When it’s time to pull heavy weight, your options include two very different pieces of equipment – the trap bar and the barbell. Both implements are meant to be loaded up with plates and help you build strength. But when it comes to deadlifting, you might have heard some unfortunate rumors about the trap bar.
The good news is that these claims ring hollow — trap bar deadlifts have a wide array of benefits that rival those of the barbell deadlift. Both versions can help you get stronger, build muscle, and improve your performance in the gym.
But which deadlift variation is better for increasing overall pulling strength, preparing you for a powerlifting competition, or when you’re trying to grow your back? Here, you’ll learn about the actual differences between the barbell and trap bar deadlifts, what they’re both good for, and which lift you should program according to your body and your goals.
Differences Between the Barbell and Trap Bar Deadlift
If you want to build a strong back, you have to pull — period. But it can be tough to figure out whether you should use a trap bar or barbell for deadlifting, especially when the implements appear so different at a glance.
If you’re doing it right, the trap bar deadlift isn’t a squat, but, it still tends to be less hamstring-dominant compared to the barbell deadlift. A 2018 study found that the barbell deadlift activates the biceps femoris (your hamstrings) more than the trap bar deadlift overall. (1)
The same study concluded that the trap bar deadlift still did activate the hamstrings more than barbell hip thrusts, though — so hammie activation during the trap bar deadlift isn’t insignificant. The researchers also found that the low back was engaged to similar degrees by both deadlift variations.
Given the different muscle activation patterns that occur between the trap bar and barbell deadlifts, you should adjust your programming accordingly. If hamstring growth is your goal, you might swing toward barbell deadlifts. On the other hand, if you’re looking to build overall back strength and hypertrophy, both versions can be effective.
While most commercial or properly-outfitted home gyms contain either a barbell or trap bar, the latter is more accessible when it comes to learning technique. For beginners, in particular, the orientation of the load tends to be more intuitive, providing a better way to learn how to hinge properly without getting wrapped up in the minutiae of learning the perfect pull.
Similarities Between the Barbell and Trap Bar Deadlift
A lot of people dismiss the trap bar deadlift as more of a squat, and sure — it can be. But if you perform it while paying proper attention to balancing the bar and actually activating your hip hinge, the trap bar deadlift actually has a lot in common with its more popular cousin.
All things being equal, most people can pull more weight using a trap bar than a barbell. Some of that has to do with range of motion, and a lot of it has to do with grip positioning and leverage.
That said, if a lifter is interested in competing in powerlifting, they’ll want to focus on building strength primarily with the barbell. That’s not to say that trap bar deadlifts can’t help with that goal, but if your sport requires barbell deadlift-specific strength, the barbell is going to be your best friend.
Regardless of what the haters say, trap bar deadlifts are a valid pull. It might take a little extra grip and core work to maintain a smooth bar path with the trap bar deadlift, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
As long as you’re keeping the bar centered and your shoulder blades pulled down, people of all shapes and sizes will be able to execute the trap bar deadlift with the same hip hinge pattern as with a barbell.
Barbell Vs. Trap Bar Deadlift Technique
The implements themselves look very different, but the performances should look fairly similar. Your hands will be in a different position, and the trap bar will require you to stand in the middle of the bar instead of behind it.
Yet you should still fundamentally be performing a hip hinge. To properly do so, a few technique tips might come in handy.
Hip Hinge vs. Squat
As with the sumo deadlift, the trap bar deadlift might wind up being a little more quad-focused due to a more upright posture. When you’re setting up for your trap bar deadlift, you’ll want to pay special attention to hinging at your hips instead of bending at the knees to grab the bar.
To do so, try pushing your hips back with a soft bend in your knees before otherwise engaging your knees. That will help you get the tension where it needs to be before involving the quads.
Setup and Positioning
With the barbell deadlift, you set up behind the bar. As long as you keep the bar close to the body throughout the lift — think about dragging it up your shins as you push the ground away — the close proximity and high leverage should make each rep smooth sailing.
