The barbell is a staple of any gym. It’s the work horse. The swiss army knife of strength training.
7ft of steel that can used in thousands of ways to make you stronger, faster and fitter.
But, is it necessary? Is there another way?
Do you need the Barbell?
It may seem like heresy to speak out against the barbell. Who I am to decry the king of all exercise equipment?
Let me start by saying this-
I LOVE barbells.
My hands are calloused by them, I have squat marks on my back and my collarbones are also periodically chafed by barbell knurling.
I love the feeling of a good barbell in my hands or on my back, especially when it’s a well engineered bar with lovely free-spinning bearings….
(sounds strangely sexual when you put it like that. NB- I don’t have a fetish for barbells)
But, there are lots of reasons why they may not be the best tool for the job, especially for the average person starting out on their fitness journey.
They take skill to use.
Barbell lifts, have a higher skill demand than other implements. If you don’t believe me, get a member of your family who’s never touched a bar before to try and do a proper barbell squat.
99% of the time, it won’t look pretty.
However, if you place an implement like a light kettlebell in the goblet position and ask them to squat, the movement is going to look at least 5 times better!
So here the question comes down to where we place our priorities.
Do we dogmatically pursue the use of the barbell because it’s ‘the King’ or do we place a greater emphasis on building quality movement with less difficult equipment?
This doesn’t mean to say that once a decent degree of skill has been acquired that you can’t introduce the barbell to training.
But it’s a tool that must be earned, not just granted.
The fact that a barbell takes skill to use is actually one of the cool things about it, especially for strength aficionados and anoraks like me!
Constantly tweaking technique and learning new things about using a barbell are part of the never ending quest that some people are on, chasing the perfect rep, the perfect lift- just ask anyone who’s into Olympic weight lifting!
But, if you’re just looking to get fitter and stronger and aren’t necessarily a strength game lifer, then do you need to invest your time in learning to use a barbell when other tools will do the job for half the time investment?
They have a higher barrier to entry.
I’m talking about mobility here.
In general, a barbell will expose your deficiencies quicker than any other implement.
Tight in the shoulders? Good luck getting set up with the bar on your back or even worse, getting it overhead!
Hips are in less than stellar condition? Well then your squat and deadlift are going to feel a long way from athletic and fluid.
Been neglecting your core training and don’t know how to stabilise your spine? A heavy 7ft steel rod won’t be forgiving to you.
In some ways, this is related to point one. The cost in terms of movement skill is high for barbells and mobility plays a big role in how skilfully you can move.
But this deserves it’s own point because for nearly the last decade I’ve been in gyms, without fail every time I’ve been there I’ve seen someone attempting to lift a barbell whose body just wasn’t working with them in the attempt.
You’ll see it yourself if you look around-
The chap who can’t squat to anywhere close to depth because his hips and ankles are a mess.
His close relative, the knock knee squatter, whose knees buckle and cave with every rep.
The round back deadlifter.
The wonky bencher.
And god help the folk who jump straight into the Olympic lifting style classes with no real background or instruction…
Barbells will chew you up and spit you out if you don’t have the mobility and stability to handle their world.
This is made worse by the fact that the primary metric most people use to gauge the success of their barbell training is weight on the bar.
They’ll throw more weight on with reckless abandon, their pride swelling as the plates on the bar clang together. Their training partners will cheer and console their defeats as valiant attempts.
You can’t knock the enthusiasm and the desire to get better, but it doesn’t stop it being misplaced. Most often these people are bringing themselves closer to injury than they are to a heightened level of strength and fitness.
It’s like the old adage- you can’t build houses on the sand. Not if you want them to last.
You can’t lift barbells without an adequate mobility and skill base. Not if you don’t want to get injured and frustrated.
This one applies more to the folk who train at home with their own equipment, but there’s also a message in here for people who train at commercial gyms.
Good barbells cost money. Real money.
There are barbells out there that cost upwards of £1000. A decent barbell is going to cost you at minimum £200 if bought new.
And a barbell doesn’t really function on it’s own, it needs it’s buddies. Plates, squat racks, lifting platforms.
Realistically, a single decent barbell, a set of plates to go with it, a squat rack and platform to protect your floor (and the plates) from damage is going to cost you at the barest minimum around £600.
For that the only things you’ll be able to do are barbell lifts.
Now for £600 you could buy yourself a whole host of other equipment.
You could have a run of kettlebells, an adjustable dumbbell set, slam balls, medicine balls, a sled, battle ropes.
The list is only limited by your imagination.
The variety of your training as a result will be greatly enhanced. That might well be the difference between you sticking with exercise, or dropping it when you get bored.
