Deadlifts are one of the most productive strength training exercises around. Not only are they the third discipline in powerlifting competitions, but deadlifts also teach you how to safely lift heavy objects off the ground, i.e., using your legs and back without rounding your lumbar spine. Deadlifts also often feature in strongman events.
And it’s not just powerlifters and strongman competitors that love deadlifts – they’re a big hit with bodybuilders, too. Deadlifts are hard to beat if you want a bigger back, glutes, traps, and hamstrings.
Deadlifts are typically done using a stiff bar or deadlift bar, and you can also do them using a hex or trap bar. However, that’s not always the case. In some instances, the bar of choice for deadlifts is the axle bar. That’s especially true for some strongman competitions.
So, which bar should YOU use for deadlifts?
Axle Bar Vs. Barbell – The Differences
Barbells are typically made to a fairly standard design. There are four main features, but most barbells look identical to the uninitiated. The different types of barbells and characteristics such as length, thickness, and other dimensions affect how the bar feels and behaves. Knowing a little about axle bars and regular barbells will help you understand which bar you should use for deadlifts—types of barbells – Olympic lifting, power, stiff, and deadlift. The variations between them are minor.
The dimensions of a typical barbell are:
- Length– 86.5 inches
- Thickness– 29 millimeters (1.14 inches)
- Sleeve length– 16-17 inches
- Distance between sleeves– 51.5 inches
- Weight– 20.4 kg (45 lbs.)
- Tensile strength– 205,000 psi
Regular barbells have knurled sections for a better grip and revolving sleeves so that, if the weight spins, it won’t twist out of your hands.
In contrast, axle bars do not have any specific dimensions. This varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, but length and thickness can depend on the design. However, axle bars are typical:
While the diameter varies from bar to bar, axle bars are almost always thicker than conventional barbells. This makes them harder to grip. Most have no knurling, either, making them even harder to hold.
Barbells, especially deadlift bars, are made to bend slightly during use. This is a real benefit during heavy deadlifts. As you pull up, the bar turns before the weights leave the floor. This puts you in a stronger biomechanical position for a more significant pull.
In simple terms, you start each rep a little higher than usual because of the bend. Axle bars don’t tend to flex much, and some don’t bend at all, even with hefty loads.
Have no revolving sleeves
Axle bars are fixed bars without revolving sleeves. If the weight starts to turn, so will the bar. This means you’ll need to grip the bar even tighter to stop it from turning in your hands. Once the bar starts turning, it could easily roll straight out of your hands.
Barbell Deadlift Advantages and Benefits
Most people who do deadlifts use a standard barbell. After all, that’s what most gyms have. The advantages and benefits of deadlifting with a barbell include the following:
Most commercial gyms have regular barbells. They’re standard equipment for home and garage gyms, too. As such, you are much more likely to have access to a traditional barbell for deadlifts.
Easy to grip
A firm grip is critical for successful deadlifting. Barbells are relatively thin, so you should be able to wrap your fingers around the bar, and they’re knurled to stop your hands from slipping. As such, you can deadlift using an overhand or mixed grip and use a hook grip if you wish.
A standard test of strength
As one barbell is much like the next, you can use almost any barbell to test your strength. Most barbells weigh 20kg/44lbs, and a barbell in the USA will weigh the same as one in the UK, Australia, China, or almost anywhere else. Powerlifters use standardized barbells exclusively, so what you use in training will also be virtually identical to the bar used in competition.
It can be used for a wide range of exercises.
You can use a standard barbell for everything from curls to presses to squats to rows and, of course, deadlifts. They are incredibly versatile training tools. All you need is a barbell to get a great full-body workout.
The bar should travel almost perfectly vertically off the ground when you deadlift. But, even if you pull at a slight angle, the revolving sleeves mean the bar won’t roll in your hands. As such, deadlifts with a barbell are more forgiving than with an axle bar.
However, if you pull at an angle with an axle bar, the weight is more likely to start turning, and even a little rolling could rip the bar from your hands, even if you have a vice-like grip.
Axle Bar Advantages and Benefits
Not sure if axle deadlifts are the right option for you? Consider these advantages and benefits:
Harder to grip
While this is partly a disadvantage, it can also be advantageous if you want to increase your forearm size and strength. Axle bars are thicker, so you won’t be able to wrap your fingers around them.
You’ll need to do your utmost to crush the bar with your hands to maintain your hold on it, especially if the weights start to turn. All this extra work should increase your grip strength, although it could also mean you cannot lift as much weight.
A tighter, more precise deadlift
Deadlifting with an axle bar means doing each rep with a near-perfect technique. The bar rolling in your hands will punish things like bouncing or pulling at an angle.
The lack of flex in an axle bar means no assistance during deadlifts. The weight is truly “dead,” making it harder to handle. So, doing deadlifts with an axle bar is more challenging than with a regular bar, which could mean more significant muscle size or strength increases.
