“Strength is Strength“
Ditch The Barbell
Let me first start by saying, were it not for the barbell, I would not be where I am today.
Much like a high school romance, it provided me with my first experience in the fitness world. I fell in love hard, and I fell in love fast. Seemingly every single week, my bench press improved, my squat went up, and my confidence soared like never before. I will be forever thankful for these “newbie gains”, provided primarily by the barbell.
You see, I was never one of those guys that was naturally very strong. In fact, the entire reason I touched a barbell to begin with was out of embarrassment.
In 1998, when I was 18 years old, I was pinned by 115 pounds on the bench press as a senior in high school. Stapled. Trust me, it was bad. Embarrassed, I vowed to never let that happen again, and a month or 2 later, it didn’t. I then set a goal of bench pressing 135 for 3 sets of 10 by the end of the summer entering my freshman year of college, and I did that too. The barbell taught me that with hard work and consistency, I could achieve something if I set my mind to it, and that lesson is one I am eternally grateful for.
So why the title of this article? What gives? Well, sadly, like a high school romance, what started out strong, eventually faded away as I became introduced to new training tools that were more versatile, more practical, and more fitting for my long term goals. Eventually, I came to the place where I am at today, where I have not touched a barbell in over a year, and have no plans to in the immediate future. My intention of this piece is not to dissuade you from using the barbell if that is what you love; I am a very firm believer that, when it comes to fitness, you need to do what you enjoy.
However, if you can relate to this article by the end, and finding yourself nodding in agreement, I am here to give you permission to ditch the barbell, and embrace a means of building your body, enhancing your strength, and optimizing your fitness journey through practices that you find enjoyable and sustainable.
Emphasis on linear strength.
As the years went by, I genuinely thought the barbell had no limitations, as long as I ate enough protein, took some creatine, and stayed consistent. And for a time, this was true.
As I entered my early 20s, I hit 225 on the bench press, and then 250. By 29, I bench pressed 315 lbs, a seemingly impossible concept for a “skinny fat” 155 pound 18 year old that could not bench 115. But these gains came at a price (more on that later). Was I “strong” for my genetic limitations? I would like to think so. When I bench pressed 315, I weighed 190 pounds. To put that in perspective, I am a smaller framed individual. I walk around these days between 160-175 pounds, depending on my motivation to do a cycle of macros, or if you catch me on a Monday after football Sunday.
My point is, I was carrying a higher body fat percentage, was not in great cardiovascular shape, and in terms of what I was doing to my inside, from a gut health perspective? Well, on a diet averaging about 4000 calories per day, trust me, it was nothing good.
Nonetheless, it was all done with the intention of adding weight to the bar. And then a funny thing happened….the results stopped. I stalled. What I thought to be a “linear” process, was clearly not so. If I put time and consistency in, it would not automatically yield strength improvements. There clearly was a genetic limitation to strength gains, as much as I did not want to accept that.
If I had eaten more, tried some unique program, and altered my lifestyle to completely prioritize my improvement in the bench press, squat, and deadlift, would I have seen some fractional results? Maybe.
But I just was not willing to do that. I felt unfulfilled. I felt trapped, bored, and frankly, out of shape. Everytime I tried to shed body fat, my barbell lifts decreased, and it would drive me crazy. I would immediately eat more to have more “bulk” so I could get them back up, and round and round the hamster wheel I went.
If you ask 10 people in fitness what strength is, you will likely get 10 different answers. To the layman, it simply means the ability to successfully “lift weight” from Point A to Point B. My issue with this definition, is that there are many, many factors involved: technique (years of skill acquisition), leverages (if you are “thicker than a Snicker” on the bench press, you will move more weight because you have less distance to press the bar, and more stability on the bench), and outside physics (is the individual utilizing movementum, inertia, and gravity to move the weight rather than the central nervous system efficiently signaling the skeletal muscular system to produce force).
Strength is simply put, the ability to produce force. There is a vast difference between “displaying” strength through lifting a barbell, and optimally developing strength through sound, honest scientific principles.
Strength can absolutely be developed without a barbell. To think otherwise is just plain silly.
Are gymnasts strong? Do mechanics have strong forearms? I have yet to meet someone who bails hay all day that isn’t “country strong”. Many, many practitioners of High Intensity Training develop incredible levels of physical strength through the exclusive use of machines. And yet, as a fitness community, why do we continue to place such an emphasis on the barbell?
Although the barbell itself is not a tool that is inherently flawed when it comes to developing strength, in my experience, it is almost impossible to get someone to not “ego lift” on the big lifts (squat, bench, deadlift) by compromising proper form and technique in order to “lift” the resistance, especially if this individual has years of bad habits under his/her belt.
Why try to reshape old habits when you can simply create new ones?
The barbell possesses a number of other limitations. It can be limiting when it comes to adjusting the implement to consider different body structures and injury histories. In order to build muscle as a newer trainee, simply adding load to the bar over time is enough. However, as one ages, approaching muscular fatigue, and even taking sets beyond there through multiple bouts of effort with little rest, drop sets, or other intensity techniques is often quite necessary.
