Sumo Deadlift Start Position
**Note: I haven't addressed how grip might or might not affect your starting position in this piece, but I'll get to that at some point.
1. Scapula over bar (not shoulder!) 2. Shins perpindicular to floor (optimal force production) 3. Hips as close to bar as possible (shortening moment arm) 4. Upper back/lats engaged: think shoulder blades in opposite back pockets; "short" back (shortening segment)
5. Using the "crank" technique
Scapula over the bar
When setting up for the sumo deadlift, you want your scapulae over the bar as it breaks the floor, NOT your shoulders. If your shoulders are over the bar, your hips are likely too low (or too far behind the bar) and will be the first thing to shoot up, causing the bar to swing away from you. Anytime the bar path deviates from vertical, the lift becomes less efficient (basically, you're exerting extra energy to move the bar horizontally rather than vertically). If your shoulders are too far in front of the bar, the bar will still likely travel forward, and you'll end up using relatively more back to complete the pull (compared to a sumo deadlift with a more optimal start position). A great way to check for this is to video directly from the side of the barbell with the camera at roughly hip height. You can slow the video down and screenshot the point in which you initiate the pull. Draw a straight line or line up a credit card with the end cap of the barbell and your shoulder blade (specifically T3 or the spine of your scapula). Make sure to also look for key point 4, as this can change your position needs slightly.
Shins Vertical (Perpendicular to floor when viewed from front or back)
While there are a minority of lifters who benefit from an ultra-wide or ultra-narrow (hybrid with knee angle greater than 90) sumo stance in which the shins are not vertical or perpendicular to the floor, those folks generally have a certain anthropometry, significantly stronger quadriceps compared to posterior chain musculature, or outlier muscle attachment sites (or would actually benefit from an adjustment to their starting position and haven't figured that out yet). For most people, optimal quad drive and ability to load the posterior chain is going to come from a more vertical shin position. A correctly performed sumo deadlift requires the legs to produce both vertical (pushing down on the floor with the feet) and lateral (spreading the floor apart with the feet) force to initiate the lift. This lateral force production is going to come primarily from the knee extensors, making the quadriceps group a primary player in at least the first half of the sumo deadlift. If your start position does not allow for optimal use of your knee extensors, you are likely leaving some pounds on the ground. A knee angle greater than 90 CAN work for a lifter with exceptionally strong knee extensors compared to posterior hip extensors (muscle length-tension relationship; starting with quads in a stretched position and hamstrings in a shortened position), this is somewhat uncommon. Likewise, those starting with their feet all the way out at the plates may be doing the opposite (starting with quads in a shortened position where they can contribute less force and the hamstrings in a stretched position where they are potentially able to produce more force but also more susceptible to injury). This ultra-wide stance is also one of the hardest to balance, so you run the risk of losing your balance at the top, or at least having to focus on maintaining balance throughout the lift (you'll lift less this way).
Hips as close to bar as possible
In theory, the more you can close the horizontal distance between the bar and your hips, the shorter the moment arm and the easier the pull. Keep in mind that the femurs are the same length no matter how much they are abducted and externally rotated. So while closing the horizontal distance to the bar appears helpful in the sagittal plane relative to the torso, there is still a second factor to this plane of motion in which the distance from your hip joint to the barbell is still roughly the same (see photos below). So basically, if you have long femurs, you have long femurs no matter which way you choose to pull. The upside is that long femurs generally come with long arms--to your advantage. Driving your knees out is an excellent way to get the bar slightly closer to your hips at the start of the pull, in addition to priming the hip extensors that also serve as external rotators (hello, glutes!) to create force. Ideally, you want your knees lined up with 1st or 2nd toe, so keep that in mind when setting your feet. Foot angle contributes a lot to balance, so keep that in mind. The more your toes are turned out, the shorter your feet become (from front to back, second photo below), creating a less stable foundation. For some lifters, this is not an issue. For others, it could be a recipe for disaster.
Shoulder Blades in Back Pockets/Creating a "Short" Back
Packing the lats and engaging as much of the upper back as possible has the obvious purpose of engaging that necessary musculature in the pull, but, contrary to what many believe, the lats don't actually have the ability to keep your back from rounding themselves (check out the attachment sites in the drawing below). Where they do come into play, however, is helping to shorten the torso segment length, essentially by relocating the shoulder joint. By repositioning the scapulae further down the back, we are able to decrease the required hip and spinal extension demands of the deadlift. In fact, this can reduce the thoracic extension demands by up to 20% (4&5), which is going to allow you lift more weight. This repositioning may also give you the ability to start the pull from a more upright starting position. Check out the photos below for examples (clicking on them will make them larger).
"Cranking" as I affectionately call my own deadlift set-up, is certainly not something I came up with on my own. My own coach, Brian Minor, helped me make this switch a couple of years ago, and after using it myself, watching great deadlifters use this technique, and doing lots of research, I'm pretty confident that it's worth trying for ALL sumo deadlifters. Of course, it's not the ONLY way, but it is a solid set up technique that can benefit most lifters.
Below there are two videos of lifters putting this technique into play, one of which, Heather Connor, is arguably one of the greatest female deadlifters of all time. The other is little old me. I am pulling on a deadlift bar, while Heather is pulling on a stiff bar. While Heather is a pretty compact person, I have pretty long legs and arms. I included one of each to show that the concept is the same either way, though the actual start position may look a little different.
The basis for this technique is creating lots of tension in the hamstrings and hip extensors, which will then be used to generate the force needed to drive the bar off the floor. You may hear this compared to drawing back the string of a bow (4). You are basically pulling yourself down into position, and many lifters choose to set their back and/or core "on the way down" if you will. I prefer to create as much tightness through the torso as possible before initiating the "cranking down" of the hips.
Another critical point here is to make sure you are pulling all of the slack out of the bar as you are pulling yourself into position. It's not necessarily evident in the video, but I am already pulling hard on the bar with my hands/upper body as I'm getting set. If pulling the slack out of the bar doesn't click for you, imagine pulling tension INTO your body instead. Ideally, you want to have created so much tension throughout the entire system that by the time you are ready to pull, only a tiny bit more force is needed to break the bar from the floor.
I hope you found this piece helpful! As always, shoot me an email if you have questions or comments (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Sources and Further Reading:
1. Escamilla, R. F., Francisco, A. C., Fleisig, G. S., Barrentine, S. W., Welch, C. M., Kayes, A. V., ... & Andrews, J. R. (2000). A three-dimensional biomechanical analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 32(7), 1265-1275. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/10912892/)
2. Escamilla, R. F., Francisco, A. C., Fleisig, G. S., Barrentine, S. W., Welch, C. M., Kayes, A. V., ... & Andrews, J. R. (2000). A three-dimensional biomechanical analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 32(7), 1265-1275.
7. Kinesiology, The Skeletal System and Muscle Function, 2nd Edition. Joseph E. Muscolino
8. Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, 3rd Edition. Mark Rippetoe