Trap Bar Deadlift vs Front Squat: How to, Pros, Cons

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Written by Wasim Kagzi
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Key Points

  • If your goal is muscular hypertrophy then look no further than these two monster lifts.
  • Trap bar deadlift uses a hex bar while front squats on the other hand use a standard barbell.
  • If you’re struggling with the form on a conventional deadlift, or you’re a competitive team sport athlete, trap bar deadlifts are a good alternative.
  • For athletes who want to build quad strength, or struggle to get low enough on a back squat, front squats are a great squat variation.

When it comes to building muscle mass and power in the lower body, few exercises can compete with squats and deadlifts.

Across the various styles of squats and deadlifts, trap bar deadlifts and front squats are many lifter’s go-to exercises as they look to maximize leg hypertrophy.

So, trap bar deadlift vs front squat, which is best for you? The trap bar deadlift uses a hex bar and has a similar movement pattern to the conventional form. The starting position is similar to the squat position. However, you will use more glutes in the trap bar deadlift. Front squats use a regular barbell held on the shoulders firmly. These squats primarily focus on the quadriceps while holding.

In this article, we’ll muscles worked for the trap bar deadlift vs front squat. The article will also explain why they should both be a part of your workout, the key differences, and how to maximize your performance on each.

Let’s get into it.

Trap Bar Deadlift vs Front Squat: Differences

I’ll say right off the bat that these two exercises are not convertible. The differences between the two mean that one is not a viable replacement for the other.

In fact, other than both being great for muscular hypertrophy, it’s difficult to find any similarities that make the two interchangeable.

Equipment

The first and most obvious difference is that both exercises use different equipment. The trap bar deadlift uses a hex bar that encloses the lifter who will complete the deadlift by gripping the bar at either the lower or upper handles.

Man performing a trap bar deadlift
The hex bar is used for the trap bar deadlift

Front squats on the other hand use a standard barbell that rests on the chest as they perform the exercise.

You’ll find hex bars are a little shorter than barbells but usually are comparable in weight.

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Muscles Worked

The important part of any exercise, which muscles it grows.

Both activate similar muscles but the primary focus is different on each. Trap bar deadlifts place a lot of focus on the muscles that sit on the back of our bodies. Most of the activation can be found on the glutes.

Muscles worked by the trap bar deadlift include:

  • Glutes
  • Calves
  • Hamstrings
  • Spinal erectors

Front squats place more focus on the quads with other muscles acting as stabilizers for the movement.

Muscles worked by the front squat include:

  • Quads
  • Glutes
  • Abductors

Technical Skill

The level of technical proficiency required is much less for the trap bar deadlift compared to the front squat. This makes it great for lifters who struggle with the form of the standard deadlift, allowing them to perfect it using the trap bar.

To be honest, the deadlift couldn’t be more simple. Simply step into the hex bar, get in the start position, and lift. There isn’t much mobility required due to the low range of motion and straightforward start position.

The front squat on the other hand requires a high degree of mobility in the wrists, arms, and upper back to achieve the start position. It also needs the lifter to have high kinesthetic awareness to complete the front squat without falling over or having the bar roll off their shoulders.

Weight Used

The difficult angle and limiting factor of the lifter’s upper back strength taking the load means that the front squat requires much lighter weights to be used compared to the trap bar deadlift.

The trap bar deadlift has a much shorter range of motion and more comfortable joint angles, thus much heavier weight can be taken carried during the movement.

How to Do Trap Bar Deadlift

The trap bar deadlift is a highly effective deadlift variation that follows the “hip-hinge” pattern thanks to the greater amounts of hip extension in the movements.

Step 1: Position yourself in the center of the hex bar. Stand with your feet hip-width apart.

Step 2: Lower into a half squat position by sitting your hips back. Grasp the handles on either side of you.

Step 3: Stand up by straightening your hips and knees to lift the bar to around mid-thigh height.

Step 4: Squeeze your glutes and lower the bar back down with control.

Technique Tips for Trap Bar Deadlift

Push the Floor Away

Think of pushing the floor away on the upwards drive as this will activate more of the big muscles in the quad. Keep everything tight and focus on pushing away the floor rather than pulling the bar off the ground.

Drive the Hips Forward

In the final phase of the upward drive, try to focus on pushing the hips forward as opposed to lifting the weight. Drive hard through the hips and let the weight take care of itself.

Don’t Forget about the Lower Handles

At first, you’ll likely use the higher handles as you get used to the deadlift, technique, and stance. But once comfortable, it’s worth increasing the range of motion by lowering your starting position by a few inches. The lift will be slightly harder but will almost certainly improve your standard deadlift.

