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What is Better for Squats and Dead Lifts? The Trap Bar or Straight Bar?

What is a Trap Bar??

trap bar

The first question I most likely need to answer is… What is a Trap Bar?? Many of you have probably seen one in your gym, but may not have known what to do with it or thought it might be difficult to use. Keep in mind if you don’t have experience with barbell squats or deadlifts, it is suggested that you hire a personal trainer to teach you proper form before attempting to use a trap bar.

 

The trap bar, otherwise known as an Olympic Hex Bar, is a bar that weight lifters and exercise enthusiasts use for Squats, Dead Lifts and Shrugs primarily. It consists of bars that are bent into angles and welded into a hexagonal shape (hence the name Hex bar). The hexagon has two large handles welded in the centre so you can step in the middle and pick it up by the handles rather than place it on your back.

 

The Classic Trap Bar weighs 45 pounds, which is the same as a standard straight Olympic Barbell. The Standard Trap Bar weighs 30 pounds while the XL Trap Bar weighs 55 pounds. People can find it intimidating, but is easy to use.  The trap bar can also be more comfortable to use than a straight bar, especially if you have a shoulder injury or back pain.

Trap bars are better when you are learning to lift because they are user-friendly, can help with positioning and teach you about proper leg drive. The most important part of deadlifts, for instance, is learning proper movement patterns for the hips, which help with mobility and strength.

One of the differences between the trap bar and the straight bar is the type of hand positioning used. Trap bars leave you with a semi-pronated grip (i.e. handshake grip) as your only choice. The Straight bar offers you the option of using either an overhand, underhand or alternative grip.

The major difference in choice of bars is based on which muscles you want to activate and train. Jared W Coburn, PhD, CSCS*D, FNSCA, FACSM and his team of researchers at California State University did a study on 20 experienced lifters performing deadlifts with a trap bar and a straight barbell. They hooked them up to sensors to detect which muscles were being activated and how much force and power the lifters were generating.

They found that the trap bar activates more the quadriceps, while the straight bar activates the back and hamstring muscles.  The reason for this was because with the trap bar you are closer to your centre of gravity, while with the straight bar it is further away creating greater torque in the lower back.  They also found that their test subjects could generate more peak force and power during the deadlift with a trap bar. Therefore they surmised, with the load closer to the center of gravity, your body is in a better position to lift mechanically. Coburn believes generating more force and power during each rep could possibly translate to improved athletic performance and muscle gains.

Don’t stop using the straight bar! The study states that you should use which ever barbell best aligns itself with your goals. Straight bars are great if you want to focus on your back muscles and hamstrings, but only if you don’t have lower back pain or injuries. However, if you still want to do deadlifts, but want to reduce stress on your back due to injury or if you are an athlete trying to develop explosive strength movements, then stick with the trap bar.

When it comes right down to it, the best thing to remember is variety is the spice of life. Often when using a split routine, people do deadlifts twice a week. Switch it up! Use the trap bar on leg day when your main focus is hitting the quads and use the straight bar on back day when your focus is hitting the upper back and lower back and hamstrings.

Cathie Glennon – BCRPA/SFL, Rehabilitation Specialist, Pharm Tech (Level 3)

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