The deadlift is commonly used in resistance training for a variety of reasons including high potential for loading, functions as a full body exercise, high transference to various sports etc. However there is still considerable disagreement as to what the optimal technical execution is for the conventional deadlift. In this short article we’ll cover how hip height in the start position affects strength expression, and how variations in technique can elicit meaningful changes in force production.
In a 2010 paper by Hales, he touched on the significance of environmental contributions to deadlift performance beyond genetic predisposition. “These genetic values suggest that approximately 50-75% of the overall deadlift performance could be attributed to environmental factors such as training methods, lifting styles, and individualized program parameters” (1). This should not be misinterpreted to suggest that genetics are insignificant. Even on the extreme end if we assume genetics only account for only 25% of deadlift performance at elite levels this difference in performance is staggering. To put it into perspective Dan Bell has a total of 2606Lb and is currently #1 in the world. A 25% gap in performance puts you at 897th place (2).
We also have to consider how anatomical variables such as limb length, relative torso length, joint range of motion, and flexibility impact an individuals optimal stating position and technical execution. Contrary to popular belief the sumo deadlift is not inherently easier than conventional. The common narrative being the shorter distance the bar travels results in less mechanical work. Although there is some truth to this, it only represents a fraction of the entire discussion which we will touch on here (if you want a more in depth analysis, you can find it in a previous article I wrote on the subject here). You don’t need to look much further than the distribution of world records relative to deadlift style to see that the “sumo is easier” argument falls flat on its face (3)(4).
A 2002 paper titled “An electromyographic analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts” found “Overall EMG activity from the vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, and tibialis anterior were significantly greater in the sumo deadlift, whereas overall EMG activity from the medial gastrocnemius was significantly greater in the conventional deadlift… Quadriceps, tibialis anterior, hip adductor, gluteus maximus, L3 and T12 paraspinal, and middle trapezius activity were significantly greater in higher knee flexion intervals compared with lower knee flexion intervals, whereas hamstrings, gastrocnemius, and upper trapezius activity were greater in lower knee flexion intervals compared with higher knee flexion intervals” (5). The findings of this study are unsurprising in that they demonstrate the differences in muscular contributions relative to the type of deadlift and its execution.
A 2018 paper by Edinton et al. looked at EMG amplitude and isometric strength during the deadlift at various starting positions in the conventional deadlift. Participants were well trained in that they had competed at either the provincial or national level (which is somewhat rare to find in research). All participants had one predominant style but were experienced in both and often used both variations in their training. This is an important caveat since there likely wasn’t much of a learning gradient which may have otherwise skewed the performance metrics. The different positions measured were classified as the close bar deadlift (CBDL) where the bar is positioned above the navicular and the far bar deadlift (FBDL) where the bar was aligned above the third metatarsal as seen below.
The researchers reported their findings as such “When comparing the EMG amplitude between the FBDL and CBDL set-ups, there was a significant difference observed for the upper lumbar erector spinae, biceps femoris and vastus lateralis (p < 0.05). Specifically, the FBDL produced greater EMG amplitude in the vastus lateralis in comparison to CBDL, while the CBDL had greater amplitude in the erector spinae and biceps femoris” (6). Although the researchers did find differences in EMG amplitude depending on which variation was selected, they did not observe any meaningful difference in isometric strength between the two groups. Interestingly enough, there was significant intra-individual differences in force production between styles. Essentially they found up to a 9.37% reduction in force production when pulling from a hip height that was not the lifters predominant style.
This is significant because it reinforces the idea that optimal technique is associated with your physical structure among other things. While some exceptional athletes may adopt a certain technique, it’s misguided to assume that it should therefore be applied across the board. It also demonstrates that exercise selection is a critical component of strength development. Since differences in movement strategy can change how forces are acting throughout the body, we can individualize exercise selection to bolster optimal technique.