The trap bar deadlift gets a bad rap from deadlift purists. But in this article I give you five reasons why the trap bar deadlift is in fact a superior lift for the average individual looking to add quality muscle to their physique.
Anyone remotely familiar with powerlifting will have heard of the deadlift. It’s also a movement that has been forever immortalized by strongmen the world over with incredible feats of strength like Eddie Hall’s 500KG deadlift in the 2016 World’s Strongest Man.
And I will not argue that the deadlift will forever remain a excellent measure of functional strength. I mean, is there anything more functional than bending down to pick-up a heavy object from the floor?
However, along with the squat, the deadlift is a difficult movement to master and one that is likely most responsible for significant injuries to the back, hamstrings and even the biceps.
The primary reason for this comes down to biomechanics and lever lengths.
That is, the length of your femur (thigh bone) and tibia (shin bone) in relation to your arm length. And because the key to a strong deadlift is maintaining a bar path that is as close to vertical as possible, standing behind and over the bar means the bar has to clear your knees at the hardest part of the lift.
Most injuries during deadlifting are due to the compensations that individuals make when trying to maintain a vertical pull. For example, many will start with straighter legs and instead round the lumbar and thoracic spine to increase their reach. While others will clear their knees by letting the bar drift out from their shins, thus dramatically increasing the overall loading on the lower back.
Enter The Trap Bar
The trap bar—also known as the hex bar—was invented by an American powerlifter named Al Gerard during the mid-1980s.
A long time lifter with an impressive 600 lb conventional deadlift, Al was plagued with injuries and was looking for ways to safely continue lifting heavy weight from the floor.
Squatting with 100 lb dumbbells in each hand, the thought occurred to him: What if you could stand in between two weights and lift? This would eliminate the need for the bar to clear your knees during the pull and allow the athlete to stay more upright.
The result was the trap bar.
By essentially placing you inside the bar, the stress on your lower back is greatly reduced while the potential for power production is significantly increased.
The Benefits Of The Trap Bar Deadlift
As previously stated, the deadlift is perhaps one of the most functional exercises in the gym and translates well into lifting heavy, everyday objects from the floor.
But the trap bar deadlift is considerably safer and more efficient as compared to the conventional deadlift used in competition.
Here’s the top five benefits of the trap bar deadlift.
1. Less Stress On Your Lumbar Spine
With a conventional deadlift, you stand above and behind the bar requiring the bar to clear your knees during the pull. For many this puts you at a mechanical disadvantage and significantly increases the risk of injury.
However, with the trap bar deadlift you stand in line with the load and not behind it, so the bar path no longer has to clear your knees.
This in turn means that you can maintain a more upright torso position, thus reducing the shearing load on your lumbar spine. And that means more force production with a lower risk of injury.
2. Better Quad Activation
Building on the above, a more upright torso position equates to greater knee and ankle flexion. And that means your posterior sits lower at the start of the lift. This in turn leads to greater quad activation—as much as 24% more according to this study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
This is in part why many people look at the trap bar deadlift as good alternative to the hack squat as the body position in relation to the hips, knees and ankles is very similar.
It’s certainly a great way to add more heavy loading/volume to the quads, either as part of your leg workout or as part of your back workout to increase quad and posterior chain exposure frequency.
3. No Hyper Extending Your Lumbar Spine At The Top Of The Movement
One of the biggest mistakes with the traditional deadlift is the propensity to hyperextend the lumbar at the top of the pull in an effort to shift the load over the midline and reduce stress on the lower back. But just like a rounded lumbar (a.k.a. hyperflexion) hyperextension of the spine under load can cause significant compression injuries to the discs.
With the natural bar path of trap bar deadlifts the need for any hyperextension is eliminated. And as long as you maintain a tight core throughout the movement, your lumbar should be in a neutral position throughout the lift.
4. High/Low Handles For Different Loading Patterns
As mentioned earlier in the article, we all have different body shapes and therefore lever lengths. And this is one of the main reasons why not everyone is ideally suited to the conventional deadlift.
But in addition to the benefits of the natural bar path, most trap bars come with two sets of handles. One set of handles generally sits inline with the center of the weights, while the other can be 3-6″ above the height of the weights.
The high handles can be great for taller individuals or those with limitations in knee or ankle flexion. Also, given the shorter range of motion, you can also generally pull more weight when using the high handles—another great way to break through plateaus and increase overall training intensity.
5. Less Limitations With Grip Strength
Due to the mechanics of the bar essentially wanting to roll out of your fingers, heavy conventional deadlifts put a lot of strain on the grip. To combat this, many lifters will use either straps, a hook grip (ouch!) or mixed grip to improve grip performance.
However, the mixed grip can lead to unexpected imbalance during the lift and comes with significant risk of tearing your biceps—largely due to people inadvertently flexing or curling during the pull.
With the trap bar your arms hang in a neutral position—palms facing inwards—and you no longer have to fight the bar wanting to roll through your fingers. This in turn equates to significantly more gripping power without the need for straps. The neutral hand position is also a lot more comfortable for many people that struggle with excessive pronation or supination of the palms.
BONUS 1: No More Bleeding Shins!
You likely won’t find a powerlifter or practitioner of the conventional deadlift that doesn’t have scars running up the length of their shins.
Yes, long socks can help. As do leggings or knee sheaths worn over the shins. But given that the conventional deadlift requires you to keep the bar as close to your shins as possible, contact is either inevitible or desirable—depending on your point of view.
But for the vast majority of trainees that just want to lift heavy and grow, bleeding shins is not a badge of honor worth fighting for and the trap bar deadlift completely eliminates any possibility of bleeding shins.
BONUS 2: Weight Carries For The Win
Farmers carries are a great, full-body exercise that builds muscle and burns calories. But once you progress beyond the heaviest dumbbells or kettlebells in your gym you are stuck with simply increasing the duration or distance of your carries.
However, the trap bar is an ideal way add heavy carries to your workouts. And especially when using the high handles which can help lower the center of gravity during the walk by up to six inches (depending on your handle height).
Powerlifters have no choice but to practice and perform the conventional deadlift. And if your personal geometry allows for a safe and efficient pull, the conventional deadlift is a great way to work the entire body and pack on functional muscle.
But for the vast majority of trainees that want to practice lifting heavy with a significantly reduced risk of injury, the trap bar is safer, more flexible and more efficient addition to your workout.
Just approach the lift with the same humility and discipline that you would as the conventional deadlift and you’ll be impressed at how quickly and safely you can reach some impressive pulling numbers.
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