I enjoy discussing key lifts with other coaches, as exercise selection is among the most basic parameters coaches can adjust. When talking with coaches in baseball about the way I have athletes use the trap bar to improve their golf performance, we found a lot of common ground. We remarked on how profound an impact we were having, particularly as we push load numbers to 2.5 x BW plus. It turns out baseball and golf —both rotational power sports—seem to benefit from large loads. Lifting heavy bilaterally seems to impact the ability to anchor for producing immense amounts of rotational force.
Whereas other sport coaches suggest back squatting as the primary lower body pattern, we found the trap bar enormously useful in this regard, as large amounts of force production can thrive when technical overhead is low. I’ve noticed that golfers take more readily to the trap bar deadlift than they do to barbell squatting—it might be novelty, it might be culture, but I will take improving important qualities now over improving them later for the sake of learning a lift. We can always prescribe other patterns skillfully in other ways to ensure thorough movement expression, as I will explain later on.We found the trap bar enormously useful as the primary lower body pattern, as large amounts of force production can thrive when technical overload is low, says @WSWayland. Click To Tweet
It seems like you cannot open up Twitter or YouTube these days without seeing strength coaches disparaging common exercises for a bit of popularity. The trap bar gets a lot of flak for not really slotting neatly into the canon of squat or hinge movements. Its expression can be a squatty hinge or a hinge-y squat, for lack of a better term.
Video 1. Trap bar exercises, due to the heavy load or intensity, can get sloppy quickly. Coaches should find the precise thresholds where athletes can be challenged but still sustain great form throughout the lift.
On the other hand, we also have what is tantamount to trap bar abuse; some coaches should probably have them taken away lest they gift us with yet another trap bar variant. Let’s talk about the historic squat dead bar, the popular tool that was the brainchild of Al Gerard in the 1980s. I was probably introduced to it through exposure to old T Nation articles.
The trap bar deadlift’s rise in popularity is commensurate with its usefulness. Fitness is indeed a realm where some tools persist despite their redundancy, but scrutiny comes in many forms, including expert opinion and also evidence-based, successful intervention, and so on. The trap bar’s advantages are numerous, and Greg Nuckols, who describes it as underrated, cites these benefits:
- It is easier to learn than the barbell deadlift.
- No hyperextension at lockout.
- No need for a mixed grip.
- High handles for people with insufficient hip ROM.
- Less chance of getting pulled forward/spinal flexion.
- It can still be just as hip-dominant as a barbell deadlift.
- (Likely) higher transfer to other sports, thanks to higher outputs.
Greg, in the same article, goes on to say: “It allows for more flexibility in the movement, doesn’t require a mixed grip, is easier to learn, allows for higher velocity and higher power output (all other things being equal), and is safer for a lot of people.” This concept of output is where this tool absolutely shines.
A study from 2017 is even more compelling, showing velocity, power, and total work were all higher and time spent accelerating was significantly longer with the trap bar deadlift than the conventional deadlift, even when using the same percentage of 1RM. In Greg’s words: “This furthers the case that trap bar DLs may have more direct carryover to athletic performance than barbell deadlifts.”
The trap bar has its drawbacks, though, so let’s not fool ourselves. Here’s a legitimate list from Carl Valle, who has taken the time to examine his quarry:
- 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.
Carl mentions how coaches looking for big chalkboard numbers can abuse the lift. But I am of the opinion that, in the right hands, it can be wielded to improve robustness and high levels of force production (higher outputs) for the right sports. The other concerns are obviously valid, but they can be addressed by smart exercise selection in order to deal with these deficiencies.In the right hands, coaches can wield the trap bar deadlift to improve robustness and high levels of force production (higher outputs) for the right sports, says @WSWayland. Click To Tweet
The way a trap bar is itself constructed is something that probably provides the most problematic variance. Because the trap bar is an ancillary piece of equipment and not used for a strength sport, its shape, aesthetics, and usefulness are all at the whim of the manufacturer. With a straight Olympic barbell, you know pretty much what to expect. However, trap bars come in two main types: solid steel and steel tubing.
While the collars are the same as the Olympic size, and sometimes longer, the height of the handles can vary a lot. The traditional trap bar had a handle height similar to that of a straight bar, or what would now be known as low handles. I generally suggest longer collars, avoiding trap bars made of box or tube steel, and avoiding bars that are more than 25 kilograms in weight.
It might seem odd to point out, but as a gym owner I notice that smaller male and female trainees find retrieving heavy trap bars unwieldy, difficult, and potentially dangerous. Most of the time we use moderately high handles, usually mid shin; however, if your handles start at nearly knee height, maybe take a moment before you get on social media to brag about your 600-pound deadlift.
