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. Thanks a lot, Mark. All I could think while doing squats at the gym this morning was “anal prolapse”!

    Erica wrote on October 11th, 2013
  2. It doesn’t matter what you use, just do it in a functional capacity so it trains your body and reflects towards real movements. You definitely don’t need a barbell and can get a great functional workout with kettlebells!

    Dr. Anthony Gustin wrote on October 11th, 2013
  3. LOL!!! hilariously written! & thank you

    Bill Berry wrote on October 11th, 2013
  4. Personally I recommend every person I know, who is inexperienced with weights, to start with Power to the People by Pavel Tsatsouline. Greasing the groove is even better if you can get past not feeling “burn”. If the bell is intimidating, start with a smaller one and work your way up! I’d recommend Powerlifting as the first thing an inexperienced lifter do, just don’t start with too heavy a weight! Find weight for a press or pull that you can do 2×5 5 days a week that doesn’t make your have much residual soreness. Once you bore of that, get a Kettlebell and pick up Enter the Kettlebell and crank on that until a bell or two heavier are easy to handle. I’ve been doing mostly Pavel routines since 2002, and I’m the strongest and fastest I’ve been in my entire life. His heavily volumized, low fatigue approach to strength training is the best thing for me when stress hits my life, I can maintain my fitness, but not make things worse.

    Chris Miller wrote on October 12th, 2013
  5. Great article — I use a mix of machines, dumbells and bodyweight, and I alternate exercises when things get easy to keep motivated and challenged.

    D wrote on October 13th, 2013
  6. I’m 55 years old and have been doing weight training on & off over 30 years. I enjoy free weights and probably do that more than anything but over the years because of logistics and changing interests, I’ve done aerobics (GASP!!!! What can I say? It was the 80s), chronic cardio in various forms, martial arts, ballroom dancing, body weight exercises, weight machines, and backpacking. I can lift a pretty substantial amount of weight, I can run as far as I want to, and I don’t regret any of the things I did for exercise (well, maybe the aerobics – a little). It’s not so important what you do, it’s important that you do something and try to do it well & without injury. When you get tired of it, do something else and give it the best effort you can as well.

    Bud wrote on October 13th, 2013
  7. I am 65 years old and can deadlift 235#. I love to deadlift (squatting not so much). But I also take ballet, run marathons, and ride my bike. Personally, I think that once past a “certain” age, it is best to crosstrain a lot and not worry about performance. I never touch those gym machines. Doing ballet helps me run and lift. Lifting helps me run and dance. And riding a bike is for enjoying life.
    If you’re a beginner at exercise, I recommend taking an easy yoga class, buying an inexpensive bike, and going for a walk. btw — I’m 5’3″ and 130 pounds.

    Sally wrote on October 14th, 2013
  8. After reading the article I end up saying yes it is. Thanks for the interesting post

    Airi wrote on October 16th, 2013
  9. Mark,
    To answer the question, no, barbell dogma is not doing more harm than good. In fact one could make an argument that in the scheme of things, we need a bit more barbell dogma, as long as we don’t get too….ahem….dogmatic about it.
    I for one am happy to preach the gospel according to Rippetoe on a regular basis. I also occasionally crack open a daily devotional to Greg Everett. Seriously, I love satire. Considering the vast amount of gimmicky nonsense that passes for training throughout the country, but actually does little or nothing, I think we are still safe in promoting barbell work. Good article, funny stuff. People who get overly self-righteous about anything are nauseating. Even when it’s something I like!

    tim hamilton wrote on October 19th, 2013
  10. Great article and I have had many of these exact same conversations on this site. I was a gym rat and know how great barbells are for strength, stamina and overall badassness but after injuring my back barbells aren’t a priority anymore. If they work for you then great but don’t try to ridicule me for not doing it. My saying is always “you do you and I’ll do me”.

    Matt wrote on October 22nd, 2013
  11. i agree with you It’s been called “The King of All Exercises” – and for good reason. The squat is the most common primal movement in the human arsenal. The squat is universally beneficial, and at times, controversial.

    thank you

    -jo smith

    alan parker wrote on November 12th, 2013
  12. An example of amazing strength and developed physique using bodyweight exercises:

    Carlos wrote on November 14th, 2013
  13. I d say for most people this is not even of slightest concern.. Body weight exercises, with an optional pair or two of dumbbells are enough to give an average Joe (or Jane) more strength than they will ever need.. When you are out of shape, anything will do, and any exercise is both strength and endurance exercise.. pushups, squats, situps and goodmornings.. will take you a long way.. then (if not too fat) you can include pullups, dips, some planks, bulgarian (or are they romanian) deadlifts/squats, lunges.. buy a pair of dumbbells for biceps, triceps and shoulders..

    RUN.. swim occasionally, and that is about everything you need to do if you do not want to commit your entire life to exercising..

    Even like this you will need 4-5 hrs a week.. minimum.. plus you will sleep more..
    If you have a job and/or a life, that is more than enough

    dido wrote on January 3rd, 2014

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