In the past decade, the pendulum has swung and brought barbell training back into the mainstream once again after a 20 year hiatus of the “no barbell approach of Richard Simmons’ step aerobics, low fat and high carbohydrate diets.” As with any industry, trends are subject to mainstream popularity and as novel approaches enter the market, the baby often gets thrown out with the bath water.
As barbell training and other forms of fitness have regained momentum from the lost days of Joe Weider and Bob Hoffman, there has been a tremendous amount of unregulated teaching of the basic barbell lifts and a supreme misunderstanding surrounding these movements. My fear is that because of the misguided use today, the superlative barbell could start collecting dust once again. Here are the facts about barbell training.
It is very clear that barbells are more efficient for developing maximum muscular strength than any other fitness medium. They are also extremely useful for muscle hypertrophy (muscle size increases) if the right loading guidelines, rep scheme, rest period and diet structure are followed. The reason barbells reign supreme from this viewpoint, is that you can’t overload the body as effectively with dumbbells, kettlebells or calisthenics to drive a strength adaptation because the overall systemic stress placed on the body is so much lower with the latter implements as these aren’t nearly heavy enough.
Even though these facts are black and white, misunderstanding stems from a naive fitness culture that perpetuates the idea that basic barbell training is dangerous and damaging to your joints.
“By and large, people do not get injured from using too much weight,” Ken Hutchins said. “People get injured because of their behavior — with a heavy or light weight.”
BARBELLS ARE NOT TO BLAME
Heavy barbells don’t hurt people, people hurt themselves by not knowing the proper techniques involved in lifting heavy weights. Do me a favor, stop right now and walk over to the nearest wall. Place your hands against the wall, brace your stance firmly. Bare down hard. Push the wall as hard as possible as if your life depended on it. Did you hurt yourself? Of course not. So how could you hurt yourself under the almighty barbell exerting the same force that you applied to the wall?
Take the barbell deadlift for example — the exercise in which you bend over and pick a heavy weight up off the floor. This lift has gotten such a bad reputation, some gym owners don’t even allow the movement in their gyms. A paper prepared by Tony Leyland investigated the compressive and shear forces exerted on the low back during the conventional deadlift. The University of Waterloo ergonomic research group has suggested 500 newtons of shear force as a safe limit, and 1,000 newtons as a maximal permissible limit for Occupational Safety and Health. During investigation, during a neutral lumbar spine (low back) position with a 300 pound deadlift, the shear force was a mere 699 newtons, well below the 1,000 newton upper limit (limits designed for John Q. Public working at Walmart). However, during lumbar spinal flexion (bent back) under this load, the shear values reached 3,799 newtons! The force values were so high they literally went above the graph.
BENEFITS OUTWEIGH FALSE RISKS
Of course barbells can hurt you and maybe even permanently. Ink pens can hurt you too (put in the hands of an irrational office assistant). Even when the investigators loaded the subject with a whopping 600 pound load, the shear values were only 1,200 newtons, only 200 above the upper limit (again, limits set for little Billy working at the ice cream stand).
I am not suggesting that everybody take up the barbell and begin training like an elite powerlifter. I also understand that some people (even some of my own clients) are anatomically ill equipped for such training due to joint diseases that may render such training inadvisable. I am trying to convey the message that basic barbell training for healthy adults has far greater fitness, performance and health benefits that outweigh the false risks that are inappropriately associated with it.
Ryan Richards has a B.S. from Ohio University and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is the personal trainer at the Sonnenalp Golf Club and the owner of R2HP, an athlete consulting and personal training company. Richards’ passion comes from overcoming childhood obesity and a T1-L3 spinal fusion. Contact him at www.r2hp.com or 970-401-0720.