Barbells: The Best Tool For Strength
The barbell can be intimidating, especially when you have never used it before, but the affects of the tool have many innate benefits that other implements simply can’t produce as well. Every person can benefit from being stronger, and the barbell was designed to make people stronger. This discussion will compare and contrast various implements to barbells in the light of a training tool to gain strength. With that said, competition implements such atlas stones are not included because the author considers them not as training tools but rather as tools to display the product of training.
As a starting point, let us compare things that allow us to move the heaviest amount of weight and work down to the lightest. Nautilus machines allow us to move more mass than the other modalities considered, so let’s begin with them. Machines are generally designed to work a specific body part or region of the body. The movement patterns trained by machines is limited to the range of motion the device allows. This can allow the trainee to move increasingly heavier loads in a “safe” manner. This also gives the ability to scale a load back and start with very light weights for the severely under trained. These things are nice, but they leave holes in the overall training potential of a trainee. The concept that makes machines safe also makes them less relevant to the world outside of the gym. The very ability to lose balance while lifting with a barbell gives it the edge in this comparison. Using a smith machine or a leg press guaranties that you will not gain any useful perception of balance while loaded, or unloaded really. What makes a squat difficult is maintaining balance throughout the movement. This directly relates to maintaining balance while loaded or unloaded as an individual moves in the course of daily activities. We have nothing in the world outside of the gym that guaranties we will not fall. Even if we were to use a walker or cane to get along, we still have to contend with gravity and balance when we use them. Machines could be useful in getting someone strong enough to squat, but once they can squat, they should. Barbells come in different sizes so that people who are untrained don’t have to start with 45lb bar, and advancements in weight can be done with micro plates as little as a ¼ lb. equaling a half pound jump. The barbell is also more efficient with regard to training time. Use of the barbell allows the body to be trained as an entire system as opposed to in isolation as with machines. Take the triceps extending the elbow for example; using cable push downs uses the triceps and maybe some of the back to do the work. Conversely, the standing overhead press (hereafter the press) makes you maintain balance by using your entire legs, abdominals, entire back, shoulders and then finally, the triceps extend the elbow. Every link in the kinetic chain is being used to keep you vertical so you can accomplish the press. A very similar analysis can be made of the comparison between the squat and the leg press. Additionally the barbell is versatile. One can train upper body and lower body in literally the same spot on a platform with a power rack, add a bench and you can do more. However, in order to train the entire body with machines, you will need more than one machine, probably many more.
Kettlebells have enjoyed some recent popularity, and being considered tools for strength training, they can be the next comparison. Kettlebells are essentially a cannon ball with a handle, and they have many benefits similar to barbells. However, depending what your goal is, they may not be the most efficient. Lifts performed with barbells can be performed with kettlebells with some modification to the position. Kettlebell cleans for example can be executed with one or two hands, typically the clean with a barbell will require two hands. Kettlebells are easier to store and don’t require a gym setting or a platform to train with. Depending on the situation, these could be advantages or disadvantages. The limitations of kettlebells are twofold with regard to strength training. The first is that the kettlebell cannot be incrementally loaded, and generally weight increases by 4 kg between bells. Therefore, if you a making a jump in any movement with a kettlebell, it will be a 4 kg jump. If you are having trouble pressing at 20 kg your next press weight will be 24 kg, but what if you’ve only adapted to 22kg of stress? This doesn’t lend itself to a linear progression very well and will likely stall progress and leave some potential gains on the table. The second problem is the limitation by the maximal size of the kettlebell. The largest kettlebell a short Google search revealed was a 198 lb. /90 kg kettlebell. This weight is not heavy if you consider the deadlift; it is if you consider the press. As with machines, you would need multiple kettlebells at progressively heavier weights to accomplish useful strength program which would then be limited by the heaviest kettlebell ever made. A barbell can be loaded for each desired exercise. The edge for conditioning does go to kettlebells, though. They can be used in a variety of movements made possible by their shape and lighter weights. Heavy swings for time is a useful tool in conditioning; heavy deadlifts for time is not. Barbells can be used in conditioning too as we have seen with crossfit, but it shouldn’t be done with near limit loads for time, which makes this application not as effective for strength training, the focus of this discussion.
Body weight movements are also good for conditioning, but are not very useful when training for strength. Even with the addition of bands, the limits of the potential of body weight movements are achieved very quickly. The majority of people can produce enough force to get up from a chair, and would consider this a smaller effort than getting up with someone on their back from the same chair. Most people are already adapted to moving their own mass; the amount of force they need to produce doesn’t change and thus the stress isn’t sufficient to cause an adaptation of getting stronger. The most common way to change the stress is to add more repetitions, but this would have a limited effect in making people stronger. However, being stronger can be helpful in doing more repetitions. A handstand push up is useful in getting stronger but requires some initial strength. You must be able to complete one repetition before more reps can be added, and do some modified version in a progression to get to that first one. Conversely, the press will be the same movement whether it is a broomstick, empty bar or 200 lbs. The bar can be incrementally loaded to meet the ability of the lifter; you are not able to shed or add small amounts of your mass at will when it’s time to do a handstand push up.
The barbell is superior in the pursuit of getting stronger because it can be loaded to a specific weight and incrementally thereafter, it uses the body as a system, and does so in a way that requires normal and routine interaction with your environment. Gravity will always have sway on us; we must train in a way that acknowledges this and uses it. We should use a tool that allows us to advance as far as we are able to, allowing for the most functional, durable, and useful body we can have.