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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201 thoughts on “Is Barbell Dogma Doing More Harm Than Good?”

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    1. +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.

  1. 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!

    1. 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.

  2. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

        1. “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.

          1. This is true. A baby’s head is a much higher proportion of their body weight and allows for a much more upright torso naturally. Also femur length proportions are different than those of adults. Also changing the joint angles of the squat. There are studies on this.

  3. 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.

    1. 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.)

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

    1. 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 –

  6. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

      1. 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.

        1. 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.

    3. 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.

    4. 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.

      1. disagree that people need bands and machines. Also, from experience, being a trainer does not mean you automatically know how to squat properly. Not having the ankle flexion required of an upright squat could be how you hurt your back. However not using a variation of squat that works better for your mobility could just as much be the cause. An upright high bar squat is not easy to do without a heel lift/or amazing mobility. Low bar squats, front squats, zercher squats all compensate for this and don’t sacrifice your back to do so.

        As far as machines/cables/etc to learn movement patterns – teaching people how to move properly and using specific cues, not rushing into heavy training before someone’s form is ready, and understanding biomechanics accomplish these things much better than a machine on a set track.

        These are not things your NASM certification would teach you, however.

  7. 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….

  8. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.


    2. 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.

    3. 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!!!

    4. 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.

  9. 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.

    1. 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 🙂

  10. 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.

    1. 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!

      1. You’ll find just as many superior obnoxious dogmatic people in any fitneds modality. Yoga, martial arts, pilates, badminton, whatever

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

    1. 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!

  13. 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.”

  14. The book, “New Rules of Lifting for Life” seems to take a balanced approach.

  15. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

        1. Let me guess. You have a pedestal type table and you were standing on it changing a light bulb.

    2. 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.

  16. 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.

    1. That is crossfit, not barbell dogma. It has less to do with balanced training and much more to do with knowledgable coaching of the execution of the lifts. Don’t blame the tool for not doing it’s job properly. A barbell is balanced and will only move in the direction of gravity. Your body positioning determines bar path and therefore forces on the joints and tendons vs. musculature. It wasn’t benching that killed your partners shoulder. It was poor coaching and benching incorrectly.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

        1. 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.

        2. 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.

        1. 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.

    3. 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.

        1. 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.

        2. 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.

        3. @ 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.

        4. 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.

        1. 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.

    4. damn i’ve never seen a more sexist remark than “shame on women for lifting weights because now they look disgusting”. great thing none of them are asking your opinion. I’m sure you prefer the anorexic, alchoholic sorority girl to the strong female that doesn’t need your help to do what their feable hands can’t. Pathetic. Since you clearly don’t lift, I think it’s safe to assume that as a man you’ve become UTTERLY FEMININE in your old feable age as you stare at young girls walking past and shaking your head, your giblits shaking like jello off your chin.

  20. 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.

    1. +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…

  21. 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!

    1. Thanks for posting, what an inspiration – more than half his age and just watching him made me tired lol.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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

    1. 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?

  25. This came just in time, I’m going to start barbell training today. Great words of weightlifting wisdom. Thanks Mark!

  26. 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.

  27. 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

  28. 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!!

    1. 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.


      1. 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.

        1. Hi Ed,

          It seems barbell training and its effectiveness to increase sports performance in BOTH men and women is lost on the vast majority of “strength and conditioning coaches”…yourself included.

          Unfortunately, your athletes coming to train with you during the summers, is not indicative of your “strength” program’s effectiveness at increasing sports performance, or “doing something right”, but of the fact that the athletes don’t know any better…..and haven’t been exposed to a simple linear progression. Your lack of understanding about the importance of strength for athletes makes me question your effectiveness as a “sport enhancement trainer”…


    2. Huh. Training with barbells has made me a better martial artist. And here I thought martial arts were athletic.

  29. 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.

    1. can you show me on an anatomy chart these stabilizers you speak of

  30. 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.

  31. 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.


  32. 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.

    1. “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 🙂

      1. 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.

  33. 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.


  34. 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.

  35. 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.

  36. I have no idea of what you just said. Was that even English? Wow. It seemed funny, though.

    1. It was the the “King James” edition of MDA, considered by many to be a truer translation of the original Grok manuscripts.

  37. Yes, well said. I love barbells, but there are certainly other ways to improve fitness out there. When one is focused on the “gainz” it does become tough to see the forest for the trees. Worship of Brodin can blind you from the Ultimate Truth.

  38. I just did a quick search for the word “fail” or “failure” and saw it was not mentioned. Training “to failure” is a proven technique and benefit to maximizing muscle hypertrophy growth stimulus. Training to positive concentric failure is usually a much more dicey proposition using free weights than machine. Risk of injury, dropping the weight, etc. Any movement where the weight is above you has this problem and even some with the weight below you.

  39. As a former nationally ranked runner, writer and personal trainer, I could not agree with you more, Mark. Women, especially, shy away from barbells. They shouldn’t. As to your description of the stereotypical free-weight gym? Nothing short of outstanding!

    1. Agreed! There is a LOT of misinformation being spread to women specifically about lifting, ie. do more reps at a lighter weight to get “toned,” then hop on the elliptical for an hour for cardio to burn fat!

      Heavy lifting (especially barbell lifting) will get women that toned look, faster, while spending less time in the gym, and burning more calories/fat. But its sooooo hard to wade through all the CW when it comes to women’s health and fitness. There is too much misinformation about getting bulky (ladies, we don’t have the testosterone levels to look like a meathead) and it scares women away from heavy lifting. It’s a shame too, because I personally love lifting and barbell training. I wish more of my female friends would hop on board!

  40. Alot of the issues with having dogma around a certain implement is a lack of understanding in what constitutes good movement, what are the most common reasons for poor movement and how to fix them.

