When Coach Keith Ferrara got his first university strength and conditioning job, he literally had to build his program—and facility—out of a storage closet. Read on to discover the six essential steps he took to successfully build a collegiate sports performance program from scratch.
By Carl Valle
The hexagonal barbell, also known as the trap or hex bar, is prized by some coaches and scoffed by others. Its popularity is growing in fitness circles, likely due to its simplicity and the ability to load athletes quickly. Although I hate the hex bar, I still use it at key times for very narrow reasons.
It’s not that I actually hate the bar–I’m just not a fan of most uses of the bar in sports training. In this article, I go back to my old roots of pulling no punches and hurting feelings. I also do a better job of showing alternatives and giving examples of when using the hex bar make sense. If you’re using a hex bar now, you may rethink what you’re doing. And if you never thought you would use it, you may decide to try it.
Concerns Over the Hex Bar
I have many reasons for writing this article, and my top three are obvious to other coaches in the same boat as I am.
- First, the hex bar is now a hybrid replacement for deadlifting and squatting with coaches who want to inflate numbers so it looks like athletes are building strength.
- Second, athletes often perform the deadlift exercise with little to no eccentric strain.
- Last, as athletes use the hex bar more, teaching conventional barbell exercises becomes an additional responsibility, and we end up in a situation where we’re not building on experience.
A good argument can be made that simply switching to a conventional barbell creates the same problems. And this is true. Don’t blame the tool, blame the craftsman. Biomechanically, the hex bar is different than a conventional straight barbell. Notice I said different and did not say one was better than the other. So why the hate? Let me explain my primary reason why you should put the hex bar in the storage room, but not throw it away entirely.
The Hype Over the Hex Bar Deadlift
About ten years ago, the hex bar deadlift (HBD) started receiving more attention thanks to the increase in private training. I’m not a conspiracy theorist; but anytime you see a trend, follow the money trail. And I’m not blaming the manufacturers or distributors of hex bars.
I am blaming coaches who take advantage of parents and athletes by using the advantages of the barbell to get the appearance of getting stronger faster. Loading a hex bar is easy, and since the deadlift is a mechanically advantageous exercise, teenage boys start hitting the magical number of 315 pounds (3 plates per side) rather quickly. Soon every athlete in the training group is part of the triple bumper Instagram club, and the coach is the pied piper for athletes in the local area.
Many training facilities, including those I’ve worked at, include a hex bar for deadlifting and hybrid squatting. Regardless of the type of plate used with hex bar squats, athletes bounce out of the hole and do a lot of junk reps instead of performing the exercise properly. Even when an athlete squats with control, the HBD creates paraspinal strain similar to the conventional deadlift. I don’t want to create a fear of an exercise, as the spinal loading isn’t that bad, but eccentric deadlifts are not a wise idea.Reducing a lift’s #eccentric movement does not prepare athletes well, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The primary purpose of hex bar lifting is to reduce the lumbar strain (slightly) compared to conventional barbell deadlifts. But reducing the eccentric component is an incomplete strategy for preparing athletes. I’m a fan of clean style deadlifts as an accessory lift. As we’ve seen over the years, however, coaches often take an accessory lift and load it in ways that mimic traditional movements. And sometimes we see problems in the long run.
Athletes can improve with nearly any exercise, and acute benefits from conventional and hex bar deadlifts exist in the research. My point is that many coaches use the HBD because it jacks the numbers up, and athletes love appearing stronger.
Eccentric Contractions and Deadlifting
The deadlift movement concentrates on pulling the bar up concentrically–not letting it down eccentrically. Except for the Romanian deadlift, which is a variation in the deadlift family. Since barbell lifts are considered a primary option in training, having the bulk of one’s training without much eccentric movement over time is a bad plan.
Amazingly, many teams use the Nordic hamstring exercise in a desperate attempt to get their NordBord scores up when there are better alternative lifts available. Deadlifts do create a lot of tension on the hamstrings and glutes, but the primary stimulus is a concentric action of these muscles.
Eccentric training is not the magic bullet. But what marvels me is that many exercises, such as the step-up and box jumps, are done without eccentric contributions. Add a primary diet of concentric HBD, and you have an athlete who is out of balance. And because some coaches are afraid of soreness, they intentionally remove the eccentric movement as much as possible.
It’s one thing to be unlucky and simply pick the three exercises where eccentric activity is low, but intentional efforts to do so is like shooting your athletes with friendly fire. For all the talk about antifragile training, the HBD does not create antifragile athletes, especially in their hamstrings.