Trap Bar Deadlift Muscles Worked

In the trap bar deadlift, the lifter is primarily performing knee and hip extension, an action that is completed by the glutes and hamstrings (hip extension), and the quads (knee extension). As mentioned earlier, most of the activation here is in the glutes. Trap bar deadlifts are a compound lift though, so a wide range of lower-body muscles are activated.

Other muscles such as the calves and abs act as stabilizing muscles, supporting different phases of the movement.

The muscles used in the trap bar deadlift are:

  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings
  • Quads
  • Calves
  • Abs
  • Spinal erectors
  • Traps

Common Mistakes to Avoid in Trap Bar Deadlift

Jerking the Weight

Jerking is when someone grabs the bar but doesn’t deadlift with a straight arm. Bending your arms as jerking as you pull can strain your lower back and cause injury problems down the line. Aim to keep your arms nice and straight as you pull the bar upwards.

Too Wide of a Stance

The shape of the hex bar means that sumo deadlift stances aren’t really suitable for this exercise. Instead, take a hip-width stance which replicates the more conventional deadlift stance.

Sumo Deadlift vs Conventional Deadlift

Benefits of Trap Bar Deadlift

Reduced Lower Back Strain

The trap bar deadlift has you step inside the bar rather than behind it, meaning there’s a significant reduction of force on the spine. The trap bar deadlift saves the natural posture as you don’t need to hinge your body to lift the huge weight.

The lowered risk of back strain makes trap bar deadlifts popular for building lower body strength in professional athletes. This way, if anything goes wrong it isn’t the back that pays the price leaving the athlete injured for a long time.

Can Lift Higher Loads

Because it’s slightly easier to perform than a conventional deadlift and replicates a more natural movement, you can lift much higher loads using a trap bar (Swinton et al., 2011). This can place the leg muscles under more load producing monstrous gains in the glutes and hamstrings.

A decreased range of motion, higher handles, and lack of hinge are the main reasons for the ability to lift extra load on a trap bar deadlift.

No Hyperextension

On a conventional deadlift it’s not uncommon for the lifter to reach the top of their lift, then arch their back backwards. If you overdo the contraction of the glutes at the top, you can hyperextend the spine which has “injury risk” written all over it.

With the trap bar deadlift, there’s no counterbalance to hyperextend against or push off as you’re inside the barbell rather than having it in front of you.

Less Spinal Flexion

When we deadlift it’s vital to keep a flat back. This get’s increasingly difficult as the load gets heavier and we get more fatigued. On a conventional deadlift, the knees are unable to go forward due to the placement of the barbell so as the body tries to shift the load onto other muscles, the spine can end up taking some flack. 

With the trap bar, the knees can move forward thus your quads will naturally take some of the load away from your hips as you begin to fatigue.

Cons of Trap Bar Deadlift

Not Used in Powerlifting Competition

If you’re training for powerlifting, the trap bar deadlift is not entirely suitable as in powerlifting sport you compete with a straight barbell. When seeking a highly specific deadlift variation, the trap bar is not a useful option.

Specialized Equipment

The hex bar is a highly specialized piece of equipment, thus not found in all gyms. If your gym doesn’t have a hex bar, there isn’t any alternative equipment you can use to replicate a trap bar deadlift.

How to Do Front Squat

The front squat is a squat variation that places the load on the front of the lifter’s shoulders. The target is to remain balanced in the midfoot whilst avoiding having the bar slide off the shoulders.

The load placement and extra mobility required make it a difficult movement to perfect.

Step 1: Stand with the barbell resting in the hooks behind your front delts. Ensure the hooks are slightly lower than shoulder height then step forward and place the tips of your fingers just outside shoulder-width apart and rotate your elbows forwards and up so they are parallel to the floor.

Step 2: Stand up fully and unrack the barbell. Move back a couple of spaces and correct your stance so that your feet are hip-width apart with toes pointing out.

Step 3: Once steady, brace your core and slowly lower yourself into squat position, bending at the knees. Keep going until your thighs are at or below parallel to the floor.

Step 4: Stand up by driving the floor away with your feet.

Technique Tips for Front Squat

Choose a Grip

There are 3 main variations of the front squat grip. Your hands are there to add extra stability and control, not hold the weight. Clean grip requires high wrist mobility so for athletes who rely on their wrists it’s not recommended. 

Cross grip has no mobility limitations but does lack the stability provided by the clean grip. If neither clean nor cross grip suit you, try using straps that offer no mobility issues and great stability.

Breathe Deeply

Look to do deep breaths as you drive upwards, and hold full of air at the bottom of the squat to increase intra-abdominal pressure. Managing your breathing should give you more control in your movement and also stop you from potentially passing out after the lift.

Front Squat Muscles Worked

During the upwards drive, knee extension and hip extension are handled by the quads which act as the main movers in the front squat. Calves and abdominals act as stabilizing muscles throughout the movement. 

