The trap bar deadlift is a hip-dominant exercise that targets the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back muscles. These posterior-chain muscles are vital for explosive movements like sprints and jumps. No surprise this is an excellent addition to many strength and conditioning programs.
The trap bar deadlift is a shoulder-friendly variant, but it’s not the only exercise that helps strengthen the post-chain muscles. Let’s explore some effective variations:
- Straight bar deadlift
- Single leg Deadlift
- Kettlebell Swing
- Wide-Grip Barbell Row
- Glute Bridge/Hip Thrusts
- Sumo Deadlift
1. Barbell/Straight bar deadlift
This exercise will significantly increase strength and power. Who doesn’t like to feel strong?! It’s called the king of exercises for a reason! This lift has broken many world records in history and is a big favorite among powerlifters and in competitions. It’s not just for ‘strong man (or women)’ competitions. It is a highly functional exercise that will help you in everyday tasks like lifting and carrying shopping. It will increase your explosive power, which is important for many sports, from martial arts to athletics.
When performing this exercise, it is essential to use the right form to avoid injury. Instead of a trap bar, which distributes the load evenly, you use a straight bar. Here the weight is in front of you, making the technique harder to perform, and the weight you are able to lift is usually lower than with a trap bar.
For beginners, I recommend asking for professional instructions from a qualified coach who considers your injury history limitations and can adjust it to your needs. It is also essential to start with a weight appropriate for your level of strength and experience and gradually increase as you get stronger.
- Start by placing the barbell in front of you on the ground.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, with your toes pointed forward.
- Bend down and grasp the barbell with an overhand grip; your hands should be slightly outside your legs. If you find it more comfortable, there are other grip variations: the mixed or underhand grip)
- Drive the knees slightly out to engage your hip and glute muscles.
- Lift your chest, brace your core, and maintain a neutral spine.
- Take a deep breath, drive through your feet, and lift the barbell off the floor, straightening your legs as you lift.
- Keep the bar close to your body.
- Once the bar reaches your knee level, push your hips forward.
- Keep lifting until you reach a standing position with your hips and knees fully extended.
- Return to the starting position with a strong core.
As always, this will depend on your goal to a large extent. But to get strong, a three-week cycle with a starting set of 2-3 with 12-15 reps on a lighter weight is ideal. Then you can move the reps down and get the sets up: 5-6 sets of 3-5 reps with 2-4minutes of full recovery will hugely improve your strength.
As a powerlifter competitor, you will aim for your one rep max lift. While for performance, that wouldn’t be your main aim.
2. Single leg Deadlift
The overwhelming advantage of the single-leg deadlift is its improvements of balance and stability. It increases the strength and overall function of the muscles in the legs and hips. Specifically, this exercise will help with foot/ankle, knee, and hip stability. Training one leg at a time can help to identify and address any muscle imbalances or weaknesses, leading to a more well-rounded and injury-resistant body. It can be completed bodyweight or weighted at home or the gym. Use this exercise in addition to the main compound barbell deadlift and not instead!
- Stand on one leg and hold a weight in the opposite hand.
- Without rounding the back, start lowering your chest towards the ground while at the same time lifting the leg behind you (your body moves as a unit)
- Lowe the weight towards the ground.
- While maintaining balance, return to the starting position
Complete 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps with 30 seconds of rest after or before your primary lift. You can also complete this at home on your rest days as part of the injury prevention routine!
Whether you want to do this on a Bosu, Swiss ball, or back extension machine, this exercise is beginner friendly and highly effective. Here you mimic the hip-hinge movement used in deadlifting in an easier and slightly different way. It can improve posture, help with lower back pain and increase performance. The superman bodyweight variation is an excellent alternative that you can do at home to strengthen your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings.
- Set up the back extension machine with your hips secured and your legs positioned under the ankle pad.
- Lower your upper body by bending at the waist while avoiding rounding on the spine.
- Slowly raise your upper body back to the starting position by extending at the waist.
Start with a lighter weight or no weight. As your strength improves, add some load to the movement.
3 sets of 15-20 reps with 30-60 seconds break
4. Kettlebell swings
Many of us are grateful for the invention of this fantastic training tool. While the list of benefits of this exercise is very long, here are some of the key ones as an alternative to Trap Bar:
Increased strength and power in the hips, legs, and core
In this exercise, you are moving a load with speed, which requires core control. Please take professional instructions to ensure that your form is correct.
I love using this exercise with a lightweight before deadlifting, as it prepares the muscles and body for the load ahead.
If you are after power development, recommended sets/reps/rest are:
3-5 x sets of 3-5 reps with 2-3 minutes rest. You want perfect quality lifts for the whole sets and reps, so you must take extended rest periods between sets to maintain a high power output.
If you are using it as a warm-up before a deadlift: 3 sets of 10-15 reps (depending on the load) with 30 seconds rest is perfect.
It will ‘take your breath away.’
Swinging is an explosive movement. High reps and short rest swings with a fairly heavy load can improve cardiovascular fitness and endurance.
