Make The Reeves Deadlift Better With the Trap Bar: The Ultimate Full-Body Movements
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Reeves deadlift it’s an old school exercise developed over six decades ago by one of the most famous bodybuilders of all time, Steve Reeves. Reeves was known for having an incredible v-taper and massive upper back that was so visually stunning he was cast as Hercules in several films. Although he incorporated many solid upper back movements into his routine, a significant fraction of his Herculean physique can be attributed to the Reeves deadlift.
The Reeves deadlift involves an inordinately wide grip that is much wider than a snatch grip. So much so that the lifter is actually gripping the edge or handles of the weight plates on the collars rather than the actual bar itself. Although this deadlift crushes the upper back and lats due to the wide grip placement it’s also quite awkward and has multiple downfalls. Fortunately these issues can be remedied by performing the Reeves Deadlift (and similar movement variations) with a trap bar. Here are a few variations demonstrated by myself along with two of my awesome athletes Leslie Petch and Nick Croawell.
There are 7 reasons why Reeves Trap bar deadlift variations are so effective and also far superior to their traditional counterpart:
1. The traditional Reeves deadlift is only possible for lifters that are approximately 5’8 or above or individuals with large wingspans. Those who are more vertically challenged or who aren’t genetically blessed with a large reach will literally be unable to grip the plates on the barbell. Fortunately trap bars are roughly 25% shorter (from collar to collar) allowing lifters of all shapes, sizes, and heights to grip the plates.
2. The traditional barbell version of the Reeves deadlift typically involves lighter loads as it’s quite difficult to overload due to the extreme grip width. Although this wide grip is known for taxing the upper back and lats, the inability to truly overload the movement compromises its effectiveness as a truly great mass builder. The trap bar on the other hand still provides a wide grip placement thereby stressing the upper back amply, however the more natural grip position is still very conducive for overloading with multiple plates. In fact, for traditional Reeves deadlifts I’m fortunate if I can handle 222 pounds while I can handle double that with the the trap bar variation (the deadlift weight shown in the video is 435 pounds). In essence you gain the best of both worlds, a wide grip and significant overload.
On a similar note, Reeves trap bar deadlift variations are some of the most brutal upper back movements you’ll ever perform as the degree of stimulation to the lats, traps, rhomboids, rear deltoids, and teres major are incredible. Just be prepared for some extreme upper back soreness followed by some serious functional hypertrophy and strength.
3. The trap bar version of the reeves deadlift involves a more natural starting position with solid 90 degree joint angles as opposed to the barbell variation that requires the lifter to stoop down much lower to reach the plates. In fact, the standard Reeves deadlift, although it involves lighter loads is also known for being quite harsh on the low back as most lifters will be unable to keep a neutral spine while over-reaching at the bottom position. The trap bar version on the other hand allows the lifter to set the spine in a tight neutral position while still maintaining a mild natural arch that’s imperative for safe deadlift mechanics. Simply put the starting position is much more low back friendly and biomechanically sound.
4. During the traditional Reeves deadlift, the combination of using an inordinately wide grip while holding a barbell that’s loaded to the front of the body can be very precarious on the low back and spine. Besides allowing a more natural-wide grip, the trap bar variation of the Reeves deadlift is loaded directly in-line with the center of mass rather than the front. In fact, that’s the beauty of all trap bar deadlift variations. Rather than having the load towards the front of the body it’s actually in-line with the torso as the hands are directly to the sides of the body rather than in front. Besides promoting better lat activation and shoulder retraction (both of which are critical for spinal integrity and back health), this is exponentially safer on the vertebral column due to improved leverage and biomechanics.
5. Similar to the barbell version of the Reeves deadlift, the trap bar version also crushes the grip. However, rather than feeling like your grip fails simply because you’re unable to wrap your fingers around the plates, during the trap bar versions the grip fatigues more so because of intense loading and muscular recruitment.
6. The traditional barbell version of the Reeves deadlift is typically considered more of an upper body movement rather than a leg builder as the limited loading capabilities make it difficult to fully tax the lower body. Fortunately when performing the trap bar versions of the Reeves deadlift the legs including the quads, glutes, and hamstrings get just as pummeled as the upper body due to its heavy loading capabilities. In essence, if you’re looking for movements that are full body intensive, Reeves trap bar deadlift variations are at the top of the list.
