Barbells Are Overrated
By Tyler Woodward
Everyone thinks that barbells are the be-all, end-all when it comes to building muscle and strength. They point to the big three lifts and many of the golden era bodybuilding greats that all heavily advocated for and used barbells in their training. While barbells can be a convenient tool, they are extremely overrated for building muscle or strength.
The Biggest Benefit Of Barbells:
Barbells have one extremely beneficial quality, they are irrefutably convenient. All you need is a barbell and a set of plates and you can continually progress and add load to it for years. They take up relatively little space, they are extremely easy to load and unload, and if they aren’t abused they can last for years. Just throw in a bench and the shear number of exercises you can do is almost limitless.
The Downsides Of Barbells:
1. They Are Fixed:
Whenever you use a barbell your hands are fixed to the bar. They can’t move in towards your body or out away from your body.
Why is this an issue?
Because nearly every muscle in your body moves your joints either in towards your body or out away from your body. Think about it....
Chest & Delts - Bring your arms across your body, around your ribcage
Back - Bring your arms back towards your side, around your ribcage
Additionally, all of us are born with some degree of a carrying angle. Carrying angle is the angle at which your lower arms deviate out slightly from your elbow. Go look in the mirror and supinate (rotate) your palms, so they’re facing out in front of you and look at the angle at which your arms hang. I can guarantee to you that it’s not straight up and down, if you wouldn’t be able to walk without your arms running into your side.
Biceps - Bring your hands towards your shoulders on an angle (not straight up & down)
Triceps - Push your hands away from your shoulders on an angle (not straight up & down)
When you use a barbell to perform bicep curl or tricep extension you’re forcing your elbows into an unnatural position. Over time this can put a lot of strain on your elbows and is a large part of the reason that so many people experience elbow pain from doing fixed bar tricep and bicep exercises.
2. Limited Hand Positions:
Barbells also force you to take a fully supinated (palms up) or pronated grip on the bar. This is extremely limiting. The biceps play a role in supination, the act of turning the palm up, but they can’t do this on a fixed role. The forearm muscles, while they are responsible for extending and flexing the wrist, are also involved in supination and pronation which again can’t be done on a barbell. No other muscles on the upper body are influenced by hand position!
The triceps attach to the ulna, one of the two bones on your lower arm, which doesn’t move when you rotate your palm. The pecs, lats, delts, rhomboids, and traps don’t even attach to your lower arms! They attach at the humerus, your upper-arm bone and again are not influenced by wrist position. Forcing yourself into a completely underhand or overhand position when using a barbell just limits your movement options. While some people have a structure that allows them to do this without issue, the majority of people will find it much more comfortable to have their wrist in a more neutral position. Either slightly supinated, pronated or neutral (hammer grip) position which barbells do not allow for.
Even in deadlifts or squat exercises the majority of people will find the exercise much more comfortable and easier to perform if they can put their hands and thereby shoulders in a more neutral position. This is why people find trap bar deadlifts and safety bar or machine squats infinitely easier and more comfortable to perform.
Read More: The Many Benefits Of Resistance Training
3. Barbells Limit Your Range Of Motion:
Remember, none of the muscles on your torso are influenced by wrist position because they only attach to your upper arm. When you perform any sort of pressing or pulling exercise your range of motion is limited to when the barbell runs into your torso. Dumbbells, cables, or machines can allow you to achieve a full range of motion because you aren’t limited by when the barbell touches your chest or stomach.
Barbells also limit your range of motion on the flip side. Because you can’t bring your hands fully across your body when using a fixed bar they prevent you from being able to fully shorten your “push muscles” (pecs and front delts) or lengthening your “pull muscles” (rear delts, lats and rhomboids). Even dumbbell exercises like pec flyes, presses rows or rear delt flyes will limit your range of motion in this respect when dumbbells run into one another.
The only way to achieve full range of motion in any of these muscles is by doing a unilateral (one-arm) variation like a press or pullaround, both invented by Coach Kassem.
4. Resistance Profile:
Barbells and free weights always have the same resistance profile determined by gravity. All pressing exercises using free weights will be the hardest at the bottom and all pulling exercises will be hardest at the top. This isn’t as big of a deal for pressing exercises because this aligns with the strength profile of these muscles. Muscles are strongest in their fully lengthened position like at the bottom of a bench or shoulder press, so barbell or dumbbell presses are hardest when these muscles are strongest.
This is extremely limiting for your “pull muscles” like because these exercises will be hardest when your muscles are weakest in their shortened position. Many people struggle to gain muscle on their back or lateral delts for this reason because they’re leaving so much potential tension on the table by only using free weights.
I would argue that it is nearly impossible to maximize the growth of your lats, lateral or rear delts, traps and rhomboids without using some cable or machine exercises for this reason.
Technically you can adjust the resistance profile of barbell movements by attaching barbells or chains to the barbell, it really only helps for "push" exercises like benches and squats and would actually worsen the resistance profile of "pull" exercises.
Read More: Summer Shred - The Beach Body Guide
5. Barbells Make Every Exercise A Compound Exercise:
Because barbells utilize gravity which only works in the vertical plane it only provides resistance vertically or up and down. This is an issue because very muscle in the body moves in an arc, the majority of which do not align perfectly with gravity. Barbell presses use more biceps at the bottom of the range of motion and more triceps at the “lockout” or top of press. Barbell rows also use more biceps at the top of the range of motion. This again limits the amount of tension you can place on these muscles because the resistance is distributed to more muscle groups instead of being solely placed on one.
Aren’t compound exercises better for strength or hypertrophy?
No. While compound exercises generally allow you to lift more weight this is because the tension is more distributed to more muscle groups. More weight does not equal more tension on any particular muscle group. The name of the game when it comes to muscle growth or strength is tension, not weight.
While barbells are extremely convenient, they are not the best option for building muscle due to their many limitations. Obviously you can build muscle from using barbells or achieve really any other strength or athleticism, gym-based goal from using them they are just not the most efficient method of doing so.
The majority of people are not crossfitters, powerlifters or olympics weightlifters, so we have no requirement to use a barbell. If that is your only option then you don't have a choice, but if you have better options I encourage you to use and pursue better options.
If you want to get the biggest bang for your buck out of your workouts to gain more muscle and strength faster, than look no further than UMZUfit. UMZUfit is our all-in-one learning platform designed with everything you need to take your health, fitness, and nutrition to the next level.
My goal in writing this article, as always, is to provide you with logically-based principles that you can use to form your own conclusions regarding any information you may come across within this subject. I really hope you found this article interesting and if you have anything to add to this article, or any comments or criticism, feel free to reach out to me on our facebook groups or on Instagram @tylerwoodward_fit. Also, please feel free to share this article with anyone that might be interested.
Thanks for reading!
Until next time… be good