The pros and cons of Barbell Training: testing the tried and true training tool for strength training

Olympic Barbell with Bumper Plates
Olympic Barbell with Bumper Plates

Note: if you’re going to train with a barbell, do yourself a favor and read this. You can thank me later.

This past weekend, I pulled out my old 300 lb olympic weightlifting set because my brother wanted to start lifting weights on top of his bodyweight training routine.  So, I helped him set it up and decided to test out the bench press exercise for old times sake. Now, I haven’t used a barbell in my own training for almost three years, and haven’t practiced the bench press exercise in over 4 years, back when I was experimenting with a musclebuilding style strength routine with my training buddy.  It was no surprise that my technique was spot-on, as it’s a fairly simple exercise, but I was shocked when I realized I had only dropped back by 10% of my former best lift. With a few days of rest and a proper warmup, I may have been able to meet my former personal record (article on how to prepare for a one rep max strength test).

I wasn’t testing in ideal circumstances, by any means – I had already completed a moderate intensity workout that day, I was already fatigued, tight, and didn’t perform any warmup other than a few sets. And yet, I came so close to a former PR. This got me thinking about barbell training, and I wanted to share with you why I have dropped the barbell as one of my tools of choice in the past few years.

Disclaimer: I am not against barbell training at all. I place this training tool on a hierarchy of value with all other training tools, and it is above and below other tools depending on the training goals. It may sound like I’m anti-barbell, but that’s not true. I’m anti-barbell for MOST training goals, especially since I believe the barbell is one of the most misused and abused training tools in fitness culture. If you use barbells regularly, I challenge you to question why you use them and consider the idea that there may be a better alternative depending on your training goals.

In my forthcoming article, The Hierarchy of Training Tools, the barbell is ranked number 9 on my list of 15 training tools.

9. Barbells

Defined: A barbell is usually a steel bar that is 5 to 7 feet long. The diameter often varies from thick to thin, but it is usually about one inch, and is engraved with a knurled crosshatch pattern to help lifters maintain their grip. Weight plates are slid onto the outer portions of the barbell on either side to obtain the desired total weight. These weight plates are usually secured with collars to prevent them from sliding off during the exercise (which can result in injuries). A barbell is used in weight training, Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting.

Barbell Training is Best Used For:

The barbell shines most bright when used for heavy weight training. Thus, it is the tool of choice for competitive powerlifters, olympic weightlifters, and to an extent bodybuilders. There is no better tool for measuring the body’s ability to lift raw weight up and down than the barbell. The best barbell exercises are compound lifts such as back squats, front squats, overhead squats, zercher squats, deadlifts, rack-pulls, stiff-leg deadlifts, sumo-stance deadlifts, bent-over rows, bench presses, overhead presses, cleans, jerks, snatches, power cleans, push presses, and power snatches.

Advantages of Barbell Training:

The barbell is very simple tool, so it is easy to learn the basic lifts quickly. With proper coaching, anyone without any debilitating pre-conditions can learn most barbell exercises in under an hour. The olympic lifts may be an exception for some, but I was taught each one in about an hour’s time.

The weight is fixed and stable, so the tool itself is less likely to deviate from a normal range of motion. This is an advantage for the barbell because, when under heavy load, you do not want the barbell to deviate at all, as this could result in immediate injury. This could also be seen as a disadvantage, because intelligent training should have components programmed in that will take the trainee outside the scope of their sport or activity – effectively training extreme ranges of motion as a safety-valve for when a movement does deviate from what is expected.

Another advantage of the barbell is that unlimited progression is possible because you can always add more weight to the bar. Of course, every lifter has their own genetically pre-determined maxes that they can handle. So, in theory, one could reach a point in their training where further progression is impossible. Being able to add more weight easily makes progressing with this tool very simple.

The barbell is just a tool, and often incorrectly used as a system itself, instead of the other way around. As part of an effective training system, one can use the barbell to reach a variety of training goals.

Disadvantages of Barbell Training

The greatest disadvantage of barbell training is that the only ultimate way to progress with this tool is to increase weight on the bar. By lifting heavy loads, the body is placed under extreme stress. This sounds like a good thing, because without stress there can be no adaptation. No pain, no gain, right? Not exactly.