7. Reeves trap bar deadlift variations are highly versatile and can be modified in a multitude of ways to create some incredibly intense and effective exercises. Some of my favorites include, lunges, bent over rows, farmers walks, eccentric isometric squats, RDL’s, squat jumps, Bulgarian squats, jump shrugs, split squats, single leg squats, and more.
Eccentric Isometrics and Accommodating Resistance
If you want to increase the growth stimulating benefits of the Reeves trap bar deadlift try combining them with eccentric isometrics and accommodating resistance. This literally crushes just about every muscle in the body including the upper back, traps, lats, glutes, quads, hamstrings, grip, forearms, & more. When combined with the brief eccentric isometric as Ben shows here, the constant tension mixed with the heavy overload creates one potent hypertrophy stimulus. Additionally the eccentric isometric protocol is the single most effective training strategy I’ve used not only to build ridiculous levels of functional strength & hypertrophy but also to enhance technique, body mechanics, & joint health. Read more in my book MOVEMENT REDEFINED.
The accommodating resistance (reverse bands) allows us to deload the weaker bottom position and overload the stronger top position further increasing the hypertrophy stimulating elements of the exercise while also minimizing stress to the joints.
What About Standard Barbell Reeves Deadlifts??
Undoubtedly there will be questions as to whether or not the traditional Reeves deadlift variation with an Olympic barbell is even worth performing. The answer is yes and no. If you’re going to perform a deadlift variation with a traditional Reeves style grip and Olympic barbell I actually recommend performing them in a constant tension RDL fashion rather than actual deadlifts from the floor.
There are several reasons why.
1. The load for any Reeves deadlift variation using an Olympic barbell is going to be relatively light compared to the trap bar variations or any other deadlift for that matter. If the overload component is minimal then to trigger significant hypertrophy and strength in the targeted muscles the mechanical tension, metabolic, stress, and constant tension need to be significant. Performing Reeves deadlifts from the floor with a traditional barbell does not provide enough constant tension to make up for the lack of overload. The RDL version on the other hand provides that constant tension that’s necessary for building mass when the overload component is minimal. In fact the combination of extremely wide grip positioning and constant tension makes the barbell RDL version of the Reeves deadlift a highly effective mass builder for the upper back and lats.
2. As previously mentioned, performing traditional Reeves deadlifts from the floor can be quite stressful on the spine and low back due to the exaggerated stooped-over position at the bottom of the movement that makes it difficult to keep a neutral spine. Performing RDL versions on the other hand, especially when walked out from a squat cage, eliminates this issue altogether making it both spine-friendly and hypertrophy-inducing.
3. Because the traditional Reeves deadlift with an Olympic barbell uses relatively lighter loads in comparison to other deadlift variations, the stress to the legs is quite minimal. Most of the benefits are intended for the upper body especially the upper back and lats. The traditional deadlift from the floor involves a slightly more upright position (although the spine is usually collapsed in this position) thereby placing less tension on the lats and upper back. To truly reap the full upper body benefits of the Reeves deadlift barbell variation you’ll want the torso as parallel to the floor as possible. That’s because a more bent over torso position places greater tension on the upper back. The RDL version maximizes this effect. It also provides a more difficult deadlift movement pattern than a traditional deadlift thereby maximizing the strength-inducing stimulus of the relatively lighter loads.
Single Leg Reeves Deadlifts
Even when performing them with an RDL movement pattern, most individuals are unable to handle substantial loads during the Reeves Deadlift making it difficult to truly crush the lower body to the same extent as the upper back and traps.
By modifying the Reeves deadlift and turning it into a Reeves single leg RDL as shown here by my awesome athlete Austin Kane, not only do we reap the same upper body benefits as the traditional Reeves deadlift but we now receive exponentially greater lower body stimulation. As a result this becomes a full body functional strength and mass builder.
To further increase the hypertrophy stimulus, perform a biomechanical drop set by either gripping the bar in a more traditional manner and continue performing RDL’s, or continue the set by performing bilateral RDL’s with the same Reeves grip setup.
