Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
9 Oct

Is Barbell Dogma Doing More Harm Than Good?

Barbell DogmaIn the Church of Iron, weight machines are the ultimate sacrilege. Using them is a heresy punishable by banishment to the underworld of Pilates, ruled over by the fallen powerlifter Qurl Sin Thuh Zkwaut Raq wielding his unpredictable ball of Bosu and condemning the damned to an eternity of weak stabilizer muscles, convex buttocks, and wildly imbalanced quad-to-hamstring strength ratios. Absolution is nigh impossible. You so much as touch a cable pulldown machine and you’ll be forever barred from entrance into the heavenly Weight Room, where the blessed souls clothed only in three-prong leather lifting belts and 0.75 inch heeled lifting shoes feed upon the protein smoothies gushing forth from the spurting teat of the great Rippled Toad that give them the power to PR on the deadlift every day, walk (but never run, for conditioning is a sin) the halls of infinite power racks, squat until glutes grace ground with nary a butt wink in evidence, and be forever protected from any injury save permanently scuffed up shins.

In the Weight Room, even a prolapsed anus caused by a 2-ton clean and jerk will cleanly heal with but a light dusting of holy lifting chalk. Yea, it is truly a heavenly thing to behold, amidst the angelic chorus of grunts, clanging plates and bars, the smooth retraction of a protruding colon back to whence it came. But that’s heaven. To get there, the faithful must toil on the mortal plane under rigid prescriptions forbidding certain behaviors and requiring others. As laid out in the Holy Moleskine Training Log: Thou shalt not covet thy brother’s squat rack, unless he engages in curls in which case he must be cast out. Thou shalt squat, or else suffer atrophy of mind, body, and spirit and be delivered down into Pilates upon death. Redemption is possible and requires the successful completion of 3 sets of 5 repetitions at twice bodyweight with perfect form. Thou shalt not jog. And so on.

But paramount above all other commandments is this one:

Thou must go into all the gyms, online message boards, and blog comment sections and proclaim the barbell gospel. Declare the glory of iron at all hours and decry the false fitness gods, growing not weary, for in due season you will reap eternal rewards. 

If you’ve spent any time on fitness boards, you’ve seen this contingent in action, condemning non-barbell exercises and answering every other question with “Try squatting more.” They’re spouting the barbell dogma, but unlike most other dogmas, this one is particularly difficult to ignore. Why? Because all else being equal, using barbells will make you stronger, fitter, faster, and more powerful than using weight machines, doing bodyweight exercises, and other fitness alternatives. Furthermore, the strength gained from barbell training will have more carryover into other modalities. The evidence – both clinical and anecdotal – is clear on this (PDF). That’s what makes barbell dogma so darn persuasive; technically, they’re right. And yet I would argue that to suggest that someone who isn’t training with barbells is just wasting their time in (or out of) the gym is counterproductive and ultimately harmful. That kind of barbell dogma, while rooted in truth, does everyone a disservice (as all dogmas eventually do).

For one, it’s going to turn many people off from being active. You’ve spent your entire life sitting at a desk, can only manage a quarter squat (on your tippy toes!), and you’ve never touched a barbell. You’re riddled with crippling anxiety in public, super self conscious of your body, and would prefer to just do some simple bodyweight exercises at home for awhile until you’re comfortable enough to brave the gym – but everything you’ve read is telling you to “Be a man and squat!” For every online barbell enthusiast who’s immersed in the minutiae of technique, who watches lifting videos and reads lifting books and debates others who are just as obsessed as they are, there are thousands of people who just want to get “toned,” lose some weight, and get stronger without dealing with “scary free weights.” You might think they’re being ridiculous, but they do exist and they deserve to train just as much as anyone. And believe it or not (I’ve seen it happen), lots of people who first develop the confidence with machine or body weight exercises go on to use barbells.

Second, it’s going to inspire unprepared people to rush headlong into intensive barbell training without doing due diligence. People like to say that the barbell lifts are simple, that anyone can “just do them.” If we’re talking about a population of people who’ve been moving, squatting, lifting, and regularly walking in a healthy, biologically appropriate manner their entire lives, I would agree. But if we’re talking about a sedentary population of chair sitters and infrequent movers getting under a barbell without addressing their movement deficiencies, the risk of injury rises. Imagine the aforementioned office worker who can barely hit a quarter squat on his tippy toes trying to barbell back squat. Imagine the force with which his femurs would be trying, perhaps successfully, to blast through his patella without the modulating effect of his heels on the ground.

Third, even those folks who are successfully squatting, deadlifting, and pressing with barbells and spreading the good Iron word are missing out, because when you exclude everything that doesn’t involve a barbell you exclude worthwhile modalities like MovNat, martial arts, and gymnastics. When you’re too sore from your last workout or too worried about messing with your “gains,” you’ll miss out on backpacking trips, long hikes, going for walks with your loved ones, and playing sports.

Fourth, I present to you Keith Norris. The man is a beast, able to chase down gazelles on his fixie (provided he’s got enough coffee in his system), perform multiple consecutive pullup bar muscle ups at a bodyweight in the realm of 220 pounds, broad jump 8’5″, and trap-bar deadlift 400 pounds for 7 reps with ease. You’d think he was all barbells, all the time; you’d be wrong. Keith uses free weights and machines. In fact, he runs a facility specializing in high-tech resistance training machines. If barbells were the only way, this guy would be using them exclusively. But he’s not.

What’s my point here?

If you’re cowed and discouraged by the barbell dogma, don’t be. It’s not the only way. It’s not even the best way for everyone. Don’t be scared of it, mind you. Just know that you’re not wasting your time if you do the leg press instead of the squat, or pullups instead of barbell rows or prefer martial arts and parkour to barbell training. There is no one way.

If you’re untrained and inexperienced and want to work out with barbells, be careful! Work on your mobility, assess your weaknesses, read the experts, and start slowly. You can always add more weight to the bar, but you can’t erase an injury that occurs because you got ahead of yourself. And always, always listen to your own body. If something feels weird, stop doing it. If something hurts (and it’s not just a sore muscle), back off.

