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!

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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