When building out your garage gym, it’s easy to focus on only the standard fare of equipment, especially if space or price is a concern. It’s easy to pick out the squat racks, the barbells, and the space-saving adjustable dumbbell set. You’ll bolt some band storage to the wall, grab the necessary weight plates, and get the adjustable bench.
Check out your standard home gym, and you’ll see these things and a few other odds and ends. From a minimalist perspective, it’s enough. There is load, there is a way to load it, and there is space to overcome the load.
That is resistance training.
It’s the basics that get the job done, after all.
And yet, by omitting some specialty equipment, you are limiting the variation in your workouts, the novel angles for stimulus, and potentially some of your cherished results. While you may not have the space or budget for a belt squat, a reverse hyperextension, or a hack squat machine, you can invest in specialty bars.
A specialty bar has been designed by lifters, for lifters, to load the body with a novel stimulus, overcome mechanical disadvantages, and minimize common pain points in the “traditional effort.”
It’s often that these intelligent compensations and force profile adjustments will trigger adaptation to push through training plateaus.
Specialty bars are just one of the specific ways we can do this, and there are many different types of specialty bars to take your training to the next level.
The rest of this article will explore three exercises for each specialty bar that should be in your training program once you own, or have access, to the equipment.
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Table of Contents
- Safety Squat Bar (Yoke Bar)
- Trap Bar (Hex Bar)
- Multi-Grip Bar (Football Bar)
- Buffalo Bar (Bow Bar)
- Curl Bar (EZ Bar)
Safety Squat Bar
The safety squat bar is a unique barbell defined by its welded handles set perpendicular to the rest of the bar. This allows for higher-level “back squat” loading without forcing the arms into the traditional back squat position (which can cause havoc to shoulders over time and when an injury already exists).
Additionally, the collars of the bar are offset to help the load maintain its position over the midfoot in various lifts. Lastly, the bar features lateral and posterior padding to allow for a softer resting position on the upper back. Since the hands cannot defer any of the downward load from the spine (as would be possible with a traditional barbell), it’s more comfortable for most lifters.
What truly makes the safety squat bar special is the ability to “hang” the barbell on your body. Yes, you can go all types of Waka Flocka Flame and say “look ma, no hands” as you squat (e.g., Hatfield Squats).
Check out our top recommended safety squat bars for an in-depth look at the best SSBs.
Exercise 1: Hatfield Squats (and Split Squats)
The first training pattern uses the squat rack as a weight-deference tool while the safety squat bar hangs on your shoulders. This positioning allows you to use your arms to help you out of the bottom of your squat (or split squat) pattern. Doing so increases total loading on the body, even if all that load is not placed exclusively on the tissue that is traditionally loaded in the squat pattern.
Best executed with band pegs set in the horizontal position, the Hatfield Squat allows for excellent squat depth, proper spinal loading, and higher total loading of the pattern.
Hatfield Split Squats are unique in allowing for exceptionally increased loading on a single leg. You will be able to go significantly heavier in your Hatfield split squat than you would if you were to split squat without the assistance of your hands. You can use this exercise to leverage tremendous hypertrophy potential in the quads and glutes.
Exercise 2: Any Lunge Pattern
One of the biggest downsides of performing lunges with a traditional barbell is the pinched nerve that leads to numbness in the arms and hands when a loaded barbell is sitting on your cervical/thoracic spine for an extended time. It’s very hard to focus on your lunge pattern, stay strong, and maintain spinal position if your arms are burning and numb.
Even I, the author of this article, took walking barbell lunges out of my program for years because the numbness in my hands wouldn’t fade for hours after training the pattern with appropriate weights. I’ve known many peers and friends with the same problem too.
The safety squat bar solves this problem regardless of how you lunge (forward, reverse, lateral, walking).
Due to the design of the SSB, you won’t be exposing your cervical/thoracic spine to specific stress at a spot where many nerves live.
You get to focus on the lunges and not the other sensations of your body. You get to train the lunge heavy without putting your grip to the test (which is often the case with kettlebells and dumbbells).
