Understanding Specialty Barbells
Building anything requires the right tools. If you want to frame a wall, you'll need a hammer, nails, saw, sawhorses, and timber. These items represent the basic tools needed to frame a wall, but is that the best and most efficient way to go about it? If you are a modern carpenter, then you understand by simply employing a nail gun, you can rapidly increase the rate at which you accomplish your work tasks.
Building strength and speed are no different. Sure, the basic tools work, but why limit yourself to only the basic tools when better tools are available?
Today, strength training enthusiasts typically fall into two camps; those who embrace the use of specialty bars and those who believe they are unnecessary. The individuals who embrace specialty bars understand these bars offer an ability to accelerate your gains, given the specific training effects associated with each bar.
Specialty barbells are barbells that further exaggerate a training stimulus associated with a typical power bar. For instance, the SSB will significantly strain the anterior portion of the lower body. In comparison, the cambered squat bar will place great emphasis on the posterior portion of the lower body.
Utilizing specialty bars does not mean you abandon using a standard barbell; you become stronger, faster, and more efficient at lifting a standard barbell. Unfortunately, many falsely believe that using specialty barbells will reduce your proficiency with a regular barbell and will cause you to be less familiar with your competition-specific movements.
Your success using specialty barbells will depend on your exercise selection and your programming. You want to be sure you are selecting specialty barbell exercises to address your currently identified weaknesses, and you want to ensure these exercises are optimally programmed.
Here is how we utilize three of the most common specialty bars at Westside Barbell:
The Bow Bar
At Westside, we use the bow bar for both upper and lower body training. The bow bar is a bent barbell that will ease the stress placed on the shoulders when used as a squat bar or increase the stress experienced by the shoulders and pecs when used as a bench bar.
We will typically use this bar in place of a regular barbell when squatting, considering the amount of mileage the shoulders rack up through training and sport. Using the bow bar for your squat workouts is a great way to give your shoulders a break while experiencing a squat stimulus similar to a competition squat bar.
When used for the bench, a lifter must be cautious. The bow bar will extend the range of motion, causing the muscles of the shoulders and pecs to stretch more than usual. This can lead to improved shoulder size and strength; however, things can go wrong quickly if you don't know how to play it safe.
When benching with a bow bar, monitor the relation between your elbows and the bench pad from the side view. A good rule of thumb is you almost always want your elbows to be in line with the lats and as "high" on the pad as possible. The more the elbows drop below the lats, the more stress is placed on the shoulders and pecs, resulting in a significantly increased risk of injury.
Here are a few typical exercises that can be performed using a bow bar:
Bench Press (no max effort)
The Safety Squat Bar
Like the bow bar, the SSB allows an athlete to perform squats and other lower body movements without placing stress on the shoulders commonly associated with a competition squat bar. Additionally, there is an instance when we use the SSB for upper body work - when performing JM presses.
The SSB will place the barbell in a high bar position by default. This is ideal for quad development, as well as mid and upper back development as well. If you rely heavily on low bar positioning, the SSB offers a contrasting stimulus to address weaknesses caused by repetitive low bar squatting.
For those that struggle with carrying a barbell across their chest for front squats, the SSB can be reversed in the rack and utilized as a front squat barbell. Athletes can also use this positioning for good mornings focused on strengthening the mid and upper back.
Here are a few typical exercises that can be performed using the SSB:
The Cambered Squat Bar
This barbell is quite possibly the greatest lower body training tool ever created. The cambered squat bar is a barbell intended to carry the weight low on the torso, placing a tremendous demand on the back, trunk, hips, glutes, and legs.
When using a cambered squat bar, your body acts as the equilibrium position, while the cambered bar attempts to oscillate as you perform a squat or good morning. The goal for the athlete is to "absorb" this oscillation, creating the tension necessary to reduce the oscillation as much as possible.
This barbell can be a tremendous challenge for a beginner or intermediate lifter. This should not deter you from using the cambered squat bar; however, you should take time to familiarize yourself with the barbell's behavior and develop a feel for it before you move into max effort or dynamic effort training.
If you're unfamiliar with this barbell and want to begin using a cambered bar in your main exercises, take a few weeks and perform some accessory squats and good mornings first.
This barbell is typically made in two styles; the rackable cambered bar and the giant cambered bar. I prefer the giant cambered bar because I believe it provides the full benefits associated with cambered bar training, no matter the size of the lifter. The rackable cambered bar can be less accommodating to larger athletes.
Here are a few typical exercises that can be performed using the cambered squat bar:
Choosing the Right Tool
Regardless of the lifter, we all have weaknesses and lagging muscle groups that need to be addressed. Once these issues are identified, your next step is choosing the right tools to solve these problems. How quickly you progress and how fast your issues are resolved will depend on your ability to select the right tools at the right time.
As I mentioned above, to build a house all you really need is a saw, hammer, nails, timber, and a couple of sawhorses. However, is this the best and most efficient way to build a house, given the modern tools and technology we now have access to? Of course not.
Just as the contractor understands that time is money, and better tools lead to better profits, a lifter must realize that their training time is valuable and specialty barbells lead to accelerated gains in strength.
Don't limit your training options; basic bars and programming lead to basic athletes. To become great, you must do more than the basics.
Simmons, L. (2007). Westside Barbell Book of Methods. Westside Barbell.
Verkhoshansky, Y., & Siff, M. C. (2009). Supertraining. Verkhoshansky.
Zatsiorsky, V. M., & Kraemer, W. J. (2006). Science and Practice of Strength Training. Human Kinetics.