Is barbell training really necessary?

Discussion in 'Other' started by Sh4ggyy, Aug 22, 2019.

  1. Sh4ggyy

    Sh4ggyy First Timer

    I've been a full-time office worker for such a long time without doing any exercise so I'm very new to lifting and weight training.
    When looking up advice and programs to get me started- like the very helpful getting started a section in this sub- almost all insist on standard progressive barbell training like bench presses and barbell overhead presses.
    In my understanding, though, dumbbells allow for a greater range of movement and recruit more muscles for stability.
    I realize you can lift much more weight doing barbell versions of exercises, but is this really necessary for someone like me who cares absolutely zero about how much weight I can bench press and am working out solely to build muscle and improve my physical appearance? Can I just substitute barbell exercises for dumbbell exercises? Will this actually limit my progress?
    Last edited by a moderator: Aug 22, 2019
  2. Bunn

    Bunn Triple-Digit Post Count

    @Sh4ggyy The simple answer to your question is no, barbells are not necessary. As a new and developing student of strength you will be able to make great progress using dumbells or kettlebells, perhaps even for a lifetime. It is after you have been training for a while (months - years) that you may need to transition to or incorporate the barbell into your strength training. There is probably not a member on here who will deny that the barbell is king when it comes to absolute strength development. However, that does not mean it needs to be your tool now, or ever. For me, I utilize the kettlebell and bodyweight and am very happy with my strength and related physical skills development, I have not touched a barbell in 15 years and cant say that I miss it, though I do think I should be dead lifting.

    At the end of the day it comes down to your goals and actual needs, select the best tool for the job and get to work. If you later find out you need another tool to finish the work, make that investment, and then continue to work.
  3. Anna C

    Anna C More than 5000 posts Elite Certified Instructor

    Barbell is the most direct route to building strength. Strength is a foundational quality.

    "You can be anything you want. A warrior. An athlete. A hard man or woman ready to handle whatever lift thows at you. But you must be strong first." -- Pavel Tsatsouline, The Quick and the Dead, page 11.

    If you use full range of motion on big compound exercises like squat, press, bench press, and deadlift, you will work all the muscles that need to be worked. You can go a long way to building strength, muscle, and function with just these 4 exercises. Once you have a foundation of strength (takes a few months of dedicated work, with intelligent programming and recovery), then adding varaiety like pull-ups, dips, power cleans or kettlebell swings/snatches, or movements that have time under tension and require stabilization like kettlebell or dumbell carries, get-ups, presses, snatches... all good.

    You can get strong with resistance training other than barbells, but it's not the most direct route. I've found that for people that are not strong already, it takes a long time to build strength with a kettlebell, as compared with a barbell. But it certainly can be done.

    Last edited: Aug 22, 2019
  4. Steve W.

    Steve W. Quadruple-Digit Post Count

    My lifting history is:
    --Some half-assed bodybuilding-style isolation training using mainly dumbbells.
    --A good basic strength training program by Johnny Parker, who was then the S&C coach for the NY Giants football team when they won the Super Bowl in 1986, which used mainly barbells.
    --PTTP barbell deadlifting and side pressing.
    --Kettlebells, clubbells, maces, and OS.

    [With random bodyweight training mixed in at various times]

    I believe that the progressive barbell training laid an important foundation of strength and strength-skill (generating muscular tension and developing good exercise form). Even though I have not done any regular barbell training for a number of years, I'm glad that I developed that foundation before I had ever heard of a kettlebell.

    There's powerlifting strong, and then there's normal person/recreational athlete strong. I'm never going to be the former, but barbell training was important to me becoming the latter.

    Kinda sorta (but not really). Yes, DBs allow for a potentially greater range of movement, depending on the exercise. But the basic barbell exercises allow for a sufficiently great range of movement that this isn't really an advantage. Greater range of movement is not necessarily better if it compromises your leverage and/or safe joint mechanics. Basic barbell exercises are a good balance of relatively full range of motion and giving you the leverage to move a lot of weight.

