Optional Equipment: Resistance Bands
Invented by powerlifter Al Gerard in the 1980’s, trap bars – commonly called hex bars due to their 6 sides – have become a popular type of barbell used in home and commercial gyms. Gerard had frequent back pain and he often struggled with pain when performing conventional barbell deadlifts.
It’s been said that “mother is the necessity of all invention”, and one day while squatting with 100 lbs. dumbbells in each hand, he came up with a novel idea. What if he could stand in between the weights and lift using a bar – what would that be like? Soon thereafter the fist Trap Bar prototype was born, and the rest is history.
And just like that, trap bar deadlifts were born. All thanks to Mr. Gerard.
Now that you know that 1and knowing is half the battle!, read on to learn all about the trap bar deadlift, including the benefits, how it compares to a conventional deadlift, which muscles are worked, how to perform it, a couple variations, and some common Q & A. Let’s get started…
AT A GLANCE: - The trap bar (or hex bar) deadlift is fantastic exercise with a large carryover to sports and everyday life. - As compared to some other hip hinge exercises - such as the kettlebell deadlift - it's easier to progressively add weight. - It's relatively easy to learn and there are additional deadlift variations once mastered. - While not as versatile as a straight barbell, a trap bar can be used for other exercises - such as rows or a farmer's walks.
You can lift heavier weights
Let me explain the science in a non-science(y) way:
In a traditional barbell deadlift, you’re positioned behind the bar when attempting the lift. With a trap bar, you stand centered inside the frame of the bar. Because of that, the weights are more aligned with your center of gravity. Because of that, you have a mechanical advantage doing trap bar deadlifts when compared to a barbell deadlifts.
Because of that advantage, almost everyone will find they can deadlift heavier when using a trap bar instead of a straight bar. Normally, you’ll be able to lift around 5-10% additional weight when performing a trap bar deadlift as compared to a straight bar deadlift.
Less ROM of Required
Another reason you can typically lift more weight with a hex bar is the fact that the hands are raised higher than where you would put them during a barbell deadlift. That reduces your range of motion (ROM) and allows you to lift more. Don’t believe me? Try deadlifting from a deficit and see how much more difficult it is.
Anyways, if you’re like a lot of people, you don’t have good hip mobility. That makes it difficult to get into the right position in a traditional deadlift. That, in turn, leads to poor form and a greater risk of injury.
By standing centered inside the weight and using the raised handles, you can still get a hip dominant lift (with heavy weight!) with good form while you work on improving your mobility.
No Hyperextending Your Lumbar Spine
A lot of lifters have a habit of hyperextending their spine at the top lockout position of a deadlift. This is bad. Over extension on the top of the deadlift increases a risk of spinal injury and garners no benefits.
With a hex bar, the possibility of hyperextension is minimized as there’s no barbell out in front of you so you don’t need to lean back into extension to counteract that force. In a trap bar deadlift, you’ll naturally assume a good lockout position at the top.
Less spinal flexion
Even if you’re a technically proficient at barbell deadlifts (and most of us aren’t), your spine can still start to round as you fatigue. While spinal flexion and its impacts is debated in academic circles, the general consensus is that repeated flexion under load is bad. If you really want to read up, here’s a good article. In other words don’t do it.
Due to the positioning of the hex bar, you’re less likely to round your spine when lifting as compared to a barbell deadlift.
Easy to Learn
Similar to kettlebell deadlifting, trap bar deadlifts are easier to learn and master than straight-bar deadlifts. Since you’re also more apt to lift with good form, you also have a reduced chance of injury.
Additionally, no more scraped shins from barbell deadlifts!
More Natural Grip Position
With a barbell deadlift, you have a couple options to hold on to heavy weights: a double-overhand grip 2of which there are many variations, such as a hook grip or double overhand hook grip or pulling with a mixed grip (one hand pronated (palm down), and one hand supinated (palm up)).
Most people prefer a mixed grip due to the increased weight you can typically pull along with the extra stability of the bar in your hands. 3 Weightlifting straps can be added to either grip . That said, there are some downsides to a mixed grip such as higher potential for asymmetries, a rounded back, or – in rare cases – a torn bicep.
With the trap bar, the handles allow you to take a natural, neutral grip (palms facing you) with no need to change hand orientation. If you have a strong deadlift many times it is your grip that limits the amount of weight you can lift. That’s why some lifters use straps. A neutral grip is just as secure and I personally find it stronger than any other grip variation.
Trap Bar vs …
While both essentially train the hinge pattern, peak spine and hip moments tend to be a bit larger for the barbell deadlift than the trap bar deadlift, while the peak knee moment tends to be larger for the trap bar deadlift.
And, while both elicit similar degrees of muscle activation in the muscle groups they train, quad activation tends to be a bit higher for the trap bar deadlift, while hamstrings and spinal erector activation tend to be a bit higher for the conventional deadlift.
So which should you do? If you’re a powerlifter then obviously you need to train using a straight barbell as a hex bar is not allowed in competition. Of course, you can sprinkle in some trap bar deadlifts too.
If you’re a beginner, a weekend athlete, or maybe suffer from poor mechanics or mobility, trap bar deadlifts are a safer bet.
