The trap bar deadlift has gained some good popularity over the years. It’s often regarded as a great alternative to the conventional barbell deadlift. However, some believe that the trap bar deadlift is nothing more than a squat and should not be regarded as a deadlift movement altogether.
Is this true?
In this article, we’ll be thoroughly comparing the trap bar deadlift and squat, with the aim of concluding if there really is a difference between the trap bar deadlift and squat.
The trap bar uses a hexagonally shaped bar that allows you to step inside and lift that load with the handles either side of you.
Most trap bars typically have high handles and low handles.
An important thing I should discuss here is the execution of the movement. Most people tend to perform the trap bar deadlift with a more upright torso and greater knee flexion when compared to the conventional deadlift.
In this article, we’ll be discussing this particular variation (depicted in the image above), as this is the one often likened to a squat.
With the squat, a straight barbell is used. The bar placement would vary depending on what squat variation you a performing. A high bar back squat would place the load on your traps, a low bar back squat would place the load on your rear deltoids, and a front squat would place the load on your front deltoids.
I should note that when I mention the squat from here on, I’m referring to the high bar back squat, as outside of powerlifting, this is probably the most commonly used squat variation. Also, it is the one used in the research we will look at a little later.
But bear in mind that much of the discussion in this article will also largely apply to the low bar back squat and front squat as there are way more similarities between these squat variations than differences.
With both the trap bar deadlift and squat, the joints of the lower body primarily move throughout the movement, meaning of course the lower body muscles are the primarily trained.
In both movements, hip extension, knee extension, and spinal extension occur to overcome forces applied by the load.
This means that the gluteus maximus and hamstrings (which primarily extend the hip), the quadriceps (which extend the knee), and spinal erectors (which extend the spine) are involved in both movements.
Although, in the squat, the hamstrings, due to its anatomy, aren’t actually involved much. In our article “Is the Squat Enough for Maximizing Leg Growth?”, we detail the research on this.
Nonetheless, both movements would involve the recruitment of more or less the same muscles.
However, what about the relative contributions of these muscles and the finer details?
We’ll first discuss joint ranges of motions and then external moments (from which we can infer the relative contributions of some of the lower body muscles).
Joint Ranges of Motions
Here we’ll be focusing on the hip and knee joints.
At the start position of the trap bar deadlift, Swinton et al. found that participants on average had around 91 degrees of hip flexion and 78 degrees of knee flexion. I should point out the high handles of the trap bar were used here.
At the lowest position in a parallel squat, a different paper by Swinton et al. found that participants on average had around 104 degrees of hip flexion and 120 degrees of knee flexion.
Straight away we can see that the squat involves slightly more hip flexion (in all likelihood this is probably insignificant) and quite a bit more knee flexion.
The knee flexion differences is an important point. Many people who say that trap bar deadlift is nothing more than a squat typically state this because the trap bar deadlift involves a good degree of knee flexion, especially when compared to a conventional barbell deadlift.
However, as shown by the Swinton et al. studies, the differences in knee flexion are still meaningful between the trap bar deadlift and squat.
Of course, the numbers provided are averages, and an individual’s anatomy would play a role in the exact number. However, another factor that would impact the amount of knee flexion with the squat particularly is the depth.
The Swinton et al. study had participants squat to roughly parallel. This means that the thigh bone was roughly parallel to the floor.
Deep squats that are well below parallel can get up to 140 degrees of knee flexion.
So, why does all this matter?
Based on the information above, it’s clear to see that with squats, the knee joint is flexed more in the bottom position, and thus goes through a longer range of motion throughout the movement.
This is important because the longer ranges of knee joint motion with the squat in this case are likely superior for overall quadriceps growth.
Research by Bloomquist et al. demonstrated that squatting with 120 degrees of knee flexion (parallel squats) produced significant growth at multiple regions of the quadriceps. But squatting with 60 degrees of knee flexion (partial squats) resulted in some growth only at the two most proximal regions of the quadriceps.
From this data, I think it’s reasonable to suggest that although the trap bar deadlift would very likely grow the quadriceps to a good degree, the squat likely produces greater overall hypertrophy, as it would probably grow regions of the quadriceps the trap bar wouldn’t.
With lifting weights, external moments are the forces applied primarily by the load (barbell, dumbbell, or bodyweight) that attempt to turn a joint, or joints.
For example, imagine a dumbbell biceps curl, the dumbbell is applying a force that is trying to turn your elbow into extension.
External moments essentially give us an idea of how hard the muscles around a joint may work in an exercise.
For instance, going back to the dumbbell biceps curl example, the external moment is 44 NM (newton meters) in the image above. The muscles that flex your elbows, so your biceps brachii, brachialis, and brachioradialis would collectively have to produce a flexor moment more than 44 NM to curl the dumbbell.
With both the trap bar deadlift and squat, the main external moments are a spinal flexion moment (the load primarily is trying to flex your spine), a knee flexion moment (the load primarily is trying to flex your knees), and a hip flexion moment (the load primarily is trying to flex your hips).
We’ll just be focusing on the hip flexion and knee flexion moments here.
A study by Swinton et al. measured peak hip flexion moments and peak knee flexion moments in an 80% one-rep max trap bar deadlift.
Note, peak just means the highest those external moments were during the execution of the exercise.
The average peak hip flexion moment was 325.6 NM, while the average peak knee flexion moment was 182.5 NM.
A study by Escamilla et al. measured peak hip flexion moments and peak knee flexion moments in a one-rep max medium stance parallel squat.
The average peak hip flexion moment was 595 NM, while the average peak knee flexion moment was 627 NM.
It’s important to mention we can’t compare these absolute values between the two exercises. For example, we can’t really say the squat works to hip extensors more than the trap bar deadlift because 595 NM is larger than 325.6 NM.
This is because participants and their training experience were different between the two studies. Also, the Swinton et al. study measured those external moments during an 80% one-rep max trap bar deadlift, whereas the Escamilla et al. study measured those external moments during a one-rep max squat.
But what we can do is compare them relatively.
With the trap bar deadlift, we can see that the hip flexion moment is quite a bit more than the knee flexion moment (roughly 1.78 times).
But with the squat, the hip flexion moment is more comparable to the knee flexion moment. The knee flexion moment is only roughly 1.05 times more than the hip flexion moment.
What this means is that with the trap bar deadlift, the gluteus maximus (and potentially hamstrings) are worked relatively more than the quadriceps.
But with the squat, the quadriceps and gluteus maximus are likely worked to a comparable amount.
So, the trap bar deadlift vs squat, are they the same?
As we’ve established throughout this article, this trap bar deadlift variation does have meaningful differences to the squat. Mainly around the range of motion the knee joint goes through, as well as the relative contributions of the hip extensors and knee extensors to the movement.
Therefore, the trap bar deadlift is still very much a deadlift movement.