Earlier this week we talked about why you might want to prioritize strength training and outlined why and how gradual basebuilding works best for folks who want to feel better and get stronger.
Today we’re going to talk quickly about why we love the barbell for strength training. This boils down to three primary reasons, although we could certainly come up with a baker’s dozen or two if you really wanted us to bend your ear.
First, barbell movements allow for specific, managed positions and standards. Barbell movements almost always begin in a rack–we take the squat or press out of a rack at about sternum height, we bench from a position around arm’s length, and we deadlift from the floor or raised blocks. The movement, or rep, is complete when the barbell is returned safely to its starting position. Unlike most bodyweight or plyometric movements, there is precious little wiggle room for interpretation. While 10 burpees, for instance, may look (and function) dramatically different from athlete to athlete, 10 barbell squats at 135 lbs will always be 10 barbell squats at 135 lbs. This allows us to speak a common language and ensure that our standards are clear and manageable.
Secondly, barbell movements allow for incremental, winnable increases. With a newer athlete, we may only add 2 lbs to an overhead pressing movement each week, moving up from a 30 lb to a 32 lb press, for example. Smaller loading like that is next to impossible with dumbbells or kettlebells and allows us to really curate the athlete’s experience and progress so that they are improving at a good clip without being discouraged by missed repetitions or weights that feel too heavy and unwieldy too soon. Nothing wrecks a new gym routine like failure in workout four. Barbells help you win every session.
Finally, the disposition of the barbell during its usage allows us to coach the athlete’s whole body through movement in space. When we back squat, for instance, the barbell is positioned across our upper back and is held in place by a joint effort of the upper back, engaged core, and a bracing of the torso under load. In spirit this mimics life: you would almost always want to pick up and move a heavy object the same way–systemically–not one limb or corner at a time. When we ask our athletes to squat, push, and pull barbells with their whole body, we see dramatic physical changes in short order. They stand taller, they move with more precision and confidence, and they look and feel younger.
This isn’t hyperbole. This is what a good, basic barbell program does for its adherents. It’s simple, but it’s not easy.
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