In my work as a strength coach and fitness writer, I regularly hear all sorts of objections to barbell training. It’s too difficult. It causes injury. Or it’s just plain “not my style”. In 90 percent of such cases, these complaints spring from a poor understanding of barbell training, rather than legitimate shortcomings of the method. The folks who hold these mistaken views are usually not to blame. More often than not, the highly commercialized mainstream fitness industry has pumped its lies and half-truths into their thinking, causing them to throw out barbell training before they’ve properly considered it. This is a tragedy which has caused far more people to remain weak while ironically thinking that avoiding heavy training is better for their bodies. This couldn’t be further from the truth. With so much confusion surrounding strength and fitness, I decided to write this article in the hope of clearing away some of the cobwebs and revealing the facts. I’ll do this by listing a few of the objections to barbell training I hear most often, then explaining why they’re not true or legitimate. Here they are.
BARBELL TRAINING WILL MAKE ME TOO BULKY
One of the most common complaints is that barbells are only for big, bulky bodybuilders. “I don’t want to look like those mass-monsters on the Mr. Olympia stage”, the thinking goes. “They use barbells to look that way, therefore barbells aren’t for me.” This seems logical, and other than being 90 percent false, it’s a fine conclusion. The trouble starts with the belief that today’s competitive bodybuilders and male physique models get their bodies exclusively through barbell training. They don’t. With only a few exceptions, men onstage displaying their physiques in competition are using some form of chemical enhancement, sometimes in dangerous amounts. This makes a huge difference to their results. Detailed studies have shown that those combining strength training with anabolic steroids will gain muscle more than twice as quickly as those training naturally and drug-free with barbells. For natural lifters, muscle gain is such a slow process that it’s virtually impossible to overshoot the mark and put on more muscle mass than intended or desired. Increased muscular size is certainly an effect of gaining strength through barbell training, but if you’re worried that picking up a barbell a few times a week will turn you into Arnold Schwarzenegger, you can rest easy. It’s nearly impossible to become “too big” through natural, drug-free training. Huge strength gains can happen without becoming a human refrigerator. A Turkish former Olympic weightlifting champion is the perfect example. In 1988, Naim Süleymanoğlu was able to lift 190 kg over his head at a bodyweight of just 60 kg. He was very small, but had maximized the strength and muscle he could build at his height. He was muscular, but not absurdly so. If you want to get strong but worry about looking freakish, start lifting and don’t take drugs.
IT’S TOO DIFFICULT
Watching a few clips of Olympic weightlifting or professional powerlifters in action from a comfortable armchair is enough to convince some guys that barbell training’s not for them. The red faced, vein popping competitors are lifting truly huge weights, and often look like they’re about to die as a result. This obvious physical discomfort is too undesirable. “Why would I want to torture myself, like those guys on TV?” The problem with this excuse is that it makes no allowance for the fact that barbell training is 100 percent adjustable. If you’ve never lifted before, it would be very foolish to load up the barbell with enough weight to make you grunt and strain. Your first session should be very light – maybe only the empty bar, and done under the supervision of a good coach. Once you know the basics, a slow transition to slightly heavier weight is the next step. Barbell weight plates come as small as 1 pound, so extremely fine incremental increase is certainly possible. Getting strong is a long process, not a single event. The super strong guys you see on TV didn’t get that way all at once, and neither will you. The beauty of barbell training is that it lets you get stronger at your own pace, adding small amounts of weight as you’re able.
BARBELL TRAINING IS BAD FOR MY JOINTS
This is usually a concern of older people, or those with past or present joint issues. It’s an understandable fear, but once again, the facts prove it false. Tendons and ligaments are living tissue, just like muscle and bone. When this tissue is worked through progressive resistance training, It’s been well documented that it thickens and strengthens, improving joint stability rather than hurting it. The benefits go beyond those with normal, healthy joints, too. A detailed study published in 2012 shows strong evidence that people suffering from osteoarthritis of the knees and other joints who did regular strength training ended up with joints significantly healthier than similar patients who didn’t train. Bottom line: if you’re concerned about joint health and stability, barbell training is one of the best things you can do for yourself.