    Most training “styles” center around the principles of loading a working body and if you know much about training you know the very fact that the body is not working properly makes any regimen that does not address this much less effective.

  41. Great post, dogma is the bane of health studies.

    Squatting and deadlifting heavy all the time started to drain my nervous system and cause symptoms of adrenal fatigue – burning behind the eyes, fatigue upon waking in the morning, and less overall desire to lift.

    I’ve started to lift lighter weights (before I pretty much maxed out every workout for 2-3 years), and my energy is coming back. But there were other factors with my problem such as sleep deprivation and not eating enough.

    Squats and deadlifts and bench press seem to be part of a new barbell culture if you may call it, and form a stereotypical belief system that they’re the best for everything, fat loss, athletic training, and muscle building, when there are many other ways.

    I think squats and deadlifts really helped me improve hip flexibility/strength but going too heavy all the time felt unnatural and depleted some of my vitality.

    Good read.

    1. Your CNS was fried from trying to max out every workout. Not because of squats, deadlifts, and presses. At a point where you’re having to put 95%+ effort into each lift, you should reevaluate your programming. Sure, lifting light weight could rid you of an overload of fatigue, but so could taking the weight back to 85%, doing a reset, and understanding proper programming. Not everyone that lifts heavy is under constant CNS damage and fatigue.

  42. “Qurl Sin Thuh Zkwaut Raq ”

    Thank you for this….still chuckling.

  43. “Everything in Moderation” The same destination always has more then one path…

    1. Oh and I believe one must also keep in mind that many who are professing this dogma are in fact more interested in the “sport” of weight lifting. It is its own closed system of rules and regulation to achieve a perceived goal or award, to WIN, as it were. Just like a football player who plays American NFL rules football must practice within those rules to be better at a game run by those rules, so must a weight lifter adhere to those regalities when he trains. No the barbell, squat, deadlift, sit, eat, repeat theme is not the best way to achieve overall health, fitness, or what have you, but neither is having a team of twelve guys run all around while you throw a ball to them staying still the pocket the best way to get that ball to the other end of a field. it is the game though, and that’s the way they “play”

  44. Thank you for this. I have been doing bodyweight exercises, and I am approaching my goal of doing unassisted pullups. Maybe I could get stronger faster with barbell training, but due to location and cash constraints, I don’t have access to a proper gym with spotters and trainers. My first priority is to not hurt myself. The second is to enjoy what I’m doing.

  45. My gym has 1 squat rack. I want to thank all of my fellow members for doing leg presses, extensions and curls The rack is always free so i can get the work done….

    The problem with ALL fitness is the people who take everything to the extreme. Completely over the top as if there is only one way.

    80% is showing up. If you’re making gains, feeling better and looking better that’s all that matters.

    I squat, but if I did leg press, would my body composition really change? Not much.

    The kettlebell freaks from StrongFirst. Great information, but over the top. Don’t lift with gloves. Well if my hands are torn up, I can’t work out at all

    1. i almost agreed. Until you mentioned you wear glove. Develop some calluses man. It doesn’t take that long. if for no other reason, do it to be a man. i’ve never heard such horse****

  46. A lot of it is a matter of goals. I picked up Olympic lifting about six months ago and while I enjoyed it a lot I’ve drifted to more sophisticated body weight work. When I look at the vast majority of “mostly barbell” type guys, I don’t want to look like them. Male gymnasts though? Yeah, sign me up for that.

    My joints don’t take the same beating either. Between parallel bars and rings there’s a lot of great strength options without barbells. You can build a really nice home gym for pretty cheap.

  47. I have done everything from free weights to XT2 to yoga…everything has its place and is beneficial. I agree with all you have said. Variety is good for the body. Obviously free weights are going to give you that cut look, and that is great, but balance and core strength are important as well.

  48. As a power lifter , I rarely use machines. I do barbell squat bench and deadlift, supplemented with pull ups, sit ups, weighted push ups and dips. I feel like most if the machines in today’s gyms are unnecessary. That’s just me, though.

  49. Hi Mark,

    Do have a great way with words. I must admit I do like barbell workouts. My favorite is the good old squat. It is so good for you in many ways. It’s all I use on my legs…mainly because I’m a little bit lazy.

  50. Bottom line: do something you enjoy, be consistent with it and your fitness will improve.
    I am in very good shape and have a surf strength training video that uses nothing but an exercise ball. At first I thought it would be easy but it isn’t and will absolutely kick any one’s butt. Therefore, weights are not the only way or always necessary to build a stronger body.
    In fact, to truly build an all around strong body requires a lot of variety.

  51. Wow mark had me laughing quite a bit there in the beginning.

    As a a personal trainer I have to agree barbell isn’t the only way. While i think back squating and deadlifting are two of the most important MOVEMENTS everyone needs to learn, thinkig of throwing anyone and everyone under a barbell back squat is plain irresponsible.

    Your average person who sits all day and has terrible posture is just begging to be wrecked if they walk in and decide to deadlift and back squat .

    Increasing mobility so you have the ability too back squat would be time well spent though.

    From a personal standpoint I’m all about mixing it up. Love barbell, love jui jitsu and will even get on bodyweight kicks for months at a time. I even improved my 225 bench press max when only training bodyweight movements for three months!

    Sorry for the novel, all this workout talk begs for a liftin session!

  52. Ha-ha. That first portion was funny and great!
    The second portion was informative sad I did not know that dumbbells are ultimate. I always wondered why all the buff people were only using dumbbells.
    As a former desk jockey I have started on the machines and will be working up to the cables and hopefully free weights.
    But I like that my gym has a variety of different ways to work out including videos and even a specialized ladder i.e. for this wannabe firefighters!

