In the quest for maximizing leg hypertrophy lifters often select the trap bar deadlift and the front squat as their exercises of choice.
So, what are the differences between the trap bar deadlift vs front squat? Trap bar deadlifts use a trap (hex) bar, which has the lifter deadlift from the floor in a half-squat-style position using the glute muscles. Front squats use a standard barbell,which requires the lifter to keep the bar on the front of their shoulders and primarily target the quadriceps.
In the article below, I’ll give you the full run-down on both of these lower body exercises. Namely, I’ll explain how and why you should include trap bar deadlifts and front squats into your program. Lastly, I’ll outline how to perform each movement correctly, so you can avoid injury and maximize your results.
Let’s dive in!
What’s The Difference Between a Trap Bar Deadlift and Front Squat?
A common question is: can you replace the trap bar deadlift with the front squat and vice versa?
No, you should not consider the trap bar deadlift and front squat to be interchangeable at all. In addition to the different movement patterns being trained (hip hinge vs squat), the trap bar deadlift and front squat use varying muscle groups, have different technical requirements, and need distinct loading demands.
The 6 main differences between the trap bar deadlift and front squat are:
1. Implement Type
Trap Bar Deadlift
The trap bar deadlift uses a trap bar, which is sometimes also referred to as a “hex bar” due to its hexagonal shape. Usually, this specialty bar is enclosed (requiring the athlete to step inside to lift it) and shorter than a standard barbell but still weighing 45 pounds.
The trap bar typically has two sets of neutral-grip handles: a lower set that are even in height to the trap bar’s loadable sleeves, and upper set that are raised up by a few inches.
The front squat requires the use of a standard barbell that is placed in a power rack or squat rack, so the lifter can easily get the bar into the correct position.
That said, a lifter can simply clean the bar up to their shoulders if they’d prefer to perform the exercise on a deadlift platform.
2. Mobility Demands
Trap Bar Deadlift
In the trap bar deadlift, the mobility demands on the lifter are quite minimal. In fact, athletes will often find it easier to achieve a neutral spine than in the conventional deadlift.
However, there will be a greater challenge to the lifter if required to pull from the lower handles — since it will force a lower starting position.
The front squat requires serious mobility in the upper body. In particular, the mobility of the wrists, arms, and upper back will be of top priority.
Lifters who already struggle with inflexibility in these areas will have great difficulty in pulling off the front squat with the Olympic grip. For many, gripping the bar with straps or performing the cross-grip might be a better choice right from the start — especially if the lifter is not interested in competing in Olympic weightlifting or CrossFit.
Want to use straps on the front squat, but not sure where to start? Check out my article Front Squat With Straps: How And Why You Should Do It
3. Muscles Worked
Trap Bar Deadlift
The trap bar deadlift primarily works the quads. Additionally, it provides a reasonable stimulus to the abdominals, calves, and entire back musculature. Some lifters who start trap bar deadlifting for the first time might experience added soreness in the quads.
Read my complete guide on the Muscles Used In The Deadlift, including different variations of the deadlift.
The front squat focuses mainly on the quads, glutes, and abductors (which falls under the “hamstring” family of muscles). That said, the upper back, abdominals, and biceps are also targeted as supporting muscle groups.
Read my complete guide on the Muscles Used In The Squat, including different variations of the squat.
4. Technical Proficiency
Trap Bar Deadlift
For the trap bar deadlift, the process of lifting the bar is fairly straightforward: step inside the bar, assume a half-squat position, stick out your chest, and lift the bar.
Because of this and the fact that most lifters will default to pulling from the upper handles with the trap bar deadlift, this movement tends to require less technical proficiency.
In other words, most novice lifters can do this exercise rather easily, and in fact, many strength coaches will get their athletes to learn the trap bar deadlift before teaching the conventional or sumo deadlift.
For the front squat, the technical proficiency is quite high.
In addition to excellent mobility and upper back strength, the lifter must have significant kinesthetic awareness (awareness of their body in space). Without these qualities, the athlete won’t be able to front squat without falling over or having the bar roll off their shoulders.
