Have you ever walked into a gym recently and noticed a really big hexagon-shaped barbell and asked yourself “what do you do with that?” Well, the answer to the question is “a lot” but knowing the original purpose of that big hexagon bar, otherwise known as ‘the trap bar (or hex bar) enables us to use it correctly and safely.
The trap bar (also known as the hex bar) originated in the mid-1980s by an American regional powerlifter called Al Gerard. Al invented the trap bar as a way to increase his powerlifting numbers in the squat and deadlift with a similar movement, but without putting more strain through the lower back, which had already taken a beating through competition.
Today there are so many different types of barbells, compared to the original straight (Olympic) bar, which you will see in all commercial gyms at the moment.
These range from the standard Olympic (20kg) barbell, the ultralight Olympic barbell (15kg), the Olympic curl bar (also known as EZ bar), the triceps bar, and also the safety squat bar (picture below).
These are just some of the advancements over the years. Training and strength coaches have found that not everyone’s biomechanics/movements/limb lengths are the same, so they need a different range of equipment for the job.
One of the most advanced powerlifting facilities in the world is the Elite FTS headquarters in London, Ohio, USA. The facility produces some of the strongest athletes in the world to step onto a powerlifting platform.
They have one the widest ranges of barbells I have ever seen and generally have a lot of them custom-made for their lifters in their facility. As you can see, this is not what you’d find in most commercial gyms in the UK.
Due to fact that strength coaches have taken into account that their athletes have different limb length discrepancies, flexibility, and mobility strength/weaknesses, it makes sense to maximise an athlete’s strengths within a certain lift but also minimise their weaknesses, also reducing their chance of injury.
This is why I like to put deadlifts along a continuum, with one end being more knee-dominant (hex bar deaflift) and the other end being more hip-dominant (barbell deadlift).
Trapbar Deadlift (Hex bar)
As you can see along the continuum, the trap bar deadlift keeps the torso more vertical, due to the handle position, which will ask the muscles that bend the knees to work harder.
Muscles used: gastrocnemius, quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, spinal erectors, lats, trapezius, forearm flexors
The sumo deadlift, which asks the athlete to take a wider stance to reduce the amount of distance the bar has to travel, will ask the athlete to stay more upright than a conventional deadlift, but not as much as a trap bar deadlift, so gets a bit of both the muscles at the anterior and posterior part of the body.
Muscles used: gastrocnemius, quadriceps, hamstrings, adductors, glutes, spinal erectors, lats, trapezius, forearm flexors
Next on the list is probably the most traditional deadlift – the conventional deadlift. This will ask the athlete to have a narrow hip-to-shoulder width stance, which was cause the athlete to bend/hinge over more and subsequently engages more muscles of the posterior chain ie the muscles down the back of the body.
Muscles used: gastrocnemius, hamstrings, glutes, spinal erectors, lats, trapezius, forearm flexors
And the last deadlift variation, which is not included in the continuum list, which is purely posterior chain focussed, is the Romanian deadlift. This exercise asks the athletes to keep the knees fixed in a slight bend throughout the movement but only allow the hips to extend and flex fully.
Muscles used: gastrocnemius, hamstrings, glutes, spinal erectors, lats, trapezius, forearm flexors.
With there being so many different deadlift variations, it can sometimes be hard to figure out, ‘which one is best for me?’ and I would always say ‘it depends’.
This is due to the requirements of the person, their mobility limitations, and what the risk to reward ratio is.
The requirements of a person will range from someone wanting to compete in a powerlifting competition (conventional and sumo being one of the deadlift variations allowed in this sport), an athlete wanting to get stronger for their sport, someone wanting to increase their lean muscle mass and finally someone just wanting to get strong.
The mobility issues go along a continuum also, as seen below:
So with the greater mobility demands, there will be more or a higher possibility of the person obtaining an injury through that movement if they do not have the correct mobility demands for that lift.
Lastly also the risk to reward ratio. We all like to lift big weights, but at what cost?
Exercise and strength training is a tool used to increase our bone density, neurological firing, muscle mass, confidence, and cardiovascular benefits, but not at the cost of chronic joint / back pain.
So ask yourself, what would allow me to exercise long-term enjoyably without breaking my body down??
TRAP BAR USES:
The trap bar itself has many different uses and can be adapted by adding bands and/or chains to increase the resistance on the bar without adding more weight plates on it (please see resistance bands article for more in-depth info).
It can also be used as a variation to a lot of straight bars exercises ie Romanian deadlift (see above).
This is a variation I like especially, as it allows the lat muscles to be engaged a lot more to stabilise the spine, plus grip is not challenged as much compared to a straight bar when the weight gets very heavy.
The trap bar can also be used for exercises like bent-over rows, bench press, overhead press, and split squats.
Another great variation in which the trap bar can be used for us jump squats. This is quite an advanced exercise to help and challenge an athlete’s vertical jump explosiveness, but as you can see, it is not one to go with maximal loads on and should only be attempted under strict supervision.
As you can see, there are many different variations of the deadlift, which is great, as it allows every person, of every background to do the exercise to achieve their goals.
But from a longevity point of view, the trap bar deadlift is one that I could say, gives the most bang for the buck with the most minimal damage to the body and this all comes down to the body being more upright and having fewer Mobility requirements to make.
Always speak to your coach / personal trainer first before selecting the right deadlift for you and on how to perform the exercise safely and effectively.
If you have any questions about deadlifting using a trap bar or are looking to begin a programme with us, get in touch.
“If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you”,