Bumper Plate Pinch Variations
Although most of the Reeves exercises above involve iron grip style plates which allows the greatest overload effect (as it’s the easiest to grip), periodically incorporating the same movements with bumper plates or metal plates will annihilate the grip, hands, and forearms. Here’s one of my awesome athletes Austin Kane performing a Reeves trap bar farmers walk with the bumper plate pinch method.
Because the grip will inevitably the limiting factor, throwing on either a weighted vest or a few chains around the upper torso can help add additional overload to the body. This same method can be applied to deadlifts, rows, RDL’s, lunges, jump shrugs, and more. I’ve also found that incorporating the plate pinch method with traditional movement patterns helps dial in body mechanics and spinal rigidity. That’s because the increased grip and hand activation creates a physiological phenomenon known as concurrent activation potentiation or irradiation.
In other words it helps improve full body tension, spinal rigidly, and elimination of energy leaks. In addition, the inevitable used of relatively lighter loads further allows the lifter to hone in on their technique. Try using these Reeves trap bar bumper plate variations on days where you’re either looking to crush your grip, work on body mechanics, or deload the larger muscles of your body. Don’t be surprised if your numbers on other compound movements receive a nice boost from these as well.
Single Leg Variations
Reeves Deadlifts are also very conducive for combining with single leg deadlifts. By bombining both the Reeves trap bar deadlift protocol with single leg variations this allows the lifter to induce significant stress and tension on the lower body however now there will be significant stimulation and tension to the upper body and forearms.
As a result performing single leg trap bar movements in conjunction with the Reeves deadlift protocol provides the perfect stimulus for crushing every muscle in the body from head to toe while simultaneously working on balance, symmetry, and stability. Here’s one of my awesome clients Todd Weiland showcasing the single leg deadlift variation of the Reeves trap bar deadlift. Try performing several sets of 4-6 reps during your next workout.
Oh and just in case you were wondering, yes, these are just as brutally difficult as they look. You can also expect some serious soreness and muscle growth in the glutes, hamstrings, and quads from these. As an added bonus these are incredibly effective for improving foot and ankle strength and lower body mechanics.
Bulgarian Squats, Split Squats, and Lunges
The Reeves deadlift with the trap bar setup can also be applied very naturally to Bulgarian squats and split squats as shown here by my awesome bikini competitor Charlene Harrison.
Similar to the single leg versions shown above these absolutely torch the entire posterior chain.
Performing them from a deadstop fashion as shown here by Leslie Petch with 215 pounds not only represents one of the safest deadlift variations but they crush the entire body from head to toe.
For this particular variation, focus on setting the hips back throughout which helps further engage the glutes and hamstrings. This also represents optimal lunge and split squat mechanics as many athletes produce excessive anterior knee drift when lunging. Also I recommend setting the trap bar to a height that allows the lifter to maintain a 90 degree knee joint angle at the bottom of the movement as Leslie does here. This helps optimize leverage, overload, and muscle activation while also minimizing joint stress.
Reeves Trap Bar Rows
Looking for a brutal posterior chain exercise that crushes the entire upper back, glutes, hamstrings, and grip? Try this Reeves trap bar row and kickstand RDL combo as shown by my awesome athlete Ben Lai.
In many ways this feels like a more natural snatch grip row as the wide grip combined with the neutral hand position as well as the ability to keep the weight closer to the center of mass absolutely pummels the upper back, traps, rhomboids, and rear delts. However it’s also surprisingly low back friendly due to the more spine-friendly loading position of the trap bar (in line with the center of mass rather than in front). Additionally the grip, forearms, and hand muscles get worked quite intensely throughout as squeezing the daylights out of the iron grip plates.
The combination of the RDL kickstand position also does wonders for targeting the glutes and hamstrings not to mention the calves, feet, and ankles as the individual is essentially holding a semi-supported single leg RDL. The kickstand provides just enough support to allow ample overload without balance becoming the limiting factor as would typically be the case with pure single leg drills. Setting and resetting every few reps as Ben shows here also insures the low back does not give out before the larger muscles while simultaneously allowing the lifter to re-set their position and dial in their form & postural alignment with a neutral spinal position.
If you’re looking for a training program and instructional guide that teaches you how to incorporate different movements such as these into your training routine, check out my Complete Template Series.