If you’ve only ever trained with barbells, consider trying something else. Work a bodyweight day into your rotation. Attend a MovNat workshop or jiujitsu class. Take a week off and go backpacking through the wilderness. You might be surprised at how your overall fitness, mobility, and even strength improve.

Overall, the “barbell is best” crowd has a good, worthy message, it’s just muddled and confusing and too authoritarian. I actually don’t disagree with them. I just think they’re a vocal bunch who are limiting themselves and the people who take their advice to heart.

What about you guys? What are your thoughts on barbell training? So effective to render everything else pointless? Or is there room for all sorts of movement and fitness modalities?

Thanks for reading and be sure to leave a comment!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Well said.

    Donnie Law wrote on October 9th, 2013
    • +1!

      Couldn’t agree more – after reading MDA for over 3 years, Mark still impresses me with his writing. Focused on primal, but always fresh, and never fanatic. He continues to make Primal something for everyone, not an exclusive club. (I can think of some world leader’s who could learn something from Mark…)

      And I would add well written – crisp and readable. I know of no other blogs that can meet the standards Mark sets for quality presentation, regardless of the topic area.

      John wrote on October 9th, 2013
  2. Interesting… I have a personal trainer right now but soon that will be over, so I need to start thinking about planning my own workouts. I was going to try going to TRX classes and doing my own workouts, so this is helpful. Thanks Mark!

    Aria Dreamcatcher wrote on October 9th, 2013
    • TRX is awesome! The only reason I stopped was that class times did not fit into my schedule. It will definitely give you new appreciation for resistance and body weight exercises.

      Chris wrote on October 9th, 2013
  3. There are a lot of extremely fit people that never touch a barbell, and there are extremely fit people that do nothing but barbell training. Find something you can stick with and excites you and Grok it.

    MattyT wrote on October 9th, 2013
    • This.

      Dr Jason Bussanich, DC wrote on October 9th, 2013
    • I recommend against using barbells anyways. The bottom line is that few people do them correctly, there’s this notion going around that you stop when your knees are over your toes. Unfortunately, that protects your knees at the expense of your hips. Not to mention that the proper range of flexibility for a squat is to go down until your butt hits the floor or your legs are completely bent and can’t go any further. And that’s certainly not safe with a barbell of any mass.

      Another issue is that by loading up a huge weight just above your spine before you do it, you run the unnecessary risk of compressing the discs, specifically the one located where you’re placing the barbell, in order to provide sufficient mass to work the large muscles of the legs. The muscles of the legs are necessarily larger and more powerful than the rest of the muscle because they’re always engaged when you’re moving things.

      It is true that the back is meant to be loaded, but not by hundreds of pounds. When backpacking, there’s a reason why the backpack has that waist strap, it’s to put the weight on top of the muscle doing the work. The only reason that the backpack has arm straps at all is to keep the pack from pivoting down and hanging down from the waist.

      The last issue is that very, very few people are going to still be capable of doing barbell squats into old age. The reason for that is largely that the practice is harmful over the long term. But, I’ve seen countless elderly people squat down for long periods of time with little to no effort that have never been inside of a gym. In fact in China it’s what they do rather than carrying around those stupid portable chairs. I can’t recall ever having seen even a single individual training with barbell squats capable of doing that. Some can, but it’s certainly not common.

      The point there is that, people are entitled to their opinions, but not their own set of facts. If they insist upon using weights, the evidence is squarely in favor of weighted belts being used for resistance once one is already capable of doing real butt to the ground squats.

      Hedwards wrote on October 9th, 2013
      • I don’t think that link addresses the true nature of the knees behind toes/upright shins argument. The argument for keeping the knees behind the toes stems from A. how we squat naturally, i.e. look at a how a baby squats sometime, and B. prevention of muscle imbalance development. i.e., squatting with knees behind toes/upright shins and knees forced out keeps the hamstrings fully engaged vs allowing the knees to go over the toes where the hamstring actually shortens and does not remain engaged. The reason all that force being transferred to the hips, according to the link, would be detrimental is if someone weren’t sufficiently flexible or moved into to heavy a weight too soon. The hips are designed to take a large amount of force, more so that our knees. If you look at pictures of any past great Olympic lifters or power lifters you’ll probably notice that they squat butt to heels with upright shins and knees well behind toes up through the front squat. Once they get to the super heavy back squat they don’t go butt to heels, but rather a bit past parallel.
        I somewhat agree that excessively loading the spine is detrimental. If done properly though, the back squat is a progressive exercise just like any other and all parts involved progress to handle more weight. The spine is, however, most often the limiting factor. Mike Boyle talks about this in his book Advances in Functional Training and why he moves advanced lifters to single leg squats.

        James West wrote on October 9th, 2013
        • “how we squat naturally, i.e. look at a how a baby squats sometime”

          How adults squat and babies squat are not the same thing. ever look at the proportions of a baby compared to an adult? They are totally different.

          “Look how babies squat” is a moot point.

          Mark P wrote on October 11th, 2013
    • amen!

      aly c. wrote on October 9th, 2013
  4. I’ve been lifting on a Sl 5×5 and variations routine for a few years, but ended up incorporating more and more different things.

    From a woman’s POV jumping into barbell routine may be completely counterproductive, because the empty BB is too heavy to work well for most women because the UB strength is just not there to eeck out 5 sets of 5 reps with a good form.

    I think it is a great idea to start with body weight and bootcamp style dumbell lifting to establish a routine and a form with lighter weights. That’s how I got started and for a while it was hugely productive.

    Again, from a woman’s POV, barbell routine stalls fast, and gains are very slow or non-existent very quickly despite the best efforts. It is very discouraging particularly when messages like: if you are a woman and squatted for 5 years, and can’t squat 200 lbs you were wasting your time are posted by the Gurus (that’s a lose quote from LG ‘fuckabouts’ post).

