Barbells for Lifetime Health and Wellness – A Brief Review

by Gregory Hess | January 04, 2023

close up of lifter in the middle of a press

The utilization of barbells for training begins to acknowledge a few fundamental concepts about the individual executing the training and the resultant adaptations barbells produce. An individual willing to commit the time and effort to both intelligently planning workout sessions and conducting these sessions is unique in today's lifestyle of comfort. At least that appears to be the case with most middle-class and upper-class U.S. citizens. The statement by Rippetoe that “Humans are not physically normal in the absence of hard physical effort” has relevance when considering the numerous lifestyle-based and age-related diseases present today.

The barbell itself is nothing special or complicated, nor is it trendy. This straightforward modality has stood the test of time. It is essentially an extension of what the ancient Greek Milo of Croton performed with a growing calf in antiquity. Milo would lift a growing calf every day, and as this animal naturally grew, it forced a progressive overload for Milo’s strength development. The barbell is our substitute for the calf for training the musculoskeletal system effectively and efficiently. It deviates from isolation-type workouts and bodybuilding fantasies by focusing on commonly performed human movement patterns while incrementally increasing the applied stress. In other words, not only can strength be trained with barbells, but balance, coordination, mobility, and skeletal loading are all accomplished with this one simple tool.

Furthermore, barbells can address the “Sick Aging Phenotype," as defined by Sullivan and Baker in The Barbell Prescription. This complex, age-related process is associated with metabolic syndrome, muscle atrophy, bone mineral density loss, frailness, loss of independence, and reliance on pharmaceutical interventions. The stage is set early in one’s life for the initial entry into this phenotype; therefore, developing the habits and behaviors necessary to combat this downward spiral is critical from a young age.

A primary barrier to intelligently training with barbells is that it takes work. We are forcing a beneficial adaptation, not inviting one. Using machines, which are minimally dependent on technique, or bodyweight exercises of submaximal loading are easily implemented for general populations. To achieve more-optimal outcomes with barbells, one must focus on the quality of the movement. This quality of movement is just as important as the load on the bar. An experienced coach or an invested training partner may be the difference between adherence to a barbell program and perpetual fitness-program hopping. If one can acknowledge the potential benefits of barbells and become systemically stronger for life, the initial rewards can be quickly realized. The first step is choosing the strenuous path of more resistance versus an easier route with less overall physiological potential for forcing an adaptation. The next step is to train the Squat, Press, Deadlift, and Bench Press for life.

The Question

This brief review article addresses the question: Is progressive training with barbells a viable lifelong option for general health, disease resistance, and well-being? As previously mentioned, resistance training with barbells has the potential to alter many metabolic and disease states quickly and effectively. The overarching issue associated with barbells is that it is dependent upon technique and not as easily implemented as other forms of resistance training; therefore, it may not be as accessible to all populations, especially those that are less-than-motivated. Despite issues with access to quality coaching and motivation concerns, barbells may be one of the finest modes for promoting a healthy lifestyle; a lifestyle that is goal driven and focused on preventing the “Sick Aging Phenotype,” as defined by Sullivan and Baker.

Personally, I have used barbells for over twenty years. During these two decades of experience, I only recently realized the errors and sub-optimal approach I took as a young male. Initially, I was primarily interested in aesthetics, and physical performance was an assumed secondary effect. The older I become, the more I realize that form follows function, and the “lowest effective dose” is usually the best option as one ages.

By deep diving into the methodology and teaching models promoted by The Aasgaard Company and its inseparable association with Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, I have re-evaluated my approach towards exercise, training, practice, and conditioning in general. The belief that strength is the foundation for all physical and performance derivatives is at the core of my current kinesiology interest and understanding. In investigating the correlation between general resistance training and health, the goal was to identify the actual impact training for strength capacity has on the human system and beyond. Further, in separating barbells from generic resistance training, the aim was to determine if loading normal human movements with barbell free weights could be evidenced via the literature as a viable modality for health and general well-being.  

Resistance training, in general, has been stated to have many beneficial physical outcomes for individuals. These benefits include but are not limited to increased muscle mass and strength, reduced age-related sarcopenia and nerve degeneration, improved balance, heightened coordination, enhanced cognitive function and quality of life, and general resistance to frailty. De Sousa et al. added to the argument for resistance training as medicine by identifying a strong correlation between resistance training and improvements in diabetics’ body mass and blood glucose levels. In only four weeks, the investigators found that combining full-body resistance movements, including the bench press and squat, could improve a patient’s metabolic profile.

In a case study by Malorgio et al., the authors found that conventional-style deadlifts specifically could help reshape a 72-year-old osteoarthritis patient’s knee joint structure with a regular, progressive training approach. This indicates there is always time to start training for health.

Rippetoe and Mangi discussed basic barbell training as an ideal intervention for post-surgical cardiovascular patients, especially thus for women who may be at a greater recurrence risk. They stated that frailty and sarcopenia exist as risk factors for post-surgery patients. The primary intervention advocated to mitigate this decline was the implementation of a two-day-a-week basic barbell prescription for up to eight weeks. The program used the press, squat, bench press, and deadlift. Rippetoe and Mangi promoted this strategy as an effective way to increase strength, speed, power, and muscle mass. The proposed end-state of these performance and physiological increases was the optimization of local muscle glucose metabolism and reduction of free radicals.

