The deadlift is one of the central pillars of strength training. If you’ve ever bent down to pick something up, you’ve practiced and trained your deadlift. It’s an accessible lift that provides plenty of strength and hypertrophy in your lower body and back.
The deadlift is usually done with a standard barbell, but that’s not always the case. The axle bar is an alternative bar that gets its name from the wide diameter, or “axle”, which is several inches thicker than what you’ll find in most commercial gyms. This feature, along with its smooth surface, targets your grip strength to a major extent, intensifying an already-demanding exercise.
Either the barbell or axle bar work perfectly for training the deadlift, but they challenge you in different ways. Knowing the differences and the purpose behind them allows you to use each to their furthest benefit in your training.
Differences Between Axle Deadlifts and Barbell Deadlifts
The bar you work with is what makes these lifts unique. They’re both a deadlift, but the different equipment presents noteworthy differences in the lifts.
Gripping the Bar
The standard barbell is designed for an optimal grip. Most barbells have a diameter between 28 and 32mm and a rough surface called knurling that secures your hands to the bar. It’s made to feel secure in your hands while you use it.
The axle bar contrasts this with a wider diameter and smoother surface. As such, you need a lot more grip strength to work with the axle bar. Even lifting light loads highlights just how much grip strength you need to lift an axle.
On the regular barbell, the sleeves that hold the weight spin separately from the center bar, which allows for fluid and comfortable wrist motion. In contrast, the sleeves on the axle bar are fixed, which removes some freedom of movement. As such, you might find the axle bar more difficult to turn over during a clean.
Bar oscillation describes the elasticity of the shaft under certain conditions. As you increase weight on the sides of the barbell, the bar starts to oscillate, or vibrate, more dramatically. This can actually be advantageous as it allows you to “get the bar moving” on a heavy deadlift before the plates actually break off the ground.
The thickness of the axle bar, along with its often shorter length, make it completely resistant to bending. When you use a real axle bar, it will likely not bend regardless of how much weight you load onto it. This creates a much stricter “feel” to your deadlift technique.
Similarities Between Axle Deadlifts and Barbell Deadlifts
The movement is the same from start to finish whether you work with an axle or not. When you understand the similarities between the two, you’ll be able to use the lifts in combination more effectively.
The bars are different, but both lifts use the same weight plates, which means that the starting height of the bars is the same on both. A near exact hand placement and start position is used for both lifts. Because of this, the two lifts are accessed in a conveniently similar way.
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Since the lifts are essentially same, they both require the same technique. The basic positions and muscles used in the lifts are the same regardless of the bar’s thickness. This means that you can freely dabble in axle bar pulls as a way of introducing some variation to your deadlifting if you want.
When doing either version of deadlift, the same muscle groups are put under tension. Moving weight on a straight bar from the floor to your knee will involve your legs, glutes, back, core, etc., regardless of the style of the bar. The axle bar trains your forearms in a higher concentration, but this is the only difference.
Barbell Deadlift vs. Axle Bar Deadlift Technique
The contrast in equipment is distinct. Even though the technique is generally the same, you should still consider the ways that the equipment influences your deadlift.
Lifting a regular barbell requires a lot of grip strength. But when lifting the axle bar, your grip requires even more of you. With the axle bar, you will need to address your grip technique to a higher degree. You’ll require greater emphasis on your grip, especially when you increase weight. Since the axle bar is generally too thick to accommodate a hook grip, reduce the load until your hands and fingers can get stronger.
Due to the width of the axle bar, the weight is loaded slightly further out in front of the body in comparison to the barbell. The axle bar is also more rigid. It bends a lot less as the weight lifts from the floor. So, you’ll have to set your lats and be prepared to receive less slack from the lift with an axle bar.
How to Do the Barbell Deadlift
To perform the classic conventional deadlift with a barbell, stand with your feet underneath your hips. Line your shoelaces under the loaded barbell. Grip your hands comfortably outside your legs. Your shins should be vertical so that your knees don’t go past the bar.
Assume the start position by finding tension through your body, especially your back. Point your knee slightly outward. Your arms should be straight with your shoulders pulled back. Brace your core. Push through your legs to elevate the bar. Keep the barbell as close to your body as you can. The lift is complete when you achieve a tall standing position.