    Finally, heavy lifting does not trigger fat loss in the majority of women or admirable muscle development the way it does in men. So, a lady who can DL 200+ lbs (a serious achievement for your typical 130-150 lbs gal), but you do not look like it at all.

    All and all, I don’t believe any longer that lifting like a man absolutely makes a middle-aged pear-shaped woman look like a goddess. You gotta dd cardio, and maybe it is lifting lighter weights dynamically, and combining it with fun cardio (dancing, swimming, running, biking) and a variety of stress-and stretch activities (yoga and YES, PILATES) could work much better for a typical gal on the quest for that ‘toned’ body after age 30….

    Because, you know, we, women will do anything to get there and usually end up nowhere.

    leida wrote on October 9th, 2013
    • I have to disagree with you on a few counts. As a woman who has done a lot of powerlifting in her day, and could squat/deadlift around 200# and bench her body weight (before I had to cut back due to an unrelated injury), I think to say that “progress stalls fast” is true, but that’s for both men and women. To get to the point where you’re continuing to make progress past what would be a “natural” sort of level, both men and women have to use bands, chains, partners for negative reps, etc. This is not something specific to women, although women being smaller and having less testosterone will make smaller incremental gains.

      Also, “heaving lifting does not trigger fat loss,” is again true, but both for men and women. I was quite chubby for a long time while I did powerlifting, but then I cleaned up my diet and lost 30#. Good trainers will tell you that what goes on inside the gym is only 10% of the equation. Lifting certainly does trigger muscle development; I and a number of CrossFitting women are proof of that, but you do have to lose the fat to see it. Of course, there’s also a wide genetic and hormonal variation here, which may be a good thing as not everyone wants to look like they can outlift their boyfriend :)

      I do agree with you, however, that an empty barbell is too heavy for most women to start with. I know that I always started with a broomstick, then if I could I tried to learn the movements with those little pre-made barbells on the rack – the 20# one worked well for me for a lot of things – and then if one was available at the gym I was at, I would use a women’s barbell from there, which is slightly smaller than lighter than a “normal” one. I do think gyms should have more women’s barbells available given the interest of women in weight training.

      Note to the men: after you’re done squatting, take all the 45s off the bar which is probably above my head. Yes, I can do it, but some women just starting out can’t. It’s just good gym etiquette.I routinely go around and do that for the men who can apparently squat like 400# but then not lift their arms to take the weight down. I don’t think you realize that by doing that you may be excluding some people from using that equipment that day.

      (And for reference I am a 5’3″, 130# woman, not some sort of Amazon.)

      Rachel wrote on October 10th, 2013
  5. I’ve been digging hard into Chad Waterbury’s program, which mixes up the barbell, dumbbells, cable machines, and bodyweight exercises. The science behind his advice is pretty convincing, and while it does utilize many barbell exercises, you go through different sets of heavy, medium, light, and deloading.

    My fitness levels have increased by slightly stepping away from the barbell, and instead using the other exercises to increase my strength. And I can tell you, even though I’m using less barbell, I’m seeing the gains while recovering more quickly.

    Adam wrote on October 9th, 2013
  6. Yes, thank you for this. I have felt this way for some time since squats and deadlifts aggravate my piriformis syndrome. I still mix them in, but at a certain point I have to discontinue for a while until the inflammation subsides. During those downtimes, I turn to bodyweight training with pullups, lunges, squats, squat jumps, box jumps, pushups, etc., and have had great results.

    For brute strength and lifting extremely heavy things, yes, barbell work is the way to go. But for general strengthening and looking good naked, there are many other ways.

    Johnny wrote on October 9th, 2013
    • Good point, Johnny. For strength, barbell training is king, because you remove all of the other components typically seen in “lifting heavy objects” (e.g., balance and mechanical disadvantage”. I’m starting to take a liking to “real-world” strength, with sandbags, and soon kegs and other large objects, which require much more than just brute strength.

      With bodyweight-training, you’ve got all of the other benefits (e.g., endurance, balance, ingrained motor-patterns), and if you work at it, you can increase strength. It’s just not as easy as with external-object training.

      It’s all been mentioned here –

      Mark P wrote on October 11th, 2013
  7. Are there people who take things too far and refuse to see reason when it doesn’t agree with their dogma? Of course, as with everything else on the planet.

    Does that mean the “Barbell Dogma” is wrong? No. There is nothing wrong with encouraging people to do things the right, smart, economical way.

    ben wrote on October 9th, 2013
    • Also… judging by the many gyms I’ve been to, “Barbell Dogma” surely isn’t discouraging people from going to the gym and doing the things they are encouraged not to, and doing things that are giving them pretty much no benefit.

      ben wrote on October 9th, 2013
    • I strongly disagree with that. People assume that barbells are smart, right and economical, but there’s no evidence to prove that. It’s also intellectually dishonest to imply that people weren’t stronger prior to invention of modern weight lifting techniques. Sure, weights have existed for millenia, but they were never the focus.

      If you want to get really strong, really efficiently, there’s nothing as fast as asymmetric loads. Back when I used to work back country construction jobs, we’d all get ripped in a matter of a week or two, by week 5 we didn’t have an ounce of unnecessary body fat, it was all muscle.

      Or better yet, you just learn advanced calisthenics. Those techniques will suit you for an entire lifetime without destroying your body. Of the folks that start lifting in their 20s, how many of them are still able to do so in their 80s? I’m guessing not a lot, whereas, I regularly see the elderly that can drop down and do several sets of body weight, butt to the ground squats at that age.

      Hedwards wrote on October 9th, 2013
      • I was willing to bear with you until you got to “we’d all get ripped in a matter of a week or two, by week 5 we didn’t have an ounce of unnecessary body fat, it was all muscle.” At that point, you lost some credibility.

