The deadlift is one of the gold standard lifts in the gym. It’s pretty simple, really: You load a barbell up with weight, grab it with a shoulder-width grip, plant your feet on the floor and lift.
Except newsflash: It doesn’t need to be done only with a barbell. For most average guys and plenty of short guys, barbell deadlifting is natural. But if you’re just struggling with deadlifting form in general, frequently lifting your butt up too early in the movement, there is another option.
That option is the hex bar, and it’s one of the most underrated tools in the gym. This hexagon-shaped piece of metal just may be what you need to fix your deadlift. It’s been around for nearly 30 years, but over the last decade or so, it’s finally started growing in popularity.
That’s as it should be. Because if you’re having trouble with deadlifts, the hex bar is the tool you need. It’ll instantly put your body in position to execute cleaner deadlift mechanics. And if your goal is strength and muscle and you’re not prepping for a powerlifting competition, then deadlifting with proper form is going to serve you in the long run more than deadlifting with the barbell. That, of course, is exactly why I’m going to walk you through everything that makes the hex bar great for deadlifts (and a few other lifts too).
Hex Bars Offer Similar Load Distribution
As I said (and as you may know from your gym), the barbell deadlift is a holy grail exercise. People are protective of that traditional barbell and oftentimes resistant to changing over to the hex bar.
But look at it from the outside, and this doesn’t make any sense. While hex bars come in many shapes and sizes, in general, they’re the same weight as traditional barbells, they set you up to lift from the same height, and they let you grip them with both hands. They’re just shaped very differently from barbells. But they still have us doing a lift that’s hip dominant (focused on our hips, glutes, and hamstrings. They check very similar boxes to the standard barbell deadlift.
At the same time, the hex bar is often more joint-friendly, and it also lets us really capture our full-body power, since we’re not fighting center of mass issues. What center of mass issues? That’s up next.
Center of Mass and Why It Matters
The deadlift is a heavily hip-dominant pattern when done right. The barbell weight is slightly in front of the body, and you have to extend the hips first to pull the weight off the ground, challenging your glutes, hamstrings, and, often, your lower back. The torque of the barbell deadlift results in high stress on the joint systems supporting the movement, especially the lower back.
This varies from person to person, based on such things as limb length and the weight you’re moving. But what’s true is that the hip extension pattern, which is one thing we’re really working to attack on a deadlift from a training standpoint, is altered because the weight is in front of you and is always, at least a little bit, pulling you forward. From Crossfitters to powerlifters to bodybuilders to athletes in general, the very best gym-goers learn to combat that, and that process has its strengths. Battling the barbell deadlift teaches you to activate your lat muscles to keep the bar close to you, and forces you to engage your hamstrings at the start of a deadlift rep.
But not everyone can do this, or should need to focus on it, and that’s where the hex bar changes things up. The hex bar however keeps the weight directly with your center of mass because it lets you step into it. Those few inches matter. Now, the mechanics do not have to accommodate weight being leveraged at an angle away from the body.
Your spinal position will instantly improve. Gravity is now pushing the weight directly down to the floor. Now, you have less to think about when you deadlift. Instead of thinking about how you’ll keep the bar close to your body, you get to think almost solely about standing up and squeezing your glutes (although you’ll want to think about squeezing your lats too). It’s a smoother movement overall from a joint mechanical perspective.
You Can Get Even More Gains
Why do you deadlift? The answer: To attack your glutes and hamstrings. Those are the critical muscles you’re trying to hit, and you hit them by standing up with a barbell or dumbbells. The key thing on a deadlift is to make sure that when you begin the stand-up process, you’re hips are lower than your shoulders (or, in the case of very tall people, at the same height as your shoulders).
This insures that the physics of the move are correct, and that the prime lever point in the deadlift is at the hips. If your hips wind up higher than your shoulders, then the point of leverage often winds up in the lower back. Your lower back isn’t meant to deal with such strain, especially if you’re lifting heavy. But when you’re operating with a barbell, if you don’t lock your lats, it often becomes easier to move the prime point of leverage so it’s directly over the bar. If your technique isn’t perfect, you wind up using your lower back, and taking focus off your glutes and hamstrings.
This is a less frequent problem with the hex bar, and cleaner technique, especially when it’s done with heavy weight, is going to lead to stronger glutes and hamstrings. You lose nothing with the hex bar, yet you gain control.
What Makes the Hex Bar Work
Most people will discount the hex bar because of the high handle option. What is this? Most hex bars offer two handle positions, one that’s a traditional barbell height and one that’s a few inches higher. Using these higher handles allows for a few extra inches of freedom, meaning that, technically, you get to start the lift from a slightly higher position. That means more freedom to start the lift with your hips and knees and minimize lower-back stress.