The Collapsed Position and Making the Most of Posterior Expansion
Working on posterior expansion drills has drastically improved my approach to the trap bar deadlift. This is not the type of posterior expansion you see advertised on Instagram. Instead, the aim is to try to get athletes out of pulling with too much extension, which is a common issue in trap bar deadlifts, and into a more hips-neutral position. This is important for athletes who complain of back issues from trap bar deadlifts, since it is more often than not an overextension issue. I have begun to encourage a slightly collapsed spinal position and using posterior expansion drills to help athletes achieve a more neutral pulling position in the trap bar deadlift.
Extensive posterior expansion drills as part of our warm-up have helped enormously. These essentially force spinal flexion while belly breathing or chest breathing, with the intent of expanding posteriorly. I will not quibble over whether this has a mechanical effect or a neurological or psychological one. I have employed breathing drills like this for the lumbar, 90/90 hips lift, etc., but I never considered something like this for priming the thoracic spine (T-spine) until recently.
Video 2. Posterior expansion drills are not cat and camel poses from yoga repackaged with breathing exercises. Adding intensive motions or control exercises with focused breath work does make a difference in the long run.
Strong athletes are good at generating stiffness and stability around the abdomen and rib cage. This can reduce mobility over time, so lumbar extension often becomes a shorthand for finding stability in these positions. Breathing drills (of which expansion is one aim or goal) can help to restore this and/or balance out the repeated compression and stiffness from lifting weights. This works well as a warm-up for the trap bar deadlift and also the bench press.
After forcing this excessively flexed position and adding breath, we get a reciprocal inhibition that allows for better T-spine extension, flexion, and stability, and greater proprioceptive feedback and more feel from the serratus and lats, both of which are important for stabilizing the trap bar. The cues for doing the trap bar deadlift become focused on a packed chin, a slightly flexed T-spine, and a big belly breath.It is important to keep the eyeline down, as looking up on the trap bar deadlift often leads to needless extension, says @WSWayland. Click To Tweet
Encourage the athlete to get set, reach down for the bar rather than grip it, and then grip it first and set up everything else afterward. Most athletes find this position more stable and more like a push than a pull on executing the lift. It is important to keep the eyeline down, as looking up on the trap bar deadlift often leads to needless extension.
Video 3. Spinal position matters. It’s easy to get lost in the actual lifting component of the exercise and forget that the setup is everything. Be a stickler for setting up the lift, and the rest usually takes care of itself later.
Trap Bar Variations
It has become incredibly trendy to invent a bunch of needless variations for every exercise, and the trap bar is no different. I’ve often argued that we need more focus on refinement. The constant pushing of novel variation is a result of the social media era we inhabit, where content creation trumps actual usefulness. Because we are taught to accumulate, this can become a never-ending process of acquisition. More is not always better.
While I am not asking for an ascetic minimalism in your exercise selection, what I do suggest is trying to figure out what you can do to make things better and sharpen your approach. Following are a few variations I actually use consistently; while I could populate the list with more, these are the ones I actually draw value from.
Staggered Trap Bar Deadlift
Staggered trap bar work is rapidly becoming a favorite derivative. By using a quasi-bilateral stance (staggered), we can emphasize glute far more, due to the lower starting torso position and thus a deeper hip angle. It makes the movement a little more challenging for the trunk also, and I prefer a rear foot elevated stance to further emphasize the lead leg. The benefit is more forceful unilateral work—something I discussed in my SimpliFaster post on hand-supported work. I usually program this in conjunction with the bilateral stance trap bar and staggered Zerchers and RDLs.
Video 4. The variable stance positions are limitless with the trap bar. Carefully select what setup you need, and make sure you are consistent each time you use the foot stance.
You can apply some variation in how far apart you stagger the feet: Wider stances are obviously less stable, but they also place more stress through the hamstring due to a greater forward torso. If I want a more vertical pull, I’ll encourage a much shorter stance. I usually encourage the rear foot to be in a ball of the foot position; when both feet are flat, I feel it emphasizes both legs more than targeting just the lead leg. Having both feet flat also requires a greater forward lean as a starting position.
This can also be used to emphasize yielding strength via eccentric work or isometrics at various positions. I’ve found this movement is best used at reduced volumes or with prolonged rests between each side, because the torso bleeds strength trying to main stability and form. If you are looking for an exercise that adds a lot of secondary upper body stress, then this a variation to try. And trying is important here, as you explore variations and find a stance or setup that works for your athlete. Additionally, do not listen to anyone who calls it a “kickstand” or “B” stance.
Isometric Trap Bar Deadlift
We all love a subtle variation on a classic, and this is a great one. The low pause, as used with conventional deadlift, has the same purpose. Tightness, bracing, and positioning must be maintained. Unlike the deadlift, the bar can potentially swing freely (a concern Mark Rippetoe has expressed, but also exaggerated), so with slightly biased T-spine flexion, this absolutely nails the core. Focus on staying slightly flexed, pushing the floor away, and not hanging out in extension.
