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Drop Your Misconceptions & Pick Up A Barbell

By Coach Sophie Ray






Is the equipment you’re using in the gym limiting your results?


Barbells were amongst some of the first pieces of equipment created to practice resistance training. You may have seen them with spheres/globes filled with sand at each end in their earliest form back in the days of the circus strongman.


However despite the barbell being in existence, a gentleman named Arthur Jones created universally productive resistance equipment. Branded as Nautilus (which still exists now), he made a 12 station circuit that worked each muscle ‘separately’. You know the ones- the leg extension, leg curl, chest press etc and of course it was a huge success!


The reasoning behind this was because barbells required such technique to use. Most of the people that would have used barbells would have been part of a gymnastics group or competing powerlifters for example. The development of the 12 station circuit meant that health clubs could offer something that had been previously unavailable; simple resistance training that anyone could use.





The trouble was that people who were using the Nautilus circuit were not seeing any muscle gain, even when faithfully training (1) for months. When they switched to barbell training a miraculous thing would happen; they would immediately gain more muscular weight within a week than they had gained in the entire time they had fought with the 12 station circuit.


So why did they see better results? What is so good about using barbells?


Well, it’s simple!


The human body functions as a system.

It works that way in day to day life and it likes to be trained that way too! Training the body as a whole is the most functional way forward, this means that the body is being worked in a way that relates to everyday activities. An example of this would be a squat as this same movement is used when sitting and standing.


Using a barbell means that the exercise is completely specific to you. Think about it, when you do a movement with a barbell that exercise is 100% controlled by your particular movement patterns. Those movement patterns are determined by your physiology; your limb length, your flexibility, your muscular attachment position and your neuromuscular efficiency.


Barbells allow weight to be moved in exactly the way the body is designed to move. Machines however, force the body to move in the way that the machine was designed. This means that the specificity to you, as the trainee, becomes very limited.

Let’s use the quadriceps and hamstrings as an example, they always function together, at the same time, to balance the forces on either side of the knee. Since they always work together, why should they be isolated? (1) Just because someone made a machine that lets us? Now you might be thinking, that’s a bit biased! What about the leg press? Well I hate to break it to you, but it is still not optimal. This is because the pattern of movement is still determined by the machine. Nonetheless it can be a great place to start, in the same way that a split squat or goblet squat can be, to build the foundations of strength before you start using a barbell.


When training with a barbell you have to make constant adjustments as you make the lift (the control of the bar, the balance and coordination needed for that lift). Every aspect of that lift is controlled by you as the trainee, and therefore every aspect of the movement is being trained.


There is another benefit of using barbells, yes there’s more! As a result of training with barbells, bones become denser and more solid. Bones are what ultimately control the weight on the bar and they too are stress responsible tissue, just like muscles, tendons and ligaments (2). This is extremely important for older trainees and women as bone density is a major factor in continued health.





To conclude, free weights and barbells are where you will make the most gains, and achieve the greatest benefits to your health.


Machines serve as ideal cases for rehabilitation circumstances; a starting place for beginners and could be included as part of a warm up. Thus, adding some of these exercises at each end of your workout can be an effective complementary method.


Machines can also be used for a more advanced ‘athlete’ that may want to focus on a certain part of the movement (the downward or upward phase), or to perform a drop set for example whereby they keep the muscles under tension for a longer period of time. Additionally, they could simply be used to achieve that ‘pump’ sensation at the end of a session too.


However free weights and barbells are the big winner, and they should be your focus where possible. Remember that you need to build the foundations of strength first by completing simplified movements that make you strong enough to complete such technical exercises. You should always seek advice from a qualified trainer on how to use barbells properly.


References


  1. Rippetoe M (2011) Starting strength basic barbell training, 3rd edn., USA: .

  2. Bowman E (2021) Barbells and bone health II: osteoporosis , Available at: https://www.qub.ac.uk/cite2write/harvard3l.html (Accessed: 11th August 2021 ).



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Equilibrium Studios is a boutique personal training studio offering 1-1 personal training, small group training, nutrition coaching and online training in Petersfield and the surrounding areas Liphook, Liss, Rogate, Midhurst, Hampshire UK.

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