Is the hex/ trap bar better for developing athletes?

The title of this article in itself is a little bit contentious as in most cases the answer will always depend upon the situation.

That said understanding where and when to use the trap/ hex bar should be a priority of most forward thinking coaches looking for best practice. The trap bar in itself is often favoured as the loading and hand position makes it pretty easy for those new to the weight training arena to adapt and adopt without finding that technique may be compromised.

Straight bar deadlifting form can often be compromised by poor hip and lower limb mobility as well as weak spinal erectors meaning it is harder to get into the right positions to develop the movement in a safe and effective way.

A recent study by Camara et al. (2016) used individuals who could deadlift 1.5 times their bodyweight. This is interesting as most studies don’t used trained populations- in this case it means that there was a level of mastery for the individuals involved in testing.

Maximal amounts lifted didn’t vary but the peak force and peak velocity were different. This highlights that from a force production point of view that the trap bar may be superior.

From a muscle activation point of view the vastus lateralis (part of your quads down the front of your leg) was more active compared to the erector spinae and biceps femoris (part of the hamstrings down the back of your legs). It brings home the point that the hex/trap bar is not as posterior dominant as the deadlift is when looking at things from a muscle activation point of view.

So is there a reason to remove deadlifts from programming? Not necessarily, the use of any exercise depends upon the context of the athlete. This study highlights that force production may be developed more favourably for a while with the use of hex bar. The role of the quads is obviously enhanced here as it is somewhere between a squat and deadlift. As there is less erector spinae activation (back) it means that there is less stress placed upon the musculature of this area which may be a limiting factor in developing the deadlift e.g. poor hip mobility and weak erector spinae make full deadlifting a bit of an issue.

The trap bar in my opinion tends to be easier to coach than a full deadlift and it makes it an easier catch-all lower body drill. It is a good compromise to help develop physicality especially if mobility issues limit the performance of an effective deadlift. In turn deadlifting may be considered a progression from hex/ trap bar lifts as it challenges the posterior chain and therefore may be a good advancement.

Form Fixes- Pulling Exercises.

It could be said that all you need to do in the gym to be successful in the gym and build your strength is to do the simple stuff well. Adding complexity to an exercise isn’t really necessary if it doesn’t develop your physicality in some way- that means doing something because it appears hard may not give you the desired result.

One such exercise is pulling based movements specifically rows- either with both or single hands. Typically, you see when the movement is going a bit wrong it’s usually due to the loading being a bit too much for the muscles around the scapular to control the movement so range is shortened and you end up pulling to the arm pit. Now this will still burn your arms out but makes it pretty redundant for training the muscles you are primarily targeting- in this case the lats, rhomboids and traps. It’s what I sometimes term an “intermediate” mistake in the sense that you recognise the exercise but you are trying to push the intensity but by doing so you ruin the primary goal of the movement.

In the following video notice how the elbows are slightly to the side of the rib cage, the shoulder blades are retracted at the end of the movement and as the movement is controlled outwards the shoulder blades stay stuck to the rib cage and tuck under the arm pit. You can perform high rows with higher elbows but to complete the movement it is generally desirable to get retraction of the shoulder blades. Just as a side point adding too much load could also be termed not strong enough to do the movement properly. It’s sometimes hard to point this out to people as they start to progress and want to work hard.

The same movement in-efficiencies happen on bent over rows as well as dumbbell rows and also TRX/ Suspension trainer rows. In order to challenge the upper body you can add in an element of instability. As a side point adding instability works a lot better for the upper body as opposed to the lower body (perhaps apart from ankle and knee rehab/ prehab situations). The carryover to developing strong and stable shoulders is a lot more effective.

We often use variations of supported rows which are sometimes termed renegade rows (this name came around in the functional fitness trend of the early 2000’s… which also meant people gave names to exercises which to the uninitiated where unable to translate). On this following example we add a challenge to stability on one side of the body on the supporting arm while aiming to maintain control on the rowing movement. The same thing applies for this movement getting retraction of the shoulder blade at the top of the movement. What can often happen is that the setup position is wrong and then the hips lift and supporting hand does not remain directly below the shoulder on the floor.

So overall, the goal with rowing movement is to build strength while not sacrificing form. It’s sometimes simple tips that can make a big difference to coaching but also understanding what poor form looks like is also key to getting the most out of your training.

From a progression standpoint complexity varies by “form” not strength. This is the rough protocol we follow from least complex to hardest.

Cable rows both standing and seated/ single and double arm.

Chest supported rows.

DB single arm rows

DB single arm supported rows

Angled TRX rows.

Bent over rows.

Horizontal TRX rows or Inverted rows from a supported barbell.

3 point rows on a step/ elevation.

3 point rows from the floor.

Some of these exercises are quite close complexity wise so we may use variants in programmes. Hopefully this explains why exercise selection is important and how load and relative strength levels will influence your exercise choices.