The trap bar may be one of the best tools that you’re not using. Or, you’re only using it for deadlifts. The thing is, the neutral-grip handles and unique positioning that it allows make the trap bar a gym rat’s best friend. It can be pressed, rowed, carried, and squatted for ache-free gains. Also, if you’ve been heaving a barbell year after year — the trap bar may serve as a much-welcomed break from the mundane.
Below are six of the best trap bar exercises (that are not deadlifts) that will help increase strength and bolster muscle gain. Besides outlining these basic tried-and-true movements like carries, we also provide more advanced variations to try, like elevated split squats. We also elaborate on the benefits of training with the trap bar with some programming suggestions.
Best Trap Bar Exercises
- Trap Bar Bent Over Row
- Trap Bar Tall Kneeling Shoulder Press
- Trap Bar Floor Press
- Trap Bar Suitcase Carry
- Trap Bar Elevated Split Squat
- Trap Bar Figure 8 Carry
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The trap bar bent over row is easier on the lower back since the handles are elevated, and so the lifter doesn’t have to hinge over as far to support the weight. Due to the wider, neutral-grip handles, the lifter can challenge the traps, forearms, biceps, and lats with more weight than can typically be used with a standard barbell. That’s because a lifter is usually stronger while using a neutral grip.
Benefits of the Trap Bar Bent Over row
- It takes stress off your lower back, and the neutral grip is easier on your elbows.
- It is also a great accessory exercise for deadlifts, chin-ups, and pull-ups due to the grip demands and hinge position.
- Challenges your rowing muscles from a different angle than standard barbell row.
How to Do the Trap Bar Bent Over Row
Hinge down and grab either side of the trap bar. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and row the trap bar until the back of the bar almost touches your glutes. You want your elbows to be angled at about 45 degrees throughout the movement. Hold the top position of the row for a beat and then slowly lower the weight back down and repeat.
This is a great accessory exercise for deadlifts and chin-ups to be programmed on lower body or upper body days. This exercise is best used for hypertrophy, so do three to five sets of eight to 12 reps. Because you’re performing a lot of volume, don’t pair it with any grip-taxing movements.
Try instead of: Military press and other barbell shoulder press variations.
Not every lifter has the mobility and stability required to do barbell overhead presses. Enter the tall kneeling shoulder press. The neutral grip is easier on the wrist and elbows (barbells can cause wrist hyperextension), and the tall-kneeling position forces the lifter to actively flex the core muscles to stay upright and stable. You’ll become a more proficient presser and develop killer abs. Sounds like a win-win.
Benefits of the Tall Kneeling Trap Bar Shoulder Press
- If there is any instability with your pressing technique, you will receive instant feedback because the tall kneeling position will force you out of position.
- The neutral grip makes the lift easier on your upper joints.
- A tall kneeling position strengthens core stability and improves hip mobility.
How to Do the Tall Kneeling Shoulder Press
Set up the trap bar in the squat rack, get into a strong, tall kneeling position, and set the pins above shoulder height. Grip the high or low bar handles with your wrists in neutral and grip tight. Then press with control until your elbows are locked out and pause for a second. Slowly lower back down to the pins, reset and repeat.
Sub this movement in for your main pressing exercise. For strength, do three to five sets of three to six reps. To gain more muscle, perform two to four sets of eight to 15 reps work well.
Try instead of: Barbell and dumbbell floor press variations.
Think of this movement as a hybrid of the regular floor press and the neutral-grip dumbbell press. Pressing from the floor limits the range of motion (ROM), allowing the lifter to move more weight and prevents the shoulders from being overly exerted. And the neutral-grip creates a more stable pressing environment, as the wrist, elbow, and shoulder are all stacked over one another for a strong base.
Benefits of the Trap Bar Floor Press
- Less stress on your upper body joints but with the ability to add more resistance than the dumbbell variation.
- If shoulder pain is an issue, this variation allows you to still train the pressing movement in a (possible) pain-free range of motion.
- Because of minimal lower body involvement and reduced ROM, this variation helps improve your lockout strength.
How to Do the Trap Bar Floor Press
Set up the trap bar on the squat rack (as in the video) with flat handles down and the D handles up. The D handles make this more of a challenge due to instability, so lift with the flat handles. Unrack the trap bar with your wrists neutral and feet and back flat on the floor. Slowly lower until your upper arm touches the floor and then press back up until lockout.
Like the trap bar shoulder press, sub this in as your main pressing movement for the day. To get stronger, do four to five sets of three to six reps. For muscle growth, do two to three sets of six to 12 reps.
Try instead of: Dumbbell and kettlebell suitcase carries.