5. Movement Pattern
Trap Bar Deadlift
The trap bar deadlift follows the “hip hinge” pattern, due mostly to the greater amount of hip extension that occurs during the movement when compared to knee extension.
As a result, the trap bar deadlift can be a highly effective deadlift variation for lifters looking to target their glutes more effectively (compared with the front squat), and as we’ll read next, use more weight.
The front squat demonstrates the “squat” pattern, where there is a similar amount of hip extension and knee extension.
Because of this and the emphasis on upper back strength development, the front squat can be an excellent squat accessory to build the strength of your quads and to learn how to coordinate your body using a complex movement pattern..
6. Weight Used
Trap Bar Deadlift
The trap bar deadlift will allow for much heavier weights to be lifted than the front squat.
This is primarily due to the shorter range of motion and more advantageous joint angles that allow the lifter to leverage the muscles of their posterior chain.
The front squat will require much lighter weights to be used, when compared to the trap bar deadlift.
This is mostly because the lifter’s upper back strength and ability to maintain the front rack position acts as the limiting factor — not the lifter’s actual quad strength.
Trap Bar Deadlift: Guide
The trap bar deadlift is a deadlift variation that places the lifter in a more upright torso position and allows them to lift using a neutral grip.
Despite the slightly shorter range of motion (compared to a conventional deadlift) the trap bar deadlift still works the glutes, hamstrings, quads and trunk musculature to a high degree.
How To Do A Trap Bar Deadlift
Here’s how to perform a trap bar deadlift:
- Find a trap bar and ensure the handles you’ll be using are face-up
- Step inside the barbell
- Set your stance in the same way as you would normally deadlift
- Bend forward and grab the handles, ensuring your hands are centered
- Squat down until you’re in a half-squat position
- Stick your chest out hard
- Push the floor away to stand up
- Descend with control by bending simultaneously at your knees and hips
- Stop once the bar as returned to the floor
Check out my article that discusses Are Trap Bar Deadlifts Harder Than Traditional Deadlifts?
Technique Tips For a Trap Bar Deadlift
Here are some trap bar deadlift tips to help you with your technique:
- Incorporate lower and higher reps. As with any compound exercise where you can really load up the weight, the appeal of doing a maximal heavy set of 5 reps or less is tempting. As much as you might want to, don’t neglect doing sets of >5 reps. If you purposefully avoid the higher rep range, you’ll likely miss out on impactful hypertrophy benefits.
- Use the lower handles, too. When you try the trap bar deadlift for the first time, it’s common to get used to the higher handles and only ever use that height until the end of time. While it’s not unforgivable to only use the higher handles, the bottom set will help increase the range of motion by lowering your starting position by a few inches. Yes, this will make the lift harder — and it might just be exactly what you need to drive up your standard deadlift.
- Start with your normal deadlift stance. Since you’ll use a different bar for the trap bar deadlift, it’s common to want to reinvent the wheel and forgo your regular deadlift stance. However, you’ll likely find your ordinary deadlift stance width and toe-angle works quite well for this deadlift variation. You’re welcome to experiment down the line, but at least start off with what you’re used to.
Want to make your deadlift strength skyrocket? Here are 12 Deadlift Accessories To Increase Strength & Technique
Common Mistakes When Doing a Trap Bar Deadlift
The most common faults in the trap bar deadlift are:
- Taking too wide of a stance. Due to the shape of the barbell, you’ll have to take a standard (conventional) deadlift stance. Sumo deadlift stance widths are incompatible with this type of specialty bar, so stick to a hip-width stance or slightly wider only.
- Not staying in your knees. The cue of “staying in your knees” is commonly used with the standard deadlift or squat, especially when a lifter has a habit of allowing their knees to kick backwards on the way up. This action shifts the work off the quads, onto the posterior chain. That said, the quads are a strong muscle group — avoid taking them out of the lift by keeping your knees forward on the way up.
