Why The Trap Bar Deadlift?
The trap bar doesn’t seem to get a lot of love in the weightlifting world. Most of the time, you will see weightlifters performing either the conventional or the stiff-legged deadlift (sometimes also the sumo if your lucky), but NEVER really the trap bar deadlift. I have trained in many different gyms and never has anyone given the trap bar deadlift a try. In terms of technique it’s probably the easiest deadlift variation to learn and what’s better, it still provides all the same benefits as other deadlift variations.
With the trap bar deadlift, you have the potential to not only tax your glutes and hamstrings to a high degree, but also your quads, upper back and core to maximal effect. If I am honest, I have always found the trap bar deadlift to be a better overall back builder than other deadlift variations. It’s just a shame not every gym has a trap bar. What I love about trap bar deadlifts is the enormous challenge they provide your quads with. Straight bar deadlifts tend to be more posterior chain dominant (building of the glutes, hamstrings, back spinal erectors), which can sometimes make it a little difficult to stop your quads from falling too far behind in development.
Quads falling behind glutes and hamstring development can sometimes lead to some annoying problems, especially the knees. With trap bar deadlifts, you can be positive that your quads are working just as hard as your glutes and hamstrings. When it comes to my weight training, I am always looking for variation to keep my body challenged. Trap bar deadlifts are another highly effective exercise to add to my exercise arsenal.
The Trap Bar Deadlift: A Leverage Advantage
If you know how to perform a conventional or sumo deadlift then most of the execution cues required in a trap bar deadlift are pretty much the the same. Unlike conventional, sumo and stiff-legged deadlifts, the trap bar deadlift has the weight placed at the side of you rather than in front of you. The good thing about this is, the trap bar movement immediately becomes more leverage friendly than that of other straight bar variations. The benefit here is that being in a more optimal position to pull weight gives you two main advantages: less risk of injury and, the ability to use more weight. Both of which you need if you want to be keep making those awesome size and strength gains.
“The trap bar deadlift has the weight placed at the side of you rather than in front of you”.
When I talk about leverages, I simply mean the length of your arms, torso and legs as well as the relative hip and knee angles that you are forced to adopt when you the pull weight off the ground. When it comes to conventional, sumo and stiff-legged deadlift variations, leverages can become a big problem if you have short arms. With short arms you need to put your back in a more horizontal position in order to reach the bar. Which kind of makes sense, right? After all, if you can’t reach the weight, you can’t pick it up! The problem with short arms is, the rotational forces (torque) of your hip extensors (glutes and hamstrings) must increase significantly in order to overcome the weight. Simply put, shorter arms make the weight seem heavier in comparison to someone with longer arms. Great for benching, a pain for deadlifting!
Obviously you can drop your hips and flex your knees more to compensate (thus bringing your back to a more vertical position). The problem here is, hips starting too low can place your hamstrings and glutes into a sub-optimal position for force production, add pressure to your knees and, make it harder to keep the weight closer to your body (lower hips tend to push the knees further out). Let’s just say, if you have long gorilla like arms then it’s your lucky day! With a straight bar deadlift, pulling from the floor is going to seem much smoother as you will be able to place your hips, knees and back in more optimal positions to pull weight. I tell you, shortish arms always make pulling from the floor such a grind.
- The top diagram represents a typical straight bar deadlift position with long arms
- The bottom diagram represents a typical straight bar deadlift position with short arms
- “A” represents the hip position of a typical long arm deadlifter
- “B” represents the knee position of a typical long arm deadlifter
- “C” represents the hip position of a typical short arm deadlifter
- “D” represents the knee position of a typical short arm deadlifter
- “VBA” (vertical back angle) and is greater for a short-arm deadlifter, thus increases the distance of the hips from the weight (HBD)
- Top diagram: the smaller the VBA, the smaller the HBD and the less rotational force (torque) required by the hips to overcome the weight. This is the optimal scenario.
When it comes to the trap bar deadlift, I think it’s just great having the weight at the side of you, rather than in front. It just puts your in a more optimal body position to pull more weight off the ground. I mean who doesn’t want that, right? If you find yourself fighting with poor leverages (short arms) during the straight bar deadlifts, then a trap bar deadlift might just be light at the end of the tunnel. When weight is placed in the middle of you rather than in front, two mechanical advantages take place: your back adopts a more vertical (upright) position and the distance of the weight from your hips and knees changes.
