What is a specialty barbell?
If you have not heard the term before, you might be wondering: what is a specialty barbell? A specialty bar is a barbell that has been modified to improve the ergonomics of one or several lifts to target different muscle groups.
If a regular Olympic barbell is considered the jack-of-all-trades, a specialty bar can be thought of as a special tool designed to help you achieve a specific purpose.
For example, some barbells are curved or cambered to reduce stress on the shoulder, others have a larger diameter to test your grip, and several barbells have neutral handles making them more comfortable to grip and press.
Why use a specialty barbell?
Usually, beginners first start lifting weights by using an Olympic barbell and/or dumbbells. As they progress in terms of strength and experience, they might find that certain movements are not very ergonomic or comfortable for their body type.
For some, a barbell squat can irritate an old shoulder injury or a barbell deadlift might just never feel quite right. At this point, you might begin looking for alternatives to add variety to your training program to find options that you prefer.
This is where specialty bars come into play.
The best specialty barbells for strength training?
- Trap/Hex Bar: A neutral grip barbell that the lifter stands inside so that the weight is in line with their center of gravity.
- Cambered Bar: The bend in the bar allows for a greater range of motion in the bench press, and a more comfortable position in the squat.
- EZ Curl Bar: Used for arms training, the multiple bends in the bar allow for more comfortable wrist positions than a straight bar.
- Swiss Bar: Neutral grips for a more comfortable shoulder position during pressing and rowing.
- Olympic Weightlifting Bar: 28mm diameter bar with excellent bearings for the perfect amount of spin during Olympic weightlifting.
- Women’s Barbell: 25mm diameter weightlifting bar to account for smaller hands.
- Fat Bars: 2-inch diameter handles to test the lifter’s grip.
- Powerlifting Squat Bar: A very stiff bar to reduce the amount of whip during the lifter’s ascent.
- Powerlifting Deadlift Bar: A bar designed to allow for more bend/whip as the lifter breaks the ground with a very heavy weight.
- Safety Squat Bar (SSB): A cambered (bent) bar with shoulder padding and handles designed for those with limited shoulder, elbow, and wrist mobility.
What does the safety squat bar do?
Anybody who has performed squats with an Olympic barbell knows that it is not the most comfortable feeling at first.
Some people find that the barbell rests on the bone at the top of their spine, others find that it irritates their shoulders, and some just find the angle of squatting deep with a straight bar tires out their lower back.
While most of those issues can be solved with proper movement prep, warm-ups, and technique changes, the fact is that a straight bar is not the most ergonomic tool for proper squatting technique. To lock a regular bar into place for a squat requires good shoulder and upper back mobility and can put some strain on the shoulders as the weight increases.
The safety squat bar (SSB) was designed to make squatting more comfortable without taking away from the benefits of the movement. It is one of the most popular specialty bars in use by strength trainers today because the padding rests securely on the upper back and shoulders of the lifter thus reducing discomfort on the upper back.
The handles are positioned in front of the lifter which is perfect for those with limited shoulder, elbow, and wrist mobility. With a more comfortable position, the lifter can focus on training hard instead of being distracted with nagging pains or worrying that the bar will slip down their back.
Are safety squat bars easier?
No, this does not make the safety squat bar easier to use, because the camber of the barbell and angle of the handles distribute the load slightly in front of your center of gravity. By distributing the load in front, the safety squat bar is the perfect tool for developing the posterior chain, specifically the mid-back region which is often underdeveloped in strength trainees.
The muscles in your glutes, core, and back must fight to keep you upright during the movement. The angle of the handles and distribution of the bar also allows people to comfortably descend into a deeper squat, helping you to target the quadriceps properly due to the longer range of motion.
So, the safety squat bar allows you to squat deeper, in a more comfortable position than a straight bar, without sacrificing the amazing benefits of barbell squats.
It should be noted that using the SSB will more closely mimic a high bar squat than a low bar squat. Therefore, the hamstrings will not be as trained as much as in a low bar squat as they are not being held in as much isometric contraction during the eccentric phase, or descent.
Since the safety squat bar rests comfortably and securely on the lifter’s upper back and shoulder girdle, it is much easier to perform lunges, split squats, reverse lunges, Hatfield squats, and very high rep squats, even for new lifters. You will not be worried about balancing the bar on your back or feeling it slipping as you perform more repetitions.
