Two pulling variations that are often seen in every training facility are the deadlift and trap bar “squat” (see below for clarification of this often misnamed movement). Both exercises can develop shear strength, massive amounts of muscle mass, and have a direct (or less direct) application to one’s sport/goals.
Therefore, in the article we will discuss both of these movements, and what every athlete and coach needs to know when determine when and how to program these into workout sessions.
The Trap Bar Squat (Actually, It’s a Deadlift)
Before we get started, I must clarify a common misnaming that takes place with this movement. Although I have titled this as the trap bar squat, the specific movement I am referring to is actually called the trap bar deadlift. Many may use the trap bar “squat/deadlift” interchangeably, however if the movement starts from the floor, we will call it the trap bar deadlift. The reason being is there is actually something called the trap bar squat, in which the lifter actually racks the weight at chest level and squats.
In the above video, the lifter is performing what I would call a trap bar “squat”, which is done, but is not common. Note that for the rest of this article, I will be talking about the trap bar “deadlift”, which is also commonly misnamed the trap bar “squat”.
In the above video, the lifter demonstrates how to correctly do a trap bar “deadlift”. Note how the lifter is lifting the bar from the floor, rather than in the first video in which it is help up by the chest, and squatted. In this movement, the lifter steps inside the trap bar, assumes a loaded position with the hips back, flat and neutral spine, with the shoulder slightly over and in front of the barbell. For weightlifters out there, this start position may mimic more of a clean pull position than a traditional deadlift. This movement is often seen as a hybrid movement, since it technically is a deadlift, yet the loading mechanics on the quads and glutes (due to greater knee flexion in the start of the movement than the traditional deadlift) suggest it has more squat like benefits.
[Want to learn more about the Trap Bar “Deadlift”? Check out our ultimate guide here!]
This movement is a good balance between hip strength, leg drive, and upper/middle back stability. The lift is often done at slightly higher loads than one could use with conventional deadlifts, as the lifter has a short range of motion and is not dependent as much on hamstring, glute, and erector strength given the slightly higher torso alignment due to the set up.
The traditional deadlift has a lifter assume a position standing just behind a barbell, with their shins nearly perpendicular to the floor in the set up. The hips are loaded, back flat, with the shoulder slightly over or in front of the barbell. The shoulders themselves are at a slightly higher position than the hips, allowing a lifter to drive away from the floor and pull up and back on the barbell to assume the flat back and leverage position.
[Looking to gain serious muscle mass and strength? If so read here to determine which one of these exercises you should be doing!]
This movement differs slightly from the trap bar deadlift as it requires a lifter to have less of a vertical torso in the load, increase stress the lats, erectors, and hamstrings. This positioning is particularly challenging to lifters who may lack lower back strength, spinal and thoracic extension, and/or have mobility and flexibility limitations in the hamstrings and hips.
Which Is Better for…?
In the below sections I break down the both movements, discussing which one, in my opinion can have the greatest impact on maximal strength development, muscular hypertrophy, and overall sport performance.
While some of these have a clear “winner”, it goes without saying that in most cases, merit can be given to both exercises.
Application to Sport (Deadlift, by a Hair.)
Depending on your sport (powerlifting, weightlifting, strongman, formal athletics, etc) it could go either way, however I would give the slightest advantage to the traditional deadlift (mainly due to the deadlift being an actual lift in powerlifting, strongman, and some application to weightlifting)
It’s no surprise that the traditional deadlift wins here. The technique, experience, and strength specific skills needed during competition must be practiced, trained, and developed using the same exact set ups, angles, and muscle used in training. While this does not mean I don’t think the trap bar variation could benefit powerlifters (actually I feel the opposite, than very much so can help significantly increase performance…see below), powerlifters must deadlift.