        Mike N. wrote on October 9th, 2013
        • Its is entirely possibly to get ripped in a week. Working 10- 12 hour days doing heavy construction or logging, I have done it more than once. Once the work stops, you soften up, but get it back fast when you need it. I always laugh when some gym bunny trainer calls for a “farmers walk”, they do it four times, carrying weights across the gym. Do that on a real farm, carrying heavy shit all day long, from Sun up to Sun down and you will get strong, fast, and lean.

          Robert wrote on October 10th, 2013
    • I don’t think that there is any one way to best to exercise. I just finished with StrongLifts 5×5 which was a barbell exclusive program and yielded great results. It promoted strength increases. But, after about 12 weeks I felt I needed to mix things up and when I did I also saw good results. Truth is that no matter what program or dogma you subscribe to it is always good to change things ups and vary your exercises.

      Captain Competition wrote on October 9th, 2013
    • Not really as simple as that. Compound movements, even done with just body weight are more advanced than people give them credit for. Some people naturally pick up new things well and can do them safely, efficiently, and get good results. Some people truly are incapable of picking up compound movements and doing them safely and getting good results at first. Some people need machines, bands, isolation exercises, isometrics, mobility or corrective exercises, etc to start out with to get their nervous system to learn proper recruitment and motor patterns before they can properly squat, deadlift and press. Cues aren’t always enough to ensure proper form and safety. I’m a trainer and I mentally know how to squat properly, but I still hurt my back because I didn’t have enough ankle dorsiflexion to squat properly, and unknowingly I compensated with my hips and back to make up for the ankle limitation which hurt my back. Many many people are in similar or worse situations, and will hurt themselves if they skip steps and just rush into loaded compound movements they aren’t prepared for.

      Darren wrote on October 9th, 2013
  8. I love me some barbell lifts. With that said, I also love to be able to jump out of the path of a car if it’s coming my way or able to run if need be. I also like the thought of being able to scratch my own back….

    Matt wrote on October 9th, 2013
  9. The ONLY worthwhile fitness is the one that you enjoy enough to do consistently. Consistency is the only important factor whether it is ice skating or weights. Mixing it up occasionally is the second most critical, I agree with Mark. Most injuries I see are from repetitive micro trauma (tennis elbow, runner’s calf issues), which is from not changing it up often enough.

    Dr Jason Bussanich, DC wrote on October 9th, 2013
    • Well said! I am an ex ballet dancer and have found that the times in my life that I am most active are when I’m making time to get myself into a ballet class a couple times a week. If I’m being consistent with something I love to do, then I am also inspired to branch out into other forms of exercise, like barbell weight training. But I would never have started with barbell work if it weren’t for another form of exercise that I was first more connected to.

      Stephanie Paris wrote on October 9th, 2013
      • This right here is a great real-life example of “training to play”. Great point to bring up whenever the subject is about lifting weights in a gym setting.


        Taylor Rearick wrote on October 9th, 2013
    • I agree

      Martha Henson wrote on October 9th, 2013
    • Thank you, and thanks to Mark for this post. I would like to try free weights but the main hitch is that I want to work out first thing in the morning at home and I don’t really want barbells in the living room. If I have to leave the house to work out, consistency is going out the window, and right now at least I have that going for me. Fortunately, there are some great HIIT workouts on dvd . As for resistance training, I will have to be satisfied with bodyweight resistance and low weight/high rep compound exercises.

      Tina wrote on October 10th, 2013
    • I agree 100%. The only exercise I have any interest in doing is one that is fun. For me, I’d much rather play tag with my husband at the park instead of a set plan of sprints or hoola hoop on a rainy day instead of going to some smelly gym (don’t knock it – hoola hooping is hard!) or jumping on a trampoline till I’m giggling like a maniac. The secret for me was finding ways to just be a kid again and have FUN!!!

      Nomad wrote on October 16th, 2013
    • Very true. Consistency is what seperates those who are in shape from those who are in somewhat shape to those who are shapely.

      Variation should be a key component to any workout routine as it gives the body the ability to adjust quickly and forcibly if necessary.

      Matt wrote on October 22nd, 2013
  10. I agree. In fact, I do a lot of ground-up workouts that involve zero bar bells during the running season and I can actually do more pull-ups and push-ups.

    Through my own self-experiment, I’m finding that I don’t need bar bells. Having tree limbs for pull-ups, carrying lots of heavy things, and of course ground-up workouts….and I’ve never been stronger! I’m also maintaining a 32″ waste with my various ground-up routines.

    steve wrote on October 9th, 2013
    • Doing more pullups and pushups means you are into resistance training. Muscle hypertrophy and power training is best achieved by barbells, dumb bells, and “bodyweight with added weight” training. So it all depends fm one’s goals. I feel like I started out with deadlifts and squats far too late, should have started to do these earlier. I am doing dips with 30 percent of my bodyweight in a backpack on my back for 3 sets of 12 reps. Pullups with 25 percent of my bodyweight added in 3 sets, of 12,8 and 6 reps. And I never felt stronger or better in my life. Still working on my deadlift and squats, since I am fairly “weak” at these. And I am 47 Y.O. by the way :-)

      einstein wrote on October 9th, 2013
  11. I’ve recently doing barbell weights, partly based on your recommendation to do strength training 2x a week having implemented better eating for over a year before that. I’ve seen great improvements from just over two months of doing basic barbell exercises — the thing that I appreciate the most is that all of a sudden I feel like my chronically bad posture has improved! However, I agree there’s a very annoying barbell/bodybuilder culture and it’s very hard to actually drill down to the essentials while ignoring all the baggage.

    Dan wrote on October 9th, 2013
    • Just to add another thought. I’ve been wondering whether the strength increases associated with doing barbell-type programs result in personality changes that promote aggressive/superior attitudes. Or perhaps it is the case that people with those types of personalities are more inclined to pick up barbell-training. It is certainly not universal however — there are some great people that do barbells that don’t come across the wrong way to me. In myself, I’ve personally observed an increased confidence in completely different things unrelated to strength. Hopefully, I haven’t become overconfident without knowing it!