A new study on deadlifting which included a comparison between using conventional and hex bars was done recently at California State (Fullerton). My favorite part of the study was not the differences between the barbells, but the fact both elicited less eccentric contributions in the hamstrings. Obviously the study used the 1-rep maximum test with the straight bar as a way to normalize the hex bar values, but the amplitude values were lower during the eccentric portion of the lifts, even when participants were instructed to lower the bar carefully.
Eccentric contractions and EMG readings are not perfect, but the research clearly supports what many coaches know–if you drop the weights, you drop the eccentric contraction as well. Performing conventional deadlifts with the hex bar is not a great way to develop eccentric adaptations in high-risk muscles like the hamstrings.
What About Peak Power or Peak Forces?
A few research studies have used ground reaction forces for advanced analysis and included barbell speed to dig deeper into the differences between conventional deadlifts and HBDs. Many of the differences, however, were small. Regardless, the comparison is pointless since coaches should consider all exercises when training athletes.
The same studies that compared the EMG activity of key leg muscle groups, including the paraspinal muscles, also added force analysis to the research. All things being equal, the vertical forces elicited on a force plate are higher with HBDs because the concentric movement is closer to a squat, and research has uncovered far more information about the squat than the deadlift.
In early 2017, the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, the primary source of information on hex bar research, published a comparison study of other exercises. They compared the two bars for deadlifts, of course, but they also compared mid-thigh pulls as well as contrasting with a bodyweight-only countermovement jump. They also included joint angles to understand why, outside of direct muscle recruitment, the numbers between the two bars are different.
Video 1. The Hex Bar is a popular tool for loaded jumps. When training athletes with limitations, it’s very helpful to add a VBT device or force analysis measurement.
The results were not shocking. The isometric deadlifts and the mid-thigh pulls were so close that essentially there was no difference that would matter in sports training–swapping out barbells isn’t a game changer. What I found concerning, though, was the conclusion about the relationship of the lifts with the vertical jump discussed the end of the study. I suspect that the results were not due to a training effect but were correlated to a review of recreational young men, not robust athletes on a rugby team.
Speaking of rugby, a study out of Ireland looked at hex bar jump squats, sprints, and peak power. I love rugby research because it’s the only team sport that provides great information on serious training, not just talented athletes. Unfortunately this study compared athletic ability and barbell jump squat data, not barbells and how training can show up later in testing.
An acute comparison studied jump squats and unloaded jumps with both straight and hex bars with rugby athletes on the other side of the pond (UK study). This study, the best and most important, shows why you should consider the barbell swap–with caution.
Hex Bar Jumps: Benefits and Risks
Here is the interesting question: Are conventional barbell squat jumps a thing of the past since the UK study showed the hex bar provided a more favorable ability to use leg power? My answer is very simple–it depends. I’ll share the details necessary to reach this decision.Use the #HexBar for jumps when performed in isolation and with light loads, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
I favor using hex bar for jumps only when performed in isolation and not paired with a straight barbell lift. Also, the load of a hex bar jump must be light; the forces pulling down on the arm are not documented and do pose a small potential hazard. I’m not worried about a subluxation or something similar, but some athletes who have a lot of laxities and a history of dislocation do notice a difference between jumps with weights to their side and slower pulling exercises.
Beyond this rare but real risk, the hex bar offers a compelling reason to swap or upgrade. Based on my experience, ballistic jumps and Olympic lifts don’t create shoulder issues from rapid pulling. Blindly adding any exercise, though, is foolish.
The results of the UK study pointed to placing the loads below the hip and not on the shoulder. In most studies, the conclusions are speculation, but the UK study was one of the few times the discussion was golden. It was both practical and insightful about how and why the differences mattered in performance.
Both kinetic power and kinematics were superior with the hex bar jump using lighter loads. We still need to see, however, what happens over time. Having a better peak or average number with one barbell jump conditioning may not mean much in a complete program.When placing a bar on the upper back, athletes tend to squat rather than jump, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Before adopting any change, you have to ask what it’s worth and whether it’s worth doing. The return on investment of any exercise requires a careful weighing of the pros and cons. The authors of the UK study made some smart observations that when an athlete places a bar on their upper back (posterior shoulders), they tend to resort to a squatting action versus a jump-like movement. With the law of specificity in training, sometimes loading an exercise makes sense, provided the entire program is considered.
As training resources shrink, a simpler and more direct approach may be necessary. No study that I know of compares the outcome of jump squats with different barbells and running speed and the ability to change direction, so we must take the better jump numbers with a grain of salt.