Sometimes when reading about compound exercises, you might come across two terms: hip-hinge and knee-hinge dominant movements. I promise it’s nothing too complicated, it just means two things: if a movement is more hip-hinge, then you will be using your glutes and hamstrings (hip extensors) to a greater extent than your quads (knee extensors). If a movement is more knee-hinge, then you will be using your quads more than your glutes or hamstrings. Simple! Straight bar deadlifts tend to be more of a hip-hinge movement due to the fact that the weight is further away from your hips and extremely close to your knees. This means that your glutes and hamstrings will do most of the heavy lifting in order to get the weight up into the air. It is also the reason why straight bar deadlifts tend to be more taxing on your glutes, hamstrings and lower back than your quads.
- The top diagram represents a typical body position in a straight bar deadlift (weight in front of the knees)
- The bottom diagram represents a typical body position in the trap bar deadlift (weight between knees and hips)
- “A” represents the hip position in a straight bar deadlift
- “B” represents the knee position in a straight bar deadlift
- “C” represents the hip position in a trap bar deadlift
- “D” represents the knee position in a trap bar deadlift
- VBA (vertical back angle) is less in a trap bar deadlift allowing for a more vertical back, this helps bring the hips closer to the weight (smaller HBD)
- There is also increased KBD (distance between the knees and the weight) in the trap bar deadlift allowing for more quad involvement
- The force production capabilities in the trap bar deadlift are spread between both the hip (gluten, hamstrings) and knee-extensors (quads) allowing for more weight
Unlike straight bar deadlifts, the trap bar deadlift is really a hybrid of both the hip- and knee-hinge movements. This is why the trap bar is great for not only great for working your glutes, hamstrings back and core, but also your quads. Now that the weight is in the center of you, the distance between the weight and your knees is now greater. This means that your quads (knee extensors) have to work a lot harder (generate more torque) to overcome the weight. This will now really get your quads working! But, don’t forget your hips. Even though now the distance between your hips and the weight is smaller, they still need to generate huge forces (along with your knees) to get that weight up. Ok, some of the load is now shifted to your quads, but not enough to give your glutes and hamstrings an easy ride.
“Two mechanical advantages take place: your back adopts a more vertical (upright) position and the distance of the weight from your hips and knees changes”. It’s always possible to make the trap bar deadlift more hip- or knee-dominant by changing the height of your hips. Say you wanted to work your hips (glutes and hamstrings) more then you could start with hips higher. On the other hand, if you wanted to work your quads more, then you could start with your hips lower. This can be pretty useful if you want to selectively target specific muscles or reduce the influence of weaker groups that are bringing down your performance on the lift.
The good thing is, you are more likely to be able to lift a lot more weight on the trap bar deadlift than straight bar variations. Great for your overloading potential! In a straight bar deadlift, since your hip-extensors play the largest role, any problems in firing up your glutes and hamstrings is likely to pull back your performance. Likewise, in a squat, your overloading capacity is likely to be hindered through lazy quads. But, since the trap bar deadlift involves significant force production over the hip and knee extensors, your 1RM, velocity and power development is likely to be higher in comparison. Not a bad deal if you ask me!
- The top diagram represents a more knee-hinge dominant trap bar movement – hips lower (reduces distance between hips and weight) and knees forward (increases distance between knees and weight). Net result: knees bare most of the load
- The bottom diagram represents a more hip-hinge dominant trap bar movement – hips higher (increases distance between hips and weight) and knees more extended (reduces distance between knees and weight). Net results: hips bare most of the load
Where Does The Trap Bar Deadlift Fit Into Your Training?
A lot of weightlifters will tell you that you don’t need trap bar deadlifts in your program. It’s simply a mix of straight bar deadlifts and squats. If you do these, what purpose does the trap bar deadlift offer? Surely then, the trap bar deadlift is just an inferior version of both a straight bar deadlift and a squat? Well, I am going to disagree. The main benefit is obvious, variation! As you know, I am a big fan of it. By constantly rotating your exercises you shield yourself from the nasty effects of the biological law of accommodation. Yes, he is back again. Keeping your exercise selection varied is just a powerful way of continually challenging your body and preventing those awful, frustrating slow downs in your training progress. Another thing I like about trap bar deadlifts is simply that it’s easy to use more weight.
