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How to Deadlift: Which Variation is Right for You? – Part 3 (Trap Bar Deadlift)

Written on May 6, 2011 at 7:29 am, by Eric Cressey

Today marks the third and final installment of this series on which deadlift variation is right for you.  Part 1 focused on the Conventional Deadlift, while Part 2 covered the Sumo Deadlift.  Today, we’ll talk about another fantastic option: the Trap (or Hex) Bar Deadlift.

At Cressey Performance, we use the trap bar for all our initial deadlift technique instruction with new clients, as it tends to be a very safe option for just about everyone.

Because the handles are to the sides (instead of in front) of the lifter, it doesn’t take as much hip and ankle mobility to get down to the bar.  Most trap bars also come with two handle settings – one of which is a little bit higher so that those with limited mobility can still get down to deadlift with a neutral spine.  So, it saves you the time and annoyance of having to put the plates on top of some sort of riser to elevate the bar.

Additionally, because the lifter is positioned “inside” the bar, the load is horizontally closer to with his center of gravity (COG), whereas the resistance is usually more anterior to that COG on a conventional or sumo deadlift. Note the white line in this photo that depicts the position of the load relative to the hip – and imagine how it would be a few inches further to the left in a conventional or sumo deadlift.

As a result, there is less shear stress on the spine and presumably more compressive stress.  Our spines generally handle compression much better than shear, so this simple repositioning of the resistance closer to the axis of rotation (hips) can dramatically improve “comfort” during deadlifts in those with a history of back pain (or those who are looking to avoid it).  You’ll often see lifters who try to go right back to conventional deadlifting after lower back pain and wind up with recurring symptoms.  They’d be much better of transitioning with some trap bar deadlifts to “test the waters.”

The only problems I see with trap bar deadlifts are pretty subtle ones – and both have to do with the fact that the bar really never comes in contact with the legs on the way up or down.  As a result, there is a tendency is novice lifters to try to squat the weight up and down – and this is not what should be taking place; it’s a deadlift – which means “hips forward, hips back.”  This first common problem can be quickly corrected by simply teaching the movement correctly with a good hip hinge.

The second concern would be those in significant posterior pelvic tilt who have lost the lordotic curve of the lumbar spine.  When one gets to lockout on a conventional or sumo deadlift, we cue them to activate the glutes and “hump the bar” to complete the movement.  In those with posterior pelvic tilt, that same movement to finish hip extension without the presence of a bar to stop them will often lead to them going into full posterior pelvic tilt and lumbar flexion under load in the upright position.  In other words, the hips come through too far.  This is another problem that can be easily fixed with cueing on when the hip extension should end, and what the upright position should look and feel like.

A lot of those reading this piece may not have access to a trap bar for performing this strength exercise, but to be honest, I can say without wavering that for most people, it’s well worth purchasing. You can pick one  up HERE through Perform Better for just $144.95 plus shipping.  And, this bar is actually surprising versatile addition to a strength and conditioning program relative to what people think; you can do deadlifts with it, but also farmer’s walks, overhead presses, and (if it’s your thing) shrugs.

To see how all the deadlift variations fit into a comprehensive strength and conditioning program, check out Show and Go: High Performance Training to Look, Feel, and Move Better.

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28 Responses to “How to Deadlift: Which Variation is Right for You? – Part 3 (Trap Bar Deadlift)”

  1. Steve Long Says:

    Great series on one of the best lifts know to man. They should play this on a loop on most chain gym TV’s instead of Jerry Springer and soup operas.

  2. Greg Y. Says:

    Nice article Mr. Cressey. At my age (44) this is my deadlift of choice now.

    With my torn biceps brachii repair 6.5 weeks post surgery, it will be a while before I am able to do this exercise again. I am glad, however, to see it posted in a positive light.

  3. Mark C. Says:

    Love the hex bar. BTW you can also use it for a good morning exercise. Just drape it across your back and the hand position is very much like using a cambered bar. If you have stiff shoulders or some other need, the hex bar GM gives you a way to work the posterior chain with a bit more comfort.

  4. mike Says:

    Trap bar deads are a great alternative … takes a bit of the pressure of spine …good for boosting squat ### but remeber its a dead lift not a squat…also try lumber jack quate another good alternative to squats…throw in push press at end of squat movement another all body excercise

  5. vivoir Says:

    Thanks for this- I frequently check your blog but never comment… alas this is changing! I LOVE deadlifts. Combined with push-ups, I always feel that I’ve got a good pump and worked my whole body in a way that will transfer to ‘real life’. Rather than ‘vanity lifting’ or exercises that won’t really help me get stronger in day-to-day life. If that makes sense!

    Do you have any good bodyweight subs for a good, heavy deadlift? If you peep at my blog, you’ll see today’s bodyweight/ weights superset mash-up and I’d really, really appreciate some new pairings? I know you’re a busy bee, but I want more people to see new ideas etc. as well as learn myself so it would be fab!

  6. Charles D. Says:

    My wife is trying this program with me and had poor ankle flexion due to hardware in her ankle from an old injury. This means she is unable to squat to parallel or to do deads without arching her back. Which method would you recommend for her to prevent a back injury as the weights increase?

  7. Chris Says:

    Hi Eric…I know the trap bar emphasizes the quads more because of the shift in COG. Would you consider this movement to be hip dominant or quad dominant? I’ve heard that trap bar deadlifts are a suitable alternative for those who can’t squat. What do you think of this?

  8. Eric Cressey Says:

    Great point, Mark! Never seen this before. Very cool.

