Is Barbell Deadlifting Inherently Dangerous?
I’ll be the first to say that “absolutes” are not a wise idea in the world of fitness or strength and conditioning. That being known, if I had to choose one exercise that is worthy to be considered the foundation for every other exercise it would be the deadlift, and by a landslide.
This fact applies to everyone from a 10-year old to those entering their 10th decade. No matter if your goals are centered on just functioning better in daily life, performance, or purely on building your physique, you will be better by mastering the loaded hip hinge. And, when it comes to athletic preparation, the deadlift pattern will serve to reveal potential problems, help correct those impairments, and develop the foundation that most every athletic attribute is built on.
That’s a lot of value to be placed onto a single exercise, especially considering how many different exercises will be included in a total training program. Yet, this invaluable exercise can also be considered the “double-edged sword” of training. If you asked 100 people, who are at least familiar with strength training, which exercise is the most likely to cause an injury (or the one they typically avoid), you likely hear “the deadlift” 75% of the time.
The key to the “absolute” statement in the opening paragraph about the value of the deadlift is in clarifying that it’s an exercise not limited to the traditional tool of choice, the conventional barbell.
With over 33 years experience as a performance strength coach, I will not be the one to condemn the barbell. The fact that its lifespan began in the 19th century deserves respect. However, even in individuals with optimal health of the spine, joints, and connective tissues, there can be contraindications with certain barbell exercises.
The primary reason the barbell is considered the standard in strength training is due to its availability, loading capacity, relative simplicity, AND tradition. However, an individual’s personal arthrology does not give a rat’s ass about these factors.
In addition to the anthrological element, add the fact that most people are dealing with certain “developed” impairments via muscular weakness, postural deficiencies, previous or existing injuries, all in addition to living in a culture that often requires being in prolonged postural positions counter to lifting anything from the floor. That being true, it becomes more clear that being ‘bound by the barbell’ due to the aforementioned reasons should not make sense to anyone outside of a competitive powerlifter or olympic lifter.
Principles of Movement, Not The Tools You Move
With any exercise, first consider the movement pattern and understand the optimal mechanical process of the exercise. Only then do you consider loading the exercise. The tool you choose to load the exercise must be subordinate to optimal mechanics, rather than something that changes the mechanics.
For instance, in the bench press you are wise to first understand and own a proper push-up. From there you are better equipped to lie on a bench and optimally handle a substantial load in the horizontal push. And, you may find that the conventional barbell restricts you in a way that does not allow for optimal shoulder function. There is no benefit in either being hardheaded or in completely forgoing the exercise. You simply look at the other tools available, such as dumbbells, and go for a solution that permits the movement pattern to be loaded with minimal, if any, impairment.
The barbell squat is a similar situation that has a few high quality alternatives, and outright substitutes, to serve you when there’s a mechanical issue with the bar. There’s a difference in “good technique” and contraindication due to one’s intrinsic mechanics. There are certainly individuals who need their technique assessed, corrected, and coached. However, there will be times that even with optimal technique there’s mechanical contraindication for an individual. Consistent joint pain either during or after a training session reveals an issue to acknowledge.
The deadlift, with its aforementioned classification as foundational, is an even more imperative exercise to find a way to load the movement pattern without pain or significant compensation. I say significant due to the fact that there is no such thing as 100% perfect technique. The point is, you want a loading option that does not create an injurious environment that can be discerned rep by rep. Common sense yes, but an issue that frequently gets ignored in the name of training legalism, which the barbell is “prime minister”.
The Risk-Reward Ratio of Barbell Deadlifting
All considered, outside competitive lifting, the barbell is usually not a preferred selection to load the deadlift, especially when taking it from the floor. The mobility required to get to the bar with mechanical integrity, and lift rep by rep, is beyond a healthy range for many people regardless of the multitude of mobility drills they may perform. As well, the grip on the straight bar– matched or mixed– is not as “friendly” as a neutral grip.
Where I observe the most common issues with the barbell is in high school and collegiate weight rooms. Due to logistics (and maybe lack of knowledge how to teach alternatives), the barbell is the most common implement of loading the body in those weight rooms.
With this being the reality, those young athletes must learn how to use a barbell to the “safest” degree that their inherent anthrology permits. The barbell will be used not only in the deadlift but also Olympic lift variations from the floor.
One manner of resolving this is setting up the bar in a power rack to shorten the bottom-end range of motion (ROM) that can be a modification that works well when other options are not available (and even when they may be). Also, the RDL (Romanian Deadlift) is a highly effective variation of the loaded hip hinge without having to take the bar from the floor. But, the RDL emphasizes the eccentric phase of the lift and takes away the ‘dead start’ component of the conventional deadlift.
