Gain Strength and Size with Specialty Barbells
The standard Olympic barbell has long been the preferred choice when it comes to overloading the muscles in the weight room, and rightly so. It can be used for hundreds, if not thousands, of exercises and movements to produce notable strength and size gains. Recently, however, more strength coaches have begun to see the value of implementing specialty bars into the programs of their athletes and clients.
Whether you’re a professional athlete looking to maximize athletic performance or a fitness enthusiast looking to optimize results in the weight room, the following specialty bars warrant consideration in your training program.
The trap bar (a.k.a. Hex Bar, Dead-Squat Bar) is quickly becoming the most popular specialty bar in strength and conditioning circles. This is likely due to the numerous benefits the trap bar provides to all lifters, from beginner to advanced. Some of those benefits include:
Loaded Closer to COG: The most noteworthy factor of the trap bar is that it allows the lifter to efficiently and safely perform a movement that resembles both a squat and a deadlift. This movement typically feels very natural for most athletes. Due to the handles being placed at the sides of the body rather than the front, as would be the case with a traditional barbell deadlift, the load is much closer to the lifter’s center of gravity. This allows the lifter to keep a more upright torso. It also provides leverage for a safer pull, all of which reduce shear force on the spine. The lifter can maintain a more neutral or moderately arched spinal position, rather than a flexed (rounded) spine that often results when the weight is loaded to the front of the body.
Eccentric Accentuated Deadlifts: Because of the natural loading pattern, slower negatives or eccentric accentuated movements (controlling the load on the lower phase) can be safely and effectively applied to trap bar deadlifts. Applying the same accentuated negatives to standard barbell deadlifts, particularly when using conventional or close-stance deadlift form, can be risky as the spine is placed in a biomechanically vulnerable position. Using controlled negatives on trap bar deadlifts is incredibly effective for eliciting strength and size gains throughout the entire body, all while minimizing stress on the spine.
Similarly, the natural and safe biomechanics of the trap bar deadlift make it conducive for utilizing heavy training loads and maximizing progressive overload. In fact, most athletes will be able to handle more total weight on trap bar deadlifts than any other free weight movement. As a result, trap bar deadlifts are highly effective at inducing mechanical tension and muscular damage, both of which are key factors for triggering strength and size gains.
Nearly Full Body: Besides crushing a majority of all muscles in the body from the upper back, lats, and traps, down to the hips and thighs, trap bar deadlifts combine the benefits of the both the squat and the deadlift while eliminating the potential downfalls of each.
Great for Athletes: Not only are trap bar deadlifts easy to teach and learn, but the movement is also highly sport specific. Trap bar deadlifts place the lifter in a stance that is essentially the same athletic position as a jump stance, with approximately 90-degree angles at both the hips and knees. Simply put, trap bar deadlifts are an incredible way to teach powerful jumping mechanics and hip power. In addition, the trap bar can be used to perform jump squats using relatively lighter training loads, making it an incredible training tool for improving explosive power and vertical jump height.
Cambered Bench Press Bar
Originally designed to allow greater range of motion during pressing movements, the cambered bench press bar is a unique specialty bar. Rather than having the barbell stop at or above chest level, the cambered design allows the bar to wrap around the upper torso without the chest obstructing or shortening the movement. Many lifters employ the specialty bar by exaggerating the stretch at the bottom position. Unfortunately, this is not the optimal method for using the cambered bar, as overstretching a muscle can lead to various injuries and tears.
Insight on Barbell Shopping:
Rather than using an excessive range of motion, the cambered bar serves as an excellent diagnostic tool for both exposing and eliminating faulty pressing mechanics, as it addresses the all-too-common chest bounce and collapse. When performing chest pressing movements, many lifters will allow the barbell to collapse at the bottom and simply bounce the bar off of the chest. Besides minimizing the strength and hypertrophy stimulus of the movement, this is a sure-fire method for inducing a pec tear or significant shoulder injury. Because of the cambered design, the lifter is unable to use their chest as a trampoline to catapult the weight up and instead must rely on the ability of their surrounding musculature to lift the load.
Besides eliminating the chest-bounce method, the cambered bar can do wonders for teaching athletes and lifters to stay tight, specifically during the eccentric phase of the movement. Even if the lifter is employing a pause at the bottom position, it’s common to lose tension and simply allow the barbell to rest on the chest. Allowing even a slight collapse at the bottom reduces intramuscular tension of the targeted muscles and reinforces faulty firing patterns.
The cambered bar forces the lifter to eliminate any tendency to collapse, as the structure of the chest is no longer able to assist in supporting the load. Instead, the lifter must maintain the highest levels of intramuscular tension and full-body tightness in order to avoid having the load sink below chest level. Simply put, if the barbell or hands drop significantly below where they normally would on a traditional bench press (and an exaggerated stretch is achieved), this indicates faulty positioning, as well as lack or proper tightness and muscular tension.
In summary, the cambered bench press bar should be used to promote proper pressing mechanics and recruitment patterns, rather than achieving exaggerated range of motion.
Safety Squat Bar
While barbell squats are one of the most effective exercises for targeting the lower body, they’re not always the easiest on the shoulders, wrists, and elbows. Fortunately, the safety squat bar (a.k.a. yoke bar) eliminates these problems as the lifter is able to hold onto handles that are fixed to the center of the barbell. In addition, the loading pattern allows for a slightly more upright squat variation that more closely resembles a front squat, thereby taking stress off the low back. It’s also a great training tool for performing weighted lunges and split squats in place of the barbell counterparts.