Coach’s Tip: For extra time under tension in training, control the descent of your deadlift to the floor.
Benefits of the Barbell Deadlift
- The barbell deadlift is an accessible way to train and test your strength, especially for beginners.
- It directly targets your absolute, total-body strength, which translates to other lifts that use the barbell.
Barbell Deadlift Variations
The barbell deadlift has many variations. For example, your stance or grip can easily be adjusted so that the lift better targets your goals. Below are a few common variations of the barbell deadlift.
You perform a sumo deadlift with a wide stance so that your hands grip the bar inside of your legs. This change elevates your chest for a more upright torso off the floor, as well as shortening the distance of your pull. Depending on your anatomy, this sufficient alternative to the conventional deadlift might feel more comfortable.
The Romanian deadlift is a hip hinge with the distinct difference of starting at a standing position. Your hips are set higher, and your knees will stay in the same position throughout the lift. From the top, control the descent of your lift while maintaing a flat back. Only go as far down as your mobility permits, and then return to the starting position. The Romanian deadlift is a great beginner tool for torching your hamstrings.
How to Do the Axle Bar Deadlift
The axle bar deadlift is executed nearly identically to the barbell deadlift, but the lack of flexibility in the implement means you must be extra stable before you lift. Set up as you would for the barbell deadlift with your desired grip, and pay extra attention to establishing a tight, static posture. Push through your legs with a tight back and lift the bar to a standing position with straight arms.
Coach’s Tip: Since maintaining your grip will be so challenging in this lift, you’ll likely not be able to load as much weight as in the regular deadlift.
Benefits of the Axle Bar Deadlift
- The defined width of the bar exaggerates the grip strength component to a high degree.
- Allows you to practice for the various movements and challenges in the sport of strongman.
Axle Bar Deadlift Variations
Although the axle bar is a niche piece of strength equipment, you can still practice several different styles of deadlift on it to keep your training fresh and fun.
Mixed-Grip Axle Deadlift
One common way to address the grip demand of the axle bar is to pull with a mixed grip. One hand pronated and one supine will allow you to keep better control of the shaft as you work through your reps. You can also wrap or unwrap your thumbs to introduce extra stimulation to your forearm muscles.
Banded Axle Deadlift
In banded deadlifts, resistance bands are secured to the floor and to the barbell. The bands add an extra element of dynamic resistance, increasing the intensity of your pull as the bar elevates. Banded axle pulls are a great way for strongman trainees to develop the most power possible.
The Barbell Deadlift vs. the Axle Deadlift — When to Use Each
These two lifts share many similarities, but their small, unique traits give them separate identities. Here’s how to decide which lift to use and when in your training.
Challenges present in all directions when you first start lifting because your body is not yet familiar with the nature of lifting heavy. When you’re just beginning, you should practice and learn the deadlift with the standard barbell because it’s more simple and accessible for strength gains. Training with the axle bar can be added in later on, after you’ve gotten a handle on your technique.
For Strength Gains
For increases in strength, you should use both the barbell and axle bar at different times in your program. The barbell deadlift is a straightforward way to build strength, but the axle bar takes this one step further by emphasizing your grip strength and the isometric squeezing of your hands. If your grip is getting in the way of how much weight you can load up in the deadlift, consider working on an axle for a few weeks.
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The axle bar is just one of the many unique implements you’ll find in a proper strongman gym. For the sake of specificity, if you train for strongman you should work mostly on an axle bar. That said, you may find sometimes that you need to give your hands a break. In such cases, pulling a standard barbell is a suitable substitute.
The Bottom Line
No two types of deadlift are identical, but if all you change is the bar you use, they can get pretty close. The hallmark of a the axle deadlift is the bar itself, not the technique you choose. In fact, if you know how to perform a deadlift properly from the ground up, the axle pull is at your disposal.
Whether you want to switch up your program for fun or have noticed a deficit in your grip strength and need to take immediate action, deadlifts belong in your workout routine. The only thing you have to decide is how hard you want to work your hands on each rep.
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