    The stabilization thing is also not really correct. Just because an exercise is a greater stabilization challenge does not mean it is recruiting "more muscles." Barbells require stabilization too, and the basic exercises require a level of full body tension that arguably recruits "stabilizing" muscles (muscles other then prime movers) to a higher degree.

    So, no, barbells may not be NECESSARY, but you might want to reflect on why you don't want to use them.
    Last edited: Aug 22, 2019
    Billy59, Baker, Anna C and 2 others like this.
  5. Bro Mo

    Bro Mo Quadruple-Digit Post Count

    A barbell is NOT necessary at all. I was in some of the best shape (stronger, faster, etc.) of my life only using dumbbells. 3 to 5 sets of 8 and keep adding reps periodically until I could do 3 to 5 sets of 12, then up the weight and start back at sets of 8.

    However, the same thing with a barbell probably would have been even better. ;):p
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  6. offwidth

    offwidth More than 5000 posts

    Not needed
  7. North Coast Miller

    North Coast Miller More than 2500 posts

    Fitness - no.

    For putting on a lot of mass they are the best tool for the job.
    Aaronlifts99 likes this.
  8. Steve A

    Steve A Double-Digit Post Count

    Yes, you will limit your progress. But whether those limits make a difference in your life is the question only you can answer. If it takes you longer to build the muscle and get the improvements, does it matter to you? If you simply get some muscle and not the maximum amount of muscle, does it matter to you? Lots of tools can work, but they don't all work equally effectively, and they all have different "costs" (which include non-physical things enjoyment and convenience).
    Billy59 and Glen like this.
  9. LukeV

    LukeV More than 300 posts

    Nothing is essential except the willingness to work hard. I've known guys with really awesome physiques who only did push ups, chin ups and sprints. Having said that I am a barbell addict.
  10. Kozushi

    Kozushi More than 2500 posts

    This is again a time where I wish I could click two or more likes for the post quoted above.

    In my own experience I have indeed found the barbell "necessary". I am limited to using it for mainly only deadlifts because I train at home (I don't find time to go to a gym as I go to judo 3 days a week!) Deadlifts are arguably the most necessary of the barbell moves due to how many muscles you strengthen with the move, and also the practicality of the motion for life and sport. I just pulled out weeds today using my barbell deadlifting muscles (and S&S, but that is something else, hehehe) Deadlifts have also helped me get stronger at kettlebell swings. I used to find the swings hard, but now they aren't.

    So, my own answer to the question is a kind of "yes, the barbell is indeed necessary", but only in the context of a society where almost everyone can afford one and find a corner of their room to put it in, and in the context of an "I want to get stronger" as a general goal. You cannot develop the very important back chain of strength without a barbell deadlift (or similar), or at least a kettlebell for swings.

    But we can still get far without it, although like the post above says, it will take longer (or you might not even get there, hahaha!) I really believe a lot of useful strength can be developed with pullups, leg raises and levers on a chinup bar - at the minimum your grip is getting very strong by holding yourself up! With kettlebells we're unleashing anti-twist strength, power and endurance. I like them also for their challenge to balance in a safe way (not so heavy as a barbell to dangerously challenge my balance.) I've been doing S&S (a kettlebell program) for 3.5 years and I realized a little way into it that I needed a barbell for deadlifts.

    So while in an absolute sense I can't say "a barbell is an absolute necessity", I think you either need to deadlift a barbell or do plenty of kettlebell swings or similar (or wrestle, like me where you deadlift people!) Besides this big pull, some kind of pushing movements are a good idea - one arm pushups aren't a bad choice, or dumbell presses. Obviously going to a gym and doing deadlifts, squats, bench presses, and presses, is ideal, with kettlebells and bodyweight taking things further.

    I agree with another post here about the important of long steady-state cardio, like walking or cycling or whatever.
    Stu likes this.
  11. Jake Steinmann

    Jake Steinmann Double-Digit Post Count

    Plenty of people have lived long, happy, productive lives without ever using a barbell.

    Cliche as it is, the adage that the best workout is the one you’ll do is correct. If barbells aren’t your jam, dumbbells, kettlebells, or other options can work fine.

