Monday, 2 March 2015

Trap Bar vs Straight Bar Deadlifts

Every exercise has pros and cons. To get the best possible results, you want to weigh the pros and cons of each exercise option to find the best one for you. I love deadlifts. They build real-life strength, improve sport performance, build muscle, burn fat and are very time efficient. Also, there are many great variations to choose from. One option for deadlifts is the hex or trap bar. Is this better than a straight bar deadlift? Let’s find out.




Advantages of Trap Bar Deadlifts
Neutral Grip
Mixed grip
A huge advantage of the trap bar is the neutral grip (palms facing in towards each other) handles. This is easier on the joints and provides a stronger grip than a double-overhand pronated grip with a straight bar. With the regular deadlift people quickly find it difficult for their grip to keep up with their leg and back strength. If you want to keep adding weight to the bar, you have to move to a hook grip, using straps or use a mixed (alternated) grip. Each of these options comes with challenges and potential disadvantages. With the trap bar’s neutral grip, you also ensure symmetric development and eliminate the rotational torque that a mixed grip can produce. This also grip seems to hammer the upper back (in a good way). 

Faster to learn
The trap bar deadlift is faster to learn and easier to coach than the straight bar deadlift. This makes life easier for the trainee and the coach and creates a faster transition from learning a movement to training a movement. 


High handle option
Many trap bars include two handle options. Due to variations in structural proportions, many people find deadlifting from the floor at standard bar height to be a little too deep for optimal low back position. The few extra inches that the high handles on a trap offers usually takes care of this problem without the need to resort to pulling from a rack or blocks. Also, if your training partner likes a different handle height than you (as mine did the other day), you can easily flip back and forth between the two options – even with a heavy weight on the bar. 

Hybrid squat-hinge movement
Coach Dan John defines the squat as a movement with maximal hip and maximal knee bend. The hinge as a movement with maximal hip bend and minimal knee bend. The trap bar deadlift allows for a hybrid between the two movements that is half way between a squat and a hinge. This is a very natural movement. It is also great for athletes as this position is very similar to how the lower body moves in an athletic context.
Move the arms back and this looks a lot like
a take-off position for a vertical jump

Adjustable style
While most people will make the trap bar a blended movement, you can still make it more hip or knee dominant by adjusting your set-up. If you start with a lower position and a more upright torso, it becomes more of a knee dominant squat. If you start with a higher hip position, it becomes more of a hip dominant hinge.
Low hip set-up for squat-style

High Hip set-up for hinge-style

You can lift more weight
While this can differ depending on your training history and structure, research and anecdotal evidence shows that most people can do more weight with the trap bar deadlift. This is likely do to the hybrid nature of the movement I explained above.

More favorable to poor deadlift mechanics
Bad deadlift proportions
To pull big weights, you want a short torso and long arms. If you have short arms for your height, pulling from the floor with a straight bar might not be possible while maintaining proper low back arch – even if you have great hamstring flexibility. Because it is easier to bend down with the trap bar, it can work better for those with poor deadlift proportions.

Easier on the low back
Research shows that the trap bar deadlift uses the knees more and the low back, hips and ankles less than a straight bar deadlift. Also, with the design of the bar you can stand inside of the bar instead of behind it. This reduces the torque required by the low back. Both of these factors tend to make it more low back friendly. This is a huge advantage for those with grumpy low backs or who have a lot of sport/work/life stress on their back already. 

For athletes, this reduced low back risk is a huge benefit – especially in-season when you want to be extra careful to not get injured training and to avoid unnecessary back stress. I encourage most of our athletes to use trap bar deadlift in-season.

Quick programming note: due to this decreased use of the hips, you may want to add some extra hip extension work into your program the place a greater emphasis on end-range hip extension and/or the hamstrings (e.g. hip thrusts, Romanian deadlifts). 

No bloody shins
No bar on the shins means no risk of scraping your shins, no lost training time spent applying band aids and no paused training sessions to clean blood off the bar. It also removes the fear of scraping the shin which causes people to lose optimal bar path as they move the bar away from their shins.


Advantages of Straight Bar Deadlifts
Accessibility 
A huge downside with the trap bar deadlift is that you have to have a specialty bar that is not available in many gyms. As I mentioned above, we like to use trap bar deadlifts with our athletes during the in-season. However, after the season ends, we switch to straight bar deadlifts for many of them because few will have access to trap bars when they are away us during the summer.

More hamstring, glute and low back focus
Having a straight bar forces you to use your hips more and this really increases the involvement of the posterior chain: low back, glutes and hamstrings. These are important muscles for improving performance, aesthetics and for structural balance (they off-set the extra quad focus that many sports have and keep a good balance between the hamstrings and quads). With the trap bar deadlift, you can hide a weak posterior chain and squat the weight up. With a straight bar, you are forced to use your posterior chain.

Tension at lockout
Powerlifters emphasize complete hip lockout because that is what is necessary to complete the lift. However, I encourage everyone I coach to emphasize full hip extension because it really hammers the glutes. While the hamstring can assist in earlier ranges of hip extension, the glutes are what complete hip extension. When you have a straight bar held in front of your thighs, you have constant tension all way up into hip lockout. Lockout done right will leave you with a happy low back and a butt that is screaming for mercy.

This tension is not only helpful for hitting the glutes, it can also be safer. With the trap bar, you have to be careful that your hips do not snap forward during lockout. Without the bar to stop your thighs they can move forward while the weight moves back and you get snapped backwards. 

Bar teaches the knees where to go
With a straight bar you move the hips and the shoulder up at the same time to create room for the bar to get past your knees. Done incorrectly, the result is bloody shins. However, if done correctly, it helps to ensure proper sequencing of the hips and knees and optimal positioning for glute and hamstring recruitment. Also, with the trap bar you can break the ground, shoot the knees forward and do a mechanically-efficient (and useless) ¼ squat to get the weight up. 

Easier on the knees
Coming back to the research mentioned above, the trap uses the knees more than the hips. This can be problematic for those with beat up knees. I feel more knee stress with the trap bar than I do the straight bar.

Rack pulls
Rack pull
For those who cannot pull from the floor, a straight bar deadlift can easily be moved into the rack and pulled off the pins. Most trap bars leave do not work in power racks because they are just too narrow. An exception is Biotest’s Dead Squat™ Bar

More options
With the trap bar, you only have one option for your hands. This can be problematic for smaller individuals as it causes their arms to angle out. Also, you have limited options for foot placements. With a straight bar you can find the optimal grip width. You also have the option of pulling sumo.

Higher loading limit
Standard trap bars have a much shorter loading sleeve than your standard Olympic barbell. As a result, unless you have very narrow plates, it can be harder for stronger folks to get enough weight on the bar without running out of room.
Notice the difference in loading room

You can also work around this loading limit if you get a
bigger trap bar - often called a mega trap bar 
Conclusion
So which is better? The answer is (as it is to every good training question), “it depends”. With any exercise there are always pros and cons. You can make a strong case either way with these two deadlift variations. I hope you now have a better understanding of the advantages of each to assist you in picking the right tool for your training.

Reference:
Swinton, P, Stewart, A, Agouris, L, Keogh J, & Lloyd R. A Biomechanical Analysis of Straight and Hexagonal Barbell Deadlifts Using Submaximal Loads. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 25(7), pp. 2000-2009. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181e73f87.



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