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Trap Bar Deadlift vs Barbell Deadlift | Use Them Appropriately

Trap Bar Deadlift Vs Barbell Deadlift when to use them and their key differences

The trap bar deadlift versus the barbell deadlift is a fun topic to go back and forth on. Often, beginners see “deadlift” in their names and assume they’re the same thing, but that’s far from the truth.

The trap bar and barbell deadlift are completely different exercises; mentally categorizing them as separate entities can be an awesome way to progress and maximize each exercise. As a coach who’s deadlifted over 550 lbs with each exercise, here’s how I conceptualize them.

Takehome Points

  • Takeaway 1: The barbell deadlift is an excellent exercise for everyone to learn. It’s a movement with real-world carryover, and it’s needed for strength sports like powerlifting and CrossFit.
  • Takeaway 2: The trap bar deadlift can be a valuable tool for teaching beginners how to pick up heavier weights from the ground as the arms are by the side, giving this bar a slightly more “natural” feel.
  • Takeaway 3: When it comes to muscles worked, the trap bar deadlift will be a little more quad-heavy during the lifting portion of the exercise, whereas the barbell deadlift, while still utilizing the quads, will be a little more posterior muscle dominant.

Trap Bar Deadlift Vs Barbell Deadlifts

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Differences to Know

Difference 1: Hand Position

The first major difference between trap bar deadlifts versus barbell deadlifts is the hand position you’ll use for each exercise. With the trap bar deadlift, your handle will be to the side of the body.

This hand position will result in the knees coming a little more forward — hence why the trap bar deadlift can be more quad-dominant — it will also allow you to maintain a slightly more upright torso position compared to the barbell deadlift.

high Handle Trap Bar deadlift for barbell deadlift strength

The barbell deadlift will have your hands positioned on the bar in front of you. This then creates the need to “clear the knees” as you lift. For example, if you bring your knees too forward in the barbell deadlift then you run into inefficient lifting mechanics.

Additionally, with the hands holding the barbell in front of the body, the posterior muscles will have to work a little harder to keep the bar tight to the body to prevent falling forward or losing balance. Hence why the barbell deadlift is a little more posterior muscle dominant.

deadlift stance guide

The hand position used in each movement will dictate how your body responds regarding the muscles used to lift the weight and create balance. The body will always want to remain balanced and your joint angles will be reciprocal to your hand position.

Difference 2: Balance of Load

The second difference worth discussing is how your body’s position will change when using the trap bar and barbell. I alluded to this above, but with the hands by the side in the trap bar deadlift, your position will change when doing this exercise.

With trap bar deadlifts, you’ll get a nice balance or anterior and posterior muscle involvement. This essentially means that muscles like the quads, hamstrings (to some degree), and glutes will be working relatively evenly throughout trap bar deadlift reps.

High Handle Trap Bar Deadlifts

Because the knees can come forward more with trap bar deadlifts, the quads will be a little more engaged as they’re more stretched when setting up and they’ll have to actively extend with the hips as you stand up with trap bar deadlift reps.

With the barbell deadlift, your hips will typically sit a little higher in your setup and your knees will have a softer bend. This results in the quads still being needed and active in the first part of barbell deadlifts, but the posterior muscles will be a little harder with this variation.

deadlift stance and toe angle

Since the hips are slightly higher, the hamstrings and glutes will be more stretched when setting up for barbell deadlifts. This means that to perform good barbell deadlift reps, the hamstrings and glutes will have to work a little harder to keep the bar close to the body and extend the hips (glutes are primary hip extensors here).

Difference 3: Skill Needed and Fatigue Levels

The third difference is how much skill is needed to be proficient with both exercises and how much fatigue they can produce. These two differences can be very subjective and individual, so please remember.

Regarding skills and learning each exercise, the trap bar deadlift can generally be an easier exercise to learn. The arm position and displacement of load equally on the body make the trap bar deadlift a little more beginner-friendly, at times.