It also means you’re moving the weight over less distance overall, which is the knock on the high handles. But don’t let that scare you. One 2017 study analyzed the high handle hex bar deadlift and compared it to the traditional barbell deadlift. That research found that there was higher peak force, peak velocity, and peak power with the high handle hex bar deadlift than with the traditional deadlift.
So sure, you’re technically moving the weight over a little less distance. But when you’re moving the weight, you’re doing so more explosively, perhaps because your body’s in a better position to do so. From a performance and mechanics standpoint, the high handle looks like the best option.
Oh, and you don’t have to use the high handles to get benefit from the hex bar either. A 2011 study found that people lifted more weight from the low handle hex bar than they did from a traditional barbell deadlift.
(What’s more important than the height of the handles is the weight you’re using. Always use Olympic-sized weights, so you’re always lifting from the same height. Throwing a pair of 5-pound plates onto the hex bar changes the movement pattern to set you up from lifting lower, but your body may not be comfortable doing that.
You’d be surprised what a small turn of the hands can do. The hex bar lets you grab it with a neutral grip, your palms facing your torso. Traditional barbell deadlifts force you into either an overhand grip, or a mixed grip (one hand overhand, one hand underhand). The latter grip produces slight twisting force on the torso. The former can be challenging to hold at higher weights and has its own issues. Both those barbell grips have unintended effects on the humerus, your upper arm bone.
The neutral grip allows a more comfortable braced position through the scapulohumeral region (your upper arm and shoulder area), and this very quietly reduces some stress on your mid and upper back. You don’t need to brace quite as hard with your body (even though you’ll still get plenty of work here).
The body is one long, interconnected chain of muscles, joints, tendons, and ligaments. Any added stress to one area translates stress to neighboring regions. This can affect the weight we lift and the way we lift.
Transition to Everyday Life
That grip translates best to everyday life. Watch how you carry your suitcase. Whenever possible, we very naturally lift and carry items at our sides. This is a small detail, but it helps to get to use this small detail in our lifts. We’re rarely carrying things at our shins, as we do in the barbell deadlift.
Doubling down on grip and weight position, we always lift and carry items from our sides. It may seem like a small detail but lifting, carrying, pressing in the patterns we will use can immediately make an impact in our everyday lives. When we pick up luggage, groceries, or your gym bag from the ground, it’s usually at your sides and rarely from the front of your shins. Hammer home the mechanics we will see the most in our everyday lives.
Executing the Hex Bar Deadlift
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The hex bar deadlift is simple to do. Your game plan: Load the bar with the desired weight, then step inside of it, aiming to line your shins up with the weights. Grab the hex bar handles, whether high or low in their center. Brace your core, and think about sitting down slightly to engage your hamstrings. Try to turn your elbow pits forward to turn on your lats. Squeeze the handles.
Now, stand up, focusing on lifting with your legs. Squeeze your glutes at the top (don’t overarch your back). Lower the hex bar to the ground with control. That’s 1 rep. Not sure where to start? Aim to do 3 sets of 8 to 10 to get a feel for it. As you get comfortable, you can drop the reps and focus more intensely on power; think 3 sets of 3 to 5 reps.
The Versatility of the Hex Bar
The hex bar isn’t just an option for deadlifting. It also translates well to pushing, pulling, and loaded carry options, with those neutral-grip handles aiding each lift. Experiment with these hex-bar exercises in your workouts.
Hex Bar Row
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From a pulling perspective, the width of the hex bar is ideal for most lifters. We tend to get stuck in a rut of doing neutral grip pulls from a more narrow grip because of the common attachments by the cable machines. The wider grip will mirror the standard pressing width so you stay in a more advantageous glenohumeral position and really test the lats and back muscles to the max. This will mirror the position you might take with a dumbbell row to some extent, although you get to attack the load with both arms instead of one. Think 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps. And if you want some dumbbell row wisdom, check out the video below.
Hex Bar Floor Press
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This one’s fun. You’ve likely done dumbbell floor presses before to work on bench pressing technique. Floor pressing with the neutral group of the hex bar is overlooked but very useful. The fact you’re using a neutral grip and the elbows wind up closer to the body creates a nice safe shoulder position. Think 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps.
Hex Bar Loaded Carry
Loaded carries are a great option in any strength and conditioning piece. They’re often done with dumbbells or kettlebells. The hex bar allows you to hold one unified piece, and that eventually means you can pack more weight onto the bar for serious loaded carries. Aim to walk 10 to 20 meters for 3 sets.
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