The trap (or ‘hex’) bar—a hexagonal shaped bar you can literally step inside—has been around since the 80s, when a powerlifter named Al Gerard invented it to reduce the stress deadlifting put on his back, according to the USA Weightlifting Association (USAWA). These days, just about every gym has one—but since most people stick to straight barbell deadlifts, it often sits in the corner, collecting dust.
When you deadlift with a straight barbell, the bar is in front of you—so even if you keep it close to your shins, you have to extend forward to grab it and pull it up, explains Brandon Beatty, C.S.C.S., F.M.S. If you do it improperly, the deadlift—which fires up your legs and the entire back of your body—can strain your lower back.
That’s where the trap bar comes in: “A conventional trap bar is shaped like a hexagon with handles on each side, so the lifter can stand in the middle, grip the handles on the sides, and stand up as if they’re picking up two suitcases,” says Jake Boly, M.S., C.S.C.S. This puts the weight closer to your center of gravity, so you’re in a better position to pull without putting pressure on your lower back.
Regardless of your lifting experience or goals, deadlifting with the trap bar can step up your workout routine and improve your fitness, says Beatty. Here are five circumstances in which it might come in handy.
1. You’re New To Lifting
If deadlifts are new territory for you, both Beatty and Boly recommend starting with the trap bar. The trap bar is a useful tool for teaching the deadlift because it helps someone learn the key components of proper form—like how to bend and move through their hips, maintain a straight back, and keep their knees stacked on top of their ankles—in a safer way, explains Boly.
It can also help you build the core and back strength needed to eventually deadlift heavier weight with proper form, says Beatty. (He also recommends working with a trainer one-on-one or in a class—like an intro to CrossFit® class—when starting out, to ensure you nail your form.)
2. You Want To Increase Quad And Glute Strength
Deadlifting with a trap bar puts your body in a slightly different position than deadlifting with a straight bar, so the move will work your muscles a little differently. In a straight barbell deadlift, your hamstrings, lower back, hip abductors, and core do the brunt of the work, but in a trap bar deadlift—which is a little closer to a squatting movement—your quads, glutes, and hamstrings take on more responsibility.
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Recent research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research confirms that deadlifting with the trap bar activates the leg muscles more and the back muscles less than deadlifting with the straight bar. So if your goals are quad gains and a booty pump, the trap bar is your new best friend.
3. You Have Lower Back Pain Or Limited Mobility
Of course, anyone with a back or spinal injury should check in with a doctor or physical therapist before lifting again, the trap bar is a useful tool for someone who needs to limit the stress they place on their lower back, says Boly.
Many trap bars have a second set of higher handles, which allows you to deadlift from a slightly higher starting position and decreases how much bend you need in your knees, hips, and lower back to do the move, says Beatty. This decrease in the range of motion you have to move through is great for people with limited lower-body mobility or who have a knee or hip injury, he says.
4. You Want To Become More Explosive
Remember that study we mentioned earlier? It also found that lifters could produce more force and power when deadlifting with the trap bar than when deadlifting with the straight bar. When you pull from inside the trap bar, you’re able to completely engage all of the powerful leg muscles like your quads, hamstrings, and glutes, which together are able to produce more power than the primary muscles used in the straight bar deadlift, says Beatty.
5. You Want To Keep Your Workouts Fresh And Plateau-Free
“For many people, the trap bar can replace the straight barbell for deadlifting because it still engages the muscles you want to target with deadlifting,” explains Boly. But if straight bar deadlifts are already a staple of your training plan, incorporate trap bar deadlifts every other time you deadlift, Beatty recommends. So if you deadlift twice a week, perform one session with the straight bar and one with the trap bar. Using the trap bar will force you to mix up your grip and, because it’s easier on your back, may even help you lift slightly heavier and overcome any straight bar deadlift plateaus, Beatty says.
Plus, performing a variety of exercises is best for muscular development over time, since you target different muscles in different ways, he says.