  53. Barbell training isn’t the only way. Neither is eating and living Primal. Yet that doesn’t mean we don’t promote living and eating primal. We do, because we believe it’s the best available way.

    Likewise with barbells.

    Anyone who’s spent years doing body weight and machine training AND done barbell training can readily tell the difference in terms of strength and hypertrophy.

    And for the aged and sedentary, OF COURSE you need to learn the lifts properly and start light, then go from there. If done correctly, superior results (relative to other modalities) will almost always result.

    If you DON’T learn the lifts correctly and DON’T start light, you’re a disaster waiting to happen. This isn’t as true with machines, which allow for a greater margin of error.

  54. I think it’s very important for everyone to remember that what ever your goal is, be it reduce weight, tone up, strength endurance, hypertrophy,max strength,speed endurance etc…
    You need to start at the beginning.
    The National Academy of Sports Medicine recommends via the OPT (Optimal Performance Training) model the following:
    1. A complete fitness evaluation.
    2. A postural analysis,squat assessment,push pull assessment all help in determining muscle imbalances (most people have them including beginners to pros). Gray Cook’s FMS screen would also help.
    3. Working on the imbalances 1st and then progressing from there. If you fail to correct these imbalances you’re building on a faulty foundation which can lead injuries. Flexibility for tight muscles and strengthening weak muscles.
    4. After addressing the imbalances, start working on stability exercises. Stability Balls, Bosu,TRX, anything with an element of instability built in.
    5. Strength Endurance is next with Hypertrophy and Max Strength and Power levels following. Numerous different types of exercises with various types of equipment including your body weight.

    Most people who are starting out, will never progress past Strength Endurance, hence would not be interested in heavy weights. Many are just concerned with having an active lifestyle and the health and wellness to pursue that.
    I think a balance of all kinds of different types of exercises is best with Functional Primal Movements being one of the ultimate goals.

    I love this site, so much great information!

    Senior Fitness Specialist.

  55. Well put, and very good points all around. I’d like to add that after 4 years of doing Crossfit-style workouts, including Crossfit Mom in my first pregnancy, I found myself going back to the machines during my second pregnancy. I felt weird about it, but ultimately it was necessary. I had major SI joint issues this time around, and corresponding pains and misalignments in other places. A lot of the exercises I was doing were causing me more pain. There were no prenatal yoga classes available in my town, so my only choice was machines. I benefited hugely from being able to use them while pregnant, and the back support was also essential due to the issues I was having. Now that I’ve had the baby I can rebuild my strength and go back to the free weights, but I’m grateful I had machines, too!

  56. A little while ago I owned several health clubs where we trained mostly the “sedentary” members of our community. I have seen absolutely amazing results with people that incorporate basic balanced weight training, intense cardio & improvement with their food. I have seen some of people progress into athletes competing competitively in events like half marathons, triathlon & reaching sub 8% body fat, all without touching a barbell. Barbells are fantastic, but thinking back, over the hundreds of gyms I’ve trained in, I’ve seen more bad form using them than good. The body is very good at conditioning itself against the damage of weight training, so incorporating as much different training as possible that attacks muscles at different angles and at different intensities is always best to optimise performance. Unless of you course your goal is to become a professional barbell athlete for competition… if that actually exists.

  57. I prefer barbells for a number of reasons. First of all, I work with a trainer and he has taught me how to properly do lifts. Second, as an older woman (56) who just took up weightlifting in the past 3 years, I find it liberating that I can do something I always thought was impossible for me. Third, the training that goes into some of these lifts, clean and jerks, etc. is complex and to do them properly you have to learn in steps. It stimulates my mind to remember sequences. Having said all of this, if working on lifestyle machines gets you into the gym, then do it. I think everyone should incorporate different types of weightlifting into their regimen. I have done machines on occasion if my trainer isn’t available. I don’t pay attention to message boards, lifters in the gym unknown to me, or websites. I listen to my body and my trainer.

    1. You don’t pay attention to websites, but you happen to wander around and comment here?

  58. Dying with laughter at the first part of this article. Thank you for that! I love your humor!

  59. Very well said Mark. As a human kinetics student and an ACE CPT candidate the only thing I would add about beginning with barbells (or any freeweight/bodyweight training) is to focus on strengthening joint stability before working with heavy loads. That should significantly reduce the risk of injury

  60. Awesomely hilarious post. I got most of the references (Rippled Toad nearly had you owing me a keyboard). And valid points. And I’m one of the alleged “bro’s” out there telling everybody to squat.

  61. I prefer developing limberness along with strength, and strength that will last even when I can’t workout. Try holding a low horse stance for 30 minutes and see if your legs are actually strong. Pilates hell doesn’t sound so bad.

  62. I love a mix of dumbell and barbell work outs. Im going to do crossfit on friday for the first time and I am a little nervous of the whole thing but I think I will like it, except for the $. My gym is $40/month where as one session at crossfit is $30

  63. My Physiotherapist said I have benign ligament laxity. She said with my type of ligaments the studies show that my stability will improve from strengthing muscles on machines, and by avoiding using free weights. I was suprised to hear this to say the least.

  64. I’m 59 and have lifted weights since 14 and for the last 7 years combined with yoga and stretching1-2 times a week. Too much just lifting weights only leaves me too tight and unflexable. Also walking 2x a day (1-1/2 hours) with my dogs as well. This seems to work for me.

  65. Barbells have helped me be better at hiking and backpacking. It’s hard to find time to hike more than 2x a week, so barbells keep me strong. Strong enough that I was able to do a 120 mile backpack trip this summer and barely felt that it was an effort at all. Plus I do a lot better at trail maintenance now that I have some upper body strength.

