A Battle of the Barbells
A barbell is probably the most commonly used piece of equipment in fitness today. Put simply, a barbell is a long metal bar, to which discs of varying weights are loaded at each end to allow you to overload your muscles. These long metal bars have special patterning on them (also known as knurling) to improve the amount of grip you have on the barbell. To deadlift a barbell, you stand behind the bar, bend at the hips, grip it, and rip it.
Trap Bars or Hex Bars (because of their hexagonal shape) are what is known as a speciality barbell. Similar to a normal barbell, Trap Bars have sleeves on the end that let you load weight, however where they differ is that instead of standing behind the barbell, the hexagonal shape allows you to stand inside the barbell. Trap Bars usually come equipped with two sets of handles on either side that allow you to grip the bar with a neutral grip (palms facing each other). The two handles differ in height, with one set at the same level as the rest of the bar (low handles), and one set that’s elevated (high handles).
The argument for most trainers is that the Trap Bar is not a true hip hinge, that in order to truly train the hinge pattern requires conventional straight bar deadlifts. However current research would disagree. Research has reported a deadlift had almost 3-4x the hip moment (load) as the knee, whilst the Trap Bar Deadlift was almost 2x the hip moment compared to the knees (Swinton et al 2011) . In contrast squat movements see almost equal hip and knee moments or in some cases greater knee moments than hip moments, so while yes the Trap Bar is more “squatty” it is far from a squat and much, much closer to a deadlift. The problem of a trap bar ‘squat’, more than likely originates with the coaching of the movement. By ensuring you are coaching a shift of the butt back, a higher hip position and minimal forward knee movement, you can still maintain all of the basic principles of a deadlift with the Trap Bar, same as with a straight barbell.
Benefits of the Trap Bar
1. EASIER TO LEARN
The straight bar deadlift, whilst nowhere near as technical as some other lifts (e.g. Olympic lifting variations), does take a significant period of time to become truly competent at. One of the biggest issues comes from the unavoidable fact that the barbell must be in front of the body, causing both balance and mobility compensations to come in to play. The Trap Bars design allows its centre of mass to be almost inside your centre of mass which removes a lot of the balance issues that tend to come up early on when teaching someone the movement (this also consequently also reduces some of the load on the spine). As far as mobility is concerned, a straight bar deadlift starts in a position that many people simply cannot get into without having to compensate with lower back flexion, which increases their risk for injury. This is easily fixed by simply using the high handles on the Trap Bar. The handles, which are about 3-4 inches higher than a straight bar, decrease the range of motion required at the hip just enough to allow good spinal position whilst still maintaining almost the same range of motion.
2. REDUCE SPINE & BACK ISSUES
Hyperextension is an issue in the fitness world that deserves a lot more attention than it currently receives. Whilst even the most novice of beginners is aware that rounding the back whilst training can cause issues, few are aware that extending the lower back can often be just as dangerous. When using a straight bar, the forward weight allows you lean back at the top of the movement, creating a lot of pressure and extension through the lower back. When using the trap bar, if you were to lean back, then more than likely you would start falling back too. In the end it feels much more natural to just stand tall and proud with the trap bar. Flexion of the lower back (aka spinal rounding) will occur once you fatigue or as load increases and is too much for hips to handle no matter how proficient you are with the straight bar deadlift. When using the Trap Bar, this usually results instead in the knees travelling forward and the back staying straight.
3. EASIER TO GRIP AND HOLD
Because the handles are shaped in a way that allows your hands to face one another, the Trap Bar is much easier to hold on to then a normal straight barbell. It does this because the position does not allow for the barbell to roll out of your fingers as a straight bar would when using a double overhand grip (both palms facing towards your body). This works very similar to the stronger mixed grip on a straight barbell, which involves one underhand and one overhand grip, without the associated risk of getting a DIY bicep removal courtesy of an underhand (supinated) grip. All together these benefits far outweigh the benefits that the majority of individuals would get from using a straight bar for their deadlifting. It is for this reason that we at ION Training rarely recommend the use of straight bars to our clients. When it comes to getting results time is king, so sure it would be great to have everyone deadlifting with a straight bar with perfect form, however taking 12-16 weeks out of someone’s training, simply to focus on improving their hip mobility to the point where they could use a straight bar safely would probably be better spent actually putting in work in the gym. At the same time, if a straight bar deadlift is a goal of the client than this work can be built in to the optional extras of the program with the goal in the long term of building enough mobility/stability to possibly transfer to the straight bar.
Hex Trap Bar available at AlphaFit - Shop Online
About the author
Exercise & Sport Science Specialist