  9. Eric Cressey Says:

    Vivoir,

    Sorry, but there is no substitute for heavy deadlifts – especially with body weight. Hip thrusts or KB swings might replicate the sequencing, but you simply can’t match up to the loading and comprehensive training effect.

  10. Eric Cressey Says:

    Charles – I’d elevate the bar on deadlift variations so that she won’t have to go quite as deep to get to the bar in the bottom position.

  11. Eric Cressey Says:

    Chris – definitely still hip dominant. If one is feeling it in the quads, they’re doing it incorrectly.

  12. Kris Wolff Says:

    Hey Eric! So glad I got a chance to watch you do these as I noticed your head position is truly neutral and I think I was trying to look more straight ahead…I will adjust next week. See ya Tuesday!

  13. Gordon Watts Says:

    @ Eric – Thank you for letting us know that:

    a) Head down; and,
    b) Lack of lifting belt (except when trying for PR)

    are both ‘safe’ — Not many people tell us this.

    Actually, my friend, April Mathis, who lifts at my gym and is presently ranked #1 as the worlds strongest woman in the SHW of RAW makes the good point that NOT having a belt allows you to work your muscles better -and I think you made that same point.

    Intuitively, I ‘knew’ that I needed to NOT wear a lifting belt most of the time (when exercising), but thanks to you and April (experts in the field), I now know it as surety.

    I’ve been told that a good lifter doesn’t need to ‘look up,’ but if I’m reading you right, you seem to say looking up when dead-lifting will result in too much arch — something I did not know previously.

    Sorry 2B long-winded, but you deserved the proper thanks & acknowledgments here.

  14. Matt Says:

    Slightly off-topic, I know; but when are we going to see some vids of you heavy squating? You said in Maximum Strength its not your favourite, but…

  15. Eric Cressey Says:

    Matt,

    I’ve got some kicking around. Will work ‘em in. In the meantime, not too heavy, but it should get the ball rolling…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SOZkkvB8CJM

  16. Jsy John Says:

    I have also found the trap bar quite useful for teaching SLDL’s for the same points above. One point on the deadlift variation, I do find athletes spend a lot of time trying to balance the bar in their hands, especially when it is heavy due to the sagittal nature of the grip. If the athlete can perform a traditional deadlift I would still use that, however the trap bar DL is a good tool in the arsenal.

  17. Steve Says:

    Hi Eric, thanks for all the info. As a guy who coaches 20 guys at a time on a baseball team, is it effective to substitute dumbbells in the dead lift, replicating the weight position of the hex bar?

  18. Ant Says:

    I think im going to swap out straight bar deads for the hex bar My lower back has been in skits. Im spending way to much time reading for lectures.

  19. Tynan Says:

    Steve, I’m not an expert by any stretch, but I’ve looked into your question before. When you deadlift with dumbbells you do get a nicer centre of gravity than with a barbell, but you run into a couple issues. One is that the weight starts very close to the ground, requiring extreme mobility to do the first part of the lift with good form. Platforms would help. Another is that loading becomes a problem once you get to higher weights (do you have many dumbbells that weigh more than 80 pounds?). The last is that there is more danger of dropping a heavy dumbbell on your foot than a hex bar or a standard barbell.

    Ok, that’s what I got. Any experts feel like commenting or adding anything?

  20. Ken Says:

    Regarding dumbells for Straight Leg Deadlifts, I have lower back issues, so to be precautionary, I use Single Leg Deadlifts with dumbells. I have even performed on a block for extended range and more challenge balancing. Not an expert, just some ideas.

  21. Alan Says:

    Hard to beat the Hardstyle Kettlebell Deadlift as a beginner teaching tool for conventional deadlift. Placing the horns at or behind the malleolus helps teach proper hip hinging and allows you to feel the critical lat engagement needed for heavy deads. Another benefit is that you learn how to generate compactness and proper pre-tensioning (eliminating leakage) before going heavy. Another way RKC Hardstyle kettlebell techniques will improve your DL PR.

    Alan Heddings, RKC, CK-FMS

  22. Robert Says:

    As an older lifter I’ve found that the trap bar works better for me

  23. Rob Jackson Says:

    Great article Eric!!! Always nice to see different progressions of each lift. Any trainers that are in the Kansas City area can get a HEX bar from Fitness First KC and save the shipping cost. Plus as an added benefit if you are a professional trainer make sure to mention it and you may receive a 10% discount. In no way am I associated with the company, just trying to help fellow trainers save where they can. Will run you about $143 without the shipping.

  24. Morgan Says:

    Hi

    Serious question: what is wrong with ‘squatting’ the bar up if one is to use the bar like that as a substitute for a barbell squat? Couldn’t I use both positions, one for my ‘deadlift’ and one for my ‘squat’? (I don’t have means or access to a barbell.)

    Please note, I’m not questioning your advice here. I’m just a novice with a hex bar seeking advice on the best way to lift and program with this bar (technique and frequency)

    Thanks

    Morgan

  25. Eric Cressey Says:

    Morgan,

    I would just tell you to be careful, as it’s significantly different in terms of shear stress in the bottom position.

  26. Morgan Says:

    Thank you for replying Eric. When you say to be careful do you mean the bottom of the more upright ‘squat’ position? Fyi I’m not lifting heavy weights at the moment – I’m a 150lb novice!

    Thanks

  27. Eric Cressey Says:

    Yes, Morgan, I’m referring to the bottom position.

  28. Morgan Says:

    Thank you for your time and advice Eric. If then I use the trap bar deadlift as my main lower body lift, what might you recommend in terms of a weekly set/rep scheme? Would a 3 x a week 3 sets of 5 (SS style) be too much? I play soccer once a week but other than that have no other athletic demands.

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