    After 9 months of calisthenics classes I still could not do a single pushup on my toes. But after doing barbell strength training for 9 months and not doing any pushups at all, I was able to do 5 sets of 10 pushups on my toes. I was super sore afterwards, but I was pretty shocked at what barbells could do for my general strength. They are easier to start from a very low strength place and work up gradually as opposed to a lot of bodyweight things that you can either do or can’t.

  66. Loved this article. I do “The Power of 10″ myself, aka SuperSlow…by the book of the same name. It’s a mix of machines and free weights. One of the main advantages is that (and I think it’s true) it is safer than weights. So for me, a guy who goes to the gym once or twice a week, for an intense, super slow work-out…it works. Other days I do yoga, or bodyweight exercises. I call The Power of 10 ‘Western style yoga” due to it’s emphasis on 1) posture 2) deep continuous breathing, and 3) 10 sec extension and 10 sec contraction, without pausing. And I look forward to doing more free weight stuff too…especially at home. ps I loved the infographic last month!

  67. Being all or nothing with any exercise is stagnating (if that’s a word). I personally love working with barbells, but I spread my time evenly between barbells, dumbells, machines and *gasp* cardio equipment. If I don’t try to keep it interesting, I will lose my mind and go home to eat potato chips on the couch.

  68. I did free weight training all my life to get better at all the sports I played, whatever was in season. Now that I’m in my 50’s, it’s mostly racquet ball as none of old cronies are interested in flag football or 12″ softball anymore. But I definitely do have to balance strength training (which includes dead lifts and squats twice a week) with days I can play ball (3 X’s a week) or I hit the point of diminishing returns Muy Pronto. At 200 lbs. body weight, I can not do a lot of pull ups or chin ups so cable pull downs are essential. But other than the cable machines, most others impinge my shoulders too much, maybe it’s my structure but machines don’t fit. Dumbells offer me the greatest and most natural range of motion but you gotta mix it up w/ barbells to avoid muscle becoming “too efficient”.

  69. Another way of looking at it: until the late 1800s/early 1900s, barbell exercises were a non-factor. And bench work is an even more recent invention. I’m paraphrasing, but, as the author of Play As If Your Life Depends Upon It notes in his book, could you imagine any of our ancient ancestors lying on their backs in the dirt and pressing rocks, etc., off of their chest?

    Humans evolved to perform as upright creatures…we walk, carry things, press, etc. It took a while for me to get the whole silly lift heavy or go home mentality out of my head and to return to more realistic activities, which were also far, far more joint & heart friendly. (All of those heavy lifts can have a detrimental affect on your heart…worst case aortic dissection or anuerysm.)

    A big part of our barbell mentality has also evolved from the equipment manufacturing and gym business, much like this silly protein loading 6 – 8 times per day concept that the bodybuilding rags & supplement manufacturers promote.

  70. I think the barbell is an effective tool. However, I believe that dumbells may be even more effective. Training with a barbell restricts the range of motion of the shoulder, and can cause pain in both shoulders, and elbows. The dumbells allows for consistent progression, and overload, while allowing free range of motion, and requiring even more stabalization.

    That being said, doing something you enjoy may be more important than the absolute effectiveness of the training method. You will be more consistent if you enjoy your training. Consistency is King.

    I also have to throw in a good word for towing a sled. It combines the effects of weight lifting with those of sprinting, without the soreness associated either one. It also is very safe. You can’t get crushed beneath your sled.

  71. I’ve been on Mark’s primal diet radar for just over two years, and have never been in better shape in my life! As a former competitive athlete (15 years of intense training), I now takes much enjoyment in workouts which engage strength training, endurance, and play. I can only share with you all my person experience with the “barbell” world. Gyms and barbells are great, but they are also for a niche market. Quality workouts can be planned and experienced in the presence of your own home, or great outdoors. For instance, a mixture of calisthenics, sprints, series of exercises which engage – squats – jumps – skaters- push-ups – jack knives – pull-ups, in sets, with say 3-5lb resistant weights are great for toning and building endurance. Trust me!! It is about quality and building strength over time. I also recommend mountaineering, running sets on wooden stairs (if you can find them), and rolling hills. Be creative and go outside! You will save money and find greater enjoyment in being active.

  72. Timely post since I’m starting a mostly barbell training program today. It’s been about 9 months since I last used a barbell, so I’m taking this first session to do most moves with just the bar. But I’ve also been doing body weight squats over the last nine months, so I know I have the mobility to do it correctly with the barbell. Regardless, it doesn’t hurt to start light and move up!

    Anyway, I’m doing barbell lifts for 3 main reasons: (1) I want to lose fat (2) I want to get strong and (3) I want to perform better on the volleyball court. I want to do all these things without spending hours in the gym, and from my research barbells are the most efficient way to do these things (combined with a primal/paleo way of eating, of course). The good thing is my training program ALSO implements body weight movements as finishers, sprints, and daily walking/moving. So yeah, it is about doing more than just barbells, I think, to see the most gains, depending on your goals; BUT the barbells WILL give you the biggest results in the shortest amount of time.

    But I love lifting, and I love squatting more than the guys at my gym, so it’s fun for me. Do what you love!

  73. I used to be anti-machines myself, until I started doing high intensity strength training to the point of complete muscular failure, not just to fatigue. I learned the technique from the book Body by Science, by Doug Mcguff. Drew Bey also advocates this type of strength training. I use machines only for the legpress and the lat pulldown exercises. I cannot imagine going to muscular failure doing barbell squats! I do pushups; an inclined pullup; and a free weight shoulder press, to complete the big five workout. I have been blown away by the effectiveness of this way of training. I encourage all to investigate this protocol– truly amazing strength gains while lifting only once per week, to allow for recovery and adaptaton.

