Barbells Are Hard to Beat

Barbells and IvyTraining go together like peanut butter and jam. You’ll notice a theme if you train with us – more often than not you’ll see clients training with a loaded barbell and pushing themselves hard. There are countless exercises you could perform at a gym, and many are effective. So, what guides the decision making behind prioritising training around the barbell? Let’s get down to some basics.

Barbells have a high return on investment

As trainers we are delivering a service where time is at a premium. We want to maximise the output of each training session and ensure clients get the most “bang for their buck”. We believe barbells reign supreme. Barbells are designed to be incrementally loaded, allowing for jumps as small as 0.25kg each side. They sit somewhere between two ends of the spectrum of freedom of movement and stability and therefore allow us to load reasonably heavily while working large amounts of muscle mass. They require skill to use while developing many muscle groups through large ranges of motion. As such, they are excellent tools for developing muscle mass and movement proficiency. On this last point, it’s not uncommon to see someone who’s proficient at squatting pick up other lower body movements easily, but the reverse isn’t always true!

Barbells are engineered for strength

Getting stronger is at the forefront of well-manufactured barbell’s design. For instance, the knurl, spin and length of the sleeves, diameter of the shaft, bearings used, and more, all reflect the goal of loading more weight. We’ll zoom in on the knurl as an example. Knurling can come in three major variants: mountain, hill and volcano. Knurl is simply the raised surface that provides a better grip and more surface area to contact with the hands. A good knurl makes all the difference. For example, the Rogue Ohio Power Bar uses a volcano grip with a relatively aggressive (sharp) bite. Although this may feel uncomfortable at first, it means the bar remains securely in your hand, especially during movements using a tension grip such as deadlifts and barbell rows. Finally, the Ohio Power Bar has a centre knurl which helps secure the bar on your upper back during squats.

Barbells teach you physics

We mentioned “skill” earler, so let’s talk about that. In a very practical way barbell training helps a client improve their performance by developing an awareness of basic biomechanics. Let’s use the standing overhead press as an example. When pressing, it’s common to push the bar up and away from the upper body during the lift. This causes a disadvantageous moment arm (distance between the bar and shoulder). Instead, by learning to position the elbows and wrists, and chest, we can press the bar upwards and back, resulting in the least amount of horizontal travel. This loads the body for the most efficient stimulus to the target musculature. While neither good or bad, you will not experience the same technical demands during any dumbbell or machine press variations.  Barbells provide a task-led constraint that teaches an individual about movement proficiency and biomechanics in a very tangible way.

Barbells are for the long haul

We believe in a life-long career of strength. Strong knees and hips mean you can get up and walk. Stronger backs mean you can reach down and pick things up. Sturdy shoulders mean you can reach up and not worry tweaking something. But how does a barbell offer unique benefits compared to other exercises with different implements? Well, simple progression. Dumbbells or pin-loaded machines often they come in fixed increments that can be hard to progress or limited in absolute load. Moreover, there are countless permutations of a lift that can be performed with a barbell, allowing for novelty that is purposeful. Remember how I mentioned skill and physics? If someone is shooting their hips too far back during a low bar squat, a front squat can be used as a supplemental lift, to help improve the performance of the low bar squat by encouraging more forward knee travel.

Don’t ditch the baby with the bathwater

It’s true, we are obsessed with barbells, but we know they aren’t the only tool in the toolbox. A life-long career of strength will involve many paths but we believe you’ll travel them best by using the barbell as your foundation. Machines, cables, dumbbells and more all have roles to play and we use them for accessories (a discussion for another day). At Ivy Training we aim to give our clients the best ROI, help them become strong, skilful and aware lifters and set them up for a lifetime of strength. If you’d like to know more, get in touch with us here.

Raise the Bar: 6 Essential Movements

When it comes to strength training, there are certain exercises that stand out as foundational, efficient, and therefore, effective. These exercises quite literally, raise the bar. Check out our companion article for this month here for more insight into why. However, instead of throwing around buzz words, let’s get an operational definition of foundation and efficient for this article. Exercises which develop balance and stability and have transferrable movement patterns are foundational. Exercises that train multiple muscle groups at once through a large range of motion are efficient. There are 6 broad movements (with sub-categories and variations) that we believe fit these criteria and are therefore, effective and essential to any program. It’s time to raise the bar!

Essential Movement 1: The Squat

It wouldn’t be an Ivy Training blog without either barbells, sustainable health-promoting behaviours or… squats! The barbell squat is a potent lower body exercise. By placing a barbell across your upper back (in a high or low bar position) or on the front of your shoulders (which is known as the front squat) and descending into a deep squat position you engage a multitude of muscle groups. These include the quadriceps, inner thighs (adductors), glutes, and trunk muscles. A deep squat (at least parallel) will also promote flexibility useful for everyday tasks. These include sitting down, standing up and taking the stairs. There are many variations, and some even using different types of barbells like a safety bar. Fundamentally, the squat involves simultaneous hip, knee and ankle flexion and extension. Exercises such as lunges, and leg presses also fulfil the same criteria. That being said, we believe the barbell squat strikes the best balance between load and stability.

