Knowing when to use a straight bar versus a trap bar (or hex bar) can help make your training protocols more specific to your or your client’s goals.
The straight bar deadlift is considered to be the king of all exercises, and for good reason. It’s an excellent way to load the entire posterior chain, but it requires technique and skill to execute and places a large neurological demand on the trainee due to the complexity of the exercise. A straight bar deadlift places much more load on the hip extensors because the moment arm in the bottom position is much longer at the hip than it is for the knees.
For this reason, it’s important to consider the strength of a trainee’s posterior chain when programming deadlifts. Many athletes and clients tend to be quad dominant, so before training a loaded barbell hinge, it would be wise to build strength in the hamstrings, glutes, lats are core as a prerequisite.
Another factor to consider when programming a straight bar deadlift is where the athlete’s feet and hands will be placed. For example, a wide stance (or sumo) deadlift will bias the hip adductors and abductors slightly more than a shoulder width stance (conventional) which would be more direct hamstring and glute max work. If the athlete’s hands are placed in a snatch grip, it will require much more upper back strength than a clean grip.
Think of the trap bar as a squat-like movement pattern. It will force the torso into a more upright position at the bottom, meaning the athlete won’t be able to hinge back as far with the hips. This makes the joint angle at the hip more open, placing greater demand on the knee extensors (quads). Therefore, the trap bar is a great way to progress towards barbell squats because it teaches the trainee how to drive out of the hole with the quads rather than the hips.
The trap bar also puts the arms in a neutral position at the side of the torso rather than pronated in front of the body. This could make the trap bar a better option for trainees who are still building back strength or for those rehabbing a shoulder injury.
Another consideration is that the trap bar has two handle heights – high and low. The low handles are the same height as a straight bar, but the high handles are obviously higher, giving the lifter an additional advantage.
All these variables relative to an athlete’s current strength and future goals are important considerations when deciding when and where to place deadlift variations into a program.
B.S., NASM CPT