  74. have a look at the greek statues. Not a barbell in sight but magnificent specimens of both male and females. Each to their own but bodyweight exercises produce far fewer injuries and if correctly done as in core/pilates style can give peak fitness and the blend of physical/mental/spiritual fitness which is the true way.

  75. The dogma is probably less valid the older we get. At 59+ I am in Mark’s age range. Got my first basic weight set about 15 years ago followed by a cage and Olympic set a year or so later. Spent on average 3-4 nights a week lifting. I still have it and use it occasionally, but have been swayed by the paleo/primal play lifestyle. I’m more careful with my joints. For one thing, getting the nutrition right has done more for my body composition than when I was lifting more. When I lift it’s lighter, I pursue more variety with a mountain bike, hiking, skates, body weight, a slackline, sprints with the dog, even (gasp) a Total Gym machine. I haven’t tried kettlebells…yet. Anything to move. Maybe it’s ADD. I’ve recently had the thought to go back to weights when the weather turns in a month or so making outside activities less available. It’s a good inside activity.

  76. It all depends on what the goal is right? And whatever the goal is in my opinion it should start with building and developing a foundation in strength. If a power-lifter has a one mind focus on his competition then he or she must practice in their chosen sport which involves practising with the barbell. If a competitive contact athlete needs to get bigger and stronger than the barbell is most likely going to be a good addition to their program as well. If the beginner trainee comes walking in off the street with a whole range of asymmetries and imbalances then learning grooves in movement or correcting imbalances should be a focus. The point is there are many tools in the toolbox and depending where you or your client is at depends on where you should start to develop your foundation in strength. The trick here is using the appropriate tools for the job. Overall I think the general population should be firstly trying to achieve a general fitness (amount of work), which means an ability to complete most physical daily tasks with success. The barbell is not the only way, but it is most definitely a tool that you can reap great benefits from. Being stronger is not a disadvantage, it’s an essential part of your fitness.

  77. I must admit getting out of gyms and into the fresh air with minimal or no equipment is kind of liberating…. Theres a reason for this…… Find a groove that makes you smile and stick with it. Master your skills but dont forget to try new things from time to time….. repetition limits us…. Remember the ABC.. Ask questions. Believe nothing. Confirm it for yourself! ‘Move well then move often – GROK ON COMRADES!’

  78. I’ve been training with free weights off-and-on for a long time. Lots of 1RM and 5×5 stronglifts. But had to go to higher reps after breaking 4 of the chordae on my mitral valve. Doc said he’s only seen that in folks lifting very heavy and in traumatic injuries like smashing your chest into the steering column.

    Heavy was fun but it can be dangerous. I’d never have said it before but lifting a bit lighter (light enough to do at least 13-14 reps) is safer and still yields good results without putting so much strain on your heart valves. If you lift heavy long enough especially if you don’t pay close attention to your breathing you will almost certainly get leaky valves if not outright break some chordae like I did. My heart issue was discovered and corrected with a minimally invasive procedure. I was back at work after 3 weeks and better than ever in about 4 months.

    If you’re lifting really heavy consider going a bit lighter. I’ve found 5×25 KB swings with a 75lb homemade T-bar to work well and also do a lot of sledgehammer work and love rowing and HIIT. I still do freeweights and body weight conditioning (Convict Conditioning is a good book on BW exercises).

    Something to think about…

    1. My wife had to correct me on one point I had 2 broken chordae and most of the others were badly stretched.

  79. Exactly, well said. Let’s look at professional dancers or acrobatic circus performers as examples of extremely fit and “strong” athletes who don’t primarily lift barbells, if at all.

    Barbell lifting is one of the most “complicated” things I’ve ever done and I think one is never really “done” when it comes to improving technique. So yes suggesting that someone not used to exercises go near a barbell is insanity.

    Fortunately, the Crossfit gym I joined 4 years ago is owned by two gymnasts, so needless to say the hour long class consists of a variety of movements and skill training, and the facility was gymnastically equipped/padded, so one could stay on and play practicing handstands and rolls etc, or take full-on gymnastic classes.

    And to this point, we had a woman gymnast in her 40’s who took crossfit classes “occasionally”, however she held female gym records for moves like weighted pull-ups and most consecutive muscle-ups. Also she could jump into a crossfit lifting class on a momentary whim and “out-lift” everyone in it, except the highly skilled male veterans.

    Everyone was eased into lifting techniques with PVC pipes and people entirely new to exercise used dumbbells.

  80. I use a Bowflex in the privacy of my home and have never been more fit. While it is not for everyone, it works for me. I also enjoy carbs and have never had an issue with them (or gluten). Mahala.

  81. I read this at work and just about snorted my coffee! Well said and well written…. It made my morning!

  82. I’m a bit discouraged by this article. Marks PBF seems to say bodyweight is a great way to be strong, fit, and lean. But he clearly says in this article that barbell is the superior way to go- only he’d basically be more tactful in communicating that to people depending on where they are on the journey. I’m confused, is he basically saying if you can get access to barbells, you’re better off in the long run?

  83. Has anybody read the “butt wink” link??? My jaw dopped while reading the bodyweight squat non-sense part. And I’m still puzzled. Why are we still discussing all this? After I discovered the book “Convict Conditioning” here on MDA (Mark wrote one of the headlines), all “traditional” weight lifting lost any sense it was making for the my past-self. I started to apply those principles and my muscle raw power skyrocketed. Calhistenics are the answer. That’s not a dogma, it’s just the way the warriors of all ages used to train for their fights. An probably the closest to Grock’s training style. Go and grab a copy, your body will thank you!