The barbell purists might crucify me for saying that.
It’s true that a barbell is super versatile and you can get brutally strong and fit just using a barbell. But is that for everyone? Not everyone is an aspiring powerlifter or weightlifter. Some people like variety in their training.
Commercial gyms know that barbells are expensive too. They see the price tag of bars made by quality companies like Eleiko (check out their bars though! www.eleikoshop.com) and Rogue and don’t fancy multiplying that price by ten or even twenty to outfit their gym with the number of barbells they need.
So instead they opt for the budget option...
Which are straight up trash a lot of the time.
They get bent out of shape.
Their collars won’t spin and they’ll be significantly thicker with crappy knurling, making them much harder to grip when it comes to things like deadlifts and rows.
What this means is that most of the barbells you’ll find in your commercial gym will be complete garbage.
I’ve known them so bad that the collars are even falling off!
With a kettlebell however there’s little that can break or go wrong! So long as they’re cast iron they’re built to last and no amount of gym abuse is going to change them!
They’re cannonballs with handles…
They take up a lot of space.
This one is fairly self evident. A barbell and the accompanying kit you need to use one are cumbersome and have a big footprint.
For the home-gymer, this is probably the biggest consideration. To train with a barbell you need a dedicated space to do it in. it means giving up your garage a lot of the time.
More manageable equipment like kettlebells and dumbbells are easily stored and moved, so they’re a much better fit for people training at home.
They can be rolled out into the living room or the garden and you can have a kickass workout. When they’re done, they fit neatly behind the sofa or under the bed again.
They can be intimidating.
Because barbells are often seen in the hands of dedicated gym rats or the very strong, they can be a little intimidating to the uninitiated.
At the end of the day they’re 7 foot long pieces of hard steel that weigh 20 kilograms.
Even the bar by itself is heavy to a lot of people! That makes them a scary place to begin your fitness journey, even aside from the skill and mobility requirements they demand.
Easing yourself into the world of strength training with equipment that is easier to handle is often less of a mental hurdle.
Dumbbells and kettlebells come in sizes, shapes and weights to suit everyone and are more than enough of a challenge in the early days.
So what do barbells do well?
Aside from their versatility, barbells are the gym implement that can be loaded the heaviest.
This is their real asset for a lot of people.
There’s not a weight that a human being currently living could lift that couldn’t be put on a barbell.
For people looking to get terrifyingly strong, this is where barbells are indispensable.
In most gyms, dumbbells stop at 40 or 50kg and you’re lucky if you get kettlebells over 30kg.
But a barbell?
Even a small gym will have enough plates around to get a standard barbell to 300kg or more.
They’re also the most popular equipment for judging strength, both in the gym and in competition.
There are entire sports that revolve around barbells.
Powerlifting, where you compete to have the largest ‘total’ which is the sum of your heaviest squat, bench and deadlift done that day.
And Olympic Weightlifting, the one you will have seen on TV, where the clean and jerk and the snatch are contested, again for a single, heavy repetition.
Both of these sports are hugely rewarding and I’d encourage you to look into them and understand them a little bit, even if you don’t plan on competing in them just because they’re really cool!
Some of the strongest human beings who’ve ever lived competing to lift weights that have never been lifted in human history- I’ll watch that!
And they’re not just for huge burly men either.
Both sports have numerous weight classes and age classes for people of every size, age and strength level to compete in. So long as you’re actively trying to get stronger, both sports will welcome you with open arms, no matter what level you’re at. If you’re really interested in mastering the barbell, then either of these sports will help you immensely.
This is where barbells really shine.
But for the person just looking to get a bit stronger and fitter?
Or the person looking to change their figure?
Then a barbell isn’t an absolute necessity. You can choose to use them, but make sure you’ve earned the right too first by learning how to control your body and have addressed your mobility.
For a beginner then there’s definitely better places to start. Learn to move well first, master your body. For many, bodyweight is enough to begin with!
I wish this is how I started, but nobody told me any better.
I jumped in the deep end and did everything wrong.
I figured it out eventually, but I left a lot of gains on the table in those early days and I’ve got the knocks to show for it too!
As a closing note, I’ll just say this- I love barbells. I’ll use them forever. But it doesn’t mean you have to!
As always, thanks for reading and if you’ve got any questions, please shoot me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
You can find more articles, videos and generally useful stuff on my website- www.runjumplift.co.uk and on my social media accounts-
Dan Mennell is a Personal Trainer and Strength Coach working in Staffordshire and Shropshire.
He writes regular fitness articles and creates other informative free-content.
If you're interested in learning more, subscribe to the mailing list below-