Here's what you need to know...
• Trap bars are great for deadlifts and shrugs, but there are plenty of awesome, lesser-known exercises that you can use it for.
• The trap bar is possibly the best thing you can use for single-leg loading. It gives you unlimited unloading capacity and it's much easier to hold than dumbbells.
• The trap bar can also be used for pressing movements and serves as a great shoulder-friendly alternative to barbell pressing.
• Traditional barbell rows often place undue stress on the lower back, plus most people cheat their ass off on them. Try split-stance rack rows with the trap bar instead.
When most people think of the trap bar – also known as the hex bar or shrug bar – they think of trap bar deadlifts, shrugs, and maybe farmer's walks. Those are certainly good uses for it and any of them make getting a trap bar well worth the investment, but there are also a slew of lesser-known exercises you can use it for that can really expand your arsenal. It's actually a surprisingly versatile tool that allows you to train hard and crush your muscles while taking some stress off your joints.
Having an oversized rackable trap bar like the Dead-Squat™ Bar opens up even more possibilities, but if that's not an option, you can always get creative. Here are some of my favorites:
Rack Deadlift Variations
Scrape-the-Rack Deadlifts (Quad Emphasis)
I'm really fired up about this one because as someone with both lower back and knee issues, it can be tricky to find good exercises to target the quads without kicking the crap out of my joints. This one is both brutally effective and joint-friendly at the same time – a welcome combination.
Set up just as you normally would for a deadlift, but with the bar pushed up against the front of the rack. As you pull, the goal is to keep the bar pressed firmly against the rack the whole time, which will require you to lean forward slightly as you come up. At the top, rather than standing straight up, you should be leaning forward slightly.
This small tweak places more stress on the quads without imposing any additional stress on the knees, while also taking a lot of stress off the lower back – quite the orthopedic trifecta.
You won't need a lot of weight to really feel these, so don't let your ego get in the way. Keep the reps controlled, both on the concentric and the eccentric. This movement really doesn't lend itself well to lower rep ranges, so keep it in the 6-10 range and above. A 10-15 repper at the end of your leg workout will have your quads giving you the finger.
Scrape-the-Rack Pulls (Upper Back Emphasis)
To shift the focus from the legs to the upper back, set the pins at knee height with the bar pressed against the front of the rack and the feet positioned slightly forward of center. Lean forward as you pull and think about pulling your shoulders back at the top.
I normally don't recommend pulling the shoulders back at the top with regular deadlifts and rack pulls because it ends up putting a lot of stress on the lower back, but because you're leaning forward into the rack, it takes pressure off the lower back so you can hone in on the upper.
Again, you'll need to go lighter than regular rack pulls, so plan accordingly. If you're doing these right and pressing hard into the rack, you'll feel your upper back light up like crazy, even with just the empty bar.
Rack RDLs / Rack Pulls
RDLs (Romanian deadlifts) are one of the best exercises for the hamstrings and glutes, but they also put a lot of stress on the lower back, making them risky for people like me with lower back issues. Using the trap bar and doing them from a dead-stop off pins solves this problem. Set the pins as low as you can go while still keeping a flat back and then perform RDLs just as you normally would.
Having your hands at your sides allows you to sit back farther into the hip hinge, placing more stress on the glutes and taking stress off the lower back. You can also do conventional rack pulls, which is a great option for people who don't have the mobility to pull from the floor with good form or for those looking to overload the top portion of the pull.
If your trap bar isn't long enough to fit in a rack, pull from blocks.
Single Leg Work
I prefer dumbbell loading to axial barbell loading (i.e., the back squat or front squat position) for single leg work because I think it's safer for the back and gives you a better "bail out" option if something goes awry and you lose your balance.
The trouble is, once you get good at single-leg work, it's not uncommon for guys to go up over 250 pounds, but it's extremely rare that you'll find a gym with big enough dumbbells. And even if you did, it'd be extremely awkward and cumbersome to hold dumbbells that big.
For guys about 6'1" and under, the trap bar functions much like heavy dumbbells so you can load the weight at your sides, and there's essentially unlimited loading capacity. Plus, it's much easier to hold a trap bar than heavy dumbbells, making it feel a lot smoother. Unfortunately, most regular trap bars aren't big enough front-to-back to do split squat and lunge variations, so you really need a bigger trap bar for these exercises.
Here's Patrick Chung of the Philadelphia Eagles doing sliding reverse lunges:
And here's trainer Kevin Anderson crushing some 315-pound rear foot elevated split squats and making it look easy. Damn.
While the trap bar is generally thought of as a tool for lower-body work, it can also work well for pressing movements and serves as a great shoulder-safe alternative to barbell pressing, similar to using a football bar or a Swiss bar.
For overhead pressing, I've found that it works best to start with the bar on the pins in a power rack and perform each rep from a dead-stop because the bar tends to get a little tippy with freestanding presses. The pins should be set anywhere from your traps to the top of your head, depending on your shoulder mobility and how you like doing your presses.
If you want to use more leg drive and turn it into a push press, just set the pins a little lower.
One nice thing about this is that you don't have to worry about moving your head out of the way of the bar like you do with most overhead press variations.
For horizontal pressing, I recommend pin presses and floor presses to help keep the bar from tipping front to back. If you have a Dead-Squat Bar with its angled handles, pressing with a semi-supinated grip is a great way to blast the pecs, almost like a reverse grip barbell press, only with less stress on the wrists. Imagine trying to squeeze the handles together as you press to fry the chest even more.
My personal favorite is the floor pin press:
If your bar doesn't fit in the rack, you'll need to set it up on blocks to give yourself enough space to slide underneath into position.
Split Stance Rack Rows
I'm not a big fan of traditional barbell rows because I feel they put undue stress on the lower back, and the sizeable risk just doesn't outweigh the reward when there are so many other options to choose from. Plus, you hardly ever see them done well and the "row" usually deteriorates into something that resembles more of a shrug/upright row/monkey humping a football combination.
Dead stop rows (otherwise known as Pendlay rows) are better because the pause helps to keep the set under control and minimize cheating, but most people can't lower the bar all the way down to the floor without rounding their lower back, which again makes it a risky choice in my book.
To make barbell rows more lower back friendly, try split stance rack rows with the trap bar. Set the bar up in a power rack at a point where you can bend over and still keep a flat back, which for most people will be somewhere between mid-shin and knee level. Next, address the bar with a split stance with the feet spaced about a foot apart, choosing whichever grip you like best. From there, row just like you would a regular barbell row, resetting the bar on the pins after each rep.
I like these better than regular barbell rows for a few reasons:
1. Rowing from the pins allows you to work in a range of motion that you can do safely.
2. Using a split stance helps take a lot of stress off the lower back by allowing you to post up on the front leg (you should feel this in your glutes). You'll find it's much harder to round your back in a split stance than a symmetrical stance because the front leg serves almost like a safety brake.
3. The split stance discourages you from cheating too much because it's harder to get leg drive, making for a stricter, better looking row that you'll feel more in the upper back and less in the lower back.
4. Using the trap bar is nice because it allows for a wider stance since you don't have to worry about the bar hitting your front leg, and you can pull back farther at the top because you don't have to worry about the bar hitting your chest, making for a huge contraction. If your trap bar doesn't fit in the rack, just elevate it on blocks.
Split Stance Scrape-the-Rack Rows
If you have a rackable trap bar, you can do something similar to split-stance rack rows, only this time, set up with the bar flush against the rails of the power rack and keep it pressed against the rack the whole time. You won't be able to handle as much weight, but it feels great and takes even more stress off the lower back.
Did I miss any trap bar exercises or variations? Let me know.