A sumo deadlift high pull is one of the most basic CrossFit movements. In fact, when CrossFit coaches receive their L1 certification, the sumo deadlift high pull, or SDHP, is taught as one of only a handful of foundational movements. It’s ranked right up there with squats, presses and deadlifts.
This is a little strange to me, personally. I’ve been doing CrossFit for about three years now and could count on one hand the number of times I’ve done a SDHP. In fact, when I was doing my orientation training at my box, our coaches told us essentially that they would teach us the movement, but not to expect to use it because they didn’t feel it was safe.
At the time, I was just thankful for one less acronym to keep up with. Now, I’m curious — is a sumo deadlift high pull a safe or scary way to build strength?
What is a Sumo Deadlift High Pull?
A SDHP involves lifting a bar (or kettlebell…or dumbbell…) from your shin to right beneath your chin. This is done by gripping the bar in the middle with both hands and doing a full hip extension as you pull, keeping your elbows high and pointed out. Like a traditional deadlift, your back should stay flat and tight throughout the lift.
Why Do Sumo Deadlift High Pulls Get a Bad Reputation?
Sumo deadlift high pulls, when done correctly, are a movement driven from momentum from your hips and core. Think of a SDHP in terms of a snatch — when you snatch a loaded barbell over your head, you’re not using the strength in your arms and back to pull the bar over head. Instead, you are using your hips, legs and core to thrust the bar overhead. If you’re confused, have a chat with your coach and make sure you’re snatching correctly.
In that same sense, the SDHP is much less about pulling the bar underneath your chin and much more about using force generated from your hips and core to push the bar under your chin, with your arms moving up as a consequence of the motion.
The problem is that many athletes don’t do SDHPs correctly. Whether this is from lack of training, lack of supervision, fatigue or plain pigheadedness is hard to determine. What’s easier to see though is that doing this movement incorrectly can very quickly lead to an injury.
If you want a really science-y version, we enjoyed this excerpt from Dallas Hartwig’s piece I Heart My Supraspinatus. Hartwig is the founder of Whole9, functional medicine practitioner, Certified Sports Nutritionist and licensed physical therapist.
“Now, I understand that the SDHP is supposed to be a “core-to-extremity” movement, and that the upward movement of the bar should be driven primarily by the hips, less so by the extension of the knees and ankles, and even less so by the upward pull of the arms. (This is what they said at my CrossFit Level One cert, anyway.) But in reality, if there is any degree of discoordination due to improper attention to form, the complicated neurological pattern of the movement, or plain old fatigue (all wickedly common factors), there will realistically be a significant amount of arm pull at the top of the movement – arm pull in a compromised, internally-rotated position. I make the case that repetitive, high-velocity movements that require an awkward, mechanically-disadvantageous position on every repetition are simply asking for an injury. In other words, I like my supraspinatus, and prefer that it not be violently and repeatedly jammed into my scapula.”
Other skeptics have also been quick to point out that many avid CrossFitters and coaches don’t believe that the SDHP has a place among the foundational movements of CrossFit.
Patrick McCarty is a coach and Games athlete. In his piece “The Sumo Deadlift High Pull is Stupid”, published in Breaking Muscle, McCarty is frank about his feelings when it comes to SDHPs.
“Foundational movement? Really? Foundational as it relates to what exactly? I can think of a number of movements I would want to invoke in order to lay a foundation of strength and conditioning. Squatting, (air, front, back) pushing (push ups, shoulder press), pulling (strict pull ups), followed by the introduction to the Olympic lifts. And then there’s running, jumping rope, and proper rowing technique, or basic core work like front leaning rest and side planks. You know – foundational stuff.
I might then begin to include some CrossFit-Specific movements like wall balls, burpees, and Russian kettlebell swings, in order to provide more insight into good ways to coach those movements. But SDHP? Hell, why not pistols then, or Turkish get ups? Seriously, how on earth is the SDHP a “foundational movement” of CrossFit? One of only nine?
I will tell you why. Because Greg Glassman decided this in 2005 and so far no one who works for CrossFit has the balls to raise their hand and tell the emperor he is naked.”
Calling the sumo deadlift high pull a deadlift is also misleading and contributes to the confusion and incorrect practices. Whereas the SDHP is a movement oriented around core strength and explosiveness, the deadlift is a pull. However, the sumo deadlift can be a great alternative deadlift for athletes who have struggles with injuries.
Our Conclusion When it Comes to the Sumo Deadlift High Pull
After doing a good bit of research on my own, I’m fine with my affiliate’s decision not to include sumo deadlift high pulls in programming. When done correctly, the sumo deadlift high pull is a lukewarm movement at best and a highly dangerous movement at worst. When performed properly, the sumo deadlift high pull is a decent way to improve on strength and well as hip-pocket explosiveness.
However, movements such as variations of the snatch and clean can also be used to target these objectives and tend to be much safer. In an organization shrouded by controversy when it comes to safety, the sumo deadlift high pull is an unnecessary movement.