Why Barbells are the OPTIMAL Training Tool
(Ignore the Biomechanics Nerds)
by Alec Enkiri | 3/9/23
I believe barbells are the optimal tool that we have available at our disposal in the weight room. You would think that this would not be a very provocative assertion for somebody to make, but in the social media era of fitness many widely accepted (read: old and boring) concepts have been crapped on in the name of obtaining clicks. Every so often people come along and stir the pot for the sake of attention. These people end up promoting a lot of flash over substance, and this gimmicky behavior is rewarded by the social media algorithms because it garners a lot of attention, which in turn confuses a great many people who are just trying to get bigger and stronger. Consequently, this sets many of these people down the path of being eternal noobs, which is a damn shame.
So today we are going to talk about barbells of all varieties, that includes the classic straight bar, the Swiss bar, the Buffalo bar, the Safety Squat bar, etc. If it's a bar it's a bar. And in order to counter some of the recent barbell hate we are going to make a case for why these bars are the primary tool that you should be emphasizing in your training, and we are going to do this by contrasting barbell training against two other widely used strength and hypertrophy modalities: dumbbell training and machine based training. We will also touch on calisthenics training as sort of its own different but related type of thing as well.
The primary context that we will be analyzing all of these training modalities within, the lens that we will be looking through as we make our analysis, is a general strength and hypertrophy context, as these are the main goals of most of the people consuming my content. They're not powerlifters, they're not bodybuilders, they're just average guys (many of whom take their training very, very seriously) who want to become bigger and stronger than they are now - or even as big and as strong as possible. And I believe that emphasizing the barbell as your primary training modality is going to be the best way to accomplish these goals.
The Stability Continuum
The primary reason that I'm so confident in making this assertion comes down to a concept that I call the stability continuum. It's a very simple theory, and it is based first and foremost on the notion that force production in the prime mover muscles in any given movement pattern is dampened by instability. So the more unstable an exercise is the less force that you are able to produce in that movement pattern using the largest muscles of the body, the ones with the most potential for making you bigger and stronger.
So if we think about training the upper body with a pair of dumbbells, it is very obvious that since each limb must stabilize each dumbbell all by itself and since no stability can be gained in the movement pattern by the limbs working as a synchronous unit that stability is much more of a limiting factor in the movement as compared to the same movements performed with a barbell or on a machine. The instability limits force production which means the prime movers are not working as hard as they could be. As well, since the smaller stabilizing muscles are likely to fatigue before the prime movers you cannot fully fatigue the largest muscles during most dumbbell exercises.
In terms of working the lower body with dumbbells you also start to run into loading and simple practicality concerns. Say I want to do goblet squats or dumbbell Romanian deadlifts. How many gyms actually even have dumbbells that go up to 150lbs? Most don't. And even if they do, at some point loading these movements into the strength realm of things simply becomes unfeasible when using dumbbells. This leaves the dumbbell counterparts of these exercises as often best relegated to accessory and tertiary training slots within the program, but not as the primary emphasis.
On the exact other side of our Stability Continuum exists machines. Machine exercises are wholly and absolutely stable. They are 100% stabilized movements because the machine is locked into it's own rigid pattern and the body does not have to stabilize the movements at all due to this external stability. This removes any relevant stabilizer muscles from the equation entirely and allows the prime movers in the body to do all the work pushing or pulling against the resistance.
This leads some people to conclude that machine exercises are the optimal hypertrophy tool - prime movers do all the work, no stabilizer muscles get involved, and maximal fatigue can be achieved. And while this idea may be in true in the theoretical worlds, there is a big monkey wrench that starts to rear its head in the REAL WORLD for people who excessively emphasize machine training at the expense of other common modalities, and that is that eventually strength and hypertrophy hit a ceiling with machine based training and become severely capped.