Muscles Used: Trap Bar Deadlift
The muscles used in the trap bar deadlift are the:
- Back Muscles (erector spinae, rhomboids, traps)
Throughout the trap bar deadlift, the lifter is predominantly performing hip and knee extension. Respectively, these actions are carried out by the glutes and hamstrings, and the quadriceps muscle group.
The remaining muscle groups (calves) assist in knee extension, or help to keep the lifter upright throughout the movement (abdominals, back muscles).
Benefits of The Trap Bar Deadlift
Some of the benefits of the trap bar deadlift are:
- It’s a natural movement. The half-squat position that you adopt when you perform the trap bar deadlift is often referred to as the “athletic stance” in most sports (bent knees, hips back, and chest out). Whether you have an athletic background or not, this powerful position will likely come naturally to you and make it easier to become skilled with this exercise.
- It’s able to be loaded heavier. Within a couple weeks of dedicated training, you’ll almost certainly be able to lift significantly more weight with the trap bar deadlift when compared to your standard deadlift. The decreased range of motion when using the higher handles tends to be the main reason here.
- It’s (a little) easier on your back. When compared to the standard deadlift, the trap bar deadlift elicits greater activation in the quads but less in the hamstrings and erector spinae (lower back muscles). For this reason, the trap bar deadlift is often chosen for those who are performing “back rehab” and still want to do some type of a deadlift variation.
Can’t hold onto the bar due to lagging grip strength? Before you go buy a new set of straps, check out my article Best Lifting Straps in 2020 to find out what the top lifters are using!
Cons of The Trap Bar Deadlift
Some of the cons of the trap bar deadlift are:
- Less specific for powerlifting. In the sport of powerlifting, you compete with a standard (straight) barbell with the conventional or sumo deadlift. Unfortunately, you won’t be competing with the trap bar deadlift as an exercise. For this reason, the trap bar is probably not the best choice when seeking a highly specific deadlift variation.
- Balance issues from grip. When you first try the trap bar deadlift, it’s common to have the barbell tipping forward or backward during your set. As you get more practice, you’ll start to notice when the bar feels off-centre. When this happens, simply place the bar back down on the floor and reposition your hands accordingly before continuing with your set.
Front Squat: Guide
The front squat is a squat variation that places the bar on the front of the lifter’s shoulders throughout the entire exercise.
In the front squat, the barbell’s position on the front of the shoulders requires that the lifter keep their knees farther forward than other squat variations.
This requirement is to stay balanced in their midfoot and avoid having the bar slide off the shoulders. While the front squat will focus mostly on the quads and glutes, it will also put a large amount of work on the trunk musculature to avoid tipping forward.
How To Do A Front Squat
Here’s how to perform a front squat:
- Find a power rack or squat stand
- Ensure the hooks are slightly lower than shoulder height for the barbell
- Approach the bar and put the tips of your fingers just outside shoulder-width apart
- Step directly to the bar as you rotate your elbows forward and up, so your upper arms are parallel to the floor
- Ensure the bar is resting in the nooks behind your front delts
- Stand up fully to unrack the bar
- Step back a couple paces to clear the hooks and set your stance width
- When ready, take a deep breath in and brace your core
- Bend at your knees to descend, trying to sit between your thighs
- Once the tops of your thighs are at or slightly below parallel to the floor, you’ve reached an adequate depth
- Drive the floor away with your feet to stand back up
Technique Tips For a Front Squat
Here are some front squat tips to help you with your technique:
- Vary your rep range. While your front squat strength will respond better to <6 rep sets because you can use heavier weights, don’t neglect the 6-12 rep range. Incorporating higher reps is an excellent method to accumulate enough volume to result in leg growth.
- Experiment with your grip. If you constantly get sore wrists from the Olympic grip, feel free to put straps on the bar and hold them instead of the barbell itself. On the other hand, you can also perform the cross-arm grip if you’d prefer.
- Stretch in between sets. Performing forearms, tricep and lat stretches will go a long way in facilitating your front rack positioning. As you warm-up with the empty bar, add in some light stretches between your sets. If you want a full mobility routine, you can check out my squat warm-up.