Not only is the barbell not optimal for this type of training, it can be quite dangerous. When doing an intense set of bench press or squats with a barbell, what happens when muscular fatigue hits, and you are in the bottom position…what is your safe exit strategy?
Can it be done safely? I supposed, but so can wearing a New York Jets jersey to a Buffalo Bills game…why take the chance?
One may respond that they do not take barbell movements close to fatigue, and once again, therein lies a major limitation for the busy working man or woman who is short on time, and wants a safe, effective, intense workout that leads them to a stronger, healthier, more fit body.
A Better Way
Learning how to optimally recruit muscle fibers through the use of basic movements, consisting of predominantly bodyweight exercises should be the first introduction one has to any strength training program. By mastering the fundamental movement patterns of Squatting (Squat variations), Pushing (Pushup variations), Pulling (Rows, chins), Hinging (swings, Romanian Deadlifts), and Lunging (you guessed it, all Lunge variations), one will engrain the necessary motor patterns, technique, and mind muscle connection to properly develop a balanced, strong physique.
Once an individual has shown proficiency in bodyweight exercises, adding in implements like dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags, suspension trainers (TRX straps), and resistance bands can make all the difference in continuing to provide a stimulus for progressive overload. In addition, while one should never chase entertainment in a workout, these tools can also provide a tremendous amount of mental stimulation if they have never been used before.
A strength training program is only as useful as it is practical. Think about that. Think about what we just went through in this country, with shutdowns occurring for at first days, then weeks, then months. Unless you have a full power rack complete with weight plates in your basement, if your only association with “getting stronger” was through the use of a barbell, you probably would have done what so many people did, and stop training altogether, say “screw it”, and pack on the “Covid 15”.
To think that the only way to get stronger is through the use of a barbell is preposterous. Your program needs to be portable, and by treating your body as your own traveling barbell, and learning how to optimize it, you can literally take your workout ANYWHERE.
Think about that. Think about how empowering that is, how freeing it is to know that anywhere, at any time, there is plenty you can do to get stronger and build muscle. While you cannot realistically lug a barbell on vacation, or on a business trip, you can certainly stow away some bands and/or a suspension trainer and get a phenomenal workout in the confines of your hotel room, or better yet, a beach. A barbell will never provide you that luxury.
First of all, let me preface this with saying that ALL strength training movements rely on leverages; to imply that they don’t is simply denying the fundamental principles of physics. Barbell lifts tend to place the execution of the lift on making the “lift” easier to complete.
Examples of this would be widening the stance on the Squat. Arching the back excessively on the Bench Press. Putting on as much mass as possible (much of it in the form of body fat) to provide a more stable “base” for the power lifts, and to do what they aforementioned techniques do: reduce the Range of Motion.
While this will lead to impressive “numbers” (and egos), what does widening the feet in the Squat, while shortening the ROM actually do to the strength developed in the hips, glutes, and quads? Or on the Bench Press, what does arching the back do to increase the pec activation (and subsequently, strength development)…or does it simply provide a super short ROM to “achieve a feat” of strength?
What about taller people, who cannot get into the proper positions to use a full ROM? How does a barbell help them here? What about when the load needed to induce strength gains exceeds the capacity of the connective tissue to handle it, and pain ensues in the knees, shoulders, elbows, and/or hips?
While all of these issues are admittedly problematic, they are exacerbated with barbells for one reason: a culture of “how much” rather than “how”.
Personally, I have built far more muscle without barbells, than with them. I have found that abandoning the barbell, allowed me to, once and for all, place the focus on the “muscle” and not the movement. An example of this would be performing Pushups off of TRX Straps over a Bench Press with a barbell. Here I can “squeeze” my pecs, control the eccentric, and really overload the muscle fibers I intend to, because I am not super busy worrying about how much I am lifting.
On lifts where I want to simply focus on progressive overload, I have additionally found safer options of doing so where, at the age of 40, I feel far more comfortable and confident in properly executing. An example of this would be Dumbbell Front Squats over Squats with a barbell.
When using a barbell, on open chain movements like the Bench press or Row, your hand placement is fixed, meaning you cannot move your hands DURING the movement to enhance activation as you can through the use of TRX straps, bands, and dumbbells. Being able to adjust your hands in space is often critically important for those with atypical anthropomorphic structures (long limbs, short torsos) to “feel the movements” where the need to feel them.
Strength is Strength
In closing, the takeaway here is not the the barbell is Satan’s metal, never to be touched, looked at, or used again. Ok, you got me, maybe the title was a little “click-baity”. However, the takeaway is “strength is strength.”
The ability to develop muscular force can be enhanced over time through consistent, intense, effective strength training sessions using a myriad of different pieces of equipment. If you are bored of your training, always getting nicked up, have trouble “feeling” many barbell exercises where you are supposed to, or even have stalled on getting stronger, I am here to give you hope: there IS another way. The mental freedom you will get from no longer having to stack plates on a bar in order to build muscle and gain strength is extremely invigorating, and I can assure you that your “flame” for training will be sparked once more, and you experience a new wave of muscle gains and strength milestones that will transcend itself into the ultimate torch for the remainder of your fitness journey. The coolest part? That torch never burns out.