There are several specialty bars that serve a similar purpose as the safety squat bar, particularly when it comes to shoulder positioning. These include the yoke bar, cambered squat bar, and Buffalo barbell.
Log Press Bar
Besides looking like a training tool designed for Spartan warriors and medieval Vikings, log press bars are a highly effective training tool that have been employed by many strongmen, powerlifters, and athletes. Logs provide three key benefits when it comes to strength, size, and muscle function:
- The grip for any barbell log is set in a neutral hand placement, allowing safer positioning and function of the glenohumeral joint.
- Barbell logs are fairly awkward and cumbersome objects, requiring greater stabilization, brute force, and raw strength.
- Perhaps the most important benefit associated with log press bars is the abbreviated and compact motion they facilitate due to their circumference. As a result, they tend to be far easier and safer on the joints, tendons, and ligaments, particularly throughout the shoulder region.
During a log bench press, the movement more closely resembles a board press or floor press, as the size of the log prohibits the lifter from fully stretching and completing the deepest position. This tends to be far safer for the shoulders. The abbreviated range of motion also lends itself for incorporating relatively heavy training loads, making it an ideal training tool for strength and size gains.
The specialty bar known as the fat bar (a.k.a. axle bar) looks and functions just like it sounds. Typically 2-4 times the diameter of a traditional barbell, the fat bar represents the epitome of grip, hand, and forearm training tools, as the thicker grip forces the lifter to feel as though he or she is literally crushing the barbell.
Besides enhancing grip and forearm strength, intense innervation of the hands and fingers during traditional movements has been shown to enhance technique, force, and joint stability through a training phenomenon known as CAP (concurrent activation potentiation). CAP (also known as irradiation) simply describes a scenario where activation of smaller muscles (such as those in the hands, feet, and face) increases neural drive to the rest of the body, thereby engaging more muscle fibers and decreasing energy leaks.
The thicker grip forces the lifter to feel as though he or she is literally crushing the barbell. [Photo courtesy of Dr. Joel Seedman]
By employing the fat bar on various exercises such as presses, rows, deadlifts, bicep curls, and any other movement involving grip activation, not only will you engage more of your total musculature, but you’ll also be enhancing your form and technique. This is due to the increased intramuscular tension that’s required when using the fat bar. As an added bonus, you’ll build unprecedented grip and forearm strength, something that’s highly useful for a variety of athletic endeavors.
On a side note, if you’re looking to take your fat grip training to another level, fat grip trap bars and fat grip cable attachments are also available.
Multi Grip Bar
The multi grip bar (a.k.a. football bar, Swiss bar) is a fantastic specialty bar that helps eliminate many orthopedic issues typically associated with barbell pressing movements. Most notably, the bar allows the lifter to assume a neutral hand position, rather than a pronated position. As a result this facilitates more optimal shoulder positioning as the scapula can be more easily retracted, depressed, and medially rotate towards the spine. Athletes who have suffered severe shoulder injuries and are not able to perform pressing movements with a standard barbell can often press pain free using the multi grip bar.
The football bar helps facilitate optimal positioning. [Photo courtesy of Dr. Joel Seedman]
Multi grip bars are typically more unstable than traditional barbells, requiring greater stabilization, balance, and coordination. As a result, the lifter is forced to stay incredibly tight and recruit additional muscle fibers to lock in the movement. In addition, multi-grip bars offer several various widths to choose from when it comes to hand placement, allowing the lifter to find the position that feels most comfortable for his or her body structure. The multi grip bar can be used on a variety of movements, including bench press, incline press, floor press, overhead press, and bent over rows.
Oscillating Kinetic Energy (OKE) Bars
The final type of specialty bar falls into a category of oscillating kinetic energy. This form of training relies on numerous oscillations produced by the unstable training object. It forces both the prime movers and various stabilizers to work overtime in order to control the erratic perturbations. The lifter benefits by improving motor unit recruitment, muscular tension, joint stability, blood flow, motor unit synchronization, and proprioception. These components also contribute greatly to increased hypertrophy and strength gains.
OKE bars are also joint friendly and therapeutic on connective tissue, as they necessitate smooth and crisp lifting mechanics as a means for controlling the highly volatile load. Several types of barbells fall into this category, including the Tsunami Bar, Bamboo Bar, and Earthquake Bar. Each of these has their own unique qualities, but the stimulus provided by each is similar across the bars.
If you don’t have access to an OKE bar, you can replicate a similar stimulus using a traditional barbell in conjunction with the hanging band technique (HBT). To use this technique, you simply hang kettlebells and plates onto bands, then place them around the collars of an Olympic barbell. This provides the same oscillating kinetic energy produced by the OKE specialty bars, although the stimulus won’t be quite as extreme. As an added benefit, the hanging band technique can be applied to a majority of movement patterns and exercise variations for both upper and lower body.
Discover the Right Tool for the Job
Specialty barbells are uniquely designed to overcome various restrictions a traditional barbell may impose during specific movements. These bars allow athletes and lifters to perform variations of traditional movements with less strain on the joints and increased tension on the surrounding musculature. Whether you are prone to injury or just want to try something new, consider adding them to your training toolbox.