Axle Deadlift Training
Who Should Do the Axle Deadlift
The axle deadlift is a significant deadlift variation to attack a weak grip or reinforce better back positioning in the deadlift. Below is a complete breakdown discussing how the axle deadlift can benefit different athletes.
Strength and Power Athletes
Those looking to increase pulling strength and deadlift performance could benefit from the axle deadlift. The axle deadlift will improve grip strength and back tension and is all but essential for strongman athletes who often work with an axle in competition.
Powerlifters could see some use from the axle pull as an accessory if they’re not too close to a competition. Olympic lifters will likely not get much use out of the axle pull since they train with a hook grip for most of their time in the gym.
Even if you’re not a competitor in powerlifting or strongman, if your gym has an axle bar, you can still get some of the benefits of working with it. Replacing your standard deadlift with an axle pull for some time is an easy way to switch up your workouts and get some direct grip work into the boot.
The axle deadlift is a two-for-one — by slightly increasing the size of the implement, you’re able to reap all the benefits of the “King of All Exercises” but with extra emphasis on creating a steel-forged grip.
How to Do the Axle Deadlift
Below is a step-by-step guide on how to properly perform the axle deadlift. If you do not have access to an axle deadlift bar, you can pick up some specialized grip attachments that simulate a thicker barbell.
1. Get Set Up
With your feet hip-width apart, grab the axle bar with a double overhand grip (you can also use an alternated grip), exactly how you would during a conventional barbell deadlift. Keep your back flat.
2. Push Into the Floor
Once you are locked in, explosively push through your legs into the floor while keeping your torso over the barbell. Your back should be flat, and your hips and shoulders should rise at the same rate.
3. Lock and Hold
Complete the movement the same way you would for your standard deadlift. Hold at the top to capitalize on the unique barbell — glutes contracted, shoulders depressed — with your tightest grip on the bar.
Perfect Your Start
If you’re worried about slack in your setup on the deadlift, the axle barbell is an easy way to remedy it. While you may be able to get away with a sloppy start in sub-maximal pulls, a giant barbell will force you to dial in your tension from the very beginning. Otherwise, the bar might roll out of your hands when it leaves the ground.
Better Grip Strength
If you use an axle thicker than what you are accustomed to, you will likely have to use less weight than usual at the beginning of your training.
As you get better at this, you will probably find that the contractions in your forearms are more muscular and that you have better control of them overall. This will increase your ability to pull things.
Improve Deadlift Technique
It’s no secret that perfecting your technique in the pull can boost your overall performance and possibly mitigate injuries. While not directly correlated, a larger bar diameter will likely inhibit your ability to train with heavier loads at first. Working with more moderate weights is a great way to solidify your form and ensure the tension is in your back where it’s supposed to be.
Refine Bar Path During the Pull
If you flub a rep with a standard barbell, you may be able to save it and complete it successfully. But with the axle bar, the bar must stay trapped against the body.
Using the axle bar, you’re forced to keep your bar path airtight, or you’ll probably lose the rep. This can help refine patterning in the pull to limit horizontal displacement or any other compensations in your technique.
Axle Deadlift Sets and Reps
If you want to use the axle deadlift to boost your overall back, grip, and deadlift strength, you can integrate it into your program anytime using the recommendations below. It is important to note that loading will often be less than a regular deadlift due to the difficulty of holding onto the weight.
To Improve Strength and Muscle
Since the broad technique of the axle pull is identical to a regular deadlift, you can use this deadlift variation to increase muscle growth and overall strength and can also program it either as a primary strength movement or as an accessory.
Do 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps, resting 2-3 minutes between sets.
To Build Grip Strength
Chances are you’re probably using an axle bar specifically to develop a crushing grip. You’ve got the right tool in hand; all that remains is to program it correctly. When creating a grip, time under tension is the game’s name.
Perform 2-4 sets of 3-5 repetitions of the axle deadlift with extended holds at the top of each repetition to build your grip strength. Pause at the top for up to 10 seconds.
To Increase Muscle Endurance
To increase muscular endurance, you must train in higher rep ranges and longer durations. If you need to build up your endurance for sport-related reasons, you should probably also reduce your rest times.
Do 2-3 sets of 10 or more repetitions or 60-second timed sets.
If you could only do one exercise for the rest of your strength training life, you’d be hard-pressed to choose a better workout than the deadlift.
The standard barbell deadlift is tough to beat, but for variety and if you want to challenge yourself even more, the axle bar deadlift is worth considering. Just choose the one that’s right for your goals.
Why not do both if you can’t decide between the axle and barbell deadlifts?
Perhaps do alternating blocks of six weeks with each bar, or deadlift twice a week – once with a barbell and then with an axle bar 2-3 days later. That way, you can enjoy all the benefits these bars offer.
Regardless of which type of bar you use, the mighty deadlift is one of the best muscle and strength-building exercises on the planet. If you aren’t already deadlifting hard and heavy, it’s time to start.