Hamstrings and glutes activate as the hip joints open to allow the lifter to fully stand up.

The muscles worked in the front squat are:

  • Quads
  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Calves
  • Abs
  • Spinal erectors
  • Traps

Common Mistakes to Avoid in Front Squat

Not Changing Your Grip

Stubbornly sticking to the Olympic grip is unnecessary and may even be more detrimental than beneficial affecting your form and quality of squat. Try for just two fingers under the bar (middle and index) rather than all four.

Not Conditioning Properly

Foam rolling and static stretches of your glutes, hamstrings, hip flexors, and lats can be a great benefit to going low on your front squats and facilitate your front rack positioning.

Dropping the Elbows

Be sure to keep your elbows pointing as far up as possible throughout the exercise, promoting parallel lines between the upper arm and floor. If they tend to drop after one or two reps then you should consider strengthening and activating your rotator cuffs.

Benefits of Front Squat

Builds Strong Quads

Front squats are considered one of the most effective exercises for building quad strength and size. Despite loading less weight, front squats are comparable to back squats when it comes to building muscle mass in the legs (Gullet et al., 2008).

Neither squat stimulates muscle building better than the other, despite the back variation lifting much more weight.

Improves Mobility

I’m a sucker for anything that improves mobility and the front squat certainly fits this bill. It can improve mobility in the hips, upper back, and shoulders.

If you’re feeling tight or your technique is slightly off in other lower body exercises, the front squat might help correct the problem if added to your program.

The mobility benefits rank front squats amongst the best lifts for athletes.

Suitable Alternative to Back Squats

For some lifters, doing a back squat can be awkward or difficult.

Tall lifters (over 6ft) can struggle to get below parallel on a back squat. Placing the loading on the front lets the center of gravity shift slightly backward. This takes some of the load of the hips and lower back helping the lifter achieve greater depth. 

Lifters with tight hamstrings might also benefit from front squatting. Front-loading will help the hamstrings be less taut, thus promoting an improved range of motion during the downward phase.

Cons of Front Squat

Discomfort in the Shoulders

The weight of the bar being held on the front can create a lot of discomfort on the shoulders, particularly for lifters who are new to the front squat. This can be disconcerting for lifters but over time the discomfort will ease as your nerves get used to the pressure of the barbell.

Can Feel Like Your Choking

Wedging the barbell in the nook against your front delt is dangerously close to your throat. Sometimes it will touch giving the sensation of choking. Extending your neck slightly backward can give you more breathing room.

Trap Bar Deadlift vs Front Squat – Which is Better?

Neither exercise is better than the other, which you do largely depends on your training and workout goals.

If you’re looking for a new deadlift variation, struggle with the form on a conventional deadlift, or you’re a competitive team sport athlete, trap bar deadlifts are good options.

For athletes who want to build quad strength, are bored of back squats, or struggle to get low enough on a back squat, front squats are a great squat variation that comes with plenty of benefits.

FAQs

Can you do trap bar deadlifts with lower back pain?

If you suffer back pain after a few conventional deadlifts or have an injury you don’t want to aggravate, then trap bar deadlifts offer a back-friendly alternative to traditional deadlifts.

Is the barbell front squat an advanced exercise?

Whilst it has many benefits, the front squat requires the use of increased mobility, many muscle groups, and high coordination making it a difficult exercise to master. If you’re new to the front squat, be sure to learn the proper mechanics before adding significant weight to the exercise.

Final Thoughts

So trap bar deadlift vs front squat can be an interesting discussion. Consistently including both of these exercises in your workout can reap many benefits including developing strength and power in your lower body.

If you’re only going to add one, then the mobility and technical skill required to master the front squat will make every other exercise seem like a walk in the park.

The benefits such as quad development and improved range of motion outweigh those of the trap bar deadlift for me as well.

References

Gullett, J., Tillman, M., Gutierrez, G., & Chow, J. (2008). A Biomechanical Comparison of Back and Front Squats in Healthy Trained Individuals. Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research, 23(1), 284-292. doi: 10.1519/jsc.0b013e31818546bb

Swinton, P., Stewart, A., Agouris, I., Keogh, J., & Lloyd, R. (2011). A biomechanical analysis of straight and hexagonal barbell deadlifts using submaximal loads. Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research, 25(7), 2000-2009. doi: 10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181e73f87

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Wasim Kagzi

Hi! I’m Wasim Kagzi and this is where my team and I write and research about everything fitness. On MuscleLead we share all the helpful tips, techniques, and advice we've learned over the years. Personally, I've dedicated my life to learning and the pursuit of strength science. I hope to eventually compete one day and become the strongest version of myself.

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