Trap and hex bars can be helpful for the right individuals and exercises. Find out what muscles they work compared to more traditional equipment options.
There are a variety of different movements you can do with trap and hex bars. These often work different muscles.
For example, trap and hex bar deadlifts mainly work your glute (butt), hamstring (back thigh), lower back, erector spinae, quadricep, trapezius, forearm grip, and calf muscles.
This sounds and is very similar to the more standard barbell deadlifts but in what ratio you engage these muscles changes because of your choice of equipment.
Below you can find the differences in muscle engagement in 7 movements by using trap and hex bars instead of more standard fitness equipment.
1. Trap and hex bar deadlifts vs barbell
One of the most popular trap and hex bar exercises is the deadlift. This is also the movement where choosing this specialty bar instead of standard equipment influences the ratio in which you work your muscles the most.
By using a trap bar instead of a barbell you can go through your knees more and keep your torso more upright.
In turn, hex bar deadlifts work your quadriceps more and your glutes, hamstrings, lower back muscles, and erector spinae less than barbell deadlifts.
This is not necessarily better or worse for everyone. The focus is just different. For example, individuals recovering from a lower back injury may like that this area has to work less.
On the other hand, this also leads to less lower back muscle strengthening which other individuals may not like.
2. Trap and hex bar shrugs
Shrugs are another popular movement for using a trap/hex bar. Dumbbells and a double pulley cable machine are two pieces of fitness equipment that are often used for this exercise.
First of all, shrugs are typically done to work the upper trapezius muscles and engage your grip muscles to an extent. These things apply no matter what equipment you use and thus includes the trap/hex bar variation.
The question is then how these equipment choices influence the effectiveness of the shrug exercise.
When lifting weights your movements typically want to follow the direction of the muscle fibers you are trying to target for optimal muscle growth and strength progress.
For working the upper trapezius muscles that means preferably shrugging sideways and upward.
One study measured muscle activity differences in 3 different arm angles (aka shoulder abduction angles) (30°, 90°, 150°) during shrugs. They measured that upper trapezius muscle activity was greater in the shrugs with 90° and 150° arm angles than 30° (1).
When shrugging with heavy weights, most people do not have the middle deltoid strength to keep their arms at these bigger angles when using dumbbells. Additionally, a cable machine will enable more shoulder abduction than the trap bar version.
In short, trap and hex bar shrugs will typically be slightly more effective for muscle growth and strength progress than dumbbell shrugs. In turn, cable machine shrugs will be slightly more effective than trap and hex bar shrugs.
3. Trap and hex bar rows
Bent-over trap and hex bar rows are not the most popular but there are still a good number of people interested in whether they should consider this movement instead of the barbell or dumbbell versions.
The distance between the front and back bar in most standard trap and hex bars makes it so you can bend over less. If you bend forward too much the back bar hits your butt and/or lower back.
This makes it so “bent-over” trap and hex bar rows are typically done more upright than barbell/dumbbell bent-over rows. In turn, the exercise works your middle and upper trapezius muscles more and latissimus dorsi muscles less.
That is not good news for an exercise that is typically done to work the latissimus dorsi muscles. If you have a barbell or dumbbells available, it is typically better to use these instead of a regular trap/hex bar for bent-over rows.
Something to note is that there are also open-back trap and hex bars. With these, you won’t be limited by the back bar because there is none.
You will likely still work your wrist abductor and wrist adductor muscles just a bit more with an open-ended trap/hex bar than a barbell. However, you could consider doing bent-over rows with an open-ended trap/hex bar.
4. Trap and hex bar farmer’s walk
The farmer’s walk is an exercise where you walk a certain amount of distance or time with weight(s) in your hands. This movement mainly works your grip and trapezius muscles.
Most people use dumbbells or specific farmer’s walk handles for the exercise. A barbell is not really an option because it gets in the way of your moving legs. Another option is a trap/hex bar with weight plates.
The trap and hex bar farmer’s walk will work muscles that keep your shoulders in place less than these other options because the weights on each side are connected with solid bars.
More specifically, trap and hex bar farmer’s walks will work your deltoids, chest muscles, and scapular muscles (including lower and middle trapezius) less than dumbbell and handle farmer’s walks.
The amount of knurling (grooves in the handles) on the trap/hex bar compared to the alternatives also influences how much you work your grip muscles. Equipment options with more aggressive knurling will work your grip muscles less.
Whether these things are trap/hex bar benefits or downsides depends on why you are doing the farmer’s walk exercise.
5. Trap and hex bar jumps
The trap/hex bar jump is a somewhat well-known movement for individuals who want to improve the muscle power in their legs. Dumbbells are the main alternative equipment option.
Differences in muscles worked between these two variations are very similar to the farmer’s walk. A variety of muscles will have to work less to keep the weights in position when using a trap/hex bar.
That means trap and hex bar jumps will work your deltoids, chest muscles, and scapular muscles (including lower and middle trapezius) less than dumbbell jump squats.
Also similar is the difference in grip muscle engagement due to different knurling (grooves in handles) patterns. More aggressive knurling will work your grip muscles less. This is not as relevant to squat jumps but noteworthy anyway.
Both types of fitness equipment can be used but most people do squat jumps to work their quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, and calves. That means trap and hex bars are a great choice for this exercise.
6. Trap and hex bar overhead presses
This does not apply to all trap and hex bars but some people can be racked. In turn, this can allow you to do exercises like the overhead press with this type of equipment.
The main equipment alternatives are a loaded barbell and dumbbells.
Due to the neutral grip, trap/hex bar overhead presses will guide your upper arms to an angle where you focus just a bit more on the front part of the deltoids and just a bit less on the middle part of the deltoids.
Additionally, your wrist abductor and wrist adductor muscles will likely have to work harder compared to the barbell and dumbbell variations to keep the trap/hex bar balanced.
You could use a trap/hex bar for this exercise but unless you don’t have any other equipment, most people will prefer the other options. Trap and hex bars can be annoying to rack.
7. Trap and hex bar bench presses
Lastly, some people consider doing bench presses with their rackable trap/hex bars. Again, a barbell and dumbbells are the main equipment alternatives.
Similar to the shoulder press, the neutral grip of the trap/hex bar guides your upper arms to a somewhat different angle. This can leads to more focus on the tricep muscles and less on the chest muscles but not that much.
Your wrist abductor and adductor muscles will also have to work harder to keep the trap/hex bar balanced.
Some people will find trap and hex bar bench presses more comfortable on their wrists and shoulders due to the neutral grip.
Additionally, the range of motion could be just a bit bigger than a barbell bench press if you have a trap/hex bar with elevated handles and hold these.
That being said, the distances between different trap/hex bar handles will likely not be ideal for most people. If you typically bench with safety bars these may also not be the right distance for a trap bar.
Lastly, when lifting heavy weights above their bodies, most people prefer equipment that has less risk of swaying and tipping over.
Does a trap bar build muscle?
The way you build muscle is by engaging these muscles so that they get damaged enough.
This may sound counterintuitive but this damage makes it so your body repairs these muscles, and adds a bit more to be better prepared to exert similar efforts in the future.
While trap and hex bars are not always the optimal choice, they can typically help you build muscle if you use the right weights, do the right number of repetitions, eat the right nutrients, and give your body enough rest.
Is a trap bar deadlift for legs or back?
A trap bar deadlift is mainly for growing and strengthening leg muscles like your quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings. You do still work your erector spinae (lower back) and trapezius (upper back) muscles a nice amount.