  84. A really good point. Bro-science is often lacking, and built on a religeous dedication to one method. But in reality, humans are best by a whole host of physical challenges. The strength offered by barbell training is useful, but not if you are unable to convert your deadlift strength to actually lifting something up in the real world. And machines have their place – some high quality, well designed machines (Nautilius etc) enter into a realm that even barbells cannot reach (by following the strength curve of muscles as opposed to a consistent amount of resistance offered by weights + gravity).

    I personally train in the HIE method one day a week (squat, press, row, pull down, bench – both freeweights and qaulity machines), deadlift + Movnat one day a week. Thats it. And I have experienced unparalleled gains in size and strength (compared to my experiences with starting strength training, thrice weekly hypertrophy training and CrossFit). Easy, and only a few barbells in sight.

  85. Nicely written, humorous approach. Barbells are fine, but they are NOT the end all to weight training. Not everyone is trying to gain 40 lbs of muscle weight. There are a few really good bodyweight, dumbbell and resistance band training sites out there that are great for building lean muscle and strength. There are also several really good machines for safely building muscle mass (Powertec comes to mind). There are even (GASP!) some pretty good DVD/internet based workout programs that will meet the needs of most people. I “borrow” from several sources to create my own workouts, and yes, I also use a Smith machine and barbells on occasion…

  86. Some weight machine exercises have no easy equivalent in barbells, for example pull down weight machines. So I think if you are just doing barbells you are going to miss out on a lot of exercises that work different muscle groups.
    personally I also find that alternating between barbells and weight machines is more effective for me, because variety tends to be more stressful to your muscles then doing the same exercises over and over.
    I also find that I get a much better workout using a rowing machine with weights attached than doing bend-over rowing with barbells.

  87. I am 53 years old and over the past two years my life has changed dramatically…THANK YOU Mark Sisson. I have a son who is 20 and for the last 12 months he has done free weight training. His results have been great, gained SOME muscle. That was his goal. It definitely worked for him. He looks great. But I see so many others that look like they’re only puffy or swollen. I dunno maybe the vocal ones are those that have achieved real results thru proper form, correct exercises and dedication. It is no doubt hard work and koudos to you all. I’ve trained with my son a few times because I don’t have much experience with a barbell. I am really only interested in squats, deadlifts and the bench press. I do plenty of other modalities which include dumbells, cable machines, bodyweight, sprinting, HIIT, etc. In terms of fitness I know I am in much better shape/condition than most that are around my age and certainly many younger people as well. For comparison purposes I may have less lean mass but I also have less body fat than my son My endurance and mobility is far and away better than his. Sure he’s stronger but I’m strong too and not a slouch by any stretch. The takeaway for me when I’m at the gym or elsewhere is that I must be doing something right, all things considered..lifted or not. Grok on!

  88. My two cents….I need to get working out. As is live in AK. Diet 100% moose, caribou, salmon, greens from garden. Quinoa from store. Trying to follow this site and minimal bread type carbs. 10 cords split and stacked, another ten to do. Massive snow shoveling, hiking in swamps in hip boots etc but still thinking I need to do actual workouts…..not sure

  89. I was a barbell only guy, but since I’ve incorporated body weight and kettle bells things have been much better. I feel healthier overall.

  90. Of course you can train other ways, and there are other sources of joy in the world than a heavy deadlift. But, on the other hand, barbell training is a proven way to get a lot stronger. There are other ways, but barbell training is a Really Good Way.

    I know in my case, training on machines did nothing to help my chronically sore back, which vanished once I started deadlifting. I’m very pleased with what “barbell dogma” has brought to my life.

    Disclosure: I’m a Starting Strength Coach, so, a “Rippled Toad” disciple.

  91. Great info, thanks Mark! My partner Clint has gotten me into doing more primal movements, still including some strength straining, but nothing like the heavy weights we used to do in the gym when I was a personal trainer. He’s now a trainer also and is big on all things natural and primal and he’s so much healthier because of it. I used to do insanely heavy weights and made many of my clients do the same (all while ensuring excellent posture, core control etc but still..!) and I wish I knew then what I know now!

    Now we go to the beach, pick up and throw rocks, sprint, crawl and do all sorts of fun primal movements. I still love boxing, and we use CrankIt straps sometimes, but overall we move a lot more naturally and functionally. And it’s SO much more fun! I never enjoyed lifting heavy weights as much as I enjoy what I do now!

    Thanks for putting this info out there for people to learn 🙂

  92. I prefer barbells / dumbells on the whole,
    but as I work out along when I want to really up the weight I use a machine for safety’s sake.

  93. The issue I’ve had with barbells is my own requirement to complete moderate to heavy weight reps, often super-slow to complete failure. Without a spotter, dangerous stuff.

  94. delivered down into Pilates …..has me smizing 🙂

    I am a ftness trainer for good few years..have had great results with barbell but the tirendess and soreness does get on the way of an active work yes totally agree smaller stabilizing muscles can feel left out in the long run..

    years of training people turned me into studying Pialtes nowadays…body hasnt been happier..i do keep up a bit of weightlifting …but must mention that those barbell sissies must try Pilates..Hardest.Workout.Ever. plus it will fix your ROM problems and a lot of injuries…;)

  95. Muscles don’t care what is a source of resistance they are contracting against. For me bodyweight (+backpack sometimes) is most convenient way to train. If there are some low enough bars in a playground, I add “barbell” work- static contractions version of squats or deadlifts.

  96. Please continue using machines, balls, pads, bags, body weight, dumb bells, tradmills, whatever.

    My gym has just two squat racks and now I get one whenever I walk in for however long I want.

  97. Well said! I dont think Grok had a barbell! and DOING WORK with body weight exercises is more Paleo then anything else!

