My Take on the Sumo Debate

Is the Sumo deadlift cheating? There’s a lot of discussion in the evidence-based space and once again, it’s a discussion being had between elite strength and physique athletes who are men. So, what’s missing from this conversation?

Rather than debating the relative efficacy of sumo versus conventional, limb lengths, angles, which is quad dominant or posterior chain dominant, why are we not asking the question: why does this matter to you so much?

Who is this conversation comparing sumo and conventional deadlifts for? The small community of elite powerlifters? The small, but not quite as small, community of folks who aspire to be elite powerlifters? The not quite as small as that but still really small community of neighborhood powerlifters who go to their local events and try to improve their personal bests? That’s still a small percentage of the world of lifters. The vast majority of us have no aspirations to compete, and if we’re competing, it’s for the fun and not for the win. We are valid and our needs are valid, and I’m concerned that this conversation could lead to stopping someone from pulling sumo because they fear the backlash of know-it-all assholes at the gym telling them it’s not valid. This is exactly the sort of bullshit that leads to smartasses with overconfidence walking up to strangers and giving them unsolicited advice. So, maybe that’s the audience and what we’re trying to communicate to the assholes–that they don’t know everything that they think they know–and if that’s the goal, then I welcome it.

But what if the goal isn’t competition? What if the goal is just each of us reaching our greatest potential? What if it’s about the individual acts of strength and determination rather than a competition and a hierarchy? What if we reject the premise that some of us are superior to others and that lifting ability is an objective tool for measuring our value?

To give some credit to Jeff, there’s a bit of this vibe, a sense of mocking or a poking fun at the comments that sparked the making of his video.

However, by arguing on the terms of the original complaint, he’s letting the initial critique define the debate. Likewise, when Greg addresses this conversation on Stronger By Science, he accepts the terms of the debate and discusses moment arms, strength curves, leverages and such.

I would like to see someone in the community point out the inherent ableism of this conversation, the implicit hierarchy and dominance narrative, the basic premise that there is a right way and a wrong way to do certain lifts. I would like to see them pose the question back–what does it have to do with you and your lifting? If someone else pulls sumo and you pull conventional, how does it impact you at all? Why do you think it’s your business? How about you just go to the gym, mind your damn business, and lift some weights?!

I pull sumo these days because after some experimenting, I have found that it causes less stress on my low back. That means I recover better for my squat workout a few days later, and I look forward to pulling a little heavier than I would otherwise. I’m not doing it to compete with anyone, to compare my numbers to anyone, or to prove anything to anyone. It genuinely does not matter to me how you pull compared to how I do.(1)

Is sumo cheating? No, because the rules are all made up and the game doesn’t matter. If you want to deadlift, do it in whatever way brings you joy, and who cares what anyone else thinks.

(1) As a side note, and a little victory, after nearly 5 months of doing almost no heavy lifting, I’m happy to note that my max pull last weekend was only 10 pounds down from my personal best when I was working with a powerlifting coach a a couple years ago. That is what matters to me; I have found ways to work within my abilities to maintain as much strength as possible with all the challenges and ups and downs of life.

Photo credit: Alora Griffiths, via Unsplash

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