Low Handle Trap Bar Deadlifts vs high handle trap bar deadlifts

This does not mean beginners can’t do barbell deadlifts by any means, but typically it’s normal to feel like you have a firmer grasp on your trap bar deadlift mechanics over the barbell deadlift mechanics.

The barbell deadlift and how it’s performed can be a little more individual based on things like your strength sport, limb length, and anatomical variables like height. For this reason, it can take a little longer to really dial in your deadlift mechanics.

For example, when you’re just learning this exercise, it can be tough to identify how you should tweak your form based on your anatomy because if you haven’t had a ton of exposure to this exercise, then you may be limited with what you know and can change.

how wide should my deadlift stance be

Outside of the skill component, generally speaking, barbell deadlifts can be a little more fatiguing than trap bar deadlifts. A lot of this comes down to the ranges of motion you’re going to be working through and how the weight is displaced with each exercise.

Muscles Worked

When it comes to muscles worked between the trap bar deadlift versus the barbell deadlift, there’s going to be a lot of carryover between the two exercises. However, there will be some nuances between each movement and how much they’re working certain muscles.

*Bolded muscles and muscle groups mean that you’ll typically get a little more of a stimulus for these muscles/muscle groups with that variation.

Trap Bar Deadlift Vs Barbell Deadlift Muscles Worked

Trap Bar Muscles Worked

  • Quads
  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Core
  • Forearms
  • Traps
  • Lats
  • Erectors

Barbell Deadlift Muscles Worked

  • Quads
  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Core
  • Forearms
  • Traps
  • Lats
  • Erectors

The nuances in the above vary based on how you’re physically performing each exercise. Generally speaking, you’ll get more quad involvement with trap bar deadlifts, and more specifically low-handle trap bar deadlifts.

With the barbell deadlift, you’ll often have the hamstring, glutes, and lats work a little harder as they fight to keep the barbell close to the body. Again, your anatomy and how you’re performing these exercises can influence “how much” muscle growth you can get in different areas.

Which Is Easier for Beginners?

Answer: The trap bar deadlift and barbell deadlift can both be great exercises for beginners. However, the trap bar deadlift, especially the high-handle trap bar deadlift, will typically be the easiest variation to learn.

The high-handle trap bar deadlift has a shorter range of motion and will allow lifters to feel a little more “natural” with their setup when they’re learning this exercise.

Low Handle Trap Bar vs high handle trap bar deadlifts

A low-handle trap bar deadlift will require a little more skill as you’ll have to assume a deeper degree of knee flexion to get comfortably set, and a barbell deadlift can be a little more technical as “clearing the knees” can be a tougher concept to grasp for some beginner lifters.

Coaching Advice: Both exercises are awesome and if you’re not necessarily in a rush to learn the barbell lifts, then I’d suggest starting with getting a really good hold on your trap bar deadlift form, then working into your barbell deadlift.

Which Should You Use for Sports?

Answer: In the context of sport carryover, there’s an argument to be made that both exercises can have plenty of carryover to your desired sport. However, the nuances come into play when we consider what sport we’re discussing and what an athlete’s goals are.

Let’s say we have a football player who has limited time in the gym to build strength and needs to be conscious of their overall fatigue. In this context, it could make sense to prioritize using the trap bar deadlift as you can load them heavy for a strength stimulus without too much fatigue setting in.

Benefits of High Handle Trap Bar Deadlifts

Plus, a high-handle trap bar deadlift variation can be easier to learn and perform when an athlete is already tired from their sport. So, in this case, the trap bar deadlift could be “better” for this athlete based on their sport and needs.

Conversely, let’s say we have a hockey player who’s accustomed to the gym in the off-season that wants to build their glutes and hamstrings specifically. Outside of barbell RDLs, this athlete could probably benefit from building, learning, and training their barbell deadlift.

Vivobarefoot Primus Lite Knit for Deadlifting

The barbell deadlift will likely give them a greater posterior muscle stimulus and build their hip extension strength from a more focused perspective.