Video 5. The inclusion of a short pause early in the pull is a type of isometric contraction that works wonders for the right athlete. Submaximal isometrics are not as taxing but do just enough to make them worthwhile in a program.
An added pause also increases time under tension so traps, lats, and grip get a hammering. I have respect for barbell diehards, but when evidence and prolific expert utilization stand against you, you may—just may—have to make way for new tools sometimes.
Trap Bar Jump and Banded Trap Bar Jump
The trap bar jump has become a reliable staple in weight rooms, for good reason. I recall seeing it in a Joe DeFranco video 15 years ago and thinking it was something revelatory. It is easily scalable and loadable and technically simplistic, taking only minutes to teach.
Carl Valle discussed it in his trap bar for sports training article, stating “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 hex bar offers a compelling reason to swap or upgrade.”
Video 6. Not employing a band makes a big difference in jumping exercises with the trap bar. Coaches can use static or dynamic jumps, including rebound jumping if an athlete is truly that explosive.
The compelling reason for me was working with populations, particularly time-poor and/or travel-based, where low technical overhead is preferential. I use the trap bar jump extensively as part of complexes, as a loaded CMJ from catchers for a concentric-only jump. Much has been made of its power output versus Olympic lifting, but the argument for me is a simplistic one. How much time do you have and what do you trust the athlete to do well when you are not coaching them?
The upgrade for the trap bar jump is the banded trap bar jump. The reason why this may be the best replacement for the Olympic lifts is twofold: magnitude and accentuated eccentric.The reason why the banded trap bar jump may be the best replacement for the Olympic lifts is twofold: magnitude and accentuated eccentric, says @WSWayland. Click To Tweet
The reactive nature of this jump means that a lot of work can be done in a very short time—in the amount of time someone takes to do five jumps, they may only achieve 1-2 reps of a more conventional lift. This is beneficial because the stimulus within a given time frame is greater, meaning there is greater training effect.
Video 7. Banded trap bar jumps are versatile and really help with creating a dynamic tension throughout the set. Coaches can pair them with other exercises in various sequences or choose to use them in isolation.
Cal Dietz suggests that this is 3-5 times the force produced with Olympic lifts when you account for the time, and as much as 5-10 times force using the drop jump version (which involves a rapid accelerated drop). I have measured ground forces in excess of 5-7 times body weight, which leads to the next element that makes it a good option. Magnitudes like this are an important but often overlooked component of exercise selection for power generation.
Attenuated eccentric is created by the bands actively slamming you back into the floor. This rapid eccentric deceleration has a number of positive adaptations that are absolutely crucial in building powerful athletes. I challenge athletes to try to turn over the whole thing in as short a time as possible. If you have force platforms, you can measure the time from start to finish. Or, alternatively, put a sub 3- to 10-second time of your choosing on the clock and challenge the athlete to get as many reps as possible.
Shoring Up the Trap Bar Deadlift’s Weaknesses
The trap bar deadlift represents an opportunity to load maximally from an advantaged position. I have found it useful for improving raw force-producing abilities, and the IMTP data we gather shows as much. But it has three glaring weakness, as Carl pointed out: quality eccentric load, particularly hamstring; glute engagement; and deep knee extension.
It likely comes as no surprise that my solutions to this are simply the front squat and Romanian deadlift. The Romanian deadlift, as I’ve explored before on SimpliFaster, is probably one of the best barbell lifts for glute and hamstring development. The front squat obviously hits the quads and forces the athlete into ranges of motion conducive to mobility and muscular development. I usually rotate in an ABA type setup for qualitative high force day, as seen below.
The Romanian deadlift also covers us from a coaching standpoint for teaching a quality hip hinge variation that may be of more worth than the conventional deadlift. I’ve always used a top-down hinge approach to learning the deadlift, and I find teaching the conventional deadlift after the Romanian deadlift is always so much easier. No single exercise can be expected to be a complete panacea to all our training woes, but the trap bar deadlift’s value is multiplied when it’s paired with the right accompanying exercises and movements. No coach is arrogant enough to take each on its individual value; a program is, after all, a combination of exercises.
Making the Most of Your Trap BarThe trap bar is probably the most impactful piece of training equipment introduced to gyms over the past two decades, says @WSWayland. Click To Tweet
The trap bar is probably the most impactful piece of training equipment introduced to gyms over the past two decades. While it can be abused as a shorthand to achieving high loads and high outputs, this is also its best quality when employed smartly. Athletes need stress and load, and this is a straightforward way to achieve it. While it’s easy to get caught up in trap bar absurdity—and there are plenty of great examples of such on social media—dial in to the few variations that benefit your athletes, refine them, and repeat them.
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