Chains. Metal.
Photo by John Salvino on Unsplash

The gym-less self-isolation training hasn’t been a challenge for most of my clients. Not because any of them have proper gym set ups at home. But because when we train at the gym it’s mostly with kettlebells, dumbbells, resistance bands and bodyweight. Stuff that’s easy enough to set up at home.

Sure, there are some aspects we are now missing. Cable pulley system-machine-whatever-you-want-to-call-it, the power work with medicine balls, trapbar deadlifts and the access to landmine exercises. The last being just about the only thing we use barbells for.

I’ve gradually used less and less of barbells over the years. And it’s probably been three or four years since I’ve cut them out almost completely for new clients*.

Barbells emphasise a one dimensional view on progression

Go heavier. That’s really it. You get better by increasing your numbers. Sure, you can add pauses and all the other stuff to get stronger. But focusing on barbell lifting emphasises increasing the weight on the bar. That’s a fact in people wired in barbell lifting.

Great for powerlifters competing in lifting the biggest possible weights, but not so much for people who just want to be and look fitter and healthier. Let’s face it, how much does a healthy adult really need to lift anyway?

Using barbells makes people more prone to injury

All the barbell lifts are way too easy to load excessively heavy. Because it’s possible to pile on the weights with the bar already elevated in the rack, you don’t have to bypass the body’s self-limiting brilliance: the need to build a base of strength to get the bar into the starting position.

Making barbell squat into a self-limiting exercise.
Imagine if before even trying squatting the weight you’d have to clean it into the rack position. But no. With a squat rack all the trainee has to do is to walk under the bar, create tension against it and walk it away from the rack.

And that’s why I like goblet, and front squats with kettlebells.
There is no way most people can lift as heavy when the weight is held in front of the body. The pull forward is just too great. And there’s the grip strength which adds another element of difficulty to the lift.

Smells like goblet squat spirit.

Besides, for this to even work, you have to lift the weights to the starting position first. Another safety check to pass before earning the right to squat with them.

What about barbell loaded hip thrust?
I love the hip thrust. But not with a heavy barbell. A heavy weight sitting on my hips? Trusting that my back and pelvis can handle it? No, thank you.

Besides, there is something off-putting about loading things so heavy that you have to use a cushion to reduce the pressure of it on the body.

The case against barbell loaded bench and overhead press.
I refuse to help someone get heavy dumbbells in the starting position of a dumbbell bench press. If you can’t get them there yourself, you haven’t earned the right to press with them.

Compare this to barbell bench press where people can just load the bar and un-rack it. Regardless of it being too heavy or not.

Benching with a barbell also forces the hands and therefore the shoulders to follow a specific pattern. Where as when benching with dumbbells or kettlebells (one arm floor press) the hands can rotate freely. It just feels nicer for most people. Same goes for overhead press variations.

Deadlifts make an occasional exception to the rule.
Most people feel better using a trapbar instead of barbell when deadlifting. Compared to barbell the trapbar allows the weight to travel closer to the mid-line of the body, which just feels nicer on most backs.

There is the occasional client who still works on barbell deadlifts, just because it feels better for them. But these clients are few and far between. Even still, we often elevate the weight off the ground for them.

But what about when your arms get tired before your legs?

Most people’s argument against using goblet or kettlebell front squat is that it’s usually the arms that get tired before the legs. That it’s impossible to go as heavy with kettlebell front squat compared to barbell back or front squat. True.

And on that note, here’s a snippet from Charlie Weingroff’s The Concept of Lowest System Load:

Effort does not equal results.  We know this.  And Newton’s 2nd law says force is force is proportional to the mass of an object along with the acceleration of motion.  In theory, there has to be more mass of the kettlebell to increase more force.  But there can also be more acceleration.

For instance, in performing a proper hard style KB swing with 20-30% of the individual’s bodyweight, force plates register almost 4x bodyweight.  A 200 lb man can swing a 24 and create 800 pounds of force into the ground.  I am guessing there are many more 200 lb individuals swinging 20s, 24s, and 32s than pulling 8 and 9 wheels.

So the example here suggests that we MAY be able to accomplish ONE of the same things using an implement of 15% the load.”
– Charlie Weingroff

As I mentioned earlier, something happens when the weight in your hands is held further away from your body’s base of support. Because your centre of gravity shifts forward you need more strength relatively to the weight you are holding, which creates an experience of a harder lift.

The exercise will be harder to complete, but it is likely easier for your joints and nervous system. By driving the weight up fast, you should be able to get similar benefits with lighter weights. Making the return of investment much higher. If this matches your training goals, you win.

And if you get to a point when the grip really becomes the limiting factor, switch to single leg variations. One leg requires less loading compared to two.

Safer alternatives for barbell lifting

Squat alternatives

  • Kettlebell/dumbbell goblet hold or kettelbell rack variations for squats.
  • Split squats, lunges, rear foot elevated split squat to reduce the load on the back (load one leg, one back vs two legs, one back) and the grip.
  • Single leg squat variations.

Deadlift alternatives

  • Trapbar, kettlebell and double kettlebell deadlifts.
  • Single leg deadlifts.
  • Skater squats.

Hip thrust alternative

  • Single leg hip thrusts.

Bench press alternatives

  • Dumbbell bench variations.
  • 1-arm kettlebell floor press.
  • Push up variations.

Overhead press alternatives

  • Landmine press variations.
  • 1-arm kettlebell press variations.

My clients are not powerlifters

Hence we do whatever works so we can get to them to their goals in the safest, most efficient way possible. And for most, barbell doesn’t fit into that equation.

*Unless the barbell lifts are something that the client want to do and get good at. Then we work on them like any other.