Written by Coach Charlotte Jones
The deadlift is one of the most well recognized and frequently performed exercises in the gym for a reason — it’s a challenging total body strength movement that has a lot of carryover into everyday life. They are as functional as they are enjoyable for folks who enjoy picking up heavy things in the weight room.
You will most commonly see deadlifts performed using a straight, 7-foot long barbell, using either a narrow or wide stance; these stances are known as conventional or sumo, respectively. Which stance the lifter chooses to practice more is a matter of personal preference and individual goals.
The often overlooked, but equally, if not more valuable, counterpart to the conventional deadlift is the trap bar deadlift — also known as the hex-bar, due to the hexagonal shape of the bar used to perform this moment. Unfortunately, the bar required for this movement is not as commonly found in gyms, which contributes to the obscurity of the exercise. Still, if you can find one at your local facility, we highly recommend giving it a try.
The rest of this article will examine the most common variations, benefits, and programming considerations of this exercise and why we use it frequently with our clients.
Variations of the Trap Bar Deadlift
Similarly to the straight bar, there are a few different ways we can use the trap bar depending on which muscles we are trying to target. When targeting specific muscles in a movement, we are not necessarily turning muscles on and off, but rather setting up and performing the movement in a way that allows some muscles to move more of the load than others. The other muscles are still working and moving, just not to the same degree. Below, we will discuss the three variations we use most with our clients.
Standard Trap Bar Deadlift
When performing the standard trap bar deadlift, you will stand between the bar with your feet flat on the floor around hip-width apart. Then, you will drive your hips back, allowing your knees to bend while grasping the handles. Drive through the floor as you return to the top of the movement.
Heel Elevated Trap Bar Deadlift
We can also elevate our heels on wedges or small plates to increase the degree of knee flexion we are able to achieve. The heel elevation makes it easier to drive our knees forward — helping us engage and place more tension on our quads.
Trap Bar Romanian Deadlift (RDL)
Switching gears, the RDL variation will work to place more challenge on the back of your legs — most notably on the glutes and hamstrings. Pick up the trap bar by grasping the handles and lifting to the top position. Then, drive your hips back and lower the bar until it’s near the middle of your shins. You should feel a stretch in your hamstrings. Finish by driving your hips forward, bringing the weight back up to the starting position.
Benefits & Programming Considerations
Now that we’ve discussed some of the ways we can use the trap bar in training, we will now get into why you might want to choose the trap bar over the straight bar and how it could benefit you from a performance and injury reduction perspective.
Trap Bar Deadlifts are Less Technical to Perform
The trap bar deadlift is a less technical movement compared to its conventional counterpart — this is mainly due to the neutral grip positioning of the handles and shorter range of motion when using the higher handles on the bar.
The centered neutral grip makes it a more approachable option with a smaller learning curve for beginners unfamiliar with deadlifting. Simply put: it is easier just to approach the bar and pick it up with reasonably good form without overthinking the lift. These factors can also make it easier to pick up more weight in general. You’ll likely find you can do more than your typical straight bar loads with the trap bar and will be able to generate more power. (1) This fact alone offers specific benefits for lifters looking to improve this skill for strength performance.
Better For People with Low Back Pain
Trap bar deadlifts can be more user-friendly to those who have struggled with lower back pains or sensitivities because you are performing them standing in the center of the load rather than behind it. This positioning will distribute the load more evenly around the body and allows you to stand with your body slightly more upright — centering the load and lessening the strain it puts on your low back.
Trainees, especially those newer to deadlifting, tend to push their hips too far forward past vertical at the top of the movement, which can cause discomfort in the hips and low back. Additionally, it increases your injury risk and does not increase tension in the movement.
Decreased Injury Risk for Biceps and Shoulders
The design of the trap bar itself requires the user to have a neutral grip to hold on to the handles, making it easier on the shoulders. In addition, the neutral grip position does not require as much rotation of the rotator cuff, which can cause strain in people with a history of injury in that area.
When performing straight-bar movements, your hands are set into either an overhand grip or an alternating, or mixed, grip (where one hand is set to overhand and the other is underhand). These positions are more demanding on the shoulders because you are either internally or externally rotating past neutral to get into that position. It also means your grip strength must work harder.
Choosing a mixed grip hand position can remedy this and increase your likelihood of developing strength imbalances because the weight is loaded slightly differently. However, it also can increase the risk of bicep tears on the underhand arm. The neutral positioning of the trap bar handles removes this concern.
Among all the benefits of this exercise, there are always inherent downsides. The main downside being accessibility. Unfortunately, many commercial gyms do not keep these specialized bars on hand because they are not as popular for their members, so you may struggle to find one near you.
They also may not be a great alternative if you are training for something sport-specific such as powerlifting or prefer a sumo stance due to needing to stand inside the bar. While the centered body position we discussed earlier is seen as an advantage to some, this decreases the amount of work done by the posterior chain — which can be a negative if you are explicitly doing this lift for that purpose.
Putting it All Together
As we mentioned previously, the trap bar deadlift is a movement we believe is underrated. We love to incorporate it frequently with our 1:1 clients due to its functionality and more user-friendly nature.
We believe there are numerous things to gain from its use alongside multiple ways to perform it — namely standard deadlifts, heel elevated deadlifts, and romanian deadlifts.
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Lake J, Duncan F, Jackson M, Naworynsky D. Effect of a Hexagonal Barbell on the Mechanical Demand of Deadlift Performance. Sports. 2017; 5(4):82. https://doi.org/10.3390/sports5040082