When the hex bar was introduced to the athletic fitness community about three decades ago, it was promoted as a safer alternative to the straight bar deadlift. Recently, the US Army has championed this exercise and will include it as part of their combat readiness assessment for soldiers in 2020. What’s the story?
Giving credit where credit is due, the hex bar is a variation of a special bar developed by Al Gerard. A powerlifter who had a best deadlift of 625 pounds, Gerard’s training was often sidelined by lower back pain. Not wanting to give up his passion for pulling, Gerard invented a triangle-shaped deadlift bar that enabled him to continue training hard with minimal stress on his lower back. It was called the trap bar.
The strength training community was introduced to the trap bar on a large scale when Paul Kelso wrote about it in several weight training magazines in the late 1980s. In 1993 Kelso wrote a book about the many uses of the trap bar in his book, “The Kelso Shrug System: A Practical Guide for Body Builders and Strength Athletes.” The latest edition of Kelso’s book was published in 2002. This begs the question, “Why don’t we see many trap bars in the gym now?”
First, there were issues in getting the trap bar manufactured, and during the delay another company came up with a hexagonal bar design that offered many advantages over the trap bar. First, it provided more legroom, making it easier for larger individuals to use; since one of the biggest markets for the trap bar was football players (who tend to be larger athletes), the hex bar quickly became the preferred design. Also, the hex bar was easier to balance, as the trap bar easily titled forward and backward. Why is the hex bar safer than the straight bar?
The hex bar (along with the trap bar) allows you to deadlift with your hands at your sides, rather than in front of your body as required when performing a straight bar deadlift. One of the challenges strength coaches have experienced is getting their athletes to deadlift while maintaining a neutral spine, which in the case of the deadlift means starting with a slight arch in the lower back. If an arch is not maintained, the stress shifts from the muscles to the connective tissues and disks, increasing the risk of injury – this risk is one reason so many high school coaches do not want their athletes deadlifting. However, with the hands at your sides, it’s much easier for the user to maintain the proper spinal alignment. This is what the Army discovered.
The Army’s previous combat readiness assessment was instituted in 1980 and involved three tests. Their initial research on the Hex bar deadlift as an assessment involved 500 military personnel, and despite challenging these soldiers to lift heavy, there was not a single injury. This is not surprising. Studies on the biomechanics of the hex bar deadlift found that because the hex bar more evenly distributes the load between the joints of the body, it could be used in the final stages of rehabilitation and possibly with those with a history of lower back pain.
Not only will both males and female Army personnel be performing the hex bar deadlift, their testing standards are gender and age neutral. If a woman wants to max out on the test, she will have to equal the same standards as a man. To get this process started, the Army is working to introduce the hex bar to 40,000 soldiers before the launch date of October 2020.
Although associated with the deadlift, the direct line of pull of the hex bar on the shoulders makes it especially effective for developing the diamond-shaped trapezius muscle group of the upper back. One of the functions of the trapezius is to elevate the shoulders – you will see weightlifters using their traps to pull their shoulders towards their ears as they extend their bodies during the pull for a snatch or clean. The traps also assist other muscles, such as by stabilizing the upper body during overhead pressing exercises. Most importantly, the trapezius supports the neck, and research has found that having strong neck muscles can significantly reduce the risk of concussions. As a bonus, you don’t have to perform shoulder shrugs as an additional exercise in your workout – at the end of each set of deadlifts, simply add a few shoulder shrugs. There’s more!
The straight bar deadlift should be considered a flexor exercise, and research shows it more strongly activities the biceps femoris than the hex bar deadlift. In contrast, the hex bar deadlift is more of an extensor exercise, working the quads harder than a straight bar. Thus, it is superior to the straight-bar deadlift for improving sprinting speed and jumping ability.
In addition to hex bar deadlifts, shoulders shrugs, and vertical jumps, many other exercises can be performed with a hex bar. One great core exercise is the farmer’s walk, which entails standing up with the bar and then walking forward with relatively short, controlled steps. Overhead presses (performed in a power rack, as it’s difficult to shoulder the bar from the floor), back extensions (holding the bar arm’s length), and challenging forms of planks (as the bar will be slightly unstable) can also be performed.
There are also high-handled hex bars that enable the user to perform the exercise from a higher starting position – these are great for especially tall individuals or for those who want to overload the top portion of a deadlift. These handles make for a superior push-up exercise as the wrists are more in line with the hands (placing less stress on the wrists) and the handles enable you to perform the exercise from a lower start position. But rather than buying a high hex bar and a regular hex bar, you can buy combination hex bars that convert from a regular hex bar to a high hex bar by flipping the bar over.
Other hex bar variations include heavier, larger bars. One such bar weighs 75 pounds and has longer sleeves to enable you to use more weight – up to 18 slim-designed 45-pound plates, for example, giving you a total of 885 pounds (bar weight and plates). There are also 15-pound, thin metal hex bars for children, and hex bars that have rotating handles that vary in thickness for those who want to improve their grip.
The straight bar deadlift is a valuable exercise that offers numerous benefits for anyone seeking to achieve superior levels of athletic or physical fitness. The hex bar, however, offers many advantages over the straight bar and should be included in your exercise toolbox.