Why Barbells?

A couple of weeks back I stumbled upon a truly great article on StartingStrength.com. Though generally I settle for sharing good articles on my Twitter feed and the Facebook page I think this one deserves special attention calling to it. Enter Michael Wolf….

Strength & Barbells: The Foundations of Fitness

If I had a dollar for every time a client or athlete has asked me why they have to do heavy squats and can’t they just do lunges instead, or the same question phrased slightly differently and with a different alternative exercise, I’d probably have enough money to equip the black iron gym I’ve been trying to open.  If I added to that the number of times I’ve seen similar questions asked in the forums, I could probably even afford the rent.

The issue of force production and its importance in life and athletics is dealt with at length in SS:BBT3, PPST2, and the SS Seminar. So why this article? Well, it seems that many people are still confused about it, despite the information available in those resources. For some, this may be due to laziness; actually read the book and attend the seminar, and it will all become clear.  For others, it may be a function of organization: the info is there to find, but scattered throughout the sources. When you quickly learn so much information on a subject with which you were previously only passingly acquainted, it can be difficult to assimilate all that new knowledge into a coherent package that you can pull out of your brain for later use. You’re convinced of the efficacy of strength and barbell training, but can’t quite organize a cogent response to the question “Why?”

What I’ll try to do here is give you the “Elevator Pitch,” to borrow the over-used phrase from the marketing industry, on force production and barbell training. I’ll attempt to answer the following two questions directly, in a briefer article form:

1) Why should training focus on strength/increasing force production?

2) Why is using barbells is the best way to accomplish this training goal?

Continue reading…

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About the Author

Andy Morgan

I am the founder of RippedBody.com, this is my sincere effort to build the best nutrition and training guides on the internet. Some readers hire me to coach them, which I've been doing online, via email, for the last six years. If you're interested in individualized, one-on-one nutrition and training coaching to help you crush your physique goals, let's start the conversation.

34 Comments on “Why Barbells?”

  1. Jared says:

    It seems the only advantage barbells have over dumbbells for upper body lifts is microloadability. But this easily addressed using magnetic microplates you can add to dumbbells or if using adjustable dumbbells you can buy 1.25 lb plates and 2.5 lb plates, thereby making microloadability equal to a barbell. Another argument is that you can’t train in the 1-5RM range on benching pressing and overhead pressing with dumbbells, but this is easily fixed by using unilateral dumbbell exercises (like one arm bench press and one arm OHP). The free arm aiding allows you to get the heavy dumbbell into the starting position without wasted energy, so you can lift 1-5RM loads. So for people who have an injury that’s aggravated by barbell lifts, unsuited biomenchanics for barbell lifts, or just don’t like barbell versions of bench press, OHP, and rows they can switch too dumbbells and, with the modifications I mentioned, get the same hypertrophy benefits as using a barbell. In fact for overhead pressing, the standing dumbbell overhead press elicits they highest activation of the deltoids so, given above modifications, it could actually be superior to the barbell. Lower body is where barbells give unique benefits compared to all other modalities but for the upper body I’m not convinced.

    1. All valid points Jared. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  2. Mike says:

    Hello Andy,
    I hit the local gym today for the 4th time in row and I asked the guy in charge there to help me learn the “Big 3” exercises. It’s my first time in gym and I can see that I am quite weak (and fat, 85 kg – 1.80m but soft :S ). The trainer there said that I am not ready for those exersices and that I could hurt myself if I am not strong already. He proposed a split training program with dumbells and other machines so that I train each muscle group once a week. I understand that this program is not for optimum muscle and strength gain nor for physique.
    I would like to ask for your opinion about that and if I should train in easier exercises before moving on to barbells and if I can achieve a result close to that of the big-3 doing mostly safer exercises.

    Thanks in advance

    1. Hi Mike. If you trust that they know what they are doing then go for it and don’t question it. They might be right and that might be your quickest way forward.
      If you don’t trust them though you need to find someone else, whether they are actually right or not, as you’ll just be second guessing them and ultimately undermining your own progress.

