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April 12, 2022
The conventional deadlift proudly sat as the king of exercises in the past. There was very little opposition to this assessment, with the only other contender perhaps being the back squat as the #1 exercise. However, we’re not going to get into a debate of deadlifts and squats, as a "new" exercise that is more comparable to the barbell deadlift has crept its way into the field of strength and conditioning, and that is the trap bar deadlift.
On that note, we are going to closely compare and breakdown the differences between trap bar deadlifts vs barbell deadlifts to see which one’s better and/or right for you...
To be clear, the entire debate is silly as both are awesome and do a damn good job serving their purpose. In fact, the trap bar deadlift and barbell deadlift are both very hard to beat, and both should sit on top lists of 'best exercises'.
Nevertheless, there are quite a few differences between them that need to be addressed so that you know how to use both of them appropriately to reach your specific goals. We also want to address some of the silly misconceptions surrounding the trap bar and barbell deadlift.
So, in this article, you’re going to learn:
When people hear “deadlift,” they will automatically think of the conventional barbell deadlift. There’s nothing wrong with this as that is what people are talking about more often than not. However, the “deadlift” can refer to one of the different variations of a movement that involves bending over and picking a load off the ground. For example, here is a non-exhaustive list that contains different types of deadlifts:
All different. All deadlifts. The common theme that unifies these movements is that they all consist of picking up a heavy load from a dead stop on the ground. Also, no matter which version you pick, there are tons of deadlifting benefits. That being said, the load or implements don’t even need to be the same. Therefore, let’s look at what makes the conventional barbell deadlift and trap bar deadlift unique.
The barbell deadlift is the classic conventional deadlift. This is what most people think about when they hear “deadlift”. All you need is a barbell and some weight plates to perform one. From there, you will bend down and pick it up. Well, it’s a bit more technical than that, but we’ll go over that below.
The barbell deadlift is usually the primary movement that one performs to satisfy what’s called the hip hinge movement. In fact, it’s one of “The Big Three” exercises that make up the sport of powerlifting, which are the three movements that allow you to move the most weight; the other two being the back squat and bench press. Technically, you can also perform sumo, but let's save that for another article.
Regardless, the barbell deadlift is easily one of, if not the most important, exercise there is.
How To Perform A Barbell Deadlift:
The trap bar deadlift is the cool new kid on the block and has quickly become a favorite exercise. Many people have actually started swapping out the conventional barbell deadlift with the trap bar deadlift as they believe it’s better suited for their needs.
To perform a trap bar deadlift, you will need a trap bar. Also known as a hex bar, a trap bar is shaped like a significant metal hexagon with two collars on either side to load plates. If you need to brush up on your geometry, a hexagon is a 6-sided shape with two parallel lines connected by two lines on either side. Further, a set of handles in the middle are generally raised and allow the trainee to lift the load. The lifter will stand in the middle of the trap bar and bend down to pick up the load. This situates the body right in the middle of the load compared to the barbell who is behind it. Therefore, the trap bar deadlift has higher vertical forces compared to the barbell deadlift as the body is not having to “pull” the weight.
Again, looking at how the trap bar deadlift is performed to understand the differences with the conventional barbell deadlift.
How To Perform A Trap Bar Deadlift:
These are both great movements, yet several significant differences distinguish them from one another. We want to list the significant differences that can affect your decision-making when determining what to do:
Some of the considerable confusion between the trap bar deadlift and barbell deadlift comes from an incorrect belief about the muscles being used or an oversimplification. As mentioned above, allowing the knees to come forward during the trap bar deadlift can shift the biomechanics towards a squat. However, it’s still not a squat! That being said, many people will hear something similar and will incorrectly assume that the trap bar is a squat.
When talking about squats and deadlifts, we need to realize a continuum exists - a movement doesn’t just become a deadlift or squat - it can lay somewhere in the middle or along the way.
The deadlift is a pure hip-hinge movement meaning the primary muscles involved are the:
These muscles, collectively known as the posterior chain, pull the hips forward during extension. On the other end are squats which tend to be more quadricep dominant. Even still, you can adjust a squat to alter this, such as when performing a low bar squat to hit the hamstrings and glutes more. Also, consider that both the squat and deadlift work every muscle in the lower body; the difference is to just to what extent.
Therefore, the barbell deadlift is a true hip-hinge movement.
As for the trap bar deadlift, while it somewhat similar to a squat, it’s still closer to the deadlift. How much also depends on how you perform the movement (i.e. more or less hip hinge and more or less knee flexion).
A great study actually specifically looked at this to compare the hip to knee force ratio of the barbell deadlift vs the trap bar deadlift. Basically, the study looked at the force applied to the hip joint, which would be produced by the posterior chain muscles, and the knee joint, which would be produced by the quadriceps. The ratio of hip-to-knee for the barbell deadlift was 3.68:1 meaning the posterior muscles worked 3.68X more than the quadriceps! As we said, a true hip-hinge! On the other hand, the ratio of the trap bar deadlift was 1.78:1. While not as high as the barbell deadlift, it’s still posterior dominant. To better illustrate this, realize that sumo deadlift, the other official deadlift, has a 1:1 ratio.
Yet another study examined the range of motion in the hips during the barbell deadlift and trap bar deadlift. We would expect the trap bar deadlift to have a smaller range of motion as there would be less hip flexion. Remember, during the barbell deadlift, the body must go lower, which can only be done if the hips move back further - this results in the bar moving farther vertically, and the hips joint moving further. And that’s exactly what this study showed. However, it’s not a huge amount. Trainees who performed the trap bar deadlift had a range of motion in their hips within 2-6 degrees of the barbell deadlift.
All this being said, the barbell deadlift and the trap bar deadlift actually train the same muscles. However, the barbell deadlift will definitely be more hamstring and glute-focused. The trap bar deadlift will also be hamstring and glute-focused, just not to the same extent, as the quads will get more work.
We also need to consider that you will be able to lift a heavier load with the trap bar deadlift. Studies have confirmed what most people expect, that you can raise about 15% more with the trap bar deadlift when compared to the barbell deadlift. This is something to consider when looking at exercises as greater loads can generally transfer into better strength gains and athletics.
At first glance, the obvious answer would be the barbell deadlift, as that’s the only lift that is performed in competitions. However, you would be wrong. While the barbell deadlift is seen in strength sports, we are talking about non-lifting athletes such as football players. In that case, it actually seems as though the trap bar deadlift has a better transfer to performance.
A recent study from 2017 wanted to see how a trap bar deadlift altered movement patterns and variables compared to the barbell deadlift. Other than lifting more weight, this study found that the trap bar deadlift had more significant numbers in:
All of these are directly related to better athletic performance.
So which should you train? This is a difficult question to answer, but there is enough reason to believe that the trap bar deadlift is the better option unless you are a powerlifter or doing specific training to lift more on the deadlift. This has nothing to do with the idea that the barbell deadlift is too dangerous. This is solely based on looking at the numbers and taking everything we know into account.
The obvious answer would be to just train both - either switching things up every couple months or session by session - but if you could only pick one, it seems that nostalgia is the only thing to make us want to choose the barbell deadlift. It’s a tremendous hip-hinge movement that still works the posterior extensively. However, you are able to lift a heavier load, perform more total work and improve acceleration while not putting as great a stress on your lower back.
All that being said, both are fantastic hip-hinge movements, and the question of trap bar deadlift vs barbell deadlift is null. Do both if you can and reap the benefits!
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