The barbell is an obvious reality in the sports of Powerlifting and Olympic Lifting. There’s no denying that in order to become proficient as a competitor in either of those sports, you must master the barbell. Still, other loading variations can be a major benefit in a competitive lifter’s overall program.
Solutions To Training Without The Barbell
I have found the kettlebell (KB) to be the best “teaching tool” for a loaded hip hinge. By using a progressively heavier KB as an entry- level progression, I observe a quicker “ownership” of the deadlift mechanics than when that step is skipped. The design of the KB allow the loading to begin between the feet in ideal concert with the movement pattern’s axis of rotation and teach the glutes to be prime movers rather than the lumbar spine.
Once the KB deadlift has been mastered, the Trap Bar is my preferred tool of choice in progressing the deadlift and hip hinge pattern. Where the KB hits a ceiling in regards to loading, the Trap Bar picks right up. And, technically speaking, the Trap Bar variation takes full advantage of mastering the KB adaptation.
As with the standard barbell, you can modify the ROM of the Trap Bar deadlift by using blocks or low boxes. And, many of the newer Trap Bars are designed to work out of a power rack, which is an ideal environment to execute the lift.
And, as with the barbell, the Trap Bar works very well with accommodating resistance in the form of chains or resistance bands. This accommodating resistance not only benefits performance but also lends itself a better loading curve for those with orthopedic contraindications. Yes, barbell variations with chains and bands work well, but the benefits of this modality with the Trap Bar are even greater due to the distinctive design of the tool.
Smart Strength Applications For The Trap Bar
No matter the training objectives or goals, implementing the Trap Bar into a training program offers several highly effective options that can make up the true foundation of lower body training without ever touching a barbell.
At McConnell Athletics, I include the Trap Bar in nearly every program, no matter if onsite or online programs. Beyond the initial phase I addressed earlier where I use a kettlebell to teach loading of optimal hip hinge mechanics, the Trap Bar will be used in programs of general fitness, physique development, and athletic preparation.
The Trap Bar is a great tool to teach youth athletes optimal loaded hip hinge technique that will carry over to their forthcoming work in a high school weight room with a conventional barbell. As well, older trainees will find that the Trap Bar allows them to train the posterior chain in a way that adds life to the years. I’ve got a client nearing 90 who thrives with the Trap Bar deadlift yet cannot imagine performing a deadlift with a straight bar.
For all of my professional athletes, who’s livelihood depends on their remaining healthy, the only straight bar deadlifts we will perform are Glute Ham Deadlifts (aka RDL) and a modified stance deadlift from the floor where the feet are wider and elbows are between the feet.
A good starting point for anyone to get familiar with the Trap Bar is a load of 65-85lbs. The rackable Trap Bars are heavier than the original Trap Bars so it’s best to start out of the rack with those. If bumper plates are not available for the original Trap Bars, I advise that blocks or aerobic steps be used to elevate the start of the ROM.
One point that must be emphasized regarding the Trap Bar is the tendency to hyperextend at the lumbar spine at the top of each rep. Unlike a conventional bar, the design of the Trap Bar permits the hips to drive all the way through. This is one issue that I am very attentive to. I teach, and cue, firing the glutes via a slight posterior tilt of the pelvis at the top, which will act as “a brake” at the top of the ROM.
With consistent application, this cue will become a natural occurrence.
Training The Deadlift & Squat With The Trap Bar
Below is a list of the primary Trap Bar applications you can implement into a training program.
The Basic Trap Bar Deadlift
- Sit hips back and down, with neutral spine, bringing you to the bar (handles).
- Arms straight, flex triceps, and engage lats by imagining grabbing a pencil in each armpit.
- Secure grip.
- Brace anterior core (“take a punch”).
- Initiate concentric phase by pushing feet into floor and “taking slack out of the (kinetic) chain” without plates leaving the floor (or if in rack, without bar leaving the rack).
- Sustain kinetic chain, pressing feet into and “through” floor until extension of hips.
- At top of rep, engage glutes, finishing “tall” (rather than allowing torso to lean backwards into lumbar hyperextension).
- To initiate descent, gradually push hips back and “ride the bar” down to the bottom.
- Reset and repeat all steps.
Trap Bar Rack RDL
- If using a rackable Trap Bar, set bar up so that bar is mid thigh level.
- Take a secure grip, and one full step away from rack (more steps leaves more room for error in set-up).
- If going from floor, use Basic DeadLift form to get bar into “hang” position.
- Neutral spine, slight retraction of shoulders, arms locked (triceps engaged).