Complementary to the physical improvements related to resistance training, Kekalainen et al. noted an improvement in not only quality of life with nine months of resistance training, but also an improved sense of personal coherence and an improvement in depressive symptoms. The authors stated that resistance training was a primary way to improve physical and psychological health, training three times per week for three months. One might expect similar results with barbells as the resistance training modality.

Schott et al. provided the most comprehensive examination of free-weight barbell training with older adults identified for this review. They followed 36 participants aged 60 to 90 and assessed the assumption that free weights, including basic barbell movements, were superior to machines. Both modes were beneficial during the 26-week intervention of both free-weight training and similar muscle-isolating machines. However, the free-weight group seemed to experience less boredom, more fun, greater motivation for exercise, and stated a greater benefit towards daily life tasks. Additionally, the authors correlated the functionality of the multi-joint barbell movements with greater carry-over to activities of daily living and a decrease in fall risk. The rationale reported included more hormonal responses to the systemic stress imposed by the barbell movements and the greater muscle mass required during the barbell lifts. The additional muscle mass activation necessary during the free-weight movements was related to improved stability and enhanced coordination.

As we continue to investigate the relationship between barbell free-weights and general health, it becomes clear that barbell training for strength benefits individuals from all walks of life: the young, the old, the frail, and the ill. Everyone has the potential to improve their physical and mental status in life. Simply adding weight to the proverbial barbell is a simple and concise approach to mitigating a myriad of health and age-related concerns . The challenging part is understanding and explaining the why, how, and when, and implementing it appropriately on an individual scale.

My Career

In my current role as an Instructor and Athletic Trainer at the United States Military Academy – West Point (USMA), I have had the opportunity to experience various physical education activities within the Department of Physical Education (DPE). I have engaged in gymnastics, submission grappling, boxing, swimming, cycling, skiing, snowboarding, strength training, and rock climbing, to name only a few. From these experiences and due to personal growth and interest, I have invested myself in the one area that I have felt is deficient in our DPE curriculum: basic barbell movements.

Within several of the core physical education classes at USMA, there exists an assumption that cadets fully understand fundamental movement patterns innately; however, I have found that this is only sometimes the case. Many cadets – and to be honest, faculty – do not have the necessary personal experiences and do not possess a conceptual textbook understanding of strength training. Due to this, and my interest in human performance, I have taken on the responsibility of becoming more of a subject matter expert in the area. This study has gone beyond what one might achieve and experience via the National Strength and Conditioning Association and American College of Sports Medicine certification preparations and credentialing. It has forced me to devote numerous hours of training time, the personal expense of attending barbell seminars, and a dedication to curriculum improvement to the project. I have gone above and beyond the typical duty-day to help ensure cadets have a knowledgeable in-house resource, one who can teach and coach the basic barbell movements clearly and concisely.

This initiative has fostered an elective strength development course, for which I am the course director. However, external influences continue to perpetuate unnecessary training complexity over the simple basics. This struggle, and my innate devotion to creating a better product for cadets and interested faculty, has formed the foundation of my daily efforts. In their book, Sullivan and Baker summarized the utility and importance of this personal devotion to barbells:

Barbells maximize muscle recruitment and range of motion, permit training within the most comprehensive therapeutic window, demand concomitant training for balance, load the axial skeleton, and train the broadest fitness attributes. This process occurs with the least number of exercises, minimum complexity, and training time. (p. 71)

Basic barbell training has the potential to serve committed, hardworking individuals to promote lifelong health and well-being. The basic movements can be titrated and adjusted to suit the individual needs of clients and athletes of all ages. Metabolic conditions and body composition have been observed to improve directly with the initiation of resistance training regimens. Osteoarthritis can be altered positively with a progressive approach to training. Cardiovascular disease and associated recurrence can be mitigated with relatively intense barbell strength training. In a short time, female lower body muscular strength and lean body mass may increase significantly with barbell interventions, helping to reduce frailty and disease later in life. The compound free weight lifts, including barbells, may provide dynamic gains in strength that are quickly realized and sustainable in older populations.

Finally, Kekalainen et al. found a correlation between resistance training, quality of life reports, depressive symptoms scores, and sense of personal coherence; perhaps the psychological impact is the most important of all. The reviewed literature appears to agree with the opinions of Rippetoe, claiming basic barbell exercise as essentially replacement cave-man activity, and something one must do to be a normally functioning human being. I hope to continue to augment my department's fitness initiatives with the basic movements that foster a culture of life-long warrior leaders of character.  


De Sousa, R., Azevedo, L., Improta-Caria, A., Freitas, D., Leite, H., & Pardono, E. (2021). Type 2 diabetes individuals improve C-reactive protein levels after high-intensity weight lift training. Science and Sports, 36(3), 225-231.

Malorgio, A., Malorgio, M., Benedetti, M., Casarosa, S., & Cannataro, R. (2021). High intensity resistance training as intervention method to knee osteoarthritis. Sports Medicine and Health Science, 3(1), 46-48.

Rippetoe, M., & Mangi, A. A. (2022). The Impact of Sex on Strength Training in Adults with Cardiovascular Disease. Clinical Therapeutics, 44(3), 442-449.

Kekalainen, T., Kokko, K., Sipila, S., & Walker, S. (2018, February). Effects of a 9-month resistance training intervention on quality of life, sense of coherence, and depressive symptoms in older adults: randomized controlled trial. Quality of Life Research., 27(2), 455-465.

Schott, N., Johnen, B., & Holfelder, B. (2019). Effects of free weights and machine training on muscular strength in high-functioning older adults. Experimental Gerontology,122(15), 15-24.

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