A trap bar deadlift, on the other hand, has you lifting from “within” the bar. You can’t drag anything up along your body, so you’ll need other cues to maintain the right path. Make sure you’re engaging your lats the same way you do with a barbell to maintain the quality of movement and ensure that you’re emphasizing your hinge instead of steadying the implement.
How to Do the Barbell Deadlift
Approach the bar with your feet about hip-width apart. “Screw” your feet into the ground by angling them out slightly. With your shins roughly vertical and your shoulders over the bar, hinge back at your hips until you can grasp the bar.
Activate your lats by pulling your shoulder blades down your back. Set your gaze down and out a few feet in front of you. Brace your core, then drive your feet into the ground to initiate the pull. “Drag” the bar along your shins to keep it as close to your body during the pull as you can.
When you complete the lift, stand tall but resist any temptation to hyperextend your back. Lower the bar down under control.
Coach’s Tip: Squeeze your glutes at the top of the lift to avoid excessive involvement of the lower back.
Benefits of the Barbell Deadlift
- Builds serious full-body strength.
- Increase leg, back, and grip strength in one fell swoop.
Barbell Deadlift Variations
The conventional deadlift is revered in strength circles for a reason. It is a tremendous test of raw strength, technique, patience, and even mental fortitude. But the conventional deadlift isn’t the only barbell lift that packs a punch.
Need a deadlift accessory move that can reinforce superb technique and make you stronger at the same time? The Romanian deadlift can help stimulate hamstring hypertrophy and increase pulling strength while potentially providing less strain on your lower back.
You won’t be pulling Romanian deadlifts with the intent of maxing out. The lighter load can be easier on your body as a whole while still making a big impact on your lifting prowess.
On the hunt for a lift to help you break through a pesky deadlift plateau? Perform deficit deadlifts to improve your pulling power off the floor. The increased range of motion you’ll be accessing will boost leg and back strength.
Deficit deadlifts will also increase your time under tension and improve your overall deadlift setup. If you can perfect your hip hinge form with an extended range of motion, you’ll be that much more efficient when you go back to regular old deadlifts.
How to Do the Trap Bar Deadlift
Set up inside the bar roughly the same way you do for a barbell deadlift. Since you don’t have the barbell over the feet to use as a reference for alignment, ensure that the handles are roughly lined up with your ankles. When you’re finding your position, keep your shins fairly vertical while pushing your hips back.
Pull your shoulder blades down as you find your grip. Engage your lats and press through the ground to stand, squeezing your glutes at the top of the pull to avoid hyperextending your back. Reverse the movement under full control.
Coach’s Tip: When setting up, try not to start bending your knees until you feel your hamstrings activate. Only then should you use your knee bend to help get the rest of the way down to the bar.
Benefits of the Trap Bar Deadlift
- Improves full-body strength with an impressive emphasis on your back and your grip.
- Allows you to lift maximal loads without placing as much tension on the back extensors.
- Provides for a bit of extra quad work during your deadlift sessions.
Trap Bar Deadlift Variations
There are so many ways to use a trap bar, but you don’t necessarily need one to simulate the effects of a trap bar deadlift. The following exercises provide an option for trap bar deadlifting when your gym doesn’t have a trap bar, as well as a way to maximize your trap bar’s hamstring-building potential.
Double Kettlebell Suitcase Deadlift
You’ll want to grab some heavy kettlebells for the suitcase deadlift. By taking a regular kettlebell deadlift and making it suitcase style, you’ll be simulating the posture of a trap bar deadlift.
This isn’t a paltry imitation, though — there’s nothing watered down about this variation except a slight reduction in overall weight. Intensity is maintained because kettlebells add a huge level of instability to your training, so you’ll work overtime to keep your core steady.
