One of my biggest strength and conditioning pet peeves is the idea that deadlifts are bad for your back or are unsafe. This usually steams from Joe weekend warrior of used too much weight on the bar and tried to lift it improperly with his dysfunctional body. He got hurt so it must be the deadlift.
At this point in my career as a strength and conditioning professional I’m done trying to convince people to do what I think they need. Instead I attempt to give them what they want. This is where the trap bar deadlift comes into the equation. The general strength theory is that trap bar deadlifts are safer then barbell deadlifts because they prevent spinal flexion. According to low back researcher Dt.Sturat McGill, every time you flex, round, your low back McGill says that you put upwards of 4500 pounds of tension on your low back discs. Repeated flexion is a recipe for disaster and eventually leads to low back pain and spinal herniation. Imagine doing it while you’re trying to pull 315 pounds.
The trap bar deadlift DOESN’T eliminate or even stop low back flexion. Most people are so tight in their ankles and external hip rotation that they went up slightly rounding their low back toward the end of the first phase of the movement. Granted it’s not as extreme as the ugliness that you’ll see in big commercial gyms but it can still cause serious spinal injury. If you have to flex your spine to finish a lift then you’ll also more then likely cause muscle compensation elsewhere further increasing your injury potential.
The trap bar is a fantastic teacher of deadlift form. Even if you’re extremely tight in your hip flexors and rotators you’ll still more then likely be able to sit back and learn the proper mechanics of the beginning of the deadlift. When you’re first learning the movement or using it with lower weights it can be a greater teaching tool. At the same time, the heavier the weight gets the harder the trap bar positioning is going to get.
Think of it this way, have you ever tried to do a dumbbell deadlift. Notice how awkward it feels? Also notice how you always manage to turn it into a hybird deadlift-squat combination? That’s exactly what’s at stake as you continue to raise the weight you’re using with the trap bar. Instead of sitting back you sit down. When you sit down and make it a more quad dominant movement you also try to squat the weight up.
Personally I just feel better the next day after I barbell deadlift. It has everything to do with the weight being in front of my body and increasing my perceived feeling of locking my hips out or shooting my pelvis forward. I also feel that I need to squeeze my shoulder blades together to finish the rep when I use a barbell as oppose to a trap bar. It might be a personal thing or the fact that the weight is positioned in front of me but the barbell deadlift allows me to feel stronger as a whole.
In my experience the trap bar deadlift is a better teaching tool and should really only be used for supplemental speed deadlift days and not used for max lifts. Beginners can benefit greatly from using the trap bar but there comes a time when its use stunts their potential strength gains and as a result, you as the coach need to know when you should progress a client from trap bar deadlifts to barbell deadlifts.