You probably don't even know what a trap bar is, let alone whether you should be using it. Well, listen up.
Photo: Ajan Alen / Shutterstock
It has nothing to do with trap music nor a happy hour bar. The trap bar is a piece of fitness equipment that's even more awesome than Gucci Mane and booze combined. Well, at least when it comes to safe and functional weightlifting.
A little history lesson: The trap bar has been around since the '80s when, according to the USA Weightlifting Association, a guy named Al Gerard invented it to reduce the stress deadlifting put on his back. Since then, almost every gym has invested in one—only to have it, more or less, collect dust in the corner.
If you can't visualize a trap bar, it looks a bit like the axles on a car. Or an enlarged eyelash curler. "A conventional trap bar is shaped like a hexagon with handles on each side. "To use it, you stand in the middle and grip the handles on the side," says Laura Miranda, D.P.T., M.S.P.T., C.S.C.S., creator of PURSUIT. "Then, you stand up as if you're picking up two suitcases."
The trap bar allows you to transfer the weight during a deadlift to the sides, rather than holding the weight in front of you as you might with a straight barbell. That means that the bar and weight are closer to your center of gravity, so you're in a better position to pull without putting pressure on your lower back, says Miranda. "When you use a straight barbell, the barbell is in front of you. So that even if you keep the bar pressed tight to your shins in good form, you need to extend forward to grab the bar and pull it up and toward you, which can result in lower-back strain if done improperly," she says. (P.S. Are you making these three common deadlift mistakes?)
And now's a good time to say that if you're not deadlifting at all, you should be, says Miranda. Pulling from the floor increases hamstring, hip, and back strength, and works on the overall development of the posterior chain, which can improve overall explosiveness (power in plyo moves), decrease back pain, and help correct poor posture. Plus, the deadlift will work the hamstrings, glutes, quads, lower back, lats, traps, and grip strength, she says.
The best choice for you when deadlifting will depend on your fitness goals and your previous lifting experience (trap bars can be a great choice for beginners or for those looking to refresh their technique). Here, we discuss six reasons you'd want to find the forgotten trap bar and put it to good use.
1. You're new to the weight room.
If deadlifting is new to you, start with the trap bar, says Miranda. "The trap bar is a useful tool when teaching the deadlift because it helps teach someone the key components of good form, like how to hinge at the hip, how to keep your knees stacked over your ankles, and how to maintain upper-back tightness," she explains. The trap bar deadlift can also help someone build the strong core that's necessary to eventually pull heavier weight with good form.
If you have access to a trainer, it's worth working with him or her the first few times you deadlift to help nail the form and prevent injury, says Brandon Beatty, C.S.C.S. If not, group fitness classes such as an intro to CrossFit could be useful, too.
Either way, start slow. "When you're just beginning to deadlift, always always always stop before your muscles fatigue and your form dissolves," says Beatty. "Start off with four sets of 10 reps with ample rest between sets. But if on the third or fourth set your form starts to fail, stop."
2. You want to build a stronger, tighter, lifted booty.
Using a trap bar puts your body in a different position, which means it works the muscles slightly differently than using a straight barbell would. Recent research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that deadlifting with a trap bar activates the leg muscles more and the back muscles less than the straight barbell.
For the study, 20 experienced lifters used sensors that detected which muscles were being activated during both a deadlift using the straight barbell and a trap bar. Results showed that the quads, glutes, and hamstrings were activated during either deadlift, but more so when they used a trap bar. So if quad gains and a lifted booty are your goals, the trap bar can be your new best friend.
3. You want to increase your power.
If plyometric exercises are your jam (and Kaisa Keranen is your idol), it's time to haul out the trap bar. Researchers have found that the lifters can produce more power and force when pulling with a trap bar than with a straight barbell during deadlifts. That's because when you pull from inside the trap bar, you're able to better engage your larger leg muscles like your quads, hamstrings, and glutes, which are able to produce more oomph than the primary muscles used during a straight barbell deadlift, which recruits the hamstrings and glutes more so than the powerful quads. This kind of power can be incredibly helpful for field athletes, runners, and weightlifters, says Miranda.
If increasing power is your goal, she recommends combining trap bar deadlifts with more traditional plyometric moves that burn fat and build muscles, such as box jumps, squat jumps, and broad jumps.
4. You have lower-back pain.
The trap bar is a useful tool for someone with possible lumbar issues who would like to limit the stress they're placing on their back, explains Miranda. "That's because the center trap bar allows you to be more upright than the straight barbell, which takes the shearing force off your back and places it on your powerful legs," she says. (But, is it ever OK to have lower-back pain after a workout?)
5. You need to work on your mobility.
While it depends on the make and brand, some trap bars have a second set of handles, allowing you to start from an even higher starting position, explains Miranda. This makes the trap bar great for people with limited lower-body mobility and range of motion. The decreased range of motion from the straight barbell to the trap bar is helpful for people with very tight hamstrings, or who have a knee or hip injury that needs to be worked around," she adds. (This kind of limited range of motion is another reason why you should be adding partial reps to your training.)
6. Your leg-day workout needs a revamp.
"For nine out of every 10 people, the trap bar can replace the straight barbell completely," says Miranda. "It engages the lower-body muscles without the risk factors associated with the straight barbell." While the straight barbell itself is not inherently dangerous, poor form, overly aggressive programming, and too much weight too soon can lead to injury, explains Beatty.
If the straight barbell is already a staple in your training plan, Beatty suggests mixing it up. "Doing a variety of exercises is best for muscular development over time," he adds. Plus, if you're already safely deadlifting with a straight barbell, you should throw the trap bar into your training to mix up your grip. The different alignment used with the trap bar may actually help you lift slightly more weight, too, which could help you overcome a strength plateau, he says.