*Bonus benefit: the SSB helps promote upward torso positioning in a forward lunge while also allowing you to “pull” the handles and your hips into the more hingy reverse lunge position.
Exercise 3: Good Mornings
The last exercise made much better by the safety squat bar is the “good morning.” Arguably the most overlooked of all hinge patterns, the good morning is one of the few “pure” hinges that emphasizes hip extension without external rotation/abduction/knee flexion. It’s undertrained in most scenarios for three primary reasons:
- You have to go much lighter on a good morning than on a Romanian deadlift, and whose ego can handle that shot?
- It’s easy to overwork the lower back extensors (erector spinae, QL), which might limit your output in squats and deadlifts.
- The bar rests on the back of your neck in the bottom position of the lift, which never feels good – it’s like being decapitated by a blunt object over time.
As a result, we have a decision to make. Either skip good mornings or find an adjustment that lets us train the pattern without all the discomfort.
Enter the safety squat bar, where the forward hand position allows you to sort of “push” the bar off your neck at the bottom position while also providing three pads to support your neck and upper spine. The load placement can additionally lend itself to unique hamstring stress.
Just remember, good mornings don’t need to be trained so heavy that you need to use knee or spinal flexion to overcome the load. Instead, this should be a pure anterior pelvic tilt and hip extension with a braced core (think plank while moving). As you stand, your arms pull down on the handles to engage the lats and build greater core tension, all while your glutes contract to center the pelvis.
Hex Bar (Trap Bar)
The hex bar is one of the most well-known and popular specialty bars in the fitness industry. Depending on which brand you buy, your handles are elevated an additional 3 to 6 inches off the floor than the standard height of a loaded barbell (8.75 inches). This allows for greater loading potential, limited range training, and safer starting points for beginner lifters.
The Hex bar can be turned upside down for increased range of motion or sideways for some frontal-plane stability work. It can also be used for certain upper body movements. Simply put, a hex bar offers many benefits.
Check out our top recommended trap bars for a detailed analysis of the best hex bars.
Exercise 1: Hex Bar Deadlift
OK, so not everything in this article will be so novel that it deserves applause and accreditation.
But everything is here for a reason…
The hex bar deadlift should be a staple in most individuals’ training programs. The reason is quite functional – most people can’t safely reach the height of a loaded barbell without experiencing spinal flexion. The higher handles eliminate the need to round the back to reach the bottom of the lift.
The trap bar deadlift will always be your best lift from a loading perspective. Because of the higher handles and the squatty-hinge (or hinge-squat) position needed to execute the lift safely, you can use the force production potential of the entire lower body to overcome inertia.
Additionally, because the lifter is in the center of the weight, beginners find it easier to perform the movement without back pain or technique overload. This makes this lift one of the most accessible and underrated heavy training patterns in all of fitness.
Exercise 2: Hex Bar Bent Over Row
With a setup nearly identical to the hex bar deadlift, the row allows for a strong and stable hinge pattern. Additionally, the neutral grip handles limit the stress on the rotator cuff muscles, which can help maintain the health of the shoulder complex. Lastly, like the deadlift, the lifter’s position in the center of the load can help beginners learn how to drive through their feet, brace their core, and execute a bent-over row without worrying about their balance or the bar pulling them forward.
For advanced lifters, an upside-down hex bar (low handles) can increase the range of motion and trigger new growth.
Exercise 3: Hex Bar Suitcase Carry
What if a professional told you that you could turn 90 degrees once inside the hex bar and pick up the load?
Yes, it’s much harder, and you feel like you’ve put your upper body on a balance board, but the benefit of loading the spine in the frontal plane can’t be understated. Anti-lateral flexion might be one of the essential training efforts for a strong and healthy spine.
Put simply, you grab the trap bar by its smooth section (typically in front of you and behind you). You’ll perform a deadlift to lock the bar out at the top and begin your farmer’s carry walk. Every step will add some deviation in the frontal plane, forcing you to use your obliques, glutes, adductors, lats, traps, and even your triceps to control the weight in space.