Safety squat bars continue to evolve, and the new SS3 includes 3 specialty handles, fully rotating bushing sleeves, and superior foam padding. This allows you to find a comfortable position based on your own body type, so you can focus on squatting hard, instead of dealing with distracting pain or discomfort.
What is a trap bar?
Another specialty barbell that is extremely popular with strength coaches and weekend warriors alike is the trap bar, also known as a hex bar. The trap bar allows lifters to perform a deadlift in a generally safer and more comfortable position than a straight bar deadlift.
The reason is that the weight on the trap bar is in line with the lifter’s center of gravity, whereas a straight bar deadlift places the load in front of the lifter.
Of course, with proper technique, you can perform a straight bar deadlift safely by ensuring that the load is kept in line with the center of the body at all times, but not everyone can straight-bar-deadlift with good form. Because of this, a trap bar can be a great tool to reduce your odds of injury.
One annoying problem with straight bar deadlifts is that they can scrape your shins, often causing them to bleed during your workout. This is both a painful and unsanitary distraction from your precious time spent lifting weights. Although hardcore powerlifters might not care, not everyone wants to bleed on their barbell.
Luckily, trap bars are a perfect solution as they will not give you nasty scars or hurt as you lift because the bar does not make contact with your shins during a lift. With hex bars, the bar is positioned around, instead of against the lifter.
Another advantage of the trap bar is the neutral placement of the handles. This allows you to comfortably grip a heavy weight and perform a good number of reps without worrying about the bar rolling out of your hands.
In contrast, when deadlifting with a straight bar, it becomes very difficult to hang on to the bar with a double overhand grip.
This is due to the rotation of the bar caused when lifting up against the legs that has to be overcome by the lifter. Lifters must add chalk, use straps, a mixed grip (also known as an alternating grip), or a painful hook grip to hold on to challenging weights.
Some gyms do not allow chalk, not everybody has straps, a mixed grip can put your biceps tendon into an awkward position, and the hook grip just plain hurts, so this isn’t always ideal.
With a trap bar, you can perform a deadlift comfortably without putting your back or your biceps tendon in challenging positions. The intelligent design of the trap bar deadlift allows you to train heavier or use higher reps because you will not be receiving the negative feedback of a slipping grip or greater amounts of lower back fatigue.
Is the trap bar deadlift easier?
Because of the superior body position that a trap bar allows, most people find that they can handle more weight with a trap bar than with a straight bar.
Does this mean that the trap bar deadlift is an easier movement than the straight bar deadlift? No, because it is not the same movement due to the different positions of the weight relative to the lifter.
As stated previously, in the straight bar deadlift the load is in front of the lifter, which makes it almost entirely a posterior chain movement. Thus, straight bar deadlifts are an excellent test of your hamstrings, glutes, and entire back strength.
As mentioned with the trap bar, the load is automatically in line with the lifter’s center of gravity, so it involves more quadriceps, and will still challenge your hamstrings, glutes, and back, but it places less work on the lower back specifically.
So, a trap bar will allow you to handle more weight in the deadlift than a straight bar, but it also involves more muscles and can be performed more safely. This means that a trap bar can be used for higher repetitions safely with a greater load, allowing you to work harder.
Much like the safety squat bar, trap bars have been evolving and our Open Trap Bar/Hex Bar features one open side, instead of the typical closed hex design. The open design is truly innovative because it increases the variety of movements that can be performed such as farmer’s carries, straight leg deadlifts, lunges, even overhead presses, and curls!
Yes, you can get a wicked biceps pump with an open trap bar! All of a sudden this transforms the trap bar from a niche deadlift tool, into an extremely functional multi-purpose bar that is perfect for home gyms with limited space or budgets.
The Bells of Steel Open Trap Bar also has a very handy built-in deadlift jack. This jack allows you to easily, and quickly tilt the bar onto the jack and change the weight without struggling to lift plates off the floor and drag them off the bar. It will save you time and energy that can be applied to getting a great workout.
Specialty Barbell Conclusion
So, if you are thinking of adding a specialty barbell to your arsenal of strength training equipment, first consider the movements that you want to perform more often, or pain-free, but cannot with a conventional Olympic barbell.
Once you have identified your issue, look for a specialty bar, such as the Bells of Steel Trap Bar or the Safety Squat Bar SS3, to solve the problem and get back to lifting.
If you find yourself in the market for more than one specialty bar, you might be interested in our Specialty Bar Custom Set — buy 3 or more specialty bars and save 10% on each!