The squat is considered the King of Lifts, but the deadlift takes a close second for its ability to strengthen the powerful muscles of the glutes, hamstrings, quads and lower back. It also strengthens the traps, grip, and can even help you develop a six-pack. But just as there are many types of squats, there are also many types of deadlifts – and one of the best ones is the hex bar deadlift.
The conventional deadlift using a straight bar may seem like a relatively simple exercise, but it’s hard to maintain a neutral spine when performing it with heavy weights. If the spine is allowed to flex, much of the stress is diverted from the muscles to the connective tissues and discs. Because many strength coaches were concerned that their athletes would break form on the deadlift, the exercise lost favor in many strength and conditioning programs. Rather than scrapping the deadlift, a better alternative is to perform the exercise with a hex bar.
The hex bar is a hexagonal-shaped barbell with handgrips mounted on the sides of the frame. This design enables you to perform the exercise from inside the encompassing bar. Prior to the introduction of the hex bar, accomplished deadlifter Al Gerard designed a similar bar with a triangular shape that he called the trap bar. However, the hex bar proved more popular because it has a larger lifting area, which is important for larger athletes who need more leg room, and is easier to balance.
The hex bar enables you to keep the bar closer to your center of mass and allows you to perform it with a more upright style. For this reason, the hex bar deadlift is often classified as a leg flexor exercise and a straight bar deadlift as a leg extensor exercise.
A study published in the July 2001 Journal of Strength and Conditioning compared the straight bar deadlift to the hex bar deadlift. The researchers found that hex bar deadlift produced significantly greater peak force, peak velocity, and peak power – advantages that make it a superior exercise for athletes. The researchers also found that the hex bar deadlift decreases the stress on the erector spinae muscles and increases the work of the quads. Noted the researchers, “For individuals with a history of lower back pain or currently in the final stages of rehabilitation, performing the deadlift with the hexagonal barbell rather than the straight barbell may be a more prudent strategy to target the lumbar area while more evenly distributing the load between the joints of the body.”
Most individuals can use more weight in the hex bar deadlift than the straight bar deadlift. However, many strength coaches have often found that there is less of a difference between the two lifts as you become stronger. For example, if an athlete can straight bar deadlift 220 pounds, they may be able to hex bar deadlift 300 pounds (136 percent). If that athlete improves their straight bar deadlift to 450 pounds, their hex bar deadlift may be 540 (120 percent).
Anatomy also influences hex bar performance. A sumo style deadlift is performed with a straight bar using a wide stance and more upright torso. Those athletes who are more proficient in this style of lifting often have relatively stronger quads (compared to their lower back strength), and are often considerably more proficient in the hex bar deadlift.
The conventional hex bar is about 56 inches long, which compares to 86 inches for a conventional men’s Olympic bar. As such, the lift can be performed in a relatively small area. There are also several variations of hex bars, each with their advantages.
A high hex bar, for example, has elevated handgrips that reduce the degree of knee bend necessary to perform the exercise. This makes the exercise more comfortable for taller athletes. Also, there are variations of these high hex bars designed so that they can be flipped over so that the exercise can be performed in the conventional manner. This advantage also offers more variety in training. For example, perform the exercise as heavy as possible from the lower start position; when you reach your limit, you can flip the bar over to use the high handles and perform the exercise for more reps or with heavier weights. This workout protocol more effectively overloads all areas of your strength curve.
Because especially heavy weights can be used in the hex bar deadlift, larger hex bars were developed. Whereas a conventional hex bar weighs about 45-50 pounds, these heavier hex bars weigh about 75 pounds, can handle more weight plates, and are built to withstand more abuse. Also, there are hex bars available with rotating handles that offer three thickness of the grip, and lightweight hex bars that weight only 15 pounds available for young athletes.
The straight bar deadlift is a valuable exercise and is considered an excellent complement to squats. However, the hex bar deadlift is a great variation that has many benefits over the straight bar, and as such should be considered an exercise you might want to add to your weight training toolbox.