I’ll tell you something, I love my trap bar. Now, it’s really a hex bar. I’ll get into that later. Most people still call them trap bars. About a year or so ago, I fell on some icy steps and sustained a very bad floating rib injury and a severe muscle contusion in the lateral part of my mid back. It has been a long road back to lifting again, and my trap bar was a big part of it. I’m still not there, but when I couldn’t use a regular barbell for deadlifting, I could use my trap bar, and it has been a Godsend. While I have so much enthusiasm for it, others are still very much confused as to the usefulness of this particular piece of strength training equipment.
I don’t have anything fancy, just a well-made and very functional trap bar from CAP Barbell.
Trap or Hex Bar, Not Just For Shrugs
The trap bar really is good for shrugs, so it’s a great way to train your traps. But, was the bar designed in the first place just for shrugs and trap training? Many sources say yes, the trap bar was meant to train the traps, and later on lifters accidentally discovered its use for deadlifts and other lifts.
Why is it Called a Trap Bar? Trap Means Trapezoidal
Nothing could be further from the truth. The trap bar actually gets its name from its shape, a trapezoid. You’ll notice that there are newer generations of such bars and some of them are referred to as hex bars. These are hexagon in shape, six-sided instead of four-sided like the original trap bar. Many modern bars that actually are hexagonal we still call trap bars.
Original Gerard Trap Bar
What’s the original trap bar? The original trap bar was designed by champion deadlifter, Al Gerard. He held a deadlift record in the mid 1980’s in the ADFPA in the south. He also had lower back problems (I know the feeling!). An engineer, he designed his diamond-shaped bar as a way to train the deadlift without aggravating his back. It is claimed that the Gerard Trap Bar, which he patented, not only helped his back, but increased his deadlifts significantly.
The bar was advertised for deadlifting extensively. The first advertisement for the bar, which appeared in Powerlifting, USA, recommended the bar from stiff-leg deadlifts, shrugs, and upright rows. Paul Kelso, inventor of the Kelso shrug, who wrote about all this in his Kelso Shrug Book, which features a drawing of a trap bar on the cover. He wrote a great deal of material concerning trap bar deadlifts, overhead press, and high pulls in magazines and in his books, along with Dr. Ken Leistner. Kelso wrote a lot of the early promotional materials for the Gerard trap bar, and they emphasized the deadlift.
Gerard’s trap bar, and so the trap bar in general, was absolutely meant for deadlifts, as well as anything else for which it seemed convenient.
I’ve had many discussions about the trap bar for deadlifts. One point I’ve tried to make in all these discussions is that you do NOT have to define strength by just the handful of barbell lifts, deadlift, squat, bench, etc. Deadlifting with the trap bar is easier. It is easier to lift heavier weights, and there is less stress on the back. When you deadlift with the trap, the weight is moved back instead of in front of your body as in barbell deadlifts.
It’s OK to Just Use the Trap Bar for Deadlifts Instead of a Barbell
However, the trap bar does not need to be considered just as an adjunct to the barbell deadlift. I’m currently dong trap bar deadlifts to help rehabilitated my back after I injured it in a fall. If all you want to do is deadlift with a trap bar or hex-bar, and you get a nice big trap bar deadlift, it’s legitimate and perfectly good for strength training. For people with ongoing lower back trouble that just can’t seem to overcome them on the deadlift, so that their lifting is held back, the trap bar may be a great way to fix the problem. Instead of an alternative, it can be a replacement. It can be anything you want it to be. There are no rules.
Besides the change in shape from a trapezoid to a hexagon, another addition to some of today’s bar are offset handles or “hi-lo handles.” This gives you a choice of higher handles for easier deadlifts and squats. You simply turn the bar over to expose the handles you want to use. One advantage of the higher handles is that when you want to do just shrugs, you can use the offset handles to make the bar a bit easier to lift off the ground and get it into the shrugging position.
The original Gerard Trap Bar went out of production for a while due to legal disputes over licensing, bars made to the original design are now being offered, except with the addition of zinc plating. As the manufacturers say, there are some very cheap trap (or hex) bars on the market made with low-quality steel and crappy chrome plating that will chip off (and the steel will rust). However, it is not true that there are NOT other quality options on the market. And, even though cheap chrome finishes will chip off, it’s not necessarily a deal-breaker.
One thing to consider in purchasing a trap bar is whether you can use it in a rack. For example, you can use a trap bar for overhead pressing, and being able to place it in a rack would be very helpful. I do this from a sitting position using my regular size trap (hex) bar, which I can fit in between with a plate on each side, or a couple of smaller plates. To load it up more, I’d need something that fits into a rack properly. Kelso also writes about something called bench shrugs, for which a rack would be useful. There are a few rackable trap bars out there, but you’ll have to pay up
For most home use, consider the weight capacity as well as the durability of the finish. If you plan to deadlift with your trap bar, you might move past the weight capacity of lower-end bars at around 400lbs, more quickly than you think. As well, a bar with loading sleeves that are too short, so that you don’t have rooms for all the plates you’re going to want to put on, will quickly become almost worthless for your deadlifts. Typical trap bar weight is around 50 to 55 pounds. Mine weighs 52 pounds.
As for the finish, chrome flaking off cheaper steel weight lifting equipment is a general problem. Even zinc coatings will eventually come off with heavy use. You can get slivers of the stuff in your hands. However, all you really need is a little sanding and some spray paint. If your bar is knurled wear you grip it, too much paint may fill in the knurling, so tread lightly. All sorts of solutions can be found with a search. On the other hand, I’ve had cheap bars for years with very little flaking or rusting issues. There is cheap and there is crap cheap. If you buy a 45 dollar trap bar, it’s going to be crap cheap. I went with the black version of the CAP Hex Bar I mentioned above. In reality, the black is just the standard chrome bar painted black. The finish does rub off especially when metal hits metal on the loading sleeves. However, the black finish offers an additional layer of protection and can be touched up with black spray paint as needed.