Both the clean and jerk and the snatch start from the floor (different grips and leverages) that mimic a deadlift. While clean/snatch pulls and deadlifts are VERY different (you must read this article to fully understand the drastic differences between them!) than the traditional deadlift, the similarities between them do offer some direct application to sports performance. While the trap bar deadlift set up and angles closely match the start of a good clean pull (other than the grip placement), the deadlift still nudges out the trap bar variation with respect to application to sports performance
As a collegiate strength coach, my job is to protect my athletes from injury first, then make them bigger, faster, stronger. While traditional deadlifts are amazing for strength and hypertrophy work, I often do not program them unless used in a more movement/hypertrophy cycle, as the risk/reward relationship can get muddy as lifters start to pull heavier and heavier weights. Because most athletes are not professional deadlifters, form sometimes takes a back seat as they try to compete and pull heavy amounts of loading. Their deadlift performance, while can be correlated to power output, jumping ability, etc, is not the end all for our training.
I really like using trap bar deadlifts for a few reason with most formal athletes during hypertrophy and strength cycles, however I usually have them do both. More maximal loading during strength blocks is often done with the trap bar to minimize excessive loading on the erectors, while still stressing the pulling mechanics and muscles.
It is important to note that the loads lifted on the bar is not the end goal to training, as it is often the case in strength and power sports. Maximizing athletic potential through strength, muscular hypertrophy, and speed development can take many forms, and must be weighed out accordingly to minimize unnecessary stress and balance that with the athlete also play a competitive, often contact-based sport.
Maximal Strength Development (Both)
While the deadlift is a direct objective measurement of one’s maximal strength in powerlifting and strongman competitions, I do feel that the trap bar deadlift can be a significant strength developer if trained properly.
The trap bar deadlift is a variant of the traditional deadlift, and can be programmed on an alternating fashion to allow athletes to pull, hold, and gain increased experience with loads heavier than they usually could lift in the traditional set up. Much like a lifter does deficit deadlifts, rack pulls, and farmers deadlifts to nudge maximal strength up specific to the actual competition lift, the trap bar deadlift can be used do the same.
The deadlift is critical for maximal strength development, as it stresses nearly every muscle in the body. The loads that are often withstood by most of the population during deadlifts (however some of the strongest humans can actually squat more than they pull) play a significant role on neuromuscular development and muscular strength capacity.
To best maximize overall strength, lifters and coaches should prioritize both of the movements, as well as squats, presses, and pulls to fully develop a lifter’s strength. Loading for both can be similar, however I have often found lifters will lift 10% or more higher on the trap bar deadlift than the deadlift.
Muscular Hypertrophy/Size (Both)
Once again, both exercises are equally important and can produce significant improvements in muscular strength and hypertrophy.
The key to both of these movements is to understand that, although they both are pulls from the floor, they actually promote similar yet very distinct muscular adaptations and target slightly different muscle groups. That knowledge can then be used during program design to help better individualize and target specific muscle groups during training.
The trap bar variation hits similar muscle groups, however places greater emphasis on middle back, traps, and glutes, and the quads, as the lifter is in am much more upright loaded position. The increased knee flexion in the start allows the lifter to take some tension off of the hamstrings and redistribute that to the hips and middle/upper back.
The traditional deadlift performed with the barbell, while stressing generally the same muscle groups as the trap bar variation, has limited amounts of knee flexion in the start, forcing the lifter to have higher degrees of hip flexion. In the set up and pull, the lifter has greater tension in the hamstrings and in much more parallel to the floor over the bar, making the erectors, lats, and middle back more more active in the movement.
If someone was to ask me what exercise was best, I would honestly have a hard time answering. In the end, I would have to go with the barbell version of the deadlift, but only because it is performed with a barbell in front of the body, which is a general starting point for so many other lifts (cleans, snatches, ground to overhead movements).
While the deadlift edged out the trap bar variation with regards to sport specificity (thanks to the traditional deadlift being an actual lift in both powerlifting and strongman, and having a large impact on weightlifting as well), I feel most athletes can benefit from incorporating/cycling both movements into their program to maximize strength and muscular development.
Featured Image: @mikejdewar on Instagram