    That said, using a barbell does not mean you have to chase huge lifts, or worry about having the biggest bench in the gym, office, or whatever. Likewise, I’m not sure there’s anything to the whole “dumbbells give you a greater range of motion” thing. So while the barbell isn’t necessary in any meaningful sense, consider whether you’re rejecting it based on a perception of what using a barbell means, or whether you’re rejecting based on an actual problem with the tool.
    Anna C and Kozushi like this.
  12. Kozushi

    Kozushi More than 2500 posts

    Exactly my thinking. I held off buying a barbell and plates for a while and then asked myself "why am I doing this?" The bar plus enough plates to get up to my own bodyweight and a half (got more plates since) cost only about 200$ which I hope nearly everyone and anyone today could afford, and if you use it for only 2 years this means less than 5$ a month! I just asked myself "Why am I not buying this thing that is so good for getting strong?" So I bought it and use it for deadlifts, and it's a huge part of what is getting me strong in spite of only minutes with it every few days!

    When it comes to endurance and conditioning though, I don't think it's so good as kettlebells or bodyweight just because the bar is so long and it's kind of awkward, but of course there are good ways to train for these qualities with a barbell too; I'm just saying that it's less awkward perhaps using the compact kettlebell for this, or a chinup bar (levers, tucks, hangs, pullups etc).

    A barbell - not necessary in an absolute sense, but in an absolute sense riding a car or a bus isn't absolutely necessary either; you could walk.
    Last edited: Aug 26, 2019
  13. Jake Steinmann

    Jake Steinmann Double-Digit Post Count

    The car/transportation analogy is a little tortured, but actually, it might be insightful. Let's run with it for a minute, because I think it's insightful.

    I live in a relatively rural/suburban area. Things are pretty spread out, and there's nothing in the way of public transportation. Unless you are committed to a life of a subsistence-level farming hermit, you need some kind of transportation. A bicycle might work, but it's relatively slow, and difficult to use in inclement weather, which is a pretty big portion of the year. Realistically, if you live in this area, you need a car. The degree to which you could get by without one is largely theoretical.

    On the other hand, I commute into a major city for school throughout the year, a place where a car is not only not necessary, but arguably not even practical. Public transportation is abundant. Distances are shorter, such that walking or biking everywhere is actually a pretty feasible means of transport. Indeed, for a lot of residents, the benefits of owning a car are outweighed by the costs, and many choose to get by without it.

    To go back to the barbell question--yes, a barbell can be a useful tool, and for some people, a necessary one. For others, there are factors that make using the barbell not worth the "costs." That cost-benefit analysis is an individual one, and rests on a lot of factors. For myself, I haven't used a barbell much in the last two years, and probably won't for at least another year. It doesn't fit into my current lifestyle or training. Obviously, for others, the equation balances the other way.

    Context matters for everything, and there's nothing that makes it right or wrong
    Kozushi and offwidth like this.
  14. Kozushi

    Kozushi More than 2500 posts

    Well said. I was hoping to provoke some insightful thoughts with that analogy and it worked!

    Personally, I have indeed found the barbell necessary to "get strong" (a merely general concept, "to get strong", but that's what it is!) as no amount of pullups, pushups or squats are going to develop the all-important back chain, and bridges just are not enough weight even if they do activate the back chain! Kettlebell swings or snatches work too, although they cannot build as much strength as a barbell can in the back chain even if they can develop decent strength all the same combined with other qualities like endurance, anti-twist etc. But regarding anti-twist, I don't think this matters too much when you're comparing a 32kg swing to a 150kg deadlift! I think the deadlift wins in every sense for strength development - still need twisting/anti-twist mobility training so as to not get stiff but that's something you don't need weights for at all.

    I suppose my own opinion is that:

    "Back Chain Strength Training Is Necessary!" and this can be done with heavy enough deadlifts, swings and snatches (are there others too???) The exact tool can vary but the upper body + lower body big pulling movement is not something that can be compromised!
    LukeV likes this.
  15. WhatWouldHulkDo

    WhatWouldHulkDo Quadruple-Digit Post Count

    It's interesting - I never really considered it before, but when I first started off training back in high school, it was on the barbell, almost exclusively. I subsisted on a steady diet of squats, presses and power cleans. Very little other fluff work - it was pretty rare that I'd pick up a dumbell for curls or go do some decline situps, like most high school boys at the time (or my lazier, pudgier 30-year-old self). Early on I had the benefit of a throwing coach who studied strength training, I suppose he knew the "right" place to start.

