Why Barbells?

by Robert Maxwell

Over the last few months, a number of Man Factory subscribers have asked me some version of the same question: why barbells? After all, there are so many different forms of exercise. Why focus on just one? It’s a fair question. My answer is both simple and complex, and it’s what I’ll be sharing with you in this article. The reason I focus on barbell training in both my personal fitness quest and on this website is that barbells provide the best way to get strong. Properly defined, physical strength is your ability to exert force against an external resistance. More simply, it’s how hard you can push or pull something. Well known author and strength coach Mark Rippetoe says in his book, “Starting Strength”, that “Our strength, more than any other thing we possess, still determines the quality and quantity of our time here in these bodies.” Being able to run long distances is great, as is the flexibility required to twist yourself into a knot. But unless you’re a professional marathoner or yoga instructor, these skills won’t have massive impact on your everyday existence. Strength will. No matter who you are or what your situation, physical strength is a huge advantage. I won’t spend the majority of this article convincing you why getting strong is worthwhile. I’ve already done that here. Instead, I’ll share with you some of the reasons barbell training is the most effective way to gain strength.



The reason strength is such an advantage boils down to gravity. Strong people have a greater ability to resist the effects of gravity than weak people. When you grab something heavy and attempt to lift it in the air, the resistance you feel is gravity trying to yank the object straight back down to earth. Gravity always works this way – constantly pulling all objects down, perpendicular to the earth’s surface, towards the centre of the planet. There are no exceptions. All objects, when dropped in the absence of wind, will fall straight down. That’s why the most effective strength training involves fighting gravity as efficiently as possible – by pushing or pulling a heavy object straight up. The object best designed for this is the barbell. Barbells allow heavy weights to be held in both hands and pushed or pulled in many different ways. Barbell squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, and bench presses all involve pushing or pulling a loaded barbell upwards, directly against gravity’s pressure. Unlike the strength training machines found at most gyms, properly executed barbell lifts very often involve a straight, vertical range of motion controlled completely by the lifter, in direct opposition to gravity. With proper training, a lifter will learn what their body must do to produce the correct range of motion. This will be slightly different for everyone, and brings to light another reason barbell training is so great – it automatically adjusts based on the body proportions of the trainee. The squat is a perfect example. In a properly performed squat, the barbell moves in a straight, vertical path centred over the mid-foot of the lifter. This is proper technique because the barbell is moving in the most efficient way possible – directly against the pull of gravity. However, lifters come in all different shapes and sizes. For those with fairly long legs and short torsos, achieving this straight, vertical bar path during the squat involves quite a bit of forward lean towards to bottom of the movement. For those with longer upper bodies and shorter legs, a much more vertical trunk position achieves the same result. As long as the bar path remains vertically centred over mid-foot, both positions are correct. This self-adjusting quality is one of the greatest advantages of barbell training.



Getting strong is an adaptive process. With proper rest and nutrition, your body will react to the stress of resistance training by building stronger muscles and a more effective nervous system. But the process only works if training stress is gradually increased over time. That’s why you won’t get very strong lifting the same 50 pounds of bricks day after day. The load never changes, so after a while your strength won’t, either. Not so with barbells. Early versions of this strength training tool had spherical bulbs fixed permanently to each end, with no possibility of adjusting weight. Later models included hollow bulbs into which sand or steel shot could be poured in varying amounts, allowing for some adjustment. Today we use steel plates designed to slide on and off the end of modern barbells. These plates range in weight from 100 pounds for some olympic weightlifting competitions to 1 pound or less for those looking to add the smallest possible amount of additional load. This highly adjustable design offers the best way to gradually increase training stress, causing strength gains to continue. There are no other strength training tools that offer such simple, convenient and ongoing adjustment.



As advanced age sets in, weak bones are one of the greatest concerns people express, and rightly so. For those eating improperly and not getting enough physical activity, bone density is known to begin decreasing at a rate of 1% every year after turning 40. After 2 or 3 more decades the situation is considerably worse, to the point that a short fall or even bending over in the wrong way can cause bones to fracture. This shouldn’t happen, and although some physical deterioration after a certain age is inevitable, it’s your responsibility to your family, friends, and self to do all you can to prevent it. That’s where barbell training is proven to help. Many reputable studies have shown that barbell resistance training strengthens bones and makes them far less likely to break under stress. Hard running or other cardio also does this, but not to the same extent. Barbell squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses do the best job of strengthening areas of the skeleton most likely to break with age and falls, like the wrists, spine, and hips. They also greatly improve balance and coordination, making you much less likely to fall in the first place. Bone health isn’t the only way barbell strength training combats aging, either. A German study found that trainees 60 and older experienced gains in muscle size and strength, delaying muscular atrophy that sets in with age and preserving motor functions. There are other benefits, too. Better blood pressure and circulation, stronger heart and lung function, and even increased mental capacity.


If there was an aspect of our physicality more important than strength, that’s what I’d be training for, and chances are that’s what this website would focus on. There isn’t. Before we humans invented our way into a life of ease and stagnation, being strong was a life or death issue. Now it simply determines how long and enjoyable our lives are. The facts are clear: strength matters and barbell training is the best way to achieve it. Everyone who values health, vitality, and longevity should practice barbell training, unless they have a medical condition that prevents them from doing so. Inventing excuses not to means accepting a worse life and in all likelihood, an earlier death. Just pick up the barbell. 


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Comments: 1
  • #1

    David Wieland (Saturday, 17 March 2018 12:17)

    While I don't doubt the efficacy of barbell training, I also know that, as Mark Sisson says, lifting heavy things is the crucial action in building and maintaining strength. Perhaps using a barbell can provide some advantage in developing good form, especially in the presence of a coach, but, assuming the lifter is attentive and respects body mechanics (and signals!), using other forms of equivalent resistance will also build strength.
    I applaud your efforts in encouraging us older folk to build strength, but joining a gym or setting up a home gym haven't been required for me to build and maintain good functional strength (and flexibility). My slim body type has never been able to develop a heavily muscled appearance, despite doing fairly heavy work when I was younger, but I can still climb and prune trees and dig out stumps at 72.