Total ROM is the sum of smaller joint angle ROMS.
Getting your hips closer to the bar reduces load on the back and hips, but there is a trade-off.
Lower hips means greater hip range of motion demands and moves them into a weaker position.
Imagine you are standing at a barbell, about to set up for a conventional deadlift. Your hands are X distance from the barbell and you need to get your hands to the barbell. Once you’ve completed the lift, your hands will be exactly where they are now and so the barbell will have travelled X distance.
In order to bend over and grab the barbell, we need to flex a number of joints. It is the sum of these small flexion moments that enables us to grab the bar. For simplicity sake, we can consider bending at the knee (knee flexion), hip (hip flexion) and through the spine (spinal flexion).
We can choose to grab the barbell without flexion of the knee. In order to do this, all of the flexion demands would be placed on the spine and hip. You can imagine someone grabbing a barbell without bending their knee, their back would be rounded (flexed) and torso practically horizontal (hip flexion) -- not a good way to deadlift.
Without removing our hands from the bar, we can “trade-off” some of that spinal flexion into our knee by simply bending our knee. What you’ll find is that by bending the knee, we don’t need to flex our spine as much if at all and can easily straighten out our back. This highlights an important principle of moving within closed-chain environments; the net (or gross) range of motion is the sum of smaller joint motion AND we cannot reduce the range of motion in one joint without “giving” that range of motion to another joint.
Consider another example, the squat. When looking at a squat from the side, the hips and knees are required to flex in order to achieve the bottom position. As this occurs, the femur moves towards horizontal while the torso pitches forward placing extension demands at the hip. It can be concluded that having a wider stance “shortens” the femur in this plane, allows the lifter to be more upright and reduces hip-extension demands. However, we cannot simply reduce demands at a joint like that otherwise everyone would squat wide-stance. The flexion demand at the hip is simply transferred into an abduction/external rotation demand. In order to achieve depth, the lifter needs to abduct and horizontally flex the hip. Again, we cannot reduce range of motion in one joint or plane without “giving” that range of motion elsewhere. It is simply a trade-off. A wider stance squat requires less hip flexion but more hip external-rotation just like a stiff leg deadlift requires more hip flexion (and/or spinal flexion). Neither is better or stronger than the other without more context surrounding force-producing capabilities of these muscles and at these joint positions. This is the crux of all technique selection and why good coaches don’t teach absolutes when it comes to positioning or technique during barbell lifts.
Let’s take a look at the below graphic which shows isometric force producing capability of an arbitrary joint relative to its joint angle. What you’ll notice is that force producing capability quickly declines as the joint angle increases. Note that this is a hypothetical joint and that not all joints or muscles behave in this way. Force producing ability isn’t equal at all parts of the range of motion.
This is an important concept of strength expression. In isolation, this graphic suggests that a technique whereby the starting position has this joint as closed as possible (ie. closer to 0 degrees) will yield the highest force producing ability (and heaviest weights lifted). If the starting position was one where the joint angle was higher (ie. closer to 180) degrees), then the force producing ability would be lower and less weight would be lifted. It’s this “force producing ability” that is the key to technique and strength expression, not ROM reduction as many falsely believe.
When we want to lift heavy weights, the most important thing is producing force and if we move into positions or joint angles that do not allow high force production, then even other benefits such as reduced range of motion or decreased spinal loading can be moot. With these considerations, let’s now think about the sumo deadlift. The sumo, unlike it’s conventional counterpart, is somewhat more complicated as there are joint movements outside of the sagittal plane. That said, the same premise as previously explained applies. How we get down to the bar is the sum of smaller joint movements ie. Hip flexion (in external rotation), knee flexion and spinal flexion.
One of the main draw cards and benefits of the sumo deadlift when compared to the conventional deadlift is that the lifter is much more upright in the bottom position of the squat. The hips are lower and closer to the bar while the torso is upright. These factors mean that the load demanded off the back are much lower. However, remember that we cannot reduce demand at one place (the lower back) without increase demand at another. In order to get into an effective bottom position there will be an increase in hip range of motion demand, especially into external rotation and abducted flexion. Up to a certain point, this trade-off is favourable for many lifters and enables them to get into a stronger position. Beyond that point, lowering the hips or bringing the hips closer to the bar actually moves the hip into a much weaker (ie less force generating capacity) position. So even though the hip extension demand might reduce (as the hips get closer to the bar), the hip extension ability is decreasing even more. Any effort or attempt to become more upright or bringing the hips closer to the bar is counterproductive and actually results in weaker positions. This is evident when a lifter drops their hips too low then exerts on the bar only for their hips to move up faster than (or even before) the bar moves.
This begs the question, what is the best position to have your hips? The trade-off is quite basic to wrap our heads around. The lower the hips and closer they are to the bar, the better because there is less load through the back. However, the closer they get also reduces our force-generating ability. We need to find a position that gets us the best of both worlds. Usually this position is a lot higher than we want to believe because we’re used to seeing.
We’re used to seeing elite lifters on social media set up with their hips extremely close to the bar and their torsos upright (think Matthew Arremony and Jason Stoupas). Their extreme position is due to their extreme structure and anatomy. They are ABLE to do this because for them, the trade-off and relationship preferences that technique and as a result, they have extreme performances. For the average lifter, trying to to adopt these techniques is inefficient as it just results in the weaker positions as explained before. So the question remains, what is the best position to have your hips in the sumo deadlift?
My practical guide is as follows:
- Find the lowest position your hips can get to without pain.
- Observe your deadlifts from the direct side angle and ask yourself “are my hips rising before or faster than my shoulders?”. If so, it suggests your hips are too low.
- Are my knees tracking forward of my ankles in the bottom position? If so, it suggests your hips are too low.
- Trying starting with your hips higher than usual. Does this feel any weaker? If not, perhaps you had your hips too low to begin with.
- As always, consult a coach or professional to help fine-tune your technique.