    It does make me wonder - where's the point where the barbell starts taking more than it gives? If you aren't training for performance, what's probably "good enough" for average folks? There's the old 500/400/300/200 rule, but I'd say that's beyond what you need just to be fit/healthy... even around 65% of those numbers would make you pretty functional.
    offwidth likes this.
  16. william bad butt

    william bad butt More than 300 posts

    No, it is not.

    However, if one has access to one I would recommend it. If the goal was to maximize strength, and there was a barbell in the room, I would bench press and squat and deadlift, etc...
  17. Jake Steinmann

    Jake Steinmann Double-Digit Post Count

    So, if that’s dead/squat/bench/overhead, 65% gives us


    Honestly, I think my own numbers probably aren’t far from that. I haven’t used a barbell in a couple of years, but last time I checked, I can pull 315 with a double overhand grip, and my DL tends to comfortably hover in the 350 range. No idea about the squat, but the bench is about in my range.

    I’m generally plenty strong for daily living. I can pick up my kids and carry them. I spent yesterday moving some furniture, including carrying a bookshelf and desk up several flights of stairs by myself. I’m a little sore today, but nothing unmanageable.

    So, yeah, 65% of those numbers seems pretty reasonable to me.
  18. North Coast Miller

    North Coast Miller More than 2500 posts

    Those 65% numbers look good to me.

    Personally I've been training for decades without a barbell. As I've been pushing harder in recent years my numbers for a lot of accessory/peripheral lifts are very close to my all time highs, my numbers on my barbell lifts I'm guessing are nowhere near where they used to be - at least compared to what I'm currently using. Am hoping to get in somewhere with a rack and bench so I can test at least my benchpress and squat. Pretty sure my press is darn close, squat is tougher to train an analog at home so probably off by quite a bit.

    One thing that cannot be discounted is that barbell makes it not only easier to load up big numbers but is the probably the safest way to do so.

    I am always interested in how specific training carries over to basic physical activity - does heavy barbell provide more athleticism than training with other means. Is the added loading one can get from barbell backsquats going to provide better absolute strength in an unrelated task than you might achieve from doing (as an example) offset squats with a log at 2/3 the weight?

    I am unconvinced of this. But...having those barbell numbers is a good way to keep you honest when working with odd objects or other implements.
  19. SuperGirevik

    SuperGirevik More than 300 posts

    First of all, welcome @Sh4ggyy to the StrongFirst forum :)

    Long answer: I'd say it's difficult to care absolutely zero about how much weight you can lift and at the same time be concerned with building muscle, especially if the "physical appearance" you mentioned refers to hypertrophy. Because how much muscle mass you gain is connected to how much you can lift to some degree.

    So my recommendation is that you should assess where you are currently as far as your goals are concerned and then determine where you want to go.

    Building muscle and improving physical appearance is too broad of a statement. So the answer you will most likely get to your question is, "it depends". But if you want a specific answer, you need to be more specific about your goals. For example, how much mass and strength do you want to gain? Is there a deadline for your goal? How often can you train? Are you trying to loose weight as well?

    Short answer: If you want a specific answer, you need to have specific questions, IMHO.
    Last edited: Aug 28, 2019
  20. WhatWouldHulkDo

    WhatWouldHulkDo Quadruple-Digit Post Count

    My thinking is:
    1. Ballistics and endurance are what increase general athleticism. All of what I think of as "athletic" movements - sprinting, jumping, throwing, punching, dodging, dancing, tumbling, climbing, etc. - are about ability to generate bursts power over and over again, as opposed absolute strength.
    2. But absolute strength is the base that you build power from. The whole "can't fire a canon from a canoe" thing.

    So... I'd say the backsquat builds greater potential athleticism, but at some point you gotta do something else to convert it to actual athleticism.

    And I have exactly zero data to back that up. Just my opinion.
    Anna C likes this.

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