Common Mistakes When Doing a Front Squat
The most common faults in the front squat are:
- Not having a quality standard. As you fatigue during the front squat, you’ll start to undergo some tipping forward on the ascent. Even for experienced lifters with impressive upper back strength, your torso will tend to collapse forward no matter what you do. Instead of trying to banish it altogether, have a “quality standard” for your reps to know when to end the set due to technical limitations.
- Stubbornly using the Olympic grip. Unless you’re an Olympic weightlifter or CrossFit athlete, you’re under no obligation to use the Olympic grip. In fact, forcing yourself to do so might be causing more harm than good. As a bare minimum, try to get 2 fingers (usually your index and middle fingers) around the bar to hold it in position on your shoulders instead of attempting to get all 4 fingers around the bar.
Muscles Used: Front Squat
The muscles used in the front squat are the:
- Erector Spinae (lower back muscles)
- Traps (lower, middle, and upper)
As the lifter ascends from the bottom position of the front squat, there are two main actions that occur: knee extension and hip extension.
Knee extension is primarily handled by the quadriceps, with the calves playing a small supporting role. As a result, the quads are the main mover during the front squat.
That said, the posterior chain also plays a role in the front squat — specifically with hip extension. For this action to occur, the glutes, hamstrings must contract to make the hip joint open so the lifter can stand up fully.
The abdominals, erector spinae and traps assist mostly with keeping the lifter’s trunk rigid against the weight of the barbell. By contracting throughout the exercise, these muscle groups prevent the lifter from caving forward and losing the barbell off the shoulders.
Related article: Back Extension vs Deadlift: Differences, Pros, Cons
Benefits of The Front Squat
Some of the benefits of the front squat are:
- It builds your quads. If you thought that you had to lift heavy to build your quads, don’t sleep on the front squat just yet. A study by Gullet et al. (2008) showed that the front squat was comparable to the back squat for recruiting muscle mass in the legs. Neither appears to stimulate hypertrophy better than the other, even though you can lift much more with other squat variations.
- It improves your mobility. After weeks of front squatting, the small act of holding the bar in the front rack position will increase the mobility of your upper body. Although this is most relevant to Olympic weightlifters and CrossFit athletes, almost all lifters could benefit from more flexibility gains.
Want the benefits of the front squat, but also desire more variety? Open my article on 10 Highly Effective Front Squat Alternatives (With Pictures) in a new tab to read it next!
Cons of The Front Squat
Some of the cons of the front squat are:
- Shoulder discomfort. Whether you’re new to front squats or a seasoned veteran, you’ll find that the weight of the bar might cause some discomfort on your shoulders. Luckily, you’ll get more accustomed to the front rack position and the nerves by the front of your shoulders will get used to the pressure of the barbell in just a couple weeks.
- Difficulty getting a full breath. Since the barbell is wedged behind your front delts, this will likely put it in close proximity to your throat. For some lifters, the bar might actually press into your throat despite having the front rack position established correctly. Don’t stress too much; you can alleviate most of the pressure against your windpipe by actively pushing your head backwards — creating a bit more space between your throat and the bar.
Your decision to do trap bar deadlifts will largely depend on what you’re trying to achieve with your training.
Use trap bar deadlifts if you’re looking for a new deadlift variation to try, or you want to focus on developing your posterior chain. Team sport (soccer, football, hockey) athletes might want to prioritize trap bar deadlifts due to the fact that they closely mimic the “athletic stance” used in these sports.
Use front squats if you’re on the hunt for a squat variation, or you want to build your quads. Also, Olympic weightlifters and CrossFit athletes should probably get used to front squatting regularly.
Check out my other exercise comparisons featuring the front squat:
- Front Squat vs Zercher Squat
- Front Squat vs Safety Bar Squat
- Front Squat vs Goblet Squat
- Front Squat Mobility: 17 Must-Do Exercises
About The Author
Kent Nilson is an online strength coach, residing in Calgary (AB). When he’s not training, coaching, or volunteering on the platform at powerlifting meets, you’ll likely find Kent drinking coffee or enjoying his next Eggs Benedict. Connect with him on Facebook or Instagram.