In simple terms, lifting heavy weights can provide enough stimulus for the muscles to grow larger. On the other hand, lifting heavy weights dangerously compresses the joints, and this is often overlooked in a training program. If one compresses the joints regularly without actively decompressing them and releasing the tension in and around each joint, then injury will always occur (after diminishing returns, then a plateau in performance, then a regress in progress, then pain, then injury, etc.). This isn’t solved by taking a day off of training, or a week off every 12 weeks. One must regularly practice techniques that are meant to improve health, and counter-condition the damaging effects of heavy weightlifting. By regularly, I mean daily being the preferred choice. Doing some weekly exercises will help, but may not be enough to balance out the effects of rigorous lifting.

*For more information about the effects of compression-creating activities, listen to my interview with Scott Sonnon here: http://physicalliving.com/?p=1043

Put bluntly, the only way to elicit a training adaptation with a barbell is to lift moderate to heavy weights that place a lot of stress on the body. This stress, while adequate from a musclebuilding standpoint, is damaging to overall health, and will limit the amount of progress you can achieve long-term.

We see this most obviously when powerlifters and many olympic weightlifters need to retire early from their sports because their bodies simply cannot take the injury anymore. Those nagging, little injuries that popped up every now and then were signals that should have been heeded. Instead of paying attention to the warnings the body sends, a lifter may train around them, and not only ignore the problem, but exacerbate it. There comes a point, when taking a week off from training isn’t enough and an injury progresses to being incapacitated to lifting weights.

Lifting weights is one of the highest risk activities when it comes to getting injured – even higher than martial arts and football. I’ve read horrifying statistics, that say 80% of all new trainees need to quit their exercise programs due to injury in the first 6 weeks! No doubt, many of these trainees were compressing their joints without releasing the accumulated tension. All training must be balanced to be successful and repeatable, and it’s a difficult balance to achieve with a program that relies heavily on barbell training which is exclusively hard-style in nature.

The other major disadvantage to barbell training is that it is only performed in one plane of motion. The barbell is only lifted up and down. You don’t lift a barbell forwards or backwards, or left or right. Gravity is the only means of resistance, and it’s common sense that everyone encounters resistance in all 6 degrees of movement freedom. We see this most obviously in sport, but it rings true for everyday life activities as well. Not only does training exculsively in one plane of motion create strength deficits from a movement standpoint, it also creates imbalances throughout the body. This could be a whole article in and of itself.

Furthermore, there is plenty of research and evidence that strength adaptations from barbell training don’t even transfer to other activities. Improving your strength under the iron, only improves that specific strength, which will not necessarily improve your strength on the field, the court, the mat, or in the ring. This is true because of the law of specific adaption to imposed demands. So, while a lifter may be getting stronger in the gym, that strength is basically useless if it cannot be transferred in an applicably athletic way.

Common mistakes:

• The most common barbell mistake is using it excessively, for purposes other than competitive lifting. This will often lead to injury due to the heavy loads being placed on the body which compresses the joints. The impact this has cannot be understated!

• Not compensating for barbell training in your program. Compensating can take the form of active recovery, corrective exercises, joint mobility, or even yoga if performed properly (yoga can actually hurt you more than it can help you if practiced improperly).

• Trying to lift too much weight for your skill level, or trying to progress too quickly.

• Rounding your back or tilting your head backwards during most compound lifts.

• Not sticking with the same exercises for long enough to allow adaptation.

• Performing near-max lifts (1-3 rep range) if you are not competing in powerlifting or weightlifting.

• Not using a spotter when needed.

• Using barbells to assist with improving your range of motion at a joint – such as getting deeper into a squat. If you can’t do a rock-bottom squat without weights, you have no business doing it with weight, and you’re welcoming an injury.

Best place to find: Yard sales, classified, or online auctions are usually the best inexpensive sources for a basic barbell. If you decide to get a barbell, I do recommend that you purchase an Olympic barbell set. A 300 pound set will usually retail at around $100-150 at your local sports or fitness equipment store.

So, what’s a better alternative for those who do NOT compete in powerlifting, weightlifting, or bodybuilding?

First off, if you do not compete in powerlifting, olympic weightlifting, or bodybuilding, then you have no business training like one of these athletes. If your goal is to build muscle, and you think heavy barbell training is the only way to do it, then you’ve been misinformed or deceived. Muscle only knows resistance, it does not know where that resistance comes from – whether it’s a barbell, kettlebell, clubbell, or a resistant opponent.

