Trap bars or hex bars are so called because of their shape (hexagon) which differs from a barbell, a loadable straight bar of metal. The shape and handle position is what differentiates the two movements. Although they are very similar in terms of biomechanics there are some subtle differences that make the two lifts very different. Effectively using the hex bar as a coach or trainee can drastically improve your hinging experience, so make sure you understand how and when to place them in a training programme.
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Both the conventional deadlift and hex bar deadlift are very much part of the hinge movement pattern. The hex bar deadlift is closer to the squat movement pattern with more engagement from the quads and knee flexion, but still remains far closer to the deadlift than the squat.
A lot of hex bar deadlifts have two options when it comes to handles, you can grip either at the lower handle which mimics that of the barbell or the higher handle, which is just a few inches higher but can make a big difference to the difficulty. When working with clients who are just getting into strength training, having the option of the high handles can help work around restricted mobility in the hips, allowing for technically excellent back position from the start of the training experience.
The weight is distributed in very different ways in the hex bar deadlift and the conventional deadlift, this is because the hex bar allows us to take the weight by our sides whereas the conventional deadlift requires that we load the body out in front of us. This makes the conventional deadlift more challenging for the lower back (spinal erectors) and hamstrings, which is typically why people are able to lift much more in the hex bar deadlift than in the conventional deadlift. Although there are differences between the two, they activate very similar muscle groups and both are considered hinge movements.
Personally I am a massive advocate for the hex bar deadlift, if I had to chose one lift to do for the rest of my life, it would be the hex bar deadlift. It has all the benefits of the conventional deadlift, with just slightly less hip extension force production, which is outweighed by how much easy it is to learn and to recover from. The general population can see huge health benefits from heavy strength training and the hex bar provides a simpler, safer version than the conventional deadlift, so this will always be my first point of call when I am teaching and building high level strength in the hinge movement pattern.
The conventional deadlift can be used once the hinge movement has reached a certain level of mastery, the hex bar deadlift is already strong in relation to bodyweight and straight leg variations have all been dialled in. This will mean that the deadlift can be used with competence and to no risk. This may take a while to achieve for some individuals who start the training journey with poor mobility and control of the hips. I do not think the deadlift is dangerous, it is just much harder to learn technically and in terms of mobility, meaning the vast majority of individuals should start with hex bar and either stay there or learn the conventional deadlift later on.
The hex bar deadlift has also been shown to have higher peak power output and peak velocity than the conventional deadlift, meaning it will be slightly more applicable to sports where power generation and speed are of importance. Also the hex back deadlift puts slightly less weight on the spinal erectors, which can already be taking a beating in contact sports so will be an effective weight to make strength training easier for contact athletes.
Powerlifters obviously need to be focusing on getting strong in the conventional deadlift or the sumo deadlift as these can be used in competitions. The only use case for hex bar deadlifts for powerlifters is to use them in the offseason or between cycles as maintenance volume.
Crossfit athletes will also need to focus on conventional deadlifts as these are the ones that show up in competitions. However using hex bar deadlifts for strength training cycles can be a great way for Crossfitters to improve overall strength. It can also be used as a strength maitencnace tool while there is more emphasis placed on sport specific cardiovascular and muscular endurance workouts.
For some smaller men and a lot of women, the handles can just be a little bit too wide which can make the entire movement feel uncomfortable. Eleiko sell an excellent version of the hex bar that solves this problem, however it is a very expensive bit of kit that is not widely available in a lot of gyms. If you do have trouble using the hex bar due to the width, you may be better off with the conventional deadlift.
When gripping with the hex bar deadlift there is very often no knurling to guide us, which can make gripping in the same position on each handle a challenge. For more advanced lifters this usually isn’t an issue, but for beginners who will pay less attention to detail this can be an issue and mean lifts can be done with the weight tilting to one side and creating a dangerous lifting environment. You will need to make sure your hands are gripped in the middle on both handles before lifting the weight from the floor.
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This resource was written by Sean Klein. Sean Richard Klein has thousands of hours of coaching experience and a BSc in Sports Science with Management from Loughborough University. He owns a gym in Bayonne France, CrossFit Essor, which runs group classes and a Personal training studio.