Learning the Trap Bar Deadlift

Many people prefer the trap bar deadlift to the conventional straight bar deadlift. It is an easier and safer movement to learn, you can load more weight onto the bar, and for people with flexibility/mobility issues in the hip area (most people), it is a great alternative to build size, strength, and muscle while reducing the risk of injury.

Read on for more information on the trap bar deadlift – a safe and effective alternative to the conventional deadlift.

Here is the movement in action:

What?

The trap bar is essentially a bent bar that allows you to stand in between the two sides. Your body is in alignment with the weight on either side, which makes getting into the “bottom” position of a deadlift much, much easier.

You can pick them up online for your home gym. And you can ask your gym if they carry one (if they don’t, they should).

Why?

Very few people can pull a straight bar from the floor without some pretty serious spinal flexion. Sure, they can improve their hip and ankle mobility and put in some serious flexibility work which will lead to them being able to pull a straight bar with perfect form within 12-16 weeks. But the first time out not a lot of people can do it.

Most people lack the mobility (ankle, knee, hip) to get into the bottom position. And because of this, when they deadlift with a conventional bar, they put a ton of added stress/pressure on the low back.

The bottom position (on the left) requires a lot of mobility and flexibility.

However, the trap bar variation is not without its issues. Unlike a straight bar, the trap bar can roll a bit when you are getting into position. Here are a few things to avoid:

With light weights it’s easy as could be to maintain perfect form on a trap bar, but as soon as you start piling on the plates the bar starts moving in places it shouldn’t. Advanced lifters can usually control this. But the benefit of the trap bar is supposedly that novice and intermediate lifters can use it. What often happens is when pulling out of the bottom, they’ll roll the bar. I’ve seen it go forwards and I’ve seen it go backwards. Neither direction is good.

A few other reasons I like trap bar deadlifts:

  • Great alternative to squats for people with knee issues
  • A quick and easy (and safe) way to teach people how to hip hinge and control their pelvic tilt
  • Probably the safest way to build big legs and lower body power

Respected strength coach Mark Rippetoe isn’t a fan of the trap bar deadlift, as it does change the deadlift pattern/movement from the conventional lift. When you conventionally deadlift, the weight is “locked” against your body (the bar). But with a trap bar, it isn’t. This would be an issue for someone deadlifting 400+ pounds, as it creates a position of instability, but again, what percentage of the population does this apply to? Rippetoe’s comments:

 A 500-lb deadlift at lockout is stable against your thighs while a 400-lb trap bar “deadlift” is an unstable mess at the top.  And I don’t really see the value in not learning something.

Using the trap bar while working on your ankle and hip mobility is great. Or using the trap bar with heavier weights and really focusing on form with the straight bar. It may not be as perfect as the conventional deadlift, but the trap bar is a lot safer for the majority of people. And training is all about minimizing the injury risk.

How?

As with all compound movements (especially the deadlift), it is best to start with light/no weight and get your form dialed in. The deadlift isn’t a squat. It is a hip hinge movement (think “hips back, hips forward” throughout the movement).

1. Step inside the bar. Make sure your feet are centered from the front and back of the two bars. As you bend down to grab the handles, stick your hips back while keeping your chest up.

2. A good cue here – pretend you have a logo on your shirt that you want to display to anyone in front of you – this forces you to keep good posture throughout your upper body. Take a deep belly breath, stabilize your body. Bend your knees a bit, but not a lot.

3. Pull your shoulder blades back and down. Another good cue to keep those hips back – imagine someone has a belt around your waist and is pulling you from behind. This is a hip dominant movement, not a knee dominant movement.

As you pull the bar up, drive through your feet, straighten your knees and hips, and squeeze your glutes and lats at the top of the movement. Return the weight down (again, hips back, chest up), and repeat.

Here is Steven Stamkos demonstrating a variation that works the legs a bit more from an endurance perspective (more time under tension):

When?

Generally, deadlifts are a fatiguing movement, so it is best to put them at the beginning of your workout (after a proper warmup, of course). You can also go lighter on the weights and focus on high reps to burn fat. It all depends on your goal.

For someone learning the movement, I’d start with reps of five or six and two or three sets. Keep the total number of reps low and really focus on quality. Five great reps will benefit you a lot more than 15-20 half-decent reps.

Ideally, everybody would be able to use a straight bar to deadlift. I have issues with it (a few ankle injuries has limited my full ankle range of motion), and the trap bar agrees with me a lot more. It feels better, it is safer, and I can still get a really good workout without putting overly stressing my low back.

The number one goal or reason that we train is to minimize injury risk. That may sound crazy to you if you are fully healthy, but at some point, your body is going to let you know you aren’t doing something right. And avoiding injury allows you to get bigger//faster/stronger/more powerful. And opting for the trap bar deadlift over the conventional deadlift is a great idea for the majority of the population.

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