“By constantly rotating your exercises you shield yourself from the nasty effects of the biological law of accommodation”. More weight simply means more overloading potential and the chance to get bigger and stronger. Why would you pass this up? As you can work both your hip and knee extensors to a large effect, your ability to load these up with more weight is greater. A better mechanical leverage advantage can put you in a more optimal body position to use more weight. Exactly what the trap bar deadlift can do. Weight in the middle of you means a more vertical back and hip and knee positions that result in your glutes, hamstrings AND quads being used to a great extent. Unlike straight bar deadlifts, the trap bar deadlift allows for force production capabilities to be spread and coordinated over several muscle groups allowing for potentially more weight, more power and, more velocity development.
As you might have noticed by now, the trap bar deadlift looks like an appealing replacement for straight bar deadlifts (and maybe the squat). However, I still recommend that you still keep squats and straight bar deadlifts in your program. Don’t use the trap bar to replace all other variations, but use it to ADD more variety to your training. If you skip straight bar deadlifts then you risk missing out on a lot of benefits for your glutes and hamstrings. The trap bar deadlift has a lot to offer, but it can’t solely replace everything else. Even if you suffer from poor leverages and flexibility on straight bar deadlifts and squats, doing the trap bar deadlift can help with boosting overall performance on these other exercises.
My recommendation is to use all variations (squats, trap bar deadlifts, straight bar deadlifts) in your training to ensure the optimal build up of your quads, glutes, hamstrings, core and back. Not only this, but the performance benefits that you gain can be easily transferred and shared by all these exercises. This makes for more successful overloading over time.
“Don’t use the trap bar to replace all other variations, but use it to ADD more variety to your training”.
If there is one thing I notice between the trap bar and straight bar deadlifts, that is the back gains are crazy with the trap bar version (particularly upper back). If there is one thing I can tell you, my upper back always seemed to get a great kick from doing trap bar deadlifts. One possible explanation I have for this is related to isometric holding of a weight (holding weight in mid air). As you now have to hold the weight at each side of your body (rather than in front), the trap bar deadlift simulates a sort of farmers walk type exercise. This of course makes sense, because as you approach and reach full back extension (lock out) you have to use both hands to support the weight at the side of you to stop it dropping.
The influence from your upper back at this point is going to be huge. If you have ever performed farmer’s walks you will find out that they are great upper back builders due to having to support the weight in mid air at the side of you. The reason for holding this weight in mid air causes a huger amount of stretch and tension to be developed in the upper back region. Great if you’re looking for more upper back gains! In a trap bar deadlift, the weight is precisely in the same position (to the side) to cause maximum stretching and tension on your upper back region. If you ask me, I have always found this stretch to be greater than that experienced during straight bar deadlifts. For this reason, trap bar deadlifts (along with rack pulls above the knee and barbell shrugs) might be a nice addition for extra back gains.
- The top diagram (“A”) represents the action of using your hip- and knee-extensors to pull the weight up
- The bottom diagram (“B”) represents full extension with the weight being supported by both hands in mid air. Your upper back must go through a huge amount of stretch and tension generation to aid in this (like a farmers walk). More upper back gains!
I really think trap bar deadlifts can be a valuable addition to your weight training. Although I can see why some people wouldn’t do them (too much like a squat) there are still too many benefits to not consider using them. Honestly, even if you already doing squat’s and straight bar deadlifts, the addition of trap bar deadlifts will only server to bring further benefits to you’re weight training. This is not only in terms of increased exercise variety, but also in terms of the ability to overload more, adopt a more leverage friendly body position and, to further develop those muscle groups (hip and knee extensors) that might be limiting your performance in other exercises. So, if your gym has a trap bar give them a go, you won’t be disappointed!
If you have any questions about the article or would like to discuss further some of the topics mentioned, then please feel free to leave comments down below.Have you ever tried the trap bar deadlift? Is there a particular deadlift variation that you struggle with? Let me know!