Besides the obvious benefits of the exercise, you also unlock a cool party trick the next time someone want’s to join you for a workout!
The multi-grip bar is one of the most beneficial tools for pressing, pulling, and curling. The various handles provide the opportunity to load the shoulders at a safe angle while also providing a chance to try new angles and loading profiles. Additionally, the position of the handles vs. the design of the bar adds additional wrist and shoulder stability challenges to a lift – thus increasing its effectiveness.
Exercise 1: Multi-Grip Bench Press
The most common use of the multi-grip bar (often called the football bar) is the bench press. The neutral hand position helps prevent anterior humeral glide at the bottom of the press while still allowing for tremendous loading potential.
The grip chosen depends on the goal and the health of your shoulders. The narrowest handles will smoke your triceps, limit your total load, and demand you limit the range slightly to eliminate shoulder risk. The widest handles are too wide to effectively press heavy but do provide a novel stimulus to the anterior delt, pectoralis, and even biceps. Thus, the middle handles are typically just right.
Just like a barbell, you can use the multi-grip bar at a variety of angles to properly stimulate your pecs and create the overload stimulus for your press.
Exercise 2: Multi-Grip Bent Over Row
All the benefits of the multi-grip press exist as a benefit for the bent-over row. They work the same joints in opposite directions, thus sharing functional anatomy. Multi-grip bent-over rows can allow for safer loading of the shoulders, enhanced muscle growth through new angles, and overload potential.
One unique aspect of the bent-over row is that hand position will bias which upper back muscles are getting worked. Wider hand positions will emphasize the lats, teres group, and posterior deltoids more exclusively, while narrower hand positions will bias the middle trapezius, rhomboids, and biceps.
This makes multi-grip bent-over rows an excellent choice for higher volume training sessions where you might perform 8 or 10 sets of the same exercise but with different hand positions every 2-3 sets. It’s a high training load in the same pattern but with enough deviation to check all the boxes for variation.
Exercise 3: Multi-Grip Bar Overhead Carry
The overhead carry position is the hardest of all options in the pattern. Beyond having the obvious strength to hold a loaded bar (or bells) overhead, there is also the constant fight against extending the spine as you take controlled steps. Everything from your shoulder strength, abdominal endurance, and breathing cadence are challenged by an overhead carry.
The multi-grip levels up the traditional barbell overhead carry by allowing for high loading potential in the neutral shoulder position. When the palms face one another, the shoulder joint is more stable than in supinated or pronated positions, limiting the risk of injuries.
Additionally, traditional neutral grip overhead carries involve dumbbells or kettlebells, which require the skill and strength to transition from the ground to overhead – a key limiter for many people. The multi-grip bar, however, can be set up high in a rack where the lifter can walk under the bar, lock out their arms, and stand up fully before their walk. The high rerack position is also a back saver under fatigue.
One of the most popular specialty bars in powerlifting communities is the Buffalo Bar. The bent bar allows for normal back squat loading without normal back squat shoulder positioning. It also allows for a greater range of motion in bench presses and rows because the bend allows the elbows to travel deeper than they normally would in a barbell lift.
Exercise 1: Buffalo Bar Back Squat
As discussed in the safety squat bar section, the downside of barbell back squats exists primarily in the bar’s position on the spine and the position the shoulder complex must be in to accommodate the lift. Over time this position can cause chronic injuries to the shoulders.
The buffalo bar still requires you load the back squat as you normally would, but the bend causes the end of the bar to “hang” lower than a straight bar. This limits how high you must lift your arms to meet and grip the bar. As a result, you can maintain your traditional back squat form, load, and training program while saving your shoulders.
Any bar that allows for pain-free training over time is a win.
Exercise 2: Buffalo Bar Lunges
For the same reason that the buffalo bar is excellent for back squats, it’s also excellent for lunging. Without the uncomfortable pinned position of a straight bar and the potential for nerve impingement (as discussed in the safety squat bar section), this barbell allows you to chase your best numbers without any risk to the shoulder complex.
A great variation with buffalo lunges is to hang kettlebells from superbands on each collar, adding some level of lateral instability to the lift in place of higher loads.