Trap Bar Romanian Deadlift
If you’re concerned that trap bar deadlifts aren’t hitting your hamstrings hard enough, straighten your legs just a little bit. You can perform trap bar Romanian deadlifts using the same basic cues and techniques you use with a barbell. Placing the load closer to the midline can reduce tension on the spine while still hammering your hammies.
The Barbell Vs. Trap Bar Deadlift — When to Use Each
One of the first things you learn when you’re designing a training program is that there is no one-size-fits-all-approach. You’re ultimately going to need to figure out which exercises work best for you and your body. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t research-backed lifting suggestions to guide you on your way.
A 2011 study compared peak force, power, and velocity levels throughout the trap bar and barbell deadlifts of 19 powerlifters. (2) The study found that the athletes were able to lift significantly more weight with trap bars and that force production, power, and velocity were all higher with trap bars.
In other words, you can potentially get stronger — and overall more athletic — deadlifting with a trap bar rather than a barbell. That said, strength in the gym is all relative to what your goals are. And if your goals surround being able to lift heavy weight with a barbell, barbells are vital to your training.
For Muscle Growth
The same study also found that trap bar deadlifts do indeed activate your hamstrings, but not as much as barbell deadlifts. So when hamstring hypertrophy is what you’re going for, barbell deadlifts will probably win out.
On the other hand, when you’re looking for mass gain for your back muscles, the study suggested that trap bar deadlifts are just as effective as barbell deadlifts. Given these findings, trap bar deadlifts might be more effective at stimulating muscle growth insofar as they’re better at force, power, and velocity production.
For Sports Performance
If you’re a powerlifter, you’ll need to prioritize the barbell deadlift because it is a competition lift. Use it in your regular programming because you need to prioritize proper technical mastery, bar velocities, and strength development.
Still, many top-level powerlifters diversify their pulling programs by including a wide array of pulling variations. The trap bar deadlift can come in handy here as a way of providing some supramaximal stimulation.
For athletes whose sports don’t include barbell deadlifts, trap bar deadlifts might actually have an advantage. You’ll be able to move more weight while developing relatively more power, force production, and velocity — which translates well onto the field.
Generally speaking, the trap bar deadlift is less stressful on the low back than barbell deadlifts due to the resistance being in closer proximity to the midline. Because there is less stress on the spine, the trap bar deadlift is likely a better choice for lifters who experience low back pain.
For folks who are just learning to lift, it’s important to prioritize learning proper movement patterns. Because different people’s bodies and learning strategies aren’t the same, there isn’t one universally-effective training tool.
For some, graduating to barbell deadlifts will be easier than trap bar deadlifts with a proper hip hinge because of the straightforward bar path. For others, reinforcing a hinge pattern with trap bar deadlifts can be more effective because of the decreased range of motion. As with most things in lifting, take it slowly, prioritize form, and you’ll be able to see what works best for you.
The Bottom Line
Although trap bar deadlifts don’t necessarily have the best reputation, there’s no reason to avoid including them in your programming. If you have low back pain or have a goal of improving your power, you might want to prioritize trap bar deadlifts more than you might have previously considered. Though barbell deadlifts may remain your primary form of deadlifting, integrate the trap bar deadlift into your routine to maximize your gains.
- Andersen, Vidar, Fimland, Marius S., Mo, Dag-Andrè, Iversen, Vegard M., Vederhus, Torbjørn, Rockland Hellebø, Lars R., Nordaune, Kristina I., Saeterbakken, Atle H. (2018) Electromyographic Comparison of Barbell Deadlift, Hex Bar Deadlift, and Hip Thrust Exercises: A Cross-Over Study. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, March 32(3), 587-593.
- Swinton, Paul A., Stewart, Arthur, Agouris, Ioannis, Keogh, Justin WL, Lloyd, Ray A. (2011) Biomechanical Analysis of Straight and Hexagonal Barbell Deadlifts Using Submaximal Loads. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, (25)7, 2000-2009.
Featured Image: Rocksweeper / Shutterstock