The reason for this, now flipping the initial point about dumbbells on its head, is because of the EXCESSIVE STABILITY - the absolute external stability provided by the machines. After a certain point, if machine work is your bread and butter, the growth of the prime movers will have outpaced the growth of the body's internal stability system to such an extent that the nervous system will put the brakes on things and cap any further growth in order to ensure that the joints do not become injured by having such disproportionately big and strong muscles. The body will simply not allow you to produce force that you cannot stabilize, at least to a certain extent. Your gains will come to a screeching halt very prematurely.
Remember Ryan Crowley? When he was training with Larry wheels he said something like "I haven't used free weights in years" or something crazy like that, and when Larry got him on the incline bench his body was absolutely SCREAMING at him to stop loading weight onto the bar. But he didn't listen and eventually his pec tendon snapped right off the bone. In this case, Ryan used PEDs to bypass the body's natural ceiling. His muscles were able to produce force that he couldn't stabilize and he paid the price for it when he tried to do so. If you aren't on PEDs and you rely excessively on machine based training then you won't have this same problem, but instead your problem will be that you won't be able to bypass this ceiling and you will never get very big or strong in the first place.
Ryan Crowley pec tear analysis
Why Barbells are Optimal
Finally this leads us to barbell training. Barbells exist as a happy medium smack dab in between the two other modalities that we've already talked about. An optimal middle ground. There is no external stability provided during barbell training as there is during machine training, which means the applicable stabilizing muscles have to do their part. However, because the limbs are able to stabilize the movement as a synchronous unit, there is greater stability present than there is during dumbbell training. This means that once proficiency has been obtained the prime movers are able to exert maximal force during any movement pattern, and as such are able to be fatigued to a maximal extent during those movement patterns as well. It also means that since the stabilizing muscles are forced to participate in the event that they will keep pace with the prime movers as you get bigger and stronger. So there is no bottleneck that you run into prematurely as you do with dumbbell training (where the excessive stability demands can become a hindrance to long-term progress), or as you do with machine training (where the total lack of stability required eventually creates a hard cap).
This makes barbells the optimal tool to emphasize in your training the vast majority of the time. With proper programming and proper rotation of movements, progress can be sustained for years and years on end and one is much more likely to realize their true genetic potential this way.
What About Calisthenics?
Before I close out the article I do want to touch briefly on calisthenics training and how it relates to all the concepts I've already talked about today. As a guy who has trained primarily in a home gym over the years for the vast majority of my training career, I have made great use of certain calisthenics movements in my strength and hypertrophy journey. In totality I've probably used calisthenics movements only secondary to barbell training in the grand scheme of things, and sometimes even superseding barbell training as my primary emphasis.
Now, In my opinion (and you may take this with a grain of salt because I am not a calisthenics expert), for general strength and hypertrophy where calisthenics movements really shine is when they are treated similarly to the big barbell compound exercises and progressively overloaded in a multitude of different rep ranges over time. So think of things like dips, pause dips, weighted push-ups, incline push-ups (and other any other form of push-up you can think of), as well as all different manner of pull up and chin up exercises, and inverted rowing movements as well. With a little bit of thought these movements can all be loaded up nicely and incorporated into the training routine in a very similar fashion to many barbell training movements, and as such they can be an amazing tool for the long-term strength and hypertrophy development without venturing too far into the realms of very high skill and or unstable movements that are the domain of true calisthenics experts.
On the other hand, the journey to mastery of one's body weight, the journey of somebody who wishes to become a true calisthenics expert, is a bit of a different path from the guy who simply wants to become as big and strong as possible.
Finally, I do want to clarify before anybody gets the wrong idea here: I'm not bashing any of the tools that I have discussed in this video. Dumbbells, machines, cables, calisthenics, and barbells - they ALL have their place in the long-term strength and hypertrophy development. All of these tools will help to make you bigger and stronger in the long run and as such they should all be used accordingly. I am simply trying to differentiate between the degree of emphasis of each different tool that I believe is optimal for creating the greatest progress in the long run. Best of luck on your journey!
This article in video format on my YouTube channel!
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