  3. Matt says:

    I think the bars I’ve seen here are the ones you’re talking about in shit gyms (this type, you can see the hex bolt in the end):

    I’ve heard that the pin either comes loose or seizes up over time, or just plain snaps when you drop it. Plus these cheap bars look likely to bend and stay bent. Guess I’ll be saving up to have a decent quality bar shipped over from the US!

    BTW, this is quite a good article on olympic bar types:


    1. Let me ask down the gym today for you where they buy their bars from.

  4. Matt says:

    What are your thoughts on the different types of Olympic bars available? I’m training with a basic 28mm type bar at the moment, but am thinking about getting an Olympic bar and plates one day. Most bars I’ve seen here in Japan have the hex bolt (pin) type sleeve, as opposed to the snap ring type seen on better quality bars. I’ve read it’s best to steer clear of pin sleeve bars completely for various reasons, and am thinking of ordering a bar from Rogue in the States if it means having something that’ll last a lifetime. Do you have any experience of the two types of sleeves?

    1. I’m not that familiar with all the different barbells and terminology, nor the ones you’re talking about to be honest.

      From my experience in Japan it tends to be that, if you train at a good gym, they’re one of two types – where only the knurling differs. Then if you are at an excellent gym, you have bars of different stiffnesses (some will have more bend and snap). Then you get the bars in shit gyms that have the cheap stuff marketed to people building a home gym, where the bars are often under 20kg/45lbs and don’t have the freely rotating ends to take the inertia out (sorry not sure of the correct term), which must have caused many people to hilariously backwards flip over the years when power cleaning or otherwise.

  5. Hi Andy,

    Followed the link from the bodyweight question to this page, wondering if you’ve revisited body-weight for a full blog post.
    I looked at Convict Conditioning progression tables for body-weight, and am doing that for a month while I think about going back to RPT or 5×5 (been doing the former for half a year) I have to say, it’s pretty gnarly work.. if you get to the mastery levels, and then add weight, you’d be very strong and athletic I’m sure (1 arm handstand push-up?)

    Anyway, just hoping you’d write a post on the feasibility of bodyweight workouts as a replacement or substitution for barbell workouts.

    1. Hi William, thanks for the question:
      “Followed the link from the bodyweight question to this page, wondering if you’ve revisited body-weight for a full blog post.”
      – I haven’t and I probably won’t as achieving consistent overload for an extended period with body weight alone is difficult, and honestly as it’s not my field of expertise it’s better to let someone else do it.

  6. tuna says:

    Completely converted fully to only barbells and dumbbells. Completely different progress. My only wish is I did it sooner.

    For anyone else debating, I say go for it if you’re healthy! The progress on your body will be more significant.

  7. Susan says:

    Andy what is your take on training the Big Three on the Smith machine. The gym I am currently at does not offer a free barbell rack more than 60 lbs. My biggest concern would be the squats on the smith machine. Obviously there’s a modificaton with the smith machine, having to lean backward vs leaning forward in the squat. Will this compromise or stall my results? Also, would you advise various forms of the Big Three (ex. front squat vs reg squat, barbell press vs incline barbell press) when training or is that unnecessary?

    1. Covered in the FAQ Susan.

  8. Tuna says:

    Hey Andy!

    Any recommendations when it comes to grip strength on higher weight dumbbells? I’m having trouble gripping 75lbs with my left hand as it wants to give out much sooner than my right hand. I figure maybe holding the weight in my hand for as long as possible to build grip strength but wanted to run by you first. Thank you Andy!

