Trap Bar Pullups for Mass, Strength, & Function
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
The Trap bar is one of my favorite training tools and specialty bars. Not only does it provide one of the most safe and user friendly modifications for deadlifts but it also provides endless options and variety for implementing on just about every movement pattern and exercise. In fact the trap bar is one of my go-to methods for performing pullups and chin-ups as it provides many unique hand positions that not only target the lats with different angles and stimuli but also help clean up pullup mechanics. Here are my top 3 trap bar pullup modifications.
Basic Trap Bar Pull-Ups
There are 5 specific reasons why this trap bar pullup using a traditional hand position is so effective as shown here by my awesome client Matt Jordan.
1. PROVIDES A UNIQUE BUT SAFE GRIP POSITION
Performing pullups on the trap bar provides a unique but highly effective grip position and hand placement for stimulating functional hypertrophy in the upper back while simultaneously saving the shoulders. Simply put, you’ll be using a combination wide, neutral grip, which is something most gyms don’t have access to. This wide grip isolates the lats while still reinforcing the optimal elbow tuck position (due to the neutral grip) which is critical for healthy shoulder joints & posture.
2. REINFORCES OPTIMAL T-SPINE EXTENSION
Focusing on touching the top of your head to the back portion of the bar (as shown in the video) provides the perfect feedback mechanism for cueing the lifter as to whether he or she produced optimal t-spine extension. If your body fits through the trap bar at the top of the pullup then you’re lacking t-spine extension.
One of the most common mistakes on pullups is not getting enough thoracic extension and trying to stay too upright. Many fitness professionals have mindlessly bought into the faulty notion that any degree of extension is dangerous to the spine. This has led to the faulty recommendation of very dangerous cues such as “don’t let your ribcage protrude”, “keep your spine flat”, “drop your chest” etc. Well I’ve got news for you. A proper pullup requires significant t-spine extension plain and simple. However, the core does still need to be braced.
If you don’t achieve optimal t-spine extension by leaning back from the upper portion of the torso and sticking your chest out with military-style posture then not only will you miss out on targeting your lats, but you’ll destroy your shoulder joints and elbows in the process. So stop trying to stay excessively upright and quit worrying about over-extending your back on pullups. It rarely happens and even if you do happen to go too far it’s infinitely better than being too flexed at the spine with an overly flat and kyphotic back.
In fact an overly flat or kyphotic spine is exactly the same alignment we see in elderly individuals who lose the structural integrity of the vertebral column. So if an aging spine and postural degradation are your thing then by all means keep that flat back on pullups and rows. However if the goal is optimal body mechanics, a muscular upper back, and a healthy functional spine then make sure to get ample t-spine extension (chest out) while still bracing the core (stomach in and tight).
3. REINFORCES OPTIMAL RANGE OF MOTION
Another very common mistake on pullups is using excessive range of motion during the concentric phase and over-pulling at the top. This is something I’ve written several articles about as it’s incredibly important not just for maximizing back activation but for joint health and upper body mechanics (Read More Here). Fortunately the natural stopping point for pullups happens to be at nearly the exact spot where the head touches the bar on trap bar pullups. If you feel like you need to go higher at the top, more than likely you’ve been using faulty mechanics with excessive ROM that involved internal rotation, shoulder protraction, and scapular elevation, all of which are destructive to the body.
4. ELIMINATES MOMENTUM
Having the bar touch the head also provides another invaluable lifting cue. Simply put, it forces the lifter to slow the movement down and eliminate excessive momentum on the concentric phase. Jerking your body up to the top rather than relying on smooth and strict mechanics will literally cause you to pop your head on the bar and potentially knock yourself out. I’ve used this with many of my NFL athletes and it does wonders for reinforcing smooth pullup mechanics. As an added bonus it’s also fantastic for keeping constant tension on the lats and taking stress off the joints.
5. ELIMINATES CHEATING
Besides using excessive momentum on pullups, many lifters like to cheat their way through the movement by kipping, shifting, wiggling, swinging, and pulling with asymmetrical form. Placing the trap bar on top of two safety pins in a squat rack keeps the bar fairly unstable. Too much cheating and shifting will produce immediate feedback as it will literally cause the trap bar to slide, twist, or rotate on the pins.
Here’s an advanced variation demonstrated by NFL athlete Joe Horn that incorporates the sprinter pullup protocol. Besides being brutally intense not only on the lats and upper back but also on the lower body and core, the sprinter pullup has 5 unique benefits. Read more in article HERE.
Longitudinal Trap Bar Pull-Ups
The longitudinal trap bar pullup provides several unique benefits
1. Reinforces Symmetrical Pulling Mechanics
If you have tendency to favor one side/arm more than the other when performing pullups or tend to shift, wiggle, tilt, kip, or use excessive momentum these will provide immediate feedback as the bar will begin to tilt either to one side or wobble back and forth until the lifter locks in their mechanics.