Suitcase carries are a great grip and core builder, as the lifter walks with a load in just one hand. It also has real benefits to everyday life because, well, think about how often you carry something in one hand. Be warned, using the trap bar makes this move more difficult, as the weight is more off-center. The plus is that you can load a lot more weight onto a trap bar, though we don’t suggest going too heavy on this exercise at first.
Benefits of the Trap Bar Suitcase Carry
- The trap bar allows you to load it heavier than the dumbbell variation.
- It strengthens grip imbalances between sides.
- Improving grip strength has a direct carryover to your deadlift and chin-up performance.
How to Do the Trap Bar Suitcase Carry
Stand the trap bar up on its side for an easier start, and load the plate onto both ends. Grab the center of the bar with a firm grip and lift the trap bar, making sure to keep your shoulders down and level with each other. Walk slowly while keeping your upright posture. Once you have walked 40 yards, put the trap bar down, rest on the side of your leg, hold with one hand as you turn around, swap sides, and repeat.
This exercise is best performed near the beginning of your program when your grip is fresh. Start by performing three to four sets of 40-yard carries (each side).
Split squats are a great way to isolate your legs for more muscle, as they work one side at a time and force a longer range of motion. You can load this move with a kettlebell, dumbbell, or even a barbell. However, using the trap bar forces the lifter to keep constant tension on their legs as they can’t physically lock their knees out (the back of the trap bar will bang against their thighs). This constant tension creates more muscular stress, and that’s what will lead to more muscle mass over time.
Benefits of the Trap Bar Elevated Split Squat
- It reinforces good technique. A lot of lifters keep an upright torso, which makes the elevated split squat difficult. But if you don’t lean forward, your back thigh will butt into the trap bar way too early.
- The trap bar forces you to maintain constant tension because you’ll find you cannot lock out the movement as the back thigh runs into the trap bar, limiting the range of motion slightly.
How to Do the Trap Bar Elevated Split Squat
Set your back foot flat on a bench and the other foot inside the trap bar with D handles up. Squat down with a forward lean and grip the D handles, and squat up until the back bar runs into your thigh. Then slowly lower down and stop before the weight plates touch the floor and squat up and repeat for reps.
Do this toward the end of your workout. It will create a lot of fatigue, so if you start your workout with these, you’ll be too tired for squats and other leg movements.
You can load up a trap bar with way more weight than you can carry with dumbbells or kettlebells. We like this carry variation because the figure 8 pattern allows you to cover more distance with less space required in a crowded gym. As a bonus, the figure-8 motion requires core stability and coordination.
Benefits of the Trap Bar Figure 8 Carry
- This variation allows you to perform a carry in a small space and not get in anyone’s way.
- Dumbbells limit your weight but not so with the trap bar. You have a much higher loading potential to further your grip and conditioning gains.
- Strengthens shoulder stability and helps improve posture.
How to Do the Trap Bar Figure 8 Carry
Use great deadlift form to pick the weight up and resist the urge to hurry. Walking at a slow, deliberate pace in a figure 8 pattern makes your turns easier and extends your time under tension. Keep your chest up and shoulders down. When you’re done, come to a full stop and lower the weight with control.
This exercise is great for conditioning and brutal on your grip. Pairing this with a mobility or pressing exercise that aids recovery and doesn’t tax your grip works well. Do three sets of two figure 8s.
Benefits of Training With the Trap Bar
Today, trap bars usually have two pairs of handles — one pair projects upwards in a squared D shape from the bar and one pair that’s level with the bar. The bar can be flipped over to make either pair available. And the sleeves (where the weight goes) on either side are at right angles to the handles.
The trap bar’s hex design allows you to step inside the bar — some say the bar “traps” you are the origin of its name — and the design aligns the weight with your center of gravity. This makes a great tool for beginning lifters to learn the deadlift and those who have suffered from low back injuries in the past.
Here are a few other important benefits of using the trap bar.
It’s Easier on The Lower Back
There is less shear force on the spine because the axis of rotation (lower back/hips) is more in-line with the load. This makes it easier on the lower back, especially if you have a history of lower back pain. If you are an athlete or lifter who wants to focus on strength with a reduced chance of getting a lifting injury, doing some of your lifts with a trap bar is a good option.
Reduces the Strain on the Wrist And Elbows
Gripping the barbell with an over, underhand, or mixed grip is tough for lifters with a history of elbow/biceps issues. The neutral grip on the trap bar reduces the strain on the biceps compared to a mixed grip on a barbell, and it’s easier on the forearms and elbows relative to a pronated or supinated grip.
More Trap Bar Training Tips
Now that you have a handle on the best trap bar exercises to strengthen your entire body, you can also check out these other helpful training articles for strength, power, and fitness athletes.
Featured image: Courtesy of John Rusin’s YouTube Channel