Barbells may be the most famous piece of gym equipment known to humankind. Many of the weight-lifting greats, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, have sworn by them for decades. The question is, are they really all that effective? Yes, they may have a time and place, but should everyone be using them?
If you haven’t guessed already, the answer is a resounding no.
When we dig deeper into the biomechanics of using a barbell, it’s quickly apparent that this device isn’t made for everyone. Although power and Olympic lifters (along with some high-performance athletes) need them for their respected sports, there is a valid argument that the majority of us shouldn’t be training with them all that often.
Now let me be clear, barbells are still an efficacious modality in some circumstances. They are certainly the easiest way to load up a heavy exercise, and there is some value in having that convenience. I love using them for lower-extremity exercises like back squats and Romanian deadlifts. It may even be safe to say that most lower-body barbells movements will do you some good if you’re doing them correctly.
You may be surprised, however, to hear that there are 3 serious reasons to question the frequency and overall rationale for using barbells for the upper body. In other words, they can be effective, but you must be aware of the risks/drawbacks and ensure you’re using them for the right reasons.
When it comes to joint health, functionality, and overall well-being, barbells aren’t the gold-standard we once thought they were.
3 Reasons Why Barbells Are Getting Too Much Credit
Before diving in, I understand that this is a touchy topic. I personally know trainers who swear by barbell work and as I mentioned, I’m not completely against it. I do believe it’s important to question our strategies as we gain more access to research and teaching, however.
Our rationale for exercise prescription should never be based on, “Oh, well this is the way it’s always been done”.
My sole purpose here is to take a clear, unbiased view on barbell training and expose its flaws. In doing so, I hope you can make an educated decision on when (or if) barbells belong in your training program. Capeesh?
Without further ado…
1. Damage to Joints
When we train with a bar, we’re stuck in a fixed plane of motion. Essentially, we are at mercy to the path of the barbell, and while this may be beneficial in some circumstances, it often wears down our joints. This is especially problematic for the wrists, elbows, and shoulders. Just take a bicep curl for example. When we curl with a barbell, the elbows and wrists have no real estate to move freely. While you may still feel a good stimulus as you curl this weight, you’re not lifting optimally. This is because our arms have a carrying angle that makes them more inclined to move in a slightly diagonal plane while moving. You can easily test this on yourself by placing your arms by your side with palms facing away from you. Notice how they naturally angle out?
By using a barbell for an exercise like the dumbbell curl, we’re forcing the elbow joint to move through a fixed range of motion. This is going to add unnecessary force and shearing to the elbow which will likely lead to consequences over time. The same thing can be said about other movements such as a strict press or bench press. Dumbbells and cable machines are going to be your friends for these exercises!
2. Overall Loss in Functionality
Due to the fixed-plane nature of barbell work, we can lose some of the ‘functionality’ that resistance training brings. The reality is, we’re not moving like robots in our everyday lives. While this training can have a time and a place, solely using barbells will cost you as it’s less relevant to other activities of life. Furthermore, we can quickly get caught in a trap where we compensate with our stronger side which will lead to even more complications down the road.
When using cable machines and free weights, there is a certain level of stability and motor control required that cannot be created in a barbell context. This downfall is especially noticeable when recovering from injuries. As a kinesiologist, I rarely have rehab clients using barbells because it’s critical to be challenging areas like motor control, balance, and muscle coordination. While the barbell can challenge some of these areas, the fixed position will certainly limit your ability to optimize the musculoskeletal and nervous system’s relationship over time.
3. Failing The Principle of Specificity
As I mentioned, barbells are necessary for many professional weight lifters and high-performance athletes in explosive-based sports. The reality is, this niche makes up a very small percentage of the overall population. I see gym-goers using barbells when they’re not ready far too often. This is caused by a multitude of factors, but I believe a driving cause is the fact that it’s something that’s always been done. It’s almost as if barbells are a rite of passage in the gym, but it doesn’t need to be that way.
This is a prime example of choosing an exercise prescription based on an emotional decision rather than a logical, science-based one.
The principle of specificity states that fitness training should be relevant and appropriate to the sport (or activity) for which the individual is training in order to produce the desired effect. You can see how this checks out for Olympic lifters because their sport revolves around barbells. For many of us, however, this won’t be as relevant. When we account for the negative side of using this piece of equipment, mere irrelevance can turn into becoming flat-out destructive.
Before you pick up a barbell, question why you’re wanting to use it. More often than not, you’ll be better off doing a free weight, machine-based, or calisthenic alternative instead. If you’re needing some guidance, here is a list of good and bad reasons to pick up a barbell:
Lower-body movements like back-squats, front-squats, deadlifts, etc…
When you’re a high-performance athlete or weight-lifter that must train for power
When you’re unable to receive a sufficient stimulus with other equipment in your gym
Doing it because it looks impressive or cool
Using a barbell because it’s what you’ve always done
Continuing to train this way because it hasn’t costed you…yet
Barbells aren’t an inherently bad piece of equipment, but you’d be surprised to know how many flaws they do poses. While some athletes may benefit from using them religiously, the majority of us should be more careful. When it comes to our joint health and overall functionality, barbells should be near the bottom of the priority list.
Before you start your next workout, please make an educated decision whether barbells belong in your regime or not. By making the right choice, you’ll ensure your program is relevant, safe, and sustainable. This will go a long way in saving your body a great deal of unneeded stress.