In an earlier article we compared the trap bar deadlift, squat, and leg press; all of which can be potent movements for muscular strength and hypertrophy.
[Here’s what you need to know about the trap bar deadlift, squat, vs leg press debate!]
In this article we will specifically breakdown the trap bar squat (which is also known as the trap bar deadlift, and in my opinion IS a hybrid deadlift/squat movement) and the back squat and detail out the distinct differences between them and the implications that has for coaches and athletes.
Trap Bar Squat
Also known as the trap bar deadlift, this movement, in my opinion, is a deadlifting patterning that offers some amount of knee flexion and quadriceps development, however has the highest emphasis on glute and back development. Below is a video tutorial on the trap bar “squat” by Mark Bell.
For the same of this article, I will be referring to the high bar variation of the bar squat, as the torso and shin angles are more similar to one another than other squatting variations. Below is a high bar back squat explanation and demo by Aleksey Torokhtiy.
Trap Bar Squat vs. Back Squat: The Distinct Differences
Below are three aspects coaches and athletes should consider when determining which movement is best for their athlete/program goals.
Load Bearing Benefits
While the trap bar squats allow for some spinal loading, the stress placed upon the lumbar spine and systems is less than a back-loaded squat (high or low). For some athletes, this may be intended, as it can minimize lower back stress, however for most healthy athletes, the higher degree of spinal Loading could result in greater long term development and injury resilience.
When it comes to loading, nearly every power and strength athlete must be able to carry, brace, squat, and even pull, making both of these movements highly beneficial, however the squat does in my option offer slightly more benefit in this department.
To be clear, the trap bar squat is much more a deadlift patterning than a squat. The lack of high degrees of knee and hip flexion when compared to the back squat (high bar specifically) minimizes its ability to truly develop the quadriceps and hamstrings throughout the full range of motion. Athletes who rely on full range of motion force production (sports athletes, fitness competitors, Olympic weightlifters, etc) would be doing a great disservice to their leg development, performance, and injury resilience by omitting the back squat (specifically the high bar) in place of the trap bar squat.
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I personally do not feel that the trap bar squat is an alternative to back squats, but rather more of a deadlift patterning and should be programmed as such to increase glute and back strength, not primarily leg muscle mass and strength development.
Posterior Chain Dominance
The posterior chain can be broadly defined as the glutes, hamstrings, and back; and the synchronization of those muscles to produce powerful and explosive hip, knee, and ankle extension. This is critical for nearly every athletic feat.
[The strength and power athlete’s guide to fully developing their posterior chain is here!]
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Both of these movements can develop the glutes and hips into powerful muscles, each distinctly differently. The trap bar squat relies heavily on glute and middle/upper back strength, while the back squat also employs the back and quadriceps. When programmed and performed properly, both of these movements can help to produce strong, powerful athletes.
While some people may mistake the trap bar squat as a squatting movement, I personally categorize it as a trap bar deadlift, due to the lack of knee flexion in the complete range of motion. While the shin and torso angles may be similar to the back squat at times, in no way (in my opinion) is the trap bar squat a replacement for back/front squatting, as squatting is one of the most (if not the most) transferable, functional, and total body strength and hypertrophy movements a human can do. In the event an athlete had to only do one, I would suggest mastering and perfecting the back squat, primarily for its universal applications to nearly every movement and athletic endeavor.
In the event of an injury limiting someone from back squatting, while trap bar squats are a good option, they should also perform unilateral movements that incorporate full range knee flexion so that the quadriceps development and knee/ankle mobility is properly rehabbed and/or developed over time, so they may soon return to back squatting.
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