Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

The Barbell is King

by Cooper Mitchell | October 08, 2019

old barbell in a rack

I would argue that there are more people today with home gyms than at any other time in history. This is a great thing. People are getting stronger, becoming more useful, and doing so in a way that for many is both a physically and fiscally responsible move. However, despite the propaganda from the constant consumption society we live in, too much of a good thing can become a bad thing.

This good thing I’m referring to is the equipment you fill your home gym with.

I must confess: I’m as guilty as any. Currently, in my garage I have 4 squat racks, 17 Olympic barbells, multiple sets (not just pairs, but sets) of dumbbells, and a myriad of plates, cardio equipment, and accessories. To be honest though, little of this is needed.

Of course, I do have somewhat of an excuse. I review gym equipment over at Garage Gym Reviews, and I'm constantly comparing and contrasting the latest and greatest gadgets and gizmos to increase strength, decrease body fat, and help you like the way you look and perform (I don’t guarantee it.) I have noticed a trend, however, and that is this: despite the ever-increasing amount of equipment I own, my fitness/strength/health hasn’t increased at the same rate. I’m certainly stronger than I was when I first started my garage gym, but I wouldn’t attribute this increase in force output capability to the random workout toys that pilfer the space in my three-car garage. What I would attribute it to is the use of the barbell, incremental loading afforded by plates, and a squat rack.

You see, just as with any industry in which money is exchanged for goods (every industry), companies are incentivized to sell you, the consumer, more things. And, no matter how good the intentions a company initially has, there will always be the pressure from market forces to grow their bottom line through selling products that are pseudo-helpful.

Are most pieces of equipment released by strength equipment companies helpful in the sense that they can get you closer to your fitness goals? I’d say yes. However, are they more effective than using a barbell, plates, squat rack, and tennis shoes? Unlikely.

So, I write this primarily for the person that sees photos of decked-out gyms on Instagram and thinks to themselves, “man, I wish my garage looked like that.”

I certainly don’t think having a desire to have an awesome training space is bad. A beautiful part of a capitalistic society is that you are free, and even encouraged, to spend your money the way you like. If you want to buy a squat rack with 8 uprights, weight capacity levels that are higher than the weight of your truck, colors that match your phone case, and enough attachments that actually squatting in the rack is difficult, then go for it. I’ve done the same thing. In fact, I have multiple said contraptions.

But, if you want to get strong, then I suggest picking up a high-quality barbell (if you can afford it, you can still get strong with something that’s not “high-quality”), enough iron to meet your ever-increasing strength levels, a bench that doesn’t make you nervous to lay on, and a power rack that can protect you if you fail a rep.

These are the essentials to a home gym. These will get you strong. The other stuff is fun and can be enjoyable to use. But it’s also enjoyable squatting 500 pounds, and looking in the mirror and being happy with how you look.

Mark Rippetoe may have said it best when he stated that, “The reason barbells are so very valuable is that they are the most ergonomically-friendly load handling tool in existence – they allow very heavy weights to be gripped in the hands and moved directly over the center of the foot. Their extremely adjustable nature allows small increases in stress to be applied to the whole body over the full range of motion of all the major leverage systems of the body increases that accumulate into amazing gains in size and strength for many uninterrupted years of progress.”

Barbells are good, and recommended not just because they’ve been around for so long and are readily available; barbells have stood the test of time and are readily available because they are the greatest tool mankind has created to induce stress on the body that when combined with recovery results in adaptation. Knurling on barbells allows for grip to not be the limiting factor in a deadlift. A standard sleeve diameter allows for plates to be added to the bar and stay on the bar during use. Rotating sleeves allows the shaft to turn over during the classic lifts like the clean and jerk and snatch. A center knurl allows the bar to stick to your shirt during squats. The sleeve length allows you to incrementally load as much weight as you could ever dream of lifting.

The barbell is simple enough that anyone and everyone could benefit from its use, yet effective enough that even the most advanced trainee should use it.

Do I like adjustable jammer arms that can configure to all different positions and make my rack look cooler than it did before? Yes, but I recognize that they don’t replace the almighty barbell – in fact, they mimic it and nearly everything that mimics is an inferior alternative. Do I like belt squats? Love them. But I love them because they keep my monkey mind engaged in training and make it more fun. However, does a belt squat make my training more “effective?” Not likely, unless I have an injury and it’s the only way I can squat without pain.

It’s okay to buy and enjoy using all of the cool training equipment that continues to come to market, but the reasons for using said equipment should be put in the proper context: You like cool stuff.

Here’s one of the best parts about the barbell versus everything else: not only is it the most effective strength-building tool in the world, but it’s also the cheapest. Thanks to the colossal amount of people buying barbells today, they’ve never been such high quality, so readily available, so easily accessible, and so cheap. A barbell with a decently high tensile strength, rotating sleeves, and a quality knurl would have cost nearly a grand over a decade ago. However, today, even the “low-end” barbells are good when compared to what was available in years past.

There’s a reason that Olympic barbells are still around, and except for minor improvements are largely unchanged from when they were introduced. There’s also a reason why you hear so little about all of the strength inventions of years past. Have you ever heard of or seen the “Thigh Slenderizer”? What about the “Relax-a-Cizor”? Of course not, because these pieces of equipment are laughably ineffective, costly, and are down-right gimmicky. Will the same be said 50 years from now about some of the equipment that fills our garage gyms? Probably. But, do you know what will still be around 50 years from now? 75 years from now? 100 years from now? The barbell.

So, I plead with you, buy a quality barbell and use it until the knurling is worn slick, your back is hardened, your legs are steel, and your mind is taut. There is no equal.

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