Traditional deadlift vs hex bar deadlift vs barbell hip thrust: Which exercise is most effective for the glutes, hamstrings, and low back?
Research reviewed: Electromyographic Comparison of Barbell Deadlift, Hex Bar Deadlift, and Hip Thrust Exercises: Cross-Over Study (Andersen, Vidar; Journal of Strength and Conditioning Resarch, 2018)
This paper examined muscle activation of the gluteus maximus (aka glute max, the “butt muscle”), the biceps femoris (aka one of the major hamstrings), and erector spinae (think low back muscles that hold you upright) during three compound hip extension exercises - the hip thrust, traditional deadlift, and hex bar deadlift.
13 experienced lifters first had two sessions to familiarize themselves with the exercises and at the next session performed a 1-rep max of all three exercises, in a randomized & counterbalanced sequence. Both the concentric (ascending) and eccentric (descending) portions of the exercises were analyzed.
Traditional deadlifts were clearly the best at activating the biceps femoris (hamstring) and the barbell hip thrust was most effective at activating the glute max. None were more effective than the others at activating the erector spinae (lower back extensor muscles).
A training program that incorporates both traditional deadlifts and hip thrusts is key for most effectively training the lower body. Further, the hex bar deadlift can be a key piece of a training program because - even though it doesn’t hit the glute max or biceps femoris as hard as the other two exercises - it showed similar lumbar (low back) muscle activation and good overall lower body muscle activation.
My two cents on the hex bar deadlift
I personally use & prefer the hex bar deadlift especially for clients who already have a high training load and/or are new to the deadlift/hip hinge movement because it’s significantly easier to learn than the traditional deadlift and has an easier initial setup position. For these two reasons, most people can lift more weight with the hex bar deadlift which somewhat makes up for the difference in muscle activation.