2. Creates A Strong Hypertrophy Stimulus
As a result of using such strict and smooth mechanics for reasons mentioned above, these absolutely blast the lats and upper back with high levels of constant tension and metabolic stress. The forearms, grip, core, and arms also get pummeled due to the high levels of full body tension and spinal rigidity required to lock these in.
3. Provides A Comfortable Hand Width
Although using the more traditional trap bar handles represents another one of my favorite options for pullups, some folks will find those a bit wide and uncomfortable. The longitudinal grip on the other hand is 2-4 inches narrower (on most trap bars) which ends up feeling significantly more comfortable and natural particularly for athletes under 6 feet or who have narrower structure.
Here’s an advanced variation demonstrated by my awesome client Leslie Petch where she combines the longitudinal trap bar pullup with a knee raise and foam roller hip adduction isometric hold. Besides blasting the lats and upper body, these absolutely pummel the core and abs as the combination of hip flexion, hip adduction, and ankle dorsiflexion requires enormous core activation.
Additionally these features help reinforce full body tension and spinal rigidity due to the concurrent activation potentiation effect associated with squeezing the distal extremities. In other words the increased full body tension enhances neural drive to the primary muscles (back, lats, and arms) while also eliminating energy leaks and areas of instability.
Upside Down Trap Bar Pullups
Although the most unique of the trap bar pullup modifications, the upside down trap bar pullup provides several advantages. First the upside down position produces a very vulnerable and unstable position for the trap bar. Any shifting, wiggling, kipping, or use of excessive momentum will cause the bar to swing and rotate back and forth thereby forcing the lifter to lock their mechanics in and use strict mechanics.
Secondly it provides 6 distinct grip options each of which has its own specific attributes and benefits. In fact most of the grip positions involve very unique angles that happen to be very joint friendly on the wrists, elbows, and forearms and shoulders. Many of these are very similar to the increasingly-popular MAG grip attachments from Maximum Advantage Grip particularly the supinated grip variations.
With that said the trap bar provides 3 supinated/underhand grip options including the close grip I demonstrate (variation #1) , the medium width variation demonstrated by Rami Bagdhadi (variation #3) and the wide supinated version demonstrated by Eric McIntyre (variation #5).
Perhaps the most challenging is the vertical neutral grip demonstrated by Leslie Petch (variation #2). These require enormous levels of grip strength to keep your hands from sliding down the handles similar to cylindrical ninja grip attachments or mini canes from fitbarstrong.com. They’re also the most volatile of any of the positions as even the slightest bit of excessive momentum, kipping, shifting, or excessive range of motion (going significantly past 90 degrees) will cause the bar to tilt and rotate.
Although a bit more awkward than the other grips, the unique and semi-extreme pronated position of the angled pronated grip demonstrated by Elizabeth Yates minimizes how much the biceps can contribute to the pulling action thereby forcing the lifter to depend primarily on the lats to perform the movement.
Lastly, you can use any of the previous grip positions applied to inverted rows as my client Leslie shows in the 6th variation.
Just be warned, many of these variations not only crush the lats and back but also pummel the forearms and grip.
Advanced Variation: Perturbation Longitudinal Trap Bar Pull-Ups
Perturbation training has been scientifically shown to improve neuromuscular efficiency and recruitment patterns as the unpredictable oscillations with partner taps creates oscillating kinetic energy which forces the lifter to activate every stabilizer around the moving joints. In addition it teaches the lifter to be incredibly tight and locked in as perturbation training has also been shown to produce concurrent activation potentiation and irradiation as well as a host of other neuromuscular benefits. In other words you get increased neural drive to all the extremities and stabilizers as your body works overtime to lock the movement in. The core musculature also receives intense stimulation as the lifter is required to fire the core and abs as a means of locking the movement in and creating greater motor control.
While this technique is typically applied to lower body movements, core exercises, balance drills, and upper body presses (i.e. bottoms up movements), this same concept can also be applied to pullups as I show here with my awesome client Todd Weiland. Simply place a trap bar on the safety pins of a squat rack and have a partner quickly and unpredictably press or pull on the sides of the trap bar.
This results in sudden oscillations, tilts, and perturbations to the trap bar that the lifter must resist. In addition, the lats, biceps, shoulder stabilizers, and forearms get absolutely pummeled as you’ll be forced to use incredibly strict and smooth form as anything less simply won’t suffice.
Note on 90 Degree Range Of Motion
You’ll notice that most if not all of the pull-ups shown here demonstrate approximately 90 degree joint angles. This represents optimal mechanics for optimizing strength, size, joint health, posture, and proprioception as the 90 degree position is where maximal muscle spindle activation, co-contraction, muscle stiffness, and muscle tension occurs. If you’re looking to master your mechanics on any movement pattern including pullups you’ll want to use eccentric isometrics with 90 degree joint angles and perfect posture. Read more about this topic in my book MOVEMENT REDEFINED.