A Little Something Special: A Brief Guide to Specialty Barbells

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Article written by Luke Pelton, BS, CSCS, NSCA-CPT

Being a young twenty-something male, I often get asked what my favorite bar is. My mind immediately starts to race with images of all sorts of fantastic lengths of steel and (with?) iron plates on either side. I then realize they are referring to the tavern-like establishment, and my enthusiasm wanes. I’m very passionate about my barbells, and I think every serious lifter should be made aware of several specialty models they either may not know about or of which they have not yet reaped the rewards.

Specialty barbells make use of the idea of the transfer of training methods, an idea propagated famously by Dr. Anatoliy Bondarchuk in his book entitled Transfer of Training in Sports. This publication is the amassed knowledge gained from the culmination of his over 20-year research in the Soviet and Russian sports science field. The take home message of his findings is that physical abilities are trained in varying methods in the different training cycles of athletes, and that these methods either have a positive, negative, or neutral effect on the improvement of sports performance (Bondarchuk, 2007). For the majority of athletes, the end of a training cycle signifies the start of their competitive season, and they are able to see how their sport-specific movements have improved as a result of the transfer of their training methods. For myself and my team, as competitive powerlifters, the transfer is a direct manifestation of how the varieties of the competition movements, and the specialty barbells we may employ to perform them, have improved our weaknesses and inefficiencies in the competition movements.

As the head coach of a collegiate club powerlifting team, I employ several specialty barbells in their program design. For the sake of focus and clarity, I will present four of my favorites to you now.

The specialty bar I’ve found to give me a fantastic boost on my bench is the buffalo bar. The buffalo bar is a barbell that has a slight curve, or camber, from the middle of the bar down to the collars. This gives it the appearance of a frontal view of the horn structure of a buffalo, from whence it derives its name. The curvature makes the distal portions of the barbell a few inches lower than the middle of the bar. When benching, the position of the hands will be lower than the middle of the bar where it will be touching the chest. This provides anywhere from an additional half-inch to a full inch on the range of motion, depending on the severity of the curvature and how wide the hands are placed on the bar (the wider the grip, the greater the ROM increase). Like deadlifting from a deficit, this augmented range of motion will increase the time under tension of the musculature and require a more sustained force output over a greater period of time.

I like to program in the buffalo bar as both a max-effort and a supplemental movement. When treated as a max-effort lift, I’ve found an increased carryover in a lifter’s ability to drive heavier weights off their chest with a straight bar; since they are used to generating more force from a less advantageous pressing position, the ability to produce force from a normal pressing position has been increased. If I have a lifter who is more triceps-dominant in the bench press and needs to build up pec strength and size, I will program it in as a higher-rep movement. The additional stretch of the pec muscle and tendon and time under tension is a huge booster for pec hypertrophy.
Another specialty bar I’ve found to be a huge asset to a huge bench is a neutral-grip press bar; you may know it as a Swiss bar or a football bar. Though the grips may be neutral, my stance on it is not; I am most definitely in favor of it! The neutral handle arrangement removes forearm supination, as well as a major degree of internal rotation at the shoulder, from the pressing motion. Many lifters who bench often, and heavy, develop overly dominant internal shoulder rotators as well as very tight pronator teres (forearm pronators) due to the constant reinforcing of shoulder internal rotation and forearm pronation inherent to the bench press motion. By removing these components, a lifter is still able to press and build strength in the target musculature without reinforcing poor joint mechanics. The neutral handles also make it nearly impossible to bench with overly flared shoulders, thus removing the possibility of shoulder impingement issues.

As with the buffalo bar, I will program this in as both a heavy main movement and as a supplemental secondary lift. My team benches twice a week, even in our peaking cycle leading up to a meet, so being able to bench heavy twice a week without our shoulders and elbows flaring up is a blessing! The arrangement of multiple handles along the bar allow us to perform close grip, medium, and wide grip presses, as well as skullcrushers or JM presses for increased triceps strength.

No king is complete without his royal retinue, and thus the squat has its own little court of specialty barbells. One of the most effective used in our training is the safety squat bar, also known as the Hatfield bar after Dr. Fred Hatfield (the first man ever to squat 1000 lbs). This bar has a padded yoke with handles that goes around your neck when placed on the upper back. The bar also has a camber at the ends which makes the moment of resistance further from the body’s center of mass, almost like a front squat would. If this seems a little confusing, let’s pause for a brief physics refresher! Mechanical systems, in this case the human body of a lifter, operate with the variables of force and resistance. With a lifter, the force is that which is generated by muscular actions, and the resistance is an external load in the form of a barbell. The distance from the force to the resistance is called a lever or “moment” arm. In the case of a low bar back squat, the resistance (the barbell) is directly centered over the force applied and center of mass (midfoot through to the spine of the scapula). This makes the moment arm equal to 0 and thus less force is required to move the weight than in a system with a longer moment arm, as in the case of the safety bar squat. There is more force required to move the resistance, making this a very difficult movement compared to a low bar or even a high bar back squat. Because the weight is cambered so far in front of the shoulders, many lifters new to this movement have the tendency to get rounded forward as they come up out of the hole. Being able to resist this rounding force translates to a stronger, more stable core, mid, and upper back. If you find yourself getting bent over in your squat, this bar is an essential piece of your arsenal!

As a squat movement, I like to program in the safety squat bar as a heavier main movement. I will also throw them in as a secondary supplemental movement as a good-morning variation. The propensity to be rounded forward turns an already difficult good morning into hell on earth. I recommend starting with lighter weights and progressing as you get comfortable with the movement. You will not be able to match your normal squat/good morning numbers right away with this bar! This bar is also very useful for those experiencing shoulder issues; the handles allow the bar to be held in front of the body with the shoulders in a safe, neutral position.

I realize that I’ve used the word “camber” an awful lot in this article, but I would be remiss if I did not bring it up one more time for the most cambered of all barbells: the Cambered bar. This barbell has a 14” camber; what this means is that if you were looking at the barbell in a rack, the collars and weight would be over a foot below where the bar goes across the upper back. Like the safety squat bar, this offers a unique solution to those with shoulder issues, as the lifter is able to grasp the barbell down by the waist. The downside of this, however, is that you are unable to get your upper back “shelf” as tight as you would with a normal barbell. For this reason, I recommend trying this bar in a high bar position, as the propensity for the bar to slip off the scapular spine in a low bar position will be higher. The camber also lends a unique property to this bar in motion in that the weight will act as a pendulum and the bar will swing slightly. This will immediately highlight any lack of tightness or movement inefficiencies out of the hole as it throws you forward like a reckless child on a playground swing. This bar will truly teach you how to drive force directly up into the barbell.

As with the other bars, I will put this as either a heavier main movement or a secondary lift. Like the safety squat bar, good mornings are fantastic (read: murderous) when performed with the cambered bar. A note of caution: this may seem like common sense, but I’ve seen it happen enough to warrant a response. When squatting with the bar, be sure to move your safety pins/straps down! The bar is really 14” lower than you think it is and it’s not fun to find yourself in free-fall when the bar hits the pins halfway down!

These are but a small selection of the many specialty barbells out there. My suggestion to you is: try them! You may find that a bar highlights a certain weakness you’ve been struggling with, and as we know, recognizing a problem is the first step in fixing it.

Editor’s Note: LBEB gets its specialty bars from Black Widow Training Gear. We highly recommend them. We are not paid to endorse them, it’s simply a high quality product, without the price tag of a Rogue product.