Fresh off my article on the kettlebell deadlift, you may be wondering which the differences are between a hex deadlift and kettlebell deadlift. In comparison, the trap bar deadlift:
- Has slightly more focus on the quads
- Allows you to lift significantly more weight
- Requires a little less hip mobility
So which should you use? Even though the kb deadlift is great, I think the trap bar deadlift is better fit for most folks once you’ve learned to properly hip hinge.
Not only can you add a ton of more weight in hex bar deadlift, it requires a bit less mobility, and has still has a high carryover to sports and every day life.
A good rule of thumb: if you’re a beginner, try out the kettlebell version first and master that. Then progress to the trap bar. That said, nothing is stopping you from doing both as the need arises.
Every deadlift is going to work similar muscles although the type of deadlift or variation you do will impact the degree to which the muscles are worked. In other words, similar exercises work similar muscles. Makes sense, right?
When it comes to a trap bar deadlift – much like conventional deadlifts – the focus is on your largest muscle groups. That’s what makes it such an effective exercise.
So what does it work? Namely, in your lower body, your leg muscles such as your hamstrings and glutes along with the quadriceps. Above the waist, your abdominals and lower back muscles all engage to protect your spine as you lift.
Not only that but your lats and traps also get a bit of a workout when stabilizing the bar and locking out at the top. Finally, because you can really pack on the weight, your forearms and your grip will get some significant work too.
How to Perform
- Sit hips back and down, with neutral spine, bringing you to the bar handles.
- Arms straight, flex triceps, and engage lats by squeezing your armpits.
- Secure grip.
- Brace abdominals (“take a punch”).
- Initiate lift by pushing feet into floor and “taking slack out of the chain” without plates leaving the floor (yet).
- Sustain lift by pressing feet into and “through” floor until extension of hips.
- At top of rep, engage glutes, finishing “tall” (don’t lean backwards into lumbar hyperextension).
- To initiate descent, gradually push hips back and return down to the bottom position.
- Reset and repeat all steps.
If you prefer to see a demonstration, there are ton of videos available. Here’s one I found that does a good job –
There are numerous variations even with a simple, straight-forward item like a hex bar. Here are 3 top deadlift variations:
Trap Bar Jumps
While not strictly a deadlift, it’s a fantastic variation on it that allows you to develop explosive power? Looking to jump higher or run faster? Give this variation a try. Trap bar jumps are such a great variation that I wrote a complete article on it.
Romanian Trap Bar Deadlifts
With regular trap bar deadlifts you want to focus on keeping the hips down to some degree, but here you’re keeping the hips high and doing a pure hip hinge motion, just as you would with barbell Romanian deadlifts (RDLs). It’s a similar movement to dumbbell RDLs, just with far greater loading potential on your hamstrings and posterior chain.
In this variation, you simply have the trap bar a little bit lower than normal (hence the “deficit”). How do you do this easily? Well, you simply need to stand on a something – typically a weight or bumper plates – that raises you a couple inches off the ground. That, in turn, makes the trap bar sit lower relative to your body position.
Why would you want to have a deficit? Well, it makes the trap bar deadlift more quad dominant and significantly more challenging. While the couple inches of height difference is small, it makes a large difference in difficulty.
Be aware that you only should pull from a deficit if you have the requisite mobility to do so. If you do choose this option, don’t go any higher than you can manage without maintaining optimal form.
Banded or Chained Trap Bar Deadlifts
Looking for an additional challenge? I first saw the banded trap bar deadlift variation from renowned trainer Ben Bruno. In short, you can use a resistance band (or even some chains) to add some additional challenge at the top when locking out. The setup can be a little tricky but this is a really unique deadlift that will test your lockout strength.
It’s also a variation that can done with a hex bar but is not easily done with a straight barbell.
Keep in mind you can also use the trap bar for some other exercises. What some additional back work? Do a strict bent over row. Want to get in some general fitness and work on your grip strength? Try a farmer’s walk.
I’ve even seen some people using trap bars to squat or bench press with! Creativity is key here.
Why can I deadlift more with a hex bar?
You can lift more with a trap bar deadlift due to increased leverage. Because you’re centered inside the trap bar, the weights are more aligned with your center of gravity. This gives a mechanical advantage when compared to a straight bar deadlift. And that advantage allows you to pull more weight.
How much more can you deadlift with a trap bar?
For most people, you’ll be able to lift 5-10% more weight with a trap bar deadlift versus a barbell deadlift. For example, this study found around a 8% difference when comparing the two.
Is a hex bar deadlift better than a straight bar deadlift?
It depends. There are some benefits as I discussed above. Namely, you can lift heavier, it’s safer due to the lower mobility demands, it’s easier to not go into spinal flexion or extension, and it’s easier to learn. I think for the majority of folks it’s a better exercise.
However, if you enjoy conventional deadlifts and can do so safely and effectively I don’t see a reason to change over unless you want to “change it up” with a slightly different stimulus.
Can trap bar deadlift replace squats?
While it’s true that trap bar deadlifts are a little bit “squattier” than conventional barbell deadlifts, they’re much closer to a “hinge” than a squat movement. In other words, it’s a hip dominant movement. A squat, on the other hand, is a knee dominant movement.
The trap bar deadlift still places almost twice as high of demands on the hip extensors than the quads, and has joint ranges of motion that are almost identical to the conventional deadlift. As such, you should still do squats.
Why is a trap bar also called a hex bar?
Due to the six sided (or hexagonal) shape of the bar. The prefix “hex” or “hexa” comes from Greek and means “six.”