In the past I might have been inclined to say yes. But that was before I witnessed a lot of average guys sustain some really odd injuries while trap bar deadlifting over the last three years.
You see, when you get used to working with a higher level, more athletic clientele it can skew your viewpoint on things a bit.
I’ve found that to be the case with a few concepts that I once believed to be true. After being able to test them on a wider pool of average guys they didn’t pan out as well.
The theory that trap bar deadlifts are safer than straight bar deadlifts is just one of those beliefs that I’m referring to. The trap bar deadlift is thought to be safer than a straight bar deadlift because of the fact that more people can get into the start position of a trap bar deadlift without rounding their lower backs.
Very few people can pull a straight bar from the floor without some pretty serious spinal flexion. Sure, they can improve their hip and ankle mobility and put in some serious flexibility work which will lead to them being able to pull a straight bar with perfect form within 12-16 weeks. But the first time out not a lot of people can do it.
Others just aren’t built for it and will never be able to. Then we have athletes or clients who can only train for a 2-4 months at a time in between seasons. They don’t have the time to work their way into a perfect straight bar deadlift. So in this case the trap bar is often called upon.
The trap bar deadlift is a nice combination of a squat and a deadlift. Like a straight bar dead from the floor, most people can’t squat properly without several weeks of preparation either. But it’s the very rare genetic misfit who can’t do a pretty good looking trap bar deadlift within their first month of attempting to do so.
For that reason right there it becomes the go-to lower body exercise for numerous strength coaches.
The problem, however, is that the trap bar deadlift is a very unstable movement. When you combine heavy weights with shaky, unstable movements you may be asking for trouble. What I mean by this is that unlike the straight bar, which locks you into place because the bar is grinding against your thighs, you’re kind of just out there flapping in the breeze with the trap bar.
I believe Mark Rippetoe mentioned this a few years back but I never gave it much credence at the time. However, I now wholeheartedly agree that the trap bar could be much riskier and cause more injuries than the straight bar. I’ve seen too many weird, Exorcist like moves and injuries the last few years to think otherwise.
With light weights it’s easy as could be to maintain perfect form on a trap bar, but as soon as you start piling on the plates the bar starts moving in places it shouldn’t. Advanced lifters can usually control this. But the benefit of the trap bar is supposedly that novice and intermediate lifters can use it. What often happens is when pulling out of the bottom, they’ll roll the bar. I’ve seen it go forwards and I’ve seen it go backwards. Neither direction is good.
With the straight bar this doesn’t happen. You simply instruct the lifter to pull back and the bar rolls up the shins as it should. Notice the start position of the lifter pictured to the right. If he attempts to pull back from that position, as he would with a straight bar, he could be going over backwards. And getting injured in the process.
At the midrange point on the trap bar deadlift I’ve seen novice and intermediate lifters break out into a full on Beyonce style dance routine, shimmying from side to side as the bar just sways in the breeze. Again, I’ve never seen this with a straight bar.
Finally, at lockout, when a strong hip extension and glute contraction is required, the straight bar will stop you from going too far. You can only hump the bar so much. But have a lifter with less than a year or two of experience do this on the trap bar and you may see some Cirque du Soleil type freakish back bending that results in an injury.
I actually saw a kid do four perfect reps on the trap bar deadlift this winter only to finish out his fifth and final rep by tripling his hip extension for some reason. I guess he just wanted to finish strong. At the top of the lift this hands were actually behind him and it looked like he was about to limbo under an imaginary bar in front of him. My eyes lit up wide like I had just seen a live beheading.
So the answer to the question, “Are trap bar deadlifts safer than straight bar deadlifts,” is no, not necessarily. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.. My opinion is that with heavier, top end weights the trap bar is more dangerous. But with submaximal weights the trap bar can be safer.
Beginners should only use submaximal weights so the trap bar is a good way to work them down to a straight bar if that is your goal. However, if you get a strong guy pulling more than five or six hundred pounds on the trap bar you have to consider the risk of how free and “out there,” the trap bar is. There’s nothing locking you in like there is with the straight bar and even advanced lifters may get out of their groove just a bit. All it takes is a slight deviation from the perfect bar path and you’re on the shelf for a month or three.
The safest choice of all is a rack deadlift set on the pins as low as you need them to maintain a neutral spine. As I mentioned, the majority of people will round their lower back when pulling a straight bar from the floor. That will probably lead to injury eventually, if you do it heavy enough, long enough. So the solution is to simply raise the bar up on pins or rubber mats (even better) just as high as you need it to keep a neutral spine. This may be two inches for Johnny and six inches for Joey. It depends on your body and a variety of factors.
If you had to pick one form of deadlifting as the safest for the largest majority of people that would be it right there- a low rack pull or a deadlift off a stack of mats.
Lifting heavy weights of any sort is fun, plain and simple. And we all accept that there are serious risks involved. So if you like to pull with one bar more than the other by all means do so. It’s your call. At the end of the day you gotta move some heavy iron and you gotta have fun doing it. I’m just sharing my experience and trying to keep you guys healthy so you can be in this for the long haul.
I’m basing this off of a pool of about 70-80 guys I worked with over the last few years but would love to hear your feedback. Have you found this to be the same? What has been your experience with the trap bar versus the straight bar? What do you think is the safest form or deadlift for the masses?