- Take stance slightly inside hip-width, weight into heels while sustaining balance, Brace anterior core (“take a punch”)
*Optional: elevate midfoot and toes 2” above heels to help optimize “posterior dominant” mechanics
- Sustaining neutral spine, push hips back (allowing bar just to go where it goes with gravity; focus is on “butt back”).
- Control eccentric phase for a 3-4 second count (think of hip flexors/ quads activating you into the bottom of ROM) until torso is just above parallel (have someone video you so you’ll develop a kinesthetic sense where this point is for you).
- Be aware of tendency to hyperextend lumbar.
- Pause very briefly to eliminate momentum from controlling transition into concentric phase.
- Extend hips while sustaining neutral spine (think of leading with midback rather than back of your head).
- At top of ROM, go into slight posterior pelvic tilt and RESET before initiating eccentric phase of next rep.
Split-Stance Trap Bar Deadlift
- Take hip width stance.
- Place non-working foot approximately 4-6” behind heel of working leg.
- The initial steps and cues are same as basic Deadlift.
- Hip hinge so torso leans forward over working leg.
- Back (non-working) leg is merely a “kickstand” of support
- Think “95% bodyweight through front foot”.
- Extend working hip by pushing the floor away into hip extension, activating glute into slight posterior pelvic tilt at the top of ROM.
- Control eccentric phase and reset.
The Trap Bar Squat
*A quad-dominant variation. Similar set up to the deadlift, however with a more narrow stance and the torso is more upright and the plates do not touch the floor between reps (think of holding dumbbells at your side). To extend ROM, stand on a low box.
- Similar set up to the Basic Deadlift, however with a more narrow stance and the torso is more upright to emphasize the quads. As with DL, arms are straight throughout.
- Mentally confirm that this is a ‘Squat’ as the body will tend to default into “Deadlift mode”.
- Elevate heels 2” as this minimizes a common compensation due to lack of ankle mobility.
- Use lower handles for more range-of-motion.
- If even greater ROM is needed, stand on a low box so that the plates do not touch between reps.
- Sustaining torso and arm position, push through the floor with emphasis into the ball of each foot which helps emphasize the quadriceps.
- After initial rep, the plates do not touch floor between reps.
- Helps to imagine holding a heavy dumbbell in each hand.
Trap Bar Deadlift Jump
*With a much lower load (appx 25-35% 1RM), set up as in deadlift. Explode through floor, absorb landing, RESET before next rep.
Set-Up: Same as Basic DeadLift
- Sustaining DeadLift mechanics (locked- arms!) explode up by driving floor away (no knee tuck).
- The “intent” of height is more important than how high the peak is.
- Absorb landing.
- Complete RESET at bottom.
Trap Bar Squat Jump
*Set up the same as in Deadlift Jump, and execution is similar other than the plates do not touch floor between reps. You go right into next rep upon absorbing landing.
- Similar set up to the DeadLift Jump, however with a more narrow stance and the torso is more upright.
- *Optional: use lower handles
- Sustaining Squat mechanics (locked- arms!) explode up by driving floor away (no knee tuck).
- The “intent” of height is more important than how high the peak is.
- Absorb landing and, unlike the DL Jump, use that stretch reflex as a counter to transition into next repetition.
Trap Bar Deadlift Variations with Accommodating Resistances
Consider chains or bands as “accommodating accents” to the exercise instead of allowing their addition to dominate and dictate the performance of even a single repetition.
Though chains and bands are similar in principle, they each possess unique loading properties. I am not a proponent of using both chains and band resistance concurrently. I find it best to use one or the other and alternating them.
Most of the Trap Bar variations in this article work well with accommodating resistance. However, I do not recommend accommodating resistance on either of the jump variations.
Set-Up: The set-up for either chains or bands will be specific to what you have available.
With Chains: make certain the length of chains is adjusted to accommodate the relative ROM of the exercise (re: the majority of the chain should be off floor at the top of ROM)
With Bands: you can either work out of a rack that allows for anchoring, anchor bands to heavy dumbbells, or use a single band set-up where you drape the band on each side of the bar near sleeves and then securely stand on the middle of the band.
*THANKS TO JALSTON FOWLER OF THE TENNESSEE TITANS FOR THESE VIDEO DEMOS
About The Author
Vince McConnell is a veteran performance strength coach who has been coaching an impressively diverse athletic clientele since 1983. Over the last 25 years, Coach McConnell has work with athletes from over 25 major universities. Vince is also the owner of McConnell Athletics in Fairhope, Alabama where his current client base runs the gamut from beginner to professional athletes.