  98. In my case I have a bad shoulder and can’t use the bar, so for me dumbbells work very well as it allows me to adjust my hand position and angle. Also, I DON’T SQUAT LIKE FREAKING EVER!! Heavy that is. I hate the movement to start with and it makes me feel so very slow when running. I do dead lifts heavy and squats light for a lot of reps, I don’t really need a lot of heavy muscle in my thighs, but I do like the benefit that your back gets from both movements, do them on the same day as shoulders. Great article though, I have sent it along to my grandson, he still feels a bit intimidated in the gym by bigger guys.

  99. That intro was bloody hilarious!

    I’ve been teaching Kung-Fu for over 25 years – If I had £5 for every time I’ve shown some meat-head how slow their training regime makes them, I bet I could buy 100 pairs of Vibrams!

    Too much rigid lifting slows you down ‘period’, as you say on that side of the pond; if you want to lift heavy things slowly, then fine – Me, I just use machinery to do it, (or bet a meat-head he can’t Lift it 😉 )

    You’ve got to do a variety of training if you want real physical ability. PB & MDA has shown me how to refine my already varied regime for best results, fewer injuries & best of all more free time!

  100. Having been involved in competitive powerlifting, and spending 18 years of my 45 years “under the bar”; I can 100% agree that the new barbell dogma is bad news for a lot of people. The worst part about it? The lack of real training … this means the lack of focus from a new lifter to train correctly; and the lack of focus from trainers who cash checks while teaching bad form.
    I’ve had many injuries through my time in the gym; mainly knees, and then a major back issue that took me out of the iron game last year. The reason I could get hurt, have a knee surgery, and get back in the gym is because of a dedicated focus to rehab, form, and knowing that it takes years to strength train. Not months. My time in the gym was real training; with short, medium, and long term goals set in stone.
    My Primal Blueprint path started in 2009. I cut 55 pounds in less than 6 months; and actually ended my fight with pre diabetes, skin issues, and a signature wheat belly. I kept lifting, because I still had goals in mind. My plan was to break a state lifting record in my age group and then leave powerlifting.
    I hurt my back in March 2012 and ended up having surgery last August. I mention this because while I was laid up, I kept thinking, “If I were Grok, hunter gatherer, I would be a dead man right now”. Food for thought.
    My advice? If you are going to lift, learn how, from real trainers that care. Don’t lift weights just to wear the T-Shirt, or think you are part of the club. The new barbell game is a joke, a sales pitch, and those of us that have been there understand how that being truly strong is all in DEDICATION, CONVICTION, COURAGE, and a little insanity thrown in for good measure.
    Honestly, you can get more real work done with body weight exercises anyway. When I say real work, I mean strengthening your body naturally, and allowing yourself to improve overall fitness for all life throws at you. Going into the gym and lifting heavy might make us unaturally strong; but it also keeps you in 3 states: Hungry, Tired, and Sore. For now, my daily routine is bodyweight exercises, some yoga, and walking.
    Thanks for this article Mark.

  101. I really loved this article, not only because of the content but the first section about the barbell dogma was so well written. It really had me giggling! Please keep writing! I enjoy the information and the wit!

  102. Well said…I couldn’t agree more. Being one dimensional creates barriers when it comes to achieving proper development. We must train for strength, mobility, power, flexibility, agility and so on. These are all important as they help create neuromuscular efficiency, stability, and corrective movement patterns. If mobility is an issue I would recommend taking a look at Kelly Starrett’s book “Becoming a Supple Leopard” or some of Eric Cressey’s work. I believe compound movements are critical component in a successful program design, but should not be done until movement pattern issues are corrected. When starting with BB work it is important that you take some time (weeks or months) focusing on mastery of technique and once that is established start by adding small amounts of weight.

  103. It is really confusing when we’re told to do this, then the following year there’s another thing to do that’s better than the previous. I do a combo of barbells (mostly), some machines and HIIT to stay fit along with Primal eating. I’m not as thin as I would like to be (lifelong battle with that), but I’ve never felt better.

  104. I love x fitters. Those guys can always take a whooping in the MMA gym for way longer 😉

  105. Balance of the various fitness disciplines used to be the matter of course. Check out Maurice Jones, dubbed the Canadian Hercules. He was renowned for tremendous training pound ages. On his off days he would either run or hike through the mountains with a rucksack. He loved both activities and contined to do them well into his mid eighties. Another great post with a great theme and humor. Made me think and laugh.

  106. Usually like the articles on MDA, however, this time not so much. The real problem is that we have some very different populations in the physical training conversation. The absolutely untrained and the trained or even advanced. Those two/three groups should have separate discussions, however this isn’t the case. Why? Because you get the constant cycle of trying to bring beginners up to speed and those conversations sound like “do what you can,” “try this, but if you can’t don’t do it forget about it,” and “don’t push yourself because of safety concern X.” Constant qualifications, on what to do, only serve to confuse the matter. Most beginners just want to be told what to do. Why? Because most people are too lazy to read for themselves.

    Furthermore, discussions on physical training, like many things in America, has become therapeutic in nature, and any hard line is seen as bullying or worse. Mark, that is why on the interweb forums you see an accumulation of personnel who want to move beyond the 1 page Men’s Health article on “rocking your core.” That is why there are constant jokes about doing curls in the squat racks and the meme “Friends don’t let friends skip leg day.” There are people who hate the therapeutic discussion (i.e. soft and whiny), the beginner talk, and the endless cycle of safety-safety-safety.

    Given how the current state of affairs I’d say the popularity CrossFit and Barbell Dogma is a positive development.

    1. I loved this article. My view is that people do “what works” and what works for one person may not work for another. The thing about dogma is it requires blind acceptance. If you do something without understanding why and just because its popular, you are starting on the wrong foot.

