Strength Training with Barbells: The Pros and Cons

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Strength Training Equipment: Barbells

The barbell is probably the most recognizable piece of bodybuilding equipment, and various incarnations have been used for hundreds of years. Barbell is a metal bar with removable weights at each end. They normally measure between five and seven feet in length, depending on the type of barbell. Barbells, together with the dumbbells, fall into the free-weight category. It is called free weight because the weight is free to move in any direction and in any manner.

Common types of barbells

  • Olympic barbell. This is a special type of barbell used in Olympic weightlifting and in powerlifting competitions as well as in gyms.  A 7 feet Olympic bar weighs 20 kilograms (just under 45 pounds)  and holds up to 1000 pounds’ worth of weight plates. The ends of the bar are 2 inches (5 centimeters) in diameter to fit Olympic weight plates, and the handle section where you grab the bar is 1 inch (2,5 centimeters) in diameter. Parts of the handle section are knurled for better gripping.
  • Standard barbell. They are similar to Olympic barbells in that the gripping portion is usually 1 inch in diameter and knurled in sections. However, standard barbells have ends that are also 1 inch in diameter to fit standard weight plates. A 7 feet standard bar weighs 20 pounds and can hold up to 400 pounds of weight plates.
Common types of barbells

Common types of barbells

Other types od barbells

  • Cambered bars. They are bent in the middle to allow for a different hand grip (EZ curl bar for example).
  • Trap bars. Specifically designed for floor-to-waist lifts. Trap bars center the weight over your line of pull instead of out in front. They have a diamond shape in the middle that the lifter stands in, allowing for a neutral grip (palms in toward your sides) and for the bar to travel straight up and down.
  • Fixed barbells. Fixed barbells are locked in place and do not allow the weights to spin, do not need collars, and usually range from 10 pounds (5 kg) to more than 150 pounds (70 kg).
Cambered bars (EZ bar)

Cambered bars (EZ bar)

Trap bar

Trap bar

Fixed barbells

Fixed barbells

Every barbell comes with collars or clamps. Those are devices that prevent plates from slipping should the bar tip to one side. Yet these sensible safety devices invariably get left on the floor. That’s why every now and then a 45-pound plate goes airborne, and some poor guy hobbles around in a cast for the rest of the month.

Always use collars, even if you’ve been lifting for years without a mishap. There will come a day when the bar tips, either because you’re not paying attention or because muscles on one side of the body unexpectedly give out. Not using collars is among the top causes of gym injuries. You’re threatening not only yourself but the guy working out next to you.

Collars & clamps

Advantages of using barbells

  • You can be sure that resistance is supported and lifted solely by you, not by a machine dictating the path of motion.
  • You will be able to lift more total weight on barbell movements than when using dumbbells.
  • When you perform an exercise using barbell, you not only use the specific muscles involved
    in the lift (the prime movers) but the rest of the body gets involved too. You have to work to
    balance and control the weight using another set of muscles that acts to stabilize your body and
    keep the bar in the correct trajectory.
  • Barbells are excellent for stimulating supporting muscle groups. The bench press targets the chest but also  recruits the triceps and shoulders.
  • Barbells are great for building stabilizers. They train the little helper muscles to better handle the heavy, less stable moves associated with the weights.
  • Angle of movement. You can change the pattern of movement to get a different effect from a barbell exercise. On a bench press, you can bring the bar down to your collarbones instead of to the middle of your chest.

Benefits & drawbacks of using barbells

Disadvantages of using barbells

  • When using barbells, the strong side of your body can have a tendency to take over the movement and assist the weak side, limiting its development.
  • Single plain of motion. The barbell is only lifted up and down. You don’t lift a barbell forwards or backwards, or left or right.
  • They are many muscles in the human body that can’t be efficiently trained using barbells. For example, hamstrings are difficult to train without machines.
  • Exercises particularly well suited for weight machines are trunk rotation, trunk extension, knee flexion and extension, and hip adduction and abduction exercises. These joint actions and corresponding muscle groups can be difficult (or even impossible) to isolate using barbells alone.
  • Barbells are not able to provide such a long range of motion like dumbbells. For example, during a bench press, dumbbells stretch the chest muscles better because they allow the hands to go lower than they could with a bar. This is not able to achieve with barbells. The bar stops at the chest level.
  • Barbells can cause wrist injuries. Many bodybuilders find dumbbells easier on the wrists as you can rotate the hands slightly inward or outward. Barbells can not give you that opportunity.

Because all forms of strength training equipment offer different advantages and are limited by different disadvantages, it is best to use a variety of training equipment in your strength training program.

Closing Thoughts

There is an abundance of equipment that you can use for the purpose of strength training. Although some of these pieces of equipment are more complicated or sophisticated than others, all have their advantages and disadvantages. We advise you to use all exercise equipment almost equally (dumbbells, barbells, cables, machines, body-weight) if your main goal is muscle hypertrophy. The most effective way to make progress is to use machines whenever they are more appropriate than barbells and dumbbells, and barbells and dumbbells whenever they are more appropriate than machines.

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