Mike Boyle believes every athlete should Deadlift.
He also believes no athlete—aside from powerlifters—should Straight Bar Deadlift.
Straight Bar (a.k.a. Barbell) Deadlifts force athletes to maneuver their bodies around the bar. Pull it up too far away from your center of gravity, and you're nearly guaranteed back pain. But pull it too close, and you wind up with bloody shins. Deadlifts are a powerful movement for building lower-body strength, but they can be risky and inefficient with a barbell, particularly for those whose dimensions make them a bad fit for the exercise.
"I can't tell you the last time I watched someone do a Straight Bar Deadlift in our facility. (It's been) well over a decade," Boyle, one of the world's leading strength and conditioning experts, says in Functional Strength Coach 7.
If this article was an infomercial, right about now would be when the voiceover chimes in to plead, "There has to be a better way!" And there is—it's called the Trap Bar Deadlift.
The trap bar was invented by an American powerlifter named Al Gerard during the mid-1980s. Dealing with severe low back pain and flexibility issues after years of traditional deadlifting, Gerard sought to devise an implement that would allow him to stand between two loads during the lift rather than behind them. The result was the trap bar. By essentially placing you inside the bar, the stress on your lower back is greatly reduced while the potential for power production increases.
"The Trap Bar Deadlift for us is our No. 1 bilateral exercise," says Boyle, co-founder of Michael Boyle Strength and Conditioning in Woburn, Massachusetts, which is regularly named one of America's best gyms. "It's brilliant. It's been around a long time, and much like a lot of things, I didn't get it in the beginning. And now, it's such a staple of what we do."
"In conventional Straight Bar Deadlifts, you are going to be limited—and some people are going to be really limited—by limb length. And that's just reality. Then you look at the CrossFit high socks thing. And people are like it's because you gotta drag the bar up your shins. And I look at it and think you don't really need to drag the bar up your shins, you just need to stand inside the bar, like you do on a Trap Bar Deadlift."
While mastering the Straight Bar Deadlift can be a frustrating and painful process for many people, the Trap Bar Deadlift is much more user-friendly. The fact you can flip most trap bars (which are often alternatively referred to as "hex bars") over to utilize a higher set of handles is another no-brainer advantage.
"I always tell everybody, bend as far as you need to bend to grab the handles. That's the key. Then once they're down and they've grabbed the handles, keep everything tight, (and) it's as simple as stand up," Boyle says. The Trap Bar Deadlift allows for greater variance in safe executions of the exercise. Some people's anthropometry will lead them towards more of a Squat-Deadlift hybrid, which is perfectly OK.
Research has found that when compared to Straight Bar Deadlifts, Trap Bar Deadlifts allow for faster bar speeds at identical loads and greater maximum loads, which makes sense given their superior mechanical advantage. You also don't have to deal with the mixed grip hand position often needed to move big weight on a Straight Bar Deadlift, which is a known risk for bicep tears.
Arguments against deadlifting with a trap bar often center around the fact that the implement can decrease muscle activation in the hamstrings and place a greater demand on the quads. While this is true, it's not as significant as some may lead you to believe. Additionally, the shear forces you place on your spine via the Barbell Deadlift are rarely worth a little extra hamstring activation, and there are plenty of other movements you can use to strengthen your hamstrings (the Single-Leg RDL is one such movement).
At MBSC, once a trainee can execute 10 reps of an Elevated Dumbbell Sumo Deadlift (each foot is placed on a separate 6-inch plyometric box) with a 120-pound dumbbell, they graduate to the Trap Bar Deadlift. The big form cues for the Trap Bar Deadlift are to keep the spine neutral, the lats tight, and the shoulders pulled back. Push the floor to drive into a standing position, and don't allow your knees to cave inwards.
"I just look at the trap bar as one of these genius inventions," Boyle says. "It's just way too sensible not to use."
For more training insights from Mike Boyle, watch Functional Strength Coach 7.
Photo Credit: milorad kravic/iStock
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