      I worship the barbell idol because she rewards me “big time!” This is a journey of self discovery and you should try different disciplines and, if you persist, something will “click.”

      I started lifting “heavy things” at 45 (the previous 4 years being sedentary and suffering for it). I came across this site at 47, bought the primal blueprint and it just made sense to me based on my own life experience to that point. Growing up in an Italian household I thought it would be hard to give up wheat, pasta etc. Turns out it was much easier to adopt than expected.

      At 48, the combination of primal eating and low reps/high weight barbell work has yielded incredible results for me. My weight hasn’t changed drastically. My body comp has. My lean body mass, strength are way up and I’ve lost enough body fat that the other regulars in the gym are telling me that I’ve really “leaned out.” I am now as strong as I was in my twenties.

      My training place during the week is a Y in my office building. I don’t use the cardio equipment or machines. I learned the deadlift at 46 from a competitive powerlifter at another gym where I now train on the weekend. At a BW of 175, I’m hitting numbers that are causing guys half my age to notice. My goal is to compete at the Masters Level in PL in 2014.

      Along the way I discovered the importance of foam rolling. Mobility work is also important. I agree wholeheartedly with the recommendation of the Supple Leapord and I subscribe to Eric Cressey. I also cross country ski (class and skate style) in the winter and whitewater kayak when the water isn’t frozen. I run hills and ski bound in the fall as part of dryiand training for ski season. But I hate cardio for cardio’s sake. A x-country ski buddy remarked that he never imagined powerlifting could be combined with x-country skiing but after leaving him behind on some long uphills, he said, “Hard to argue with success.” Deadlfting has done incredible things for my core and my overall power. Not to mention I no longer have backaches.

      For the last three years, I’ve been seeing the same faces in the gym on a similar schedule to mine during my training sessions. One guy is into MMA and is a personal trainer, another is a rugby player, another is a crossfitter. Each of us has different goals. Each of us train with barbells differently. But we all train with barbells. The people on the cardio machines always seem to plod along the same plateau. The women and men who are lifting heavy are also the ones often doing “other stuff” hitting new PRs and chasing other goals, whether its a Spartan race, a tough mudder or some other sport as well.

      All of us are making progress and all of us have respect for and are interested in the other’s training style and goals and share information. The common elements for everyone are consistency, dedication and an intelligent implementation of specific training protocols geared toward specific outcomes. That is to say someone who cares most about “being ripped” trains differently than someone who cares only about max lifts in the “big 3.” Another example, I bench more than the MMA guy. He’s half my age, 5 inches taller and outweighs me by 30lbs. But we bench differently. He benches close grip for reps because he wants power in his sparring. I bench wide grip because it reduces the range of motion and I want the highest 1 RM.

      Love the barbell!

  107. Nicely put! You need to look at intended goals, and many people miss that one simple aspect, are you working out (fitness) or training (specific purpose). The program from MDA is perfect for those that want to just be in good shape and healthy, and I wish more of my athletes had the capabilities to do it. So, as much as I sit somewhere on the Barbell dogma (Loaded exercise) I still utilize many different modalities and body weight mobility is a necessity. Want to Maximize performance? sorry but you are going to need to touch some heavy weight.

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

  109. 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!

  110. 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.

  111. Great article — I use a mix of machines, dumbells and bodyweight, and I alternate exercises when things get easy to keep motivated and challenged.

  112. 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.

  113. 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.

  114. 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!

  115. 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”.

  116. 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

  117. 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

  118. I see your point on a lot of this. However I am a very pro-barbell coach/trainer/athlete. I don’t believe it’s the end all be all, but in my experience I’ve found that if I can get a client to learn to squat, press, and deadlift properly – everything else becomes trivial to attempt. Most find that it’s much easier to learn any machine or dumbell movement once they understand the proper mechanics of compound lifts. It also makes handling heavier kettlebells or other more taxing and advanced forms of training easier to progress in as well. My opinion is that if I can start someone on an empty bar (45lbs) and they get comfortable with at least that weight on each lift, you’re opening the doors to understanding that 45lbs doesn’t weigh much at all, and every lift requiring less or a little more than that becomes very easy. I’m an avid backpacker, camper, musician, and swimmer as well, so my heavy training or fear of losing my gains has not effected those things. Many of my clients are over 45 years old with life-injuries to work around, and the workarounds we’ve done have included barbells with much success. While I know there are “zealots” that will tout Barbells and Rippetoe to the world, there are just as many of us that see the benefits to getting generally strong with Barbells and do not demonize other modalities of lifting. The same article could be written of any other modality of training – running, swimming, yoga, etc. In every type of movement there are extremists who put it above all else and demonize the rest. For this reason I don’t think barbells should be warned against, because that isn’t doing much good either. If you want to use the most muscle, range of motion, and weight in congruence with eachother – barbells allow us to do that. Progressing in small increments in a loaded movement is easiest to do on a barbell because we can use as small as 1lb increments. The improvements seen from getting generally stronger are reflected in every form of training – just as getting more mobility, flexibility, conditioning, etc. Great article, and I don’t mean this as a criticism, but just offering my opinions. I believe in the strength/fitness world open discussions should happen – otherwise we are all just listening to our own yes-men.

  119. Your example of a guy that trap bar deadlifts 400lbs is not a great example of strength. I have seen completely inexperienced and noncompetitive lifters do this in their teens without any knowledge of training. Heck I’ve seen completely inexperienced lifters do it in their 50s. Bradley Cooper did more than that in American Sniper and I guarantee you he had no more than maybe a year of training under his belt. A trap bar deadlift is not a mark of strength. Perhaps (MAYBE) a conditioning tool, but not a feat of strength.