Exercise 3: Buffalo Bar Bench Press
The growth of the pectorals is often dependent on training in a full range of motion to enhance the stretch reflex and add stress to the eccentric portion of the lift. Additionally, safely benching heavy loads over time requires control of the motion, added range training, and shoulder-friendly angles to limit stress on hard tissues.
This is where the buffalo bar thrives. You can increase the range of motion of the lift because the bend in the bar will hit your chest much later than a straight bar. This allows the elbows to drive deeper into the hole, which adds a greater stress/stretch to the pecs. It’s a great tool to stimulate growth.
For heavy benchers, it’s a novel training tool to work on their strength at the amortization phase of the bench press (when the downward effort of the bar stops and the upward begins) because the force profile of the buffalo bar is different than a traditional barbell. Translation? By training in an extended range (safely), your force production in the “normal” range of motion is enhanced.
OK, OK – it’s usually just a tool used for biceps curls and skull crushers. We know.
But what if we told you that there are numerous uses of the EZ curl bar for your lower body too? What if we highlighted that the bar’s design helps it fit on your shoulders or behind your legs in a much more natural way than a straight bar? The cambered design of the bar provides a curved surface that fits the body more appropriately.
And, of course, it can pump up your biceps and triceps too.
Check out our list of the best curl bars for an in-depth comparison.
Exercise 1: Curl Bar Front Squat
The curl bar was designed for multiple-angle curls, sure, but it works wonders for sitting on the front of your shoulders in a front squat. The outward cambers of the bar allow the load to “wrap” around your delts and sit more comfortably without smashing your clavicles.
Additionally, the narrower loading parameters (the collars are shorter) limit loading potential, but add more stability, or centration, to the lift. This allows for front squats, front-loaded lunges, and front-loaded split squats to be executed with less lateral or transverse instability.
Use a squat rack to elevate the bar like you would a straight bar and walk under the load.
Exercise 2: Curl Bar Hack Squat
Long before there was a cool machine to do the lift – the old-school hack squat involved standing with a barbell behind you and essentially deadlifting the load. You’d drag the bar up the back of your leg, wiggle your butt out of the way, and lockout.
Do it in a gym now, and people just think you’re weird…
But the truth is, THIS IS the Hack Squat.
The curl bar is more friendly than the straight bar for this lift for one specific reason. The curves in the bars match the general size and shape of your glutes, thus making it specifically easier to get to lockout without jamming the bar into the underside of your butt or compromising your spinal integrity.
This makes this old-school lift safer and easier to execute – perfect for a home gym owner who isn’t going to buy a machine but wants all the benefits of the Hack squat.
Exercise 3: Curl Bar Triceps Press
You didn’t think we were completely omitting the arms from this section, did you?
The curl bar is the superior way to close-grip bench press, otherwise known as the triceps press. The reason is simple, the angle formed at the bottom of a straight bar triceps press can be extremely violent to the wrists, cause torsion in the elbow, and lead to the long-term breakdown of both joints.
The curl bar, though, provides the cambered positions, which softens that angle on the wrist without compromising the loading potential of the bar. It’s the best of both worlds. Execute the lift without the risk. Additionally, the bar’s design allows you to design compound sets that link together the press with skull crushers or even wider grip bench press.
And once you’re done with the press – you can hammer out some curls too.
What are Specialty Bars?
Specialty Bars are unique, specialized barbells designed to complement traditional barbell exercises. They can help lifters bust through training plateaus while providing more comfort and safety.
What is the Best Specialty Bar?
The best specialty bar is the one that allows you to lift safely, work around injuries, and target specific training goals. Safety squat bars and trap bars are great all-around specialty bars, but you should pick the bar that best fits your needs.
As you see in this article, a specialty bar provides loading potential in novel ways. More importantly, though, they increase the safety of the lifts you perform. Subtle changes in bar design have allowed for better shoulder, spine, hip, and knee health.
The goal is always the same: Train hard, in a smart way, for a long time.
It’s time to add a few specialty bars to your home gym and elevate your programming potential.