    1. Probably best to wait for your grip to develop naturally and not force it for connective tissue health.

  9. Pedro says:

    Hi Andy, big fan of your website here. I’ve been following Leangains for 4 months and I dropped from around 20% bf to 12% with tons of muscle gain. However, my max weights have decreased by 10% in the last month, especially bench press and overhead press. I guess you can’t lose that much fat without losing some strength in the process.
    My question is: Martin says that you can interchange Leg Presses and Squats. What are your thoughts on this?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Squats are not mandatory, and leg presses can be used by people yes. They are not a direct swap though because of the different musculature worked.

  10. Drew says:

    Andy what are your thoughts in regards to trap bar deadlifts vs. barbell deadlifts? I’ve had lower back injuries and I feel much safer using trap bar.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Feeling safer is important, as mind affects the body. Which is a fascinating topic in and of itself.
      Is it safer, for your situation? That’s a question for your physiotherapist. The trap bar allows for a more upright torso, it’s a half-squat half-deadlift, excellent exercise and definitely has it’s place when considering programs for imbalances and past injuries. More thoughts on injury considerations here.

      1. Jimmy Okere says:

        i have disc bulges in L4, L5. Couldn’t walk a month after the injury.
        After 2 years of not ‘working out’ just in case i hurt my back; going to physio, chiro, oestopath, pilates – it was a big waste of time!

        DRs and everybody said not to do squat or pressure on the back; it was so bad that i had to stand up at work (which i love it now) to not have back pains… but what the heck.. took it slow on 5×5 with the big 3.
        Now i squat x1.5 my body weight

        Kettlebells also helped with the recovery; but get a trainer.

        1. Andy Morgan says:

          Hi Jimmy, though that’s great to hear, I don’t want people to read into what you’ve said here and determine that squats or deadlifts are the cure for disc issues. My comment above about seeing professional advice stands.

  11. Jason says:

    Hey Andy!

    Do we need to account for the weight of the bar in our lifts ? I never even thought about that before until I realized that the standard Olympic bars in the gym weigh ~ 45 lbs.

  12. JH says:

    Hey Andy!

    Been doing RPT for a little over a year now. I’ve wildly increased strength and find myself in the “advanced” category on almost all lifts (according to Martin’s guidelines), but I’ve recently stalled and had no real increase in strength for the past couple months. I’ve done a successful cut using LG, so I’m sitting at about 10% bf right now, and I don’t feel overtrained (train 3X a week).

    Seeing how my strength has halted and I’m getting a bit bored (psychologically speaking), what would be your thoughts on changing my training frequency/intensity for a period of time? What would you think about a more high frequency routine for a few months, training 5 days a week at lower intensities, etc? (I LOVE training and would be in the gym every day if I could). Any programs you’d give your approval on me checking out?

    I’d love to hear your thoughts to keep pressing forward! Your site is a goldmine.

    1. Boredom is merely what happens when strength stats stall, so don’t consider yourself bored, just stalled. At your stage it is likely 1 of 2 things.
      1. Programming issue.
      2. Lack of calories to support growth.

  13. xgeryx says:

    Hi Andy great blog. I’ve been doing leangains for a week now. Do you think this diet can produce the same results with kettlebell/calisthenics training 2-4 times a week? My goal is recmop, to get down from 21% bf to something like 12-10% bf wihout losing muscle.

    1. For a cut, with an already experienced trainee, yes.

  14. Connor Graham says:

    Brilliant Article, wish I know this when I was younger.

  15. One thing to add. There is good evidence that getting stronger, or at least doing proper to failure resistance training, improves cardiovascular fitness too. There is a good review article here https://faculty.css.edu/tboone2/asep/JEPonlineJUNE2012_Steele.pdf

  16. Brage says:

    Great article. I’m torn between wanting to share it with my kettlebell friends, and wanting to keep the 1 squat rack in my gym to myself… 🙂

    1. Share it with the guy that’s the strongest and make him your gym partner.

  17. Daniel Joseph M. Vasquez says:

    ” because simple and heavy doesn’t sell as well as complicated and light. ” – hahaha very true andrew.. thanks for the article.

  18. John Dela Rosa says:

    Everything here is so true! 😀

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