Squat with bar

Essential Movement 2: The Bench Press

We believe the barbell bench press is the go-to exercise for developing overall upper body strength and pushing power. By lying on a bench and pushing a loaded barbell away from your chest, you work the pecs, front of your shoulders (anterior delts) and triceps. Lying on a bench might sound lazy but the stability means more weight can be moved when we raise the bar. We can also use the bench to leverage leg drive, which involves driving your feet into the floor as you push the barbell up to its starting position, helping maintain your position and stability. Trust us, you’ll be working hard. Exercises such as push-ups and dumbbell pressing work the same muscle groups, so, why should we barbell bench press? Well, we love all of those exercises! However, bodyweight movements such as push-ups may actually be too hard at first for someone less trained. Dumbbells can have fixed increments that are hard to progress and eventually, move into position to press. We believe the barbell bench press is both for the beginner and advanced individual.

bench with bar

Essential Movement 3: The Deadlift

The barbell deadlift is a true test of full-body strength. By lifting a loaded barbell from the floor to a standing position, you engage the major muscle groups including the glutes, hamstrings, quads, lower back, trunk muscles, upper back and forearms. The deadlift is renowned for its ability to build posterior chain strength and reinforcing hip extension (also known as the hip hinge). Deadlifts can come in many shapes, sizes and popular derivatives. These include Romanian deadlifts, trap bar deadlifts and kettlebell swings. Importantly, deadlifts target the lower back and develop its work capacity. Many people fear bending over to pick something up or even tie their shoelace due to back pain. The deadlift won’t cure back pain by itself, but it will help develop the endurance and strength of trunk musculature, contributing to a more resilient back overall. It’s hard not to recommend everyone to deadlift one way or another.

Essential Movement 4: The Overhead Press

The barbell overhead press, also known as the press, targets the shoulders, triceps, and upper back. As you raise the bar overhead, you develop upper body strength, trunk stability, shoulder mobility. This exercise not only supplements the pressing strength developed from the bench press, but it also develops strength in a different plane of motion, being, above us! Forget ever struggling to get those heavy objects stacking on shelves up high. Additionally, the overhead press, as mentioned in our companion article, tangibly teaches technical efficiency. Lifting has a skill component and sometimes it can be hard to understand the nuances of the intersection between skill and effort. The overhead press is an object lesson in biomechanics, moment arms and physics. That understanding is transferable to other lifts and will improve your overall kinaesthetic awareness.

press with bar

Essential Movement 5: The Row

The barbell row is a companion exercise to the barbell deadlift. The row and deadlift both share the same start position. In contrast to the deadlift however, the trunk and legs remain relatively fixed, and the arms pull. The row is essential for developing a well-rounded back. By pulling a loaded barbell towards your torso (stopping at the chest), you engage the muscles of the upper back, including the middle back (latissimus dorsi), upper back (rhomboids), and back of the shoulder (rear deltoids). Not only will the row improve your pulling power and low back endurance, contributing to your deadlift, but it also improves your pressing movements. Individuals should find it easier to extend the upper back during the bench and shoulder press with a stronger row. Rows can be performed with many implements, but the ease of progression and standardised form makes barbells a great choice.

Essential Movement 6: The Chin-Up

Okay, we’re kind of cheating here. The chin-up doesn’t use a barbell, but it does use a bar! It also shares many of the common themes discussed in this article and our companion piece. By pulling up to the bar (or the bar down), the muscles of the anterior upper arm (biceps), middle and upper back work hard through a long range of motion. The trunk muscles stabilise the legs. With a weight belt, you can turn your body into a barbell and use increments as small as 0.25kg, but to be fair, weighted chin-ups are hard to get! Although pin loaded cable machines may have fixed increments, double progression (adding weight, then reps) can be used as a work around. Chin-ups (and pulldowns) are often the first accessory used to fill out a program before worrying about any extra arm, shoulder or ab-work.

chin-up to the bar

Focus on What’s Essential

At Ivy Training we certainly teach many other exercises and encourage people engage in a wide variety of movement patterns. Opportunity cost, fun and sustainability all impact exercise selection. Moreover, when discussing which essential lifts to pick, variations of these lifts absolutely count. We don’t mean exact variants like the low bar squat or conventional deadlift. But we do mean a barbell squat and a barbell deadlift – in whatever variation may be appropriate for the person under or behind the barbell. There is plenty of time over the course of one’s training career to experiment with all manner of exercises and implements but we believe the essential 6 patterns should form your foundation of strength. So, what’s stopping you raise the bar, today?