– Old School Weight Training Strength Strongman Power Vintage Bodybuilding: The Trap Bar and Dr. Ken

By the Fall of 1987, I had been competing in drug-free powerlifting for two years and had been subscribing to Powerlifting USA magazine since the previous Summer.  As a young lifter, I couldn’t get enough powerlifting.  Whether it be training, competing, or simply reading about the sport, my whole world revolved around the three lifts and  how to improve them.  Looking back, I realize that was not a healthy outlook to have, and that there is much more to life than Squats, Bench Presses, and Deadlifts.  Although, nearly thirty-seven years later, I am still an avowed strength fanatic.  I just don’t follow powerlifting, for reasons stated in previous articles.  But anything related to building, measuring, or the discussion of strength and I am instantly transported back in time.

      Looking back at the October issue of PL/USA, there were the usual articles about training, upcoming contests, and of course, the meet results section.  I have to admit, it was kind of cool the first time I saw my name in a contest report.  I guess that can be attributed to inexperience, and I’m glad that I got over that phase relatively quickly.  But one thing that I never got over was reading quality, no-nonsense articles about getting stronger.  And when it came to quality strength training articles, few authors can compare to Dr. Ken Leistner.  Even today, his articles have withstood the test of time.  Quality information never goes out of style.

     This month’s “More From Ken Leistner” column focused on the Trap Bar.  Back in 1987, the Trap Bar was still relatively new to the lifting world.  In the article, Dr. Ken wrote that the inventor of the Trap Bar was a gentleman by the name of Al Gerard.  But it was Kim Wood, the long-time strength coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, who convinced him to try one.  By his own admission, Dr. Ken initially thought that the Trap Bar was “another scam.”  Sometimes it takes some convincing from a legendary strength coach, even for someone like Dr. Ken.  I’m glad that he took the advice, because when I joined Iron Island Gym a few years later, the Trap Bar quickly became on of my favorite pieces of training equipment.  Come to think of it, the first time I ever SAW a Trap Bar was when I joined Iron Island.  Yet another reason that I’m glad I joined.  

     During the course of the article, Dr. Ken goes on to describe the results that his trainees got from using his newest piece of equipment.  Even some of his lifter who had back problems were able to use the Trap Bar because it allowed them to use proper form throughout the lift.  “The distribution of the weight is closer to the body’s center of gravity, making lifting more efficient and less stressful.”  

     Naturally, Deadlifts with a Trap Bar became a staple of my training, especially during the “off-season.”  It’s a great way to build back strength, while at the same time providing an alternative to regular Deadlifts.  I’ve always found that if you stick to regular Deadlifts from the floor for low reps for an extended length of time, you will inevitably reach a point where you will grow stale and/or overtrain.  It’s just the nature of the beast.  Of course, you can devote some time to high-rep Deadlifts, but how many powerlifter want to do high reps in the Deadlift?  I know in my own experience, thirty years ago I thought that anything over three constituted “high reps.”  As I mentioned earlier, I’m glad that my thinking has changed over the years.  

     One of the interesting things about the Trap Bar is that it can also be used for other movements.  Shoulder shrugs are an obvious example of another movement which can be performed with the Trap Bar.  Shrugs with a standard bar have been an effective “assistance exercise” for years, but with a Trap Bar the movement can be done a lot more comfortably than with a straight bar.  If you’ve never tried shoulder shrugs with a Trap Bar, try them.  You’ll never go back to using a standard bar again.  

     Another great way to use a Trap Bar is to use it for Overhead Pressing.  The “parallel” grip, with the palms facing each other allowed for a more efficient pressing movement.  I’ve actually used a Trap Bar for standing Presses inside of a power rack.  At the time, I was preparing for a strongman contest in which one of the events was a log bar press.  Since there were no logs- or even log bars- to be found, the Trap Bar inside of the rack provided for a similar grip which was to be  used in the contest.  Of course, you can also use the Trap Bar for Bench Presses, too.  If you can fit a flat bench inside of a power rack, you will have an effective way to stimulate the same muscles used in a conventional Bench Press.  Plus, the parallel grip will be “user friendly” for your shoulders. In the years since this article was first published, many equipment manufacturers have designed machines which feature a parallel grip, for the safety of those who use them.  But if you don’t have access to machines, all you need is a Trap Bar.

     Over the years, the design of the Trap Bar has changed.  Gone is the original diamond shape.  In its place is a hexagonal design that works just as well.  As I said earlier, Iron Island Gym had one of the first Trap Bars, but eventually Dr. Ken had a special one designed exclusively for the gym.  It was a custom made Trap Bar which featured slightly thicker handles, a larger inside area ( for those individuals who had trouble fitting inside a conventional Trap Bar), and it weighed in at a massive 40kgs ( 88 Lbs).  This thing was a monster.  Just moving it around constituted a workout in itself.  I fondly remember doing high rep sets with Drew Israel on numerous occasions.  To paraphrase Nietzsche, “That Which Does Not Kill Me Makes Me Stronger.”  

     To take things a step further, about five years ago, I purchased a thick handled Trap Bar.  The handles ( the entire bar in fact) is a massive two inches thick!  It is a beast! And since I bought it, I have used it religiously.  You not only get the benefits of a Trap Bar, but you also have the advantage of thick bar work, which has been discussed frequently over the years by numerous strength writers.  I’ve been trying to really push the poundage, and have been happy with the results.  

     I would like to mention one other thing insofar as today’s generation of Trap Bars.  It has become something of a pet peeve with me.  I’m talking about the Trap Bars with raised handles, which decrease the range of motion.  Some of these bars have handles that must be well over six inches above the normal height of the bar.  Some are even  higher!  As I have mentioned in previous articles, if you are lifting on a bar with raised handles, then you are NOT doing a Deadlift.  You are doing a PARTIAL lift.  Or Rack lockout.  Do yourselves a favor and turn the handles over and do a FULL movement.  And, it goes without saying, you should never use straps in order to use more weight.  Instead, concentrate on working on your grip strength.  

     I will close with a direct quote from Dr. Ken’s original article:  “The Trap Bar can not make a champion out of just anybody, but I do believe that it can help to improve one’s deadlift significantly, if used properly.”  Truer words were never spoken.  And, interestingly, it’s not the first- or last- time that I found myself in total agreement with Dr. Ken.


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