Coaching Advice: If you’re an athlete, work with a coach! If you are programming for yourself, consider your sport’s needs and where you’re lacking, then select the best exercise variation based on your needs and capacity in the gym.

Which Variation Is “Safer”?

Answer: In the world of strength training, there’s a common misconception about deadlifts and the idea that they’re inherently more dangerous than other exercises. This logic is typically the result and projection of a coach or athlete’s personal bias toward deadlifts.

There is no exercise that is more dangerous than its peers. If your form isn’t dialed in and you’re loading too quickly for what you can handle, then you can run into issues. However, these two variables are separate from an exercise’s general amount of safety.

Testing the Under Armour TriBase Reign 5 for Deadlifts

I’d highly suggest moving away from the mindset of trap bar deadlifts being “safer” than barbell deadlifts if that’s a narrative you have in your head.

The more productive approach for this topic specifically is to acknowledge the skill needed for each exercise and how to progress them accordingly based on your needs and capacity.

Which Is Best for Back Gains?

Answer: When it comes to building back muscles, the trap bar deadlift and barbell deadlift can both be great for building a foundation of back muscles. However, I do think there’s a case to be made for the barbell deadlift taking the edge here.

With the barbell deadlift, you’re going to need to move through a greater degree of hip flexion and extension while lifting a weight that is in front of the body. The combination of these two factors will make the back muscles typically work a little harder in the barbell deadlift.

Deadlifting 505 lbs In the Reebok Nano X2 Lifting Test

Plus, the musculature surrounding the spine will also be highly trained as you get heavier and work to resist high degrees of flexion when performing barbell deadlift reps.

The trap bar deadlift can also be great for building the back muscles and you’ll typically find that the upper back muscles feel this exercise a little more. This is due to the hands being at the side of the body and the trap and upper back muscles working hard with this variation.

Which Is Best for Leg Growth?

Answer: Like back muscle gains, the barbell deadlift and trap bar deadlift can both help you develop your leg strength and power. However, the trap bar deadlift will typically be a better option for lifters that want to build their legs specifically.

With trap bar deadlifts, you typically have two handles. You have the higher handles that will limit your range of motion, then the lower handles that will require more of a “squat-like” setup.

Low Handle Trap Bar Deadlift Benefits

If your goal is leg growth, then using low-handle trap bar deadlifts can be an awesome tool for building the quads, adductors, hamstrings, and glutes. Since you have to achieve a squat-like setup to perform them, you’ll train these muscles through greater ranges of motion compared to high-handle trap bar deadlifts and barbell deadlifts.

If your leg-focused goal is building the hamstrings and glutes without accumulating too much quad fatigue, then you’ll want to opt for a high-handle trap bar deadlift with a higher hip position or a barbell deadlift.

Takehome Points

The trap bar deadlift versus the barbell deadlift is a popular topic for beginners and intermediate lifters who are starting to program exercises for themselves to achieve different goals.

In my coaching opinion, I think it’s best to think about the trap bar deadlift and barbell deadlift as separate exercises. By doing this, you can then categorize and use them more efficiently based on what you’re trying to achieve.

If you have additional questions about the trap bar deadlift versus the barbell deadlift, drop a comment below or reach out to me personally via Instagram (@jake_boly or @that_fit_friend).

Jake Boly, CSCS, MS Sports Science

Jake Boly, CSCS, MS Sports Science

Jake Boly is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of That Fit Friend. He's often regarded to as a go-to resource in various performance shoe communities. He’s been formally reviewing shoes and training gear for over 7 years and has hand-tested over 400 pairs of shoes. Jake is known on the internet and YouTube for blending his review process with his educational, strength sports, and personal training background.

Jake has a Masters in Sports Science, a Bachelors in Exercise Science, a CSCS, and he's been personal training for over 10 years helping hundreds of clients get stronger, lose weight, and accomplish their goals. He uses his exercise science brain and personal training background to make curated and thoughtful review content on the fitness gear he's testing.

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