Hex Bar Deadlift VS Barbell Deadlifts: Are They Both Really Deadlifts?
You may have seen some people lifting a lot of weight while trapped inside a hexagonal-shaped bar--don’t worry, they’re not dangerous:
They’re probably just diving into the relatively new and interesting world of hex bar lifting.
Seriously though, the first thing you’ll notice about people performing hex bar deadlifts is the weight they are able to lift. It’s enough to make most people doubt their deadlifting strength, but this post will tell you a little more about what’s really going on, and how you can do the same.
I’ll explain what hex bars are and how they allow you to lift more weight than barbells. I’ll tell you why people should use them, and some reasons they may not need to. Then I’ll finish by saying what is to be lost by hex bar deadlifting--what you’ll be missing out on if you only hex bar deadlift.
Hex Bar Deadlift vs Barbell Deadlifts [The Bottom Line]
Barbell deadlifts remain the number one exercise for posterior chain and functional strength building, but hex bars offer some new innovations that can help you build muscle in other ways.
What is a Hex Bar?
Hex bars, or trap bars, are (as the name suggests) hexagonal or trapezoidal in shape. This isn’t just some funky design--it’s functional. Traditional barbells bars have inherent limitations on how you can lift them. There’s no better example than the deadlift; the lift itself is predicated on the fact that you can’t actually stand directly in line with the weight being lifted from the floor. That’s what makes it so good for training your posterior chain (but more about that later).
Hex bars, on the other hand, allow you to stand in the center of the bar, lifting it up with two handles at your sides. This means that the weight is directly in line with your body. As it turns out, this has a lot of biomechanical advantages and generally feels more comfortable for most people.
Are Hex Bar Deadlifts Better than barbell deadlifts?
We need to be careful about how we define ‘better’, here. According to research coming out of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, the hex bar gives participants a biomechanical advantage which immediately translates into higher loads. People are able to lift heavier when they use a hex bar, and this, in combination with other factors like ease-of-use and better grip, lead this study to conclude that hex bars were the overall better strength and power exercise, when compared to barbell deadlifts.
That’s a big claim. When you’re trying to take down the King (as the deadlift is commonly referred to in fitness circles), you’d better have some serious evidence to back you up. And while this study comes from a respectable source (and I mean in no way to discredit its findings), it’s worth providing a little more context in this showdown between hex bar deadlifts vs barbell deadlifts.
Is lifting heavier weight always better?
Firstly: it’s certainly true most athletes will be able to lift heavier loads using a hex bar. This is due to those biomechanical advantages the above study referred to. Lifting more weight, better biomechanics… it sounds better, right?
What are these advantages, though? Simply put, there are two things:
1) hex bars let you leverage the load more efficiently from the floor, since the weight is in line with your body; and
2) hex bars give your knees more room to bend. The back squat also lets bend as far at the knees as you like--does that make back squats better than deadlifts?
You can see that this confuses the issue. When people rely on a different movement to lift heavier weight with a hex bar, they are actually doing a different exercise to barbell deadlifts. Because people have more freedom with a hex bar, most people will recruit more strength by bending at the knees than is possible with a barbell. This is fine, but suddenly it doesn’t seem fair to say that hex bar deadlifts are the more effective exercise--they’re just able to recruit more muscles to lift the load.
What are you missing out on?
The barbell deadlift is king of the posterior chain because, for one thing, it doesn’t let you squat deep at the knees. It also ensures that the weight stays slightly in front of you. This engages your lower back, biceps femoris (no, not the biceps in your arms), and glutes far more efficiently than when the weight is perfectly in line with your body.
Also, don’t be surprised if your hex bar weights don’t correlate as well to other Olympic lifts, like power cleans and snatch squats. Barbell deadlifts have the additional bonus of preparing you for most other high level lifts. When you power clean, you begin the lift with a deadlift phase that gets you started. If your deadlift is weak, you’ll never be able to move up to these Olympic lifts comfortably--not without risking lower back injuries.
Lastly, hex bars don’t allow for you the same variation as barbells. Just by sliding your grip along the barbell bar horizontally, you can open up a range of exercises to help assist your overall deadlift strength. Exercises like Sumo deadlifts and snatch-grip deadlifts can shift the focus of the exercise, giving your training variety while still staying in the deadlift ball park.
Who should hex bar deadlift and when?
There are two very good reasons to focus on hex bar deadlifts:
- You’re currently suffering from, or have had previous issues with, lower back pain; and
- You want to transition into heavier deadlifts.
Lower back issues can be difficult (and painful) to overcome.
Depending on the severity of your condition, barbell deadlifts may be strictly off limit. If this is the case, but you are still looking to work similar muscle groups (while taking some strain off your lower back or spine), then hex bar deadlifts can be ideal.
*Generally speaking, if your back issues are severe enough that you can’t do a deadlift with the bar, then you shouldn’t be touching hex bar deadlifts either. For more mild cases, or later on in the recovery phase, hex bars can serve as a great transition into barbell deadlifts.
This also goes for transitioning into heavy deadlifts. Two common points of failure for deadlifters are grip strength and lower back strength. If you’re trying to add that extra plate to your barbell deadlift, adding in a phase of hex bar deadlifts can help to reduce the role of both of these weak points, while still training your hamstrings, glutes and core to bear a heavier load. Even just being able to practice holding the same weight as your target deadlift weight (by using a hex bar) will contribute to helping you reach your goal.
HEX BAR DEADLIFT VS. BARBELL DEADLIFT
Equating hex bar and barbell deadlifts isn’t quite fair. While the two do recruit most of the same muscles, there is a significant difference in where the emphasis is placed (hence the ability for most people to lift heavier loads on the hex bar instantly, even without training).
Unlike my stronger conclusion about dumbbell deadlifts, I am still very positive on the potential benefits of hex bar deadlifts in combination with barbell deadlifts.
For the moment, the goal should be to never stray too far from the King (where possible). Experiment with hex bar deadlifts for yourself and see what you think, but remember that the deeper you bend at the knees: the more you are moving away from posterior chain and the closer you will be to a squat movement.
For more detailed information about deadlifting and how to get better at it, check out my post on how to increase your deadlift.