If you are more advanced and are training for a sport that requires maintenance of high-level effort for a long time,’ add this exercise to a circuit of 5 KB exercises for:
- 30 seconds of work and 20 seconds rest (week 1)
- 40 seconds of work and 15 seconds rest (week 2)
- 50 seconds of work and 10 seconds rest (week 3)
Try and add exercises that move you in different directions, like twisting, pulling, and pushing.
Improved balance and coordination
As a compound movement, it requires coordination to perform this exercise. You also challenge your balance as you swing the KB!
- Improved grip strength
- Improved core stability
- Low impact (easier for joints)
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and grip the kettlebell with both hands.
- Begin by hinging from the hip (push your bum back), pull the shoulders back, and keep the back straight.
- Swing the KB between the legs, then use the explosive power of the glutes and hamstrings to swing the kettlebell back up to chest height.
- The kettlebell should be pulled back down to the starting position with control, then repeated for reps.
5. Wide-Grip Barbell Row
Why have I included what is usually considered an upper-back exercise?
Yes, it works the traps, rhomboids, and the upper back. However, the hinged rowing position isolates the same muscles that the deadlift requires, which is a great way to build isometric strength!
Think about it; you are hinging and holding the position while your upper body is performing the movement. The lower back, hamstring, and glutes must work hard to hold onto that heavy load in a ‘paused’ hinged position! This makes this exercise special and the perfect alternative to trap bar deadlifts.
It has a different goal while working several muscle groups and can be completed by beginners and advanced athletes.
- Kettlebell row
- Dumbbell single-arm row
- Underhand grip Barbell Bent Over Row
- T-bar Row
- Resistance band row
- Cable Row
- Grab the bar with a wide, overhand grip
- Hinge on the hip, lower your chest until it’s parallel to the floor
- Maintain a neutral spine throughout the movement
- Extend your arms in front of you
- Then pull the bar to your chest while maintaining (isolating) the position
- Avoid swinging with your torso up and down to help lift the weight (if this happens, use a lighter weight)
- Return to the starting position
For hypertrophy (muscle growth), we recommend performing 8-12 reps per set with moderate to heavy weight. 3-5 sets per exercise.
6. Glute/Hip Thrusters
This exercise became hugely popular when rounded; firm bottoms became a fitness obsession. It works the hamstrings and lower back muscles while building muscle mass in the glutes, making it look rounder! But a strong bum can do much more for you than just looking good!
Activate your glutes, improve posture and stability and reduce the risk of injuries. A strong bum helps you jump higher, lift heavier, and enhance overall athletic performance.
It comes in many different versions like Bodyweight Bridge, single leg bridge, and thruster on a box with barbell, plate, or dumbbell. You just need to get creative.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground. You can also use a box or a bench with your upper back resting on it
- If you are using weights, place it with a pad around the hip area (where it feels the most comfortable for you)
- Then push through your heels and lift the hips off the ground while squeezing the glutes at the top.
- Slowly lower your hips down a few inches away from the ground.
To maximize hypertrophy (muscle growth), complete it with a tempo of 1:3:3:0.
- 1: Power Up in 1 second
- 3: Hold the top position for 3 seconds
- 1: Lower the bar for 3 seconds
- 0: Don’t hold the bottom position, but power it up
Start with a lighter weight for 12-15 reps, then gradually reach your max weight for 6 reps of 4-5 sets. You need to progressively overload the muscle for it to grow. Don’t stay in your comfort zone.
Another great training system for this is Matrix 21:
- Complete 7 reps of the lower part of the thrusters (come halfway up)
- 7 reps of the upper part (from the top position, come halfway down)
- 7 Full – Full Range of Motion
With this Matri21 training system, you can improve your weaker part of the movement (lower, upper), which is important for performance and injury prevention too.
7. Sumo Deadlift
Sumo deadlifts are a lower back-friendly variation of the traditional and trap bar deadlift. It is also better for individuals with shorter arms or those who have difficulty keeping a neutral back position during a traditional deadlift. Sumo deadlifts also target the quadriceps and inner thigh muscles more than Trap Bar and Straight Bar deadlifts,
- Begin by positioning your feet wider than shoulder-width apart with your toes pointed outwards.
- Bend from the hips and knees and lower yourself to the bar.
- While keeping your back straight, grip the barbell with both hands, using an overhand grip (your hands should be inside your legs, close to your shins).
- Brace your core and lift the barbell off the ground, keeping it close to your body as you stand up straight.
- Lower the barbell back to the ground by reversing the motion, keeping your back straight and core engaged throughout the movement.
For hypertrophy (increasing muscle mass) stay within the 8-12 reps per set. Perform 3-5 sets with 30-90 seconds of rest. Which end range of the sets and reps will suit you will highly depend on your current abilities and fitness level.
Pro Tips: Progressing from one exercise to the next should happen logically and systematically to avoid injury and ensure progress. As you get stronger, increase the weight or resistance, add more sets or reps, or move on to a more advanced version of the exercise. For example, you can progress from a bodyweight exercise to a resistance exercise or from two-legged training to single-leg conditioning.