If we’re talking about a hierarchy of training tools, I think a much better alternative to the barbell is the dumbbell. The kettlebell would be the next step up, as it can be used for both compressive and traction-based lifting/swinging. I think the clubbell is an even better training tool than that. Of course, the king of all strength training tools is the body itself.

John’s Advice: If you are not a competitive powerlifter, bodybuilder, or Olympic weightlifter, I highly recommend you steer clear of most barbell training for strength purposes. In my experience, the risk of injury is far too high to utilize the barbell as a regular training tool for people whom are interested in general fitness and strength training. You won’t become a powerlifting champion without touching a barbell, but you can become VERY strong without ever touching one. There are much more effective and safer alternatives for building real world strength.

Now, if you’re going to get into barbell training, I highly recommend this book by weightlifting legend, Mark Rippetoe. I don’t agree with Mark on everything, but I’m 100% sure that you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble if you follow his advice.

To your health and success,

Fitness Professional and Barbell User For 10 years

P.S. A far better alternative for the pursuit of functional strength is the clubbell, which naturally decompresses the joints by pulling away from the body. Learn more about it at the official site here: http://clubbell.tv
clubbell

The kettlebell is also a great tool for compression-based exercises, yet being a much lighter weight that can produce equivalent adaptations in the body. I recommend only professional grade kettlebells.
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19 Responses

  1. John< terrific article on the barbell and the toll it can take on an athletes body

  2. Thanks for stopping by Don. I hope your facility plans are coming along well.

  3. John..even if you actively decompress the spine and continue to do barbell lifts in excess wont that still take its toll on the body (in a bad way that is)?

  4. Chris,

    Anything in excess, even with the proper compensatory movements and active recovery methods will lead to problems.

    Barbell training can be done relatively safely, but safe barbell training is seldom taught anywhere IMO. And then we’re stepping into risk:benefit territory.

    Lifting barbells is a fairly unnatural movement from a human anatomy and biomechanics perspective. The body just doesn’t move in straight lines, and barbells simulate this. We can do our best to prevent the future health problems that will come, but this is like working backwards. If health is your priority, why not stop lifting heavy barbells and guarantee you prevent heavy weight training related injuries? So, you have to decide if it’s worth the risks. Look at the people you know who have lifted weights for most of their lives, and then look at the statistics.

    Me? I’d rather be strong enough for the rest of my life than the strongest guy in the neighborhood for 10-20 years (if I’m lucky). You don’t see too many senior lifters. There are some, but they are few and far between.

  5. This is some shameless propaganda.

    Barbell training statistically more dangerous than contact sports? Come on. Soccer has by far the highest injury rate while the only thing with a lower injury rate than powerlifting and weightlifting is volleyball. People who “get hurt and have to quit in the first six weeks” do stupid things like quarter squats with too much weight or use popular injury traps like the smith machine. If one acts like weight training doesn’t have rules and doesn’t need proper instruction and practice, one will get what one deserves for doing stupid stuff.

    Barbells only work muscles in one direction? Doing the Big Three lifts with a barbell requires controlling the bar path in every direction, unless you do something stupid like lift in a smith machine. This is why many morons who train on the smith and think they can move decent weight are in for a shock (and maybe an injury) when they try the same weight with a barbell.

    And of course barbell training doesn’t make you better a sport. Proper barbell training makes you bigger and stronger. Bigger and stronger means that you can execute movements more powerfully within the boundaries of your skill. Barbells don’t improve a batter’s ability to connect the bat to the fastball, but barbell training will lead to the ball traveling much farther with a successful hit. This is why baseball players are willing to risk their careers with illicit steroid use. More skill? No. But more strength and strength counts. Olympic lifts are highly technical, but without great strength, those amazing weights do not go up. I can execute a flawless full squat snatch with a 20 kilo barbell; I cannot do the same with a 200 kilo barbell because I don’t have the strength, not because I lack the skill to do the movement when the load is unchallenging.

    Lastly, restorative methods and attention to potential problems are obviously necessary. These are requisite for a lengthy career in any intense physical activity. Many powerlifters credit kettlebell training for keeping their shoulders and hips healthy (unilateral press, arm bar, windmills, swings