the reason lighter lifters tend toward the sumo stance is exactly because sumo is easier. A quick look at recorded world raw deadlift records shows that those pulling the most weight proportional to their own body weights are all pulling sumo, and are all in lighter weight classes, where having the leverages and mobility to assume a competent sumo stance are possible. More muscle mass brings about a reduction in mobility, as per Nick Ng at the LiveStrong Foundation. For an analogy, pulling conventional is like playing a video game with the cheat codes turned off. Yes, you can still win the game, but will your score be nearly as high? And will you stand a chance against someone with cheat codes on? Of course not. In the meantime, Dmitri Nasonov will continue to pull nearly five times bodyweight at 181, while conventional pullers will have to be satisfied with 80% of that. 

Nippard then argues that the shortened range of motion (ROM) for a sumo pull as compared to conventional is not significant enough to prove sumo is cheating either. He argues that reduced Rom is irrelevant here, because the lift must still go through the hardest parts of a deadlift: getting the bar off the floor, and pulling past the knees. He compares this to the back squat, arguing that a half squat is easier than a back squat because it ignores the hardest portion of the lift, the bottom half of the squat, whereas a sumo deadlift still goes through the hardest parts of the deadlift, so the two are not equivalent. He follows this by looking at actual ranges of motion of each involved joint, finding that the sumo deadlift requires more knee ROM, and that hip ROM is unchanged between the two. The implication is that therefore, the sumo deadlift isn’t cheating, as the muscle strain is simply transferred from back dominant in conventional to quad dominant in sumo. 

However, Nippard conveniently leaves a few things out of his argument. First, he completely ignores the ROM of the back. Conventional deadlift starts out with the knees higher, as he does acknowledge, but this means the spine starts closer to parallel to the ground, meaning the arc the back goes through on the way to lockout is far greater. Looking at sumo pullers and world record holders Krzysztof Wierzbicki and Danny Grigsby, both start with their spines nearly vertical. This means that essentially all pull required from the back is eliminated. Conventional pullers must pull with the hamstrings, glutes, and spinal erectors while simultaneously pushing into the floor with the quadriceps to get the bar to lockout; sumo pullers essentially trade pulling for less ROM. Furthermore, allowing the chest to remain so upright decreases the need to brace properly. Bracing the core serves to stop the back from rounding to remain in a safe and maximally strong position. This effect is minimized when the torso is more upright, as the force pulling the spine to round over (the bar pulling the shoulders forward, thus rounding the back) is minimized. In this way, sumo is objectively easier, contrary to what Nippard argues, as it requires less strength to pull more weight. 

In the final piece of his argument regarding ROM, Nippard puts forward the idea that limiting the bar path ROM is not worth much consideration, if any, given how minimal it is. As evidence, he presents the fact that he (a shorter individual) and another man he tested (a taller individual) experienced a reduction in ROM of 15% and 7%, respectively, which he argues is both very small and essentially negligible when one takes into account the ranges of motion of individual joints, which I have already addressed. I find this take to be, honestly, quite comical. Gravity is not a relative force. It does not suddenly pull harder to even the playing field when someone pulls sumo, so that it is just as hard as for someone pulling conventional. Fifteen percent less distance traveled means less time under the tension of gravity, means valuable pounds added to the deadlift max and therefore three lift total as well, which could be the difference between winning and losing a meet, or missing out on a world record. Nippard even slips in that he himself pulls around 15% more weight when he pulls sumo (at the same point in time), proving my own point. He didn’t magically get stronger between lifts; one is quite obviously easier than the other.