My last point addresses the importance of hex bar load strategies with loaded jumping for power. In a comprehensive study on optimal loading, researchers suggested using 10-20% of a 1-rep maximum. My only contention here is that peak power, or optimal power, is often misleading.
Expressing power and developing power can be confusing; the best ways to improve the ability to generate force rapidly sometimes rely on slower movements with greater force. High-velocity movements with little overload or training effect have advantages in displaying power. Only movements with tremendous loading to the body, however, seem to transfer to such as activities as sprinting.
Benefits of Alternative Hex Bar Exercises
Besides deadlifts, thigh pulls, and jumps, the hex bar can help improve a training program. I’ve seen a lot of videos and articles on alternative exercises. Some are interesting, some very ingenious, some are just variations for the sake of variation.
Most of the hex bar’s benefits rely on its anatomically advantageous grip position and the fact it passes through the midpoint of the body rather than the anterior. Unlike a typical straight bar, the hex bar places an athlete more evenly in the middle, and they don’t have to manipulate their position to load the body. During the pressing phase, this helps athletes who have poor mobility or constricted body types.
Lifting weights off the floor is important for those who do full Olympic lifts or want to challenge the posterior body. While the knee angle changes as well as the hip with hex bars, they help reinforce good mechanics a little more than a straight bar. Notice I didn’t say better, as a great coach can outperform a great tool any day of the week.
With straight bar deadlifting, athletes who don’t train a lot and have limited motor references experience confusion when they don’t have much time and need to learn how to perform the clean and snatch movements–conventional and hex bar deadlifts create this confusion. Teaching an athlete how to have a tight back and a total leg pull is a great way to progress to other exercises outside of deadlifting.#HexBars are a good option for shoulder presses, especially a Sots press and a standing press, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Pressing is the second best option for hex bars (other than jumps and pulls). While it’s likely it was never designed as a shoulder press tool, the hex bar provides a clever way to press without concerns that the bar will not clear the chin or head. And although different hex bars create different demands on the handgrip and shoulder, using them for a Sots Press or a standing shoulder press avoids dealing with dumbbells that become awkward at 100 pounds or more.
One problem, though, is that the hex bar only has one width size. Unlike barbells and dumbbells, the hex bar does not provide an individualized fit. I rarely have anyone press with a bar, but there have been a few times when it provided a great workaround in a jam.
Other exercises, like farmer’s walks, balance push-ups, and core exercises are nice to have but don’t excite me. Most of these exercises demonstrate what we can do with a hex bar creatively, but I don’t see superior reasons to do the exercise with the apparatus versus alternative options. One fair argument for using the bar is saving costs by not buying other tools, including unstable devices like a BOSU.
I suggest not investing in bars to do exercises that are not staples in your program. Some new bars are designed to be racked, but most bars are typically similar in design as they try to replace the typical 20-kilo load straight barbell weight. Extreme hex bars may not have raised handles, which is likely due design issues with heavy strain and other needs.
When the Hex Bar Makes Sense
When deciding to add or replace an exercise with the hex bar, do so when it will save time, add a special or unique stimulus, or solve a problem that other options can’t. I can’t think of one time I ever said “Thank God for the hex bar.” I’ve been lucky to have it, though, for testing jumps and regressing athletes who come in with bad technique habits. A hex bar is simply a different option than a straight bar. The hex bar also provides variety in a program, but I’d rather change a program for a purpose–not just to entertain my athletes.Hex bars make sense for #LoadedJumps, pressing, and teaching spinal positions for pulling, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Including a hex bar makes the most sense for loaded jumps, teaching spinal positions for pulling, and during pressing variations. Athletes should not use it for squat alternatives, a way to load the body faster, or a means to provide entertainment.
A popular way to test leg strength and power is using the hex bar with an LPT or an accelerometer. Due to the similarities of the jumping mechanics with a hex bar and unloaded conditions, the data is very useful for a quick and dirty power appraisal. The clever and convenient part of testing with the hex bar is that it’s not dumped on the ground and won’t damage LPTs mounted on the floor.
Decide for Yourself When to Use the Hex Bar
I’ve made my case for using the hex bar with intelligence and when it makes sense to train traditionally with a straight bar. Most of my arguments revolve around removing the ego and focusing on what works to help athletes, not whether they appear stronger. Knowing that the hex bar is a great performance tool for jumping and a limited tool for deadlifting, coaches are likely to be surprised to learn that popular approaches to using it are just that, popular. Occasionally grabbing a hex bar can spice up a program, but for the most part, targeting the areas where it enhances performance is your smartest path.