      Dan wrote on October 9th, 2013
      • You’ll find just as many superior obnoxious dogmatic people in any fitneds modality. Yoga, martial arts, pilates, badminton, whatever

        Darren wrote on October 9th, 2013
        • +1

          WelshGrok wrote on October 10th, 2013
  12. Good post. I’ve been a crossfitter for a long time, the one thing that has always bothered me about the community at large is the superior attitude. Having said that I don’t use machines, but I don’t snicker at those who do.

    Tom wrote on October 9th, 2013
  13. Okay, I’m the chair sitter who can’t do a quarter quat. I totally agree with Dr. Jason above who said “The ONLY worthwhile fitness is the one that you enjoy enough to do consistently.” Well, I guess I don’t enjoy anything! Part of me wants to branch out and just try some of these things that look so super fun — like sidewalk surfing or trail riding — but between lack of place, lack of equipment, lack of company, and lack of time, most of my workout routine consists of actually getting down into the floor with the dog. Unfortunately, he’s discovered that he likes the couch better himself. Oh well.

    Rhonda the Red wrote on October 9th, 2013
    • Get the chair sitting thing as I want to hide or head for an airport to go south in the winter. Wear a pedometer and track your steps. Goal is 10k a day (5 miles). Start slow 2k, 4k, etc. You’ll see it make a difference. Try it!

      bamboo wrote on October 9th, 2013
  14. This reminds me greatly of the recent obstacle course race I ran with a team from our Train 4 Autism charity. We had one guy on our team who was a weightlifter. I’ve not discussed exercise with him at any length other than to know he’s a power-lifter type, and I have no idea how dogmatic he gets.

    But on that day, he was at a disadvantage because he HADN’T explored other modalities. I do a lot of stuff – kettlebells, MovNat, bodyweight exercises, and other such routines, and I was much more functionally fit and ready for that race, despite him being probably 10 years younger than I am and a heck of a lot bigger. His one comment: “I need to change my workout routines.”

    Jamie Fellrath wrote on October 9th, 2013
  15. The book, “New Rules of Lifting for Life” seems to take a balanced approach.

    DB Dweeb wrote on October 9th, 2013
  16. The part at the beginning was a tad long :) but we get the point. Heres my two cents as a personal trainer who likes to fix people. I hate machines and love barbells/dumbbells. A machine takes away the stabilizing and core muscles that should be active while lifting. The machines are not functional- outside the gym you will never be in a seated position with your core (I’m referring to your entire midsection) completely supported. This means machines do not prepare us for real world situations where supporting my own midline is vital. That being said I may use a machine to help a client with a serious imbalance or recovering from an injury. So i think they have a place but it needs to be very limited. I can take a dumbbell or a lighter barbell (olympic bars are 45lbs and this may indeed be too much for someone) and have them do a movement that is appropriate for them.

    I am also a CrossFit certified trainer- I love CrossFit because it combines weightlifting, gymnastics and metabolic conditioning. I’ve never been stronger or more injury free, my clients will tell you the same.

    Matt M wrote on October 9th, 2013
    • My trainer echoes the very points you make about machines, the stabilization factor and the functionality of them. He tries to make every exercise I do, whether with weights or my own bodyweight be functional. Some of the stuff he comes up with absolutely mystifies me, but I see his point once I start doing them. I chose to work with a trainer initially because I am older (56) and didn’t know what to do in a gym. 3 years later I’m still with him and it ain’t cheap, but it’s something I really enjoy. His knowledge and expertise is invaluable, especially when I’ve injured myself (outside the gym while on vacation). I can work on my own because he has taught me well, but I am more motivated with his encouragement.

      Joy wrote on October 9th, 2013
      • Your trainer has the same philosophy as mine. And being about the same age as you (55) I understand completely where you are coming from. I couldn’t imagine ever deadlifting or squatting six years ago and though I certainly don’t lift heavy, now I am in the best shape of my life. I’ve even amazed myself with my quicker reflexes when I was able to jump off a tilting kitchen table safely (don’t ask) without injuring myself.

        Miriam wrote on October 9th, 2013
        • Let me guess. You have a pedestal type table and you were standing on it changing a light bulb.

          Joshua wrote on October 10th, 2013
    • I agree. The important distinction is not whether the movement involves a barbell or not, but whether with the strength developed at the movement carries over to other activites. A deadlift and a glute-ham raise (or say a glute-bridge) are functional movements that develop hamstring strength in a way that is actually useful in sports and avoiding injuries in daily life while simultaneously developing core stability, even though the deadlift uses a barbell while the GH raise and the glute-bridge do not. In comparison, using a leg curl machine develops bigger hamstrings in a manner that has no carry over to anything besides using a leg curl machine (what natural movement isolates the hamstrings, works the hamstrings in isolation from the glutes and quads?), and meanwhile develops no core stability. Though it is certainly true that the risk of using a leg curl machine is basically zero, while there is a much higher risk (as well as reward) from doing heavy deadlifts.

      As a side-note, I have to admit that I used to be very scornful of pilates, but I started going to pilates classes one a week in order to find some exercise that I could do with my wife. The better core stability, body-awareness, and mobility from pilates has massively improved my strength training.

      Ed wrote on October 9th, 2013
  17. constant overuse of muscle groups from barbell dogma in crossfit left my partner with a fully ruptured pec major tendon; surgery and months of recovery. when he does get back to the gym, you can bet it won’t be crossfit. too much, too hard, too frequent=unbalanced muscle development that leads to these types of injuries–they are rampant in crossfit. most gym owners/trainers do not know enough about overuse or balanced training.

    bumop wrote on October 9th, 2013
  18. For me, time in the gym (using anything and everything!) is a means to an end. Actually, I enjoy the gym environment but my ultimate reason to be there is to be fit enough to be able to do whatever activity I want to. Btw, I’m 63 years old, have recently taken over a somewhat derelict allotment – and am fit enough to wield a right-angled fork and break up the ground. Too many people my age are sat at home waiting to die – I aim to be active until the very end.

    Pam wrote on October 9th, 2013
  19. I think barbells are generally better in all the ways described, except one: degree of control. Machines give you better control.

    But, I hear everyone exclaiming, that’s the point–barbells give you a more natural, wider range of strength development. True enough.

    But if you’ve been injured in certain ways, machines are the way to go for certain kinds of rehab. I’m recovering from a torn rotator cuff. Normally I prefer free weights, but machines (and resistance bands) are letting me recover with far less risk of injuring myself further…

    Barbells themselves aren’t all that natural. Try moving rocks around and lugging water if natural is the goal.

    David I wrote on October 9th, 2013
    • David, I feel you would enjoy the discussion about rehab found at Search there for Starting Strength Channel, Episode 5.
      All the best, Ken

      skeedaddy wrote on October 10th, 2013
  20. Since the barbell religion has taken over, I have witnessed more and more women who’s legs, back and delts have grown to a size that is UTTERLY MANLY. It’s sad, really. Wonder when they’ll all look in the mirror and question if they’ve followed the right path.

    Johnny Bravvo wrote on October 9th, 2013
    • To each his own, some women like the strength and also the muscle once it’s there. Also, so long as there are plenty of guys who are attracted to the more athletic female (I know I am, but I am also attracted to very feminine “softer” women as well) it will keep going. It is definitely more acceptable in society now than it was 20 years ago, I think part of the growth (no pun intended) of female muscularity is that a lot of women who were athletes in the 90s have kids who are now growing up being used to their athletic mom and see nothing unnatural about it. Add in decades of feminist ideology to the mix and you have the perfect storm.

      Adam wrote on October 9th, 2013
      • There is a fine line, to be sure. But you are correct. It IS a perfect storm.

        Johnny Bravvo wrote on October 9th, 2013
    • Really? You’ve seen THAT many women that look “utterly manly”? I think you are perpetrating a conventional wisdom myth that if women work with free weights they will get big and manly, that is VERY UNLIKELY to happen, most women just get toned with a little more muscular definition. I think women with muscle tone look sexy. Yes, there are a few hard core women who use PEDs and are really big, but that is very rare. I would encourage women out there to ignore this kind of comment and try adding a bit of weight lifting to your routine, I think you will be pleased with the results.

      George wrote on October 9th, 2013
      • I’m not referring to women with slight tone and muscle. I’m referring to PED’s.

        Johnny Bravvo wrote on October 9th, 2013
        • Read the article again, dude. No one’s hating on free weights. He’s clearly referring to the dogmatic culture of Crossfit. I think a little weight lifting is good for ALL SEXES, but you and I both know that’s not the core issue. It’s the women who take it too far and think they’re something special. Most men do not find this attractive.

          Johnny Bravvo wrote on October 9th, 2013
        • it wouldn’t let me reply to your other msg below so I’ll just comment here. YOU may need to read the article again -it doesnt even have the word woman or female- it doesn’t even bring it up. this is just your weird thing about not liking women who can outlift you. And thats fine but leave it on your own blog, twitter ect. Make comments that contribute, not just dogmatic about how much someone else should lift and how it may or may not make them look.

          Matt M wrote on October 9th, 2013
      • Nope. No insecurity here. I could not give less of a crap if a woman can out-lift me. I stand by my original point.

        Johnny Bravvo wrote on October 10th, 2013
        • That’s my whole point in responding to you- your original point is invalid. It has nothing to do with the article. You contribute nothing and have no facts. So re-read the article then re-read my last post responding to you and then repeat the whole process till that gets through.

          Matt M wrote on October 10th, 2013
    • I’m a soft, easily-injured “hard-gainer” type & I would love nothing more than to be a strong, muscular woman. Could it be that there are more important goals in a woman’s life beyond being attractive to you?

      Maybe one day YOU’LL look in the mirror & be ashamed of your comment.

      Paleo-curious wrote on October 9th, 2013
      • Nope. Sorry. Men should look like men and women should look like women.

        Johnny Bravvo wrote on October 9th, 2013
        • Women who lift are doing it because of specific goals, like they want to be strong and fit, or maybe they are competing. Regardless, what YOU have to say about it is not even on their radar, and they could care less if you find them attractive or not.

          Take your insulting, misogynistic comments elsewhere.

          Stacie wrote on October 9th, 2013
        • Never mind there is such, SUCH a broad spectrum of body types (predisposed by genetics or brought on by training, or lack thereof), preferences, and gender identities. “Girly” men and “manly” women aren’t any type of lesser people. People can look how they want to look, and they don’t need your approval to be who they want to be.

          Madam von Sassypants wrote on October 9th, 2013
        • @ Johnny Bravo “Most men do not find this attractive”

          Do you speak for all men on the planet? It’s perfectly fine if YOU don’t find muscular women attractive. But you don’t speak for all men. You’re just promoting sexist stereotypes and your comments are not productive.

          tkm wrote on October 10th, 2013
        • You are entitled to your opinion and I enjoyed reading it. I’ve noticed some really strong women at my gym. When I first started going I wondered why they would want their thighs or back to get so big. After going for several months I have found the ‘stronger’ women more and more attractive. My perception has changed as time has gone on.

          Laura wrote on October 10th, 2013
      • +1

        Stacie wrote on October 9th, 2013
        • I only have a problem with women who take it too far. If I was in a class with a woman who was 50 lb overweight and she used barbells etc to get down to her goal weight, then KUDOS! I’m not referring to her. I’m referring to the butt-slapping, high-fiving women that have moved WAY past that point.

          Johnny Bravvo wrote on October 9th, 2013
    • This just sounds horribly misogynist. God forbid women get, of all things, manly!

      Madam von Sassypants wrote on October 9th, 2013
  21. Personally, I’ve spent the spring, summer and autumn working on the ranch – planting gardens, hauling dirt/rocks and putting in patios/walkways on my property. There is always work to do. Haven’t had to hit the weights for over 7 months. Just now dusting off the workout room and dreading winter. Rather be doing something constructive with my body than lifting weights.

    bamboo wrote on October 9th, 2013
    • +1!

      I too would ABSOLUTELY rather be doing something constructive with my body and besides I despise gym work/weight training of any kind. I have a “side” biz in lawn care and landscaping and work on my own property in my spare time. I haven’t needed a bit of extra exercise. I too am dreading winter though and trying to figure out what I can do…

      Tammy wrote on October 9th, 2013
  22. I do love the barbell and abhor machines; I’ve gotten in much better shape strictly with barbell exercises (and pull-ups, my only body weight exercise). I do wish I got out more to do the other kinds of activities that culminate in a work out. A few months back when I attended a friend’s wedding I danced for hours. The next day, I was sore in places I didn’t know existed, especially in my legs. If you make your body move in ways you don’t normally do, like in sports, you will realize the benefits of the holistic exercise mentality as opposed to just lifting.

    And, quite frankly, I get bored of lifting and struggle to be consistent to the gym. I wholeheartedly agree with Mark’s other post on the importance of play, I just wish I had the dough to attend a Jiujitsu club, but I know there are other things I can be doing. Great post Mark!

    Adam wrote on October 9th, 2013
  23. Hey Mark

    This message reminded me of something that you always talk about… you’ll miss out on other things like “Play” I saw this video a few days ago and it reiterated the message again.

    Jess wrote on October 9th, 2013
    • Thanks for posting, what an inspiration – more than half his age and just watching him made me tired lol.

      Tatts wrote on October 23rd, 2013
  24. I enjoy working out with free weights, always have. I also play racquetball, do core and stretching exercises, work out with bands, on the mat, martial arts moves, the cable machines and leg press machine, pullup bar. There is definitely a subculture of juiced up meatheads that are into body building just for the sake of muscular definition and swagger around trying to intimidate people, but most of the really dedicated lifters are decent guys. Many gyms these days complement their free weights with machines and yoga, pilates, body weight training etc classes. Avoid the specialized, testosterone-laden big plates only gyms if that is not your thing. If you would like to hit the iron a bit and add some free weight training to your routine, if you can afford it get a QUALIFIED trainer to work with you for a few sessions, going over all the major exercises and the correct bio-mechanics.

    George wrote on October 9th, 2013
  25. Qurl Sin Thuh Zkwaut Raq and Rippled Toad. Genius! I lol’d.

    Jeremy wrote on October 9th, 2013
  26. Good article with some great points made about Barbell Training. As a strength coach and someone who has been training for decades, I have a love for the barbell and it certainly addresses many qualities we all need and want. But, it’s definitely NOT the only thing we should do.

    It all depends on the individuals goals, but for max strength and teaching people how to improve true function and strength/power, the barbell is tough to beat. MovNat and other things like “Primal Move” or “Original Strength” fit extremely well into strength training and improve movement and mobility, whether with a barbell, kettlebell, or bodyweight.

    Barbell training, just like other effective training modalities, absolutely requires the right coaching, plain and simple. Barbell training is actually NOT simple and those that say that it is, haven’t really learned proper technique, to be honest. I say this as a person who had trained for years without learning how to really maximize the barbell with safety and efficiency. Again, like anything else, it’s all about getting the proper coaching.

    While barbell training certainly is NOT the only thing, I have to say that I don’t like the approach of being a “jack of all trades” and “master of none.” We don’t need to do all the “stuff” unless it’s a match for what we want. It’s about finding your top goal, picking the tool and program to match the goal, and keeping things simple! Simple is not easy. We need to remember that.

    While I’m not a fan of machines, I am a fan of movement based training, whether with a barbell, kettlebell, medicine ball, sandbag, indian clubs, bodyweight training, or whatever other tools will help us move better and move stronger. That’s the bottom line. It’s not the other things are useless, but let’s evaluate where we should spend our time and focus for the best results.

    Scott Iardella wrote on October 9th, 2013
  27. I think you make a point. But for me the power clean and front squat are invaluable. The fact that I have no rack limits how much you can squat and therefore makes it a both safer exercises. I also clean and Press. Bench is for macho types. Me I’m a recovering O Lifter who only did one perfect snatch with 85kg/190 lbs…and will never happen again. My hernia in 2009 won’t allow it. I’m 53 and holding. cleaned 185lbs yesterday…fixing to clean and squat…peace

    Tony Danes wrote on October 9th, 2013
    • I totally agree with front squatting and pressing what you can clean. I get that back squatting allows more weight to be moved, but if the argument is about “natural” movement, what do we back squat naturally other than a barbell?

      Cory wrote on October 9th, 2013
  28. This came just in time, I’m going to start barbell training today. Great words of weightlifting wisdom. Thanks Mark!

    Gabrielle wrote on October 9th, 2013
  29. Wow!! I had no idea there were such strong dividing lines … Just goes to show!! My thought is move and be fit in whatever way suits you and your body … period.

    Deborah Penner wrote on October 9th, 2013
  30. Funny, one could easily substitute gluten-free for barbells…although a recent posting railing on the media for referring to gluten-free as a “fad” had a distinctly different tone…

    Has Rippetoe gotten too ornery and dogmatic? Yes…
    Have too many people gone “gluten-free” as a faddish quick fix without understanding principles of Primal lifestyle and food quality? Yes

    For all that, would we be a healthier society if people put aside grains AND felt compelled to move heavy things to a degree only facilitated by barbells? YES

    Websipe wrote on October 9th, 2013
  31. I train D1 women athletes on a year round basis, and they never touch a barbell. Some times kettelbells, Dbells, ropes, sledge hammers, The Prowler, resistance bands, and
    even a sling line…..but never a barbell. The way I see it, I’m training them to be athletes, not competitive weight lifters!!

    Ed Dudley wrote on October 9th, 2013
    • Ed, an admitted Rippled Toad disciple here as a Starting Strength Coach and seminar staff member. Have you considered the possibility that the women you train, being D1 athletes, have been selected for you as the most genetically gifted athletes, relatively speaking, by a very large junior high and high school feeder system? Believe it or not, they may already be athletes when you get them at that level of competition.

      Barbells are the most efficient means to load the human skeleton in a progressively incremental manner through the largest range of motion, while using the most musculature possible. If this fact is lost on a collegiate strength and conditioning coach, I think the reasoning for “barbell dogma” starts to become a bit more clear.


      Nick D wrote on October 9th, 2013
      • Nick

        I’m also a high school sport enhancement trainer at an all girls private school, so I see and train both sides of the coin. Twenty years ago I did a ton of the olympic and power movements, when training these athletes…but as with all things, I learned and I got wiser with what I believe works Best for FEMALE athletes. I certainly don’t know it all, but athletes coming back from all over the country, to train in the summers with me, seems to be a pretty good indication that we must be doing something right! Especially when considering that they pay me, and could stay and train for free with their college strength coaches.

        Ed Dudley wrote on October 9th, 2013
    • Huh. Training with barbells has made me a better martial artist. And here I thought martial arts were athletic.

      Shauna wrote on October 10th, 2013
  32. Excellent advice re: “If you’ve only ever trained with barbells, consider trying something else.” I was strictly a barbell guy up until a few years ago. However, years of barbell lifting left me chronically sore. Was introduced to TRX training, and have gone back to barbell lifting only sporadically. I haven’t lost any strength. In fact, TRX training has improved my stabilizers, so I’m a lot more balanced when I lift.

    jordan wrote on October 9th, 2013
  33. I love barbells and the gym. In an attempt to get more sleep and carve out a consistant workout time between family and work, I recently took a hiatus from the gym. I like it. I bought a sandbag and the compound movements are giving me a great workout. For cardio fitness I’m a big fan of jumping rope. My 5 year old is beginning to take notice of the workouts; so it seems my change of routine is also giving me an opportunity to model good fitness habits to my son.

    Tammy Crosson wrote on October 9th, 2013
  34. Has anyone read this meta analysis on training types? It seems to suggest method is more important than modality. Specific to this post, training intensity determines strength gains more than whether you used free weights or machines.

    Drew Baye wrote a 5 part article about the findings on his website.


    Stephen wrote on October 9th, 2013
  35. Mark, you try too hard to be witty. That aside, machines are no doubt the easiest way to get injured, which is not to say that one should do barbell. It’s been said before, do whatever you enjoy and suits your goals and motivates you enough to stick around. If the goal is size, then BB is most likely the fastest way to get there. For general ‘fitness’, then look somewhere else, but I don’t think machines are the answer to anything.

    Gero wrote on October 9th, 2013
    • “Mark, you try too hard to be witty.”

      I thought it was hilarious…and I actually doubt he’s ‘trying to be witty.’ Writing so often can get boring if you don’t change it up, so I think he’s probably just trying to amuse himself. Bonus if other people think it’s funny :)

      Alyssa wrote on October 9th, 2013
      • Dude, wrong on both counts. Number one, this was hilarious. As a guy who counts himself a gym rat and regularly scours fitness and lifting/bodybuilding forums, I found both the tone and the content to be picture perfect satire.

        Specially “Qurl Sin Thuh Zkwaut Raq.” LMFAO 😀 And the comparison to dogma from pricks in tiny 3 strap tank tops… perfect. I legitimately had the giggles at work going through the whole thing.

        Secondly, machine’s being the easiest way to injure yourself? Que? Not so much. Machines almost always make it way harder to injure yourself by limiting the range of motion in a given lift. For the vast majority of “newbies”, machines are an excellent way to protect your body while coordinating and developing form.

        I base my lifting days around barbells and dumbbells, but there’s not a chance in hell I’d label them “safer” than cables or machines. Heavy barbell lifts, particularly when fatigue makes form suffer, can injure you faster than anything else, especially Olympic lifts and power lifts. Even performed perfectly they will generally stress your joints and ligaments way more than a machine will.

        It’s all about risk vs reward. They will give you the biggest gains and fire the biggest androgenic response, at a cost of overall training “longevity” and intense CNS fatigue. Depending on your goals, this may be great, or not so great. Tailoring a program to your needs and personal comfort level is the pinnacle of common sense.

        Reventon wrote on October 9th, 2013
  36. Hi Mark,

    Typically if any person takes a dogmatic approach to anything they will be found to be wrong. Whether it’s someone who proposes the idea that Yoga is all someone needs or whatever, they will be wrong. From that point, I agree with you. Taking a multi-faceted approach to your training yields the best results. In my experience once someone has been integrated into a gym and has begun to learn movements the barbell will start to be introduced to the point where they will use it most of the time with supplementary exercises from dumbell, bodyweight, machine etc.

    That being said, I do know that your intro was meant to be sarcastic and comical but I take issue with your comment about Weightlifting and prolapsed anuses. If you’re concerned about Bbll dogmatists pushing people away from the gym by then you should also be concerned about pushing the stereotype that Weightlifting causes any such injuries. I do hear this from people all the time.

    Anyways, the message of your article was almost lost to me because I was too busy rolling my eyes at your intro. As soon as you got to the meat of your article my blood pressure settled and I started to agree with you.


    Josh Diesel wrote on October 9th, 2013
  37. FYI – The gym Mark is referencing, Efficient Exercise, is owned by Mark Alexander. It started out as a SuperSlow gym years ago. Mark & team are a great group of folks and I’ve trained there many, many times.

    Parker wrote on October 9th, 2013
  38. Bodyweight exercises, barbells, machines etc. it really doesn’t matter which you use your body doesn’t care. The important thing to remember though is that each one does something the other normally doesn’t do. It really just depends on what a person is looking for, what their goals are, and what condition their body is in. For my money I say BW just because it can be done anywhere. If I am looking to build some more brute strength free weights combined with body weight exercises. Its all cool and does different things. I will say this though not all exercise machines are created equal for my money I go with hammer strength. Cool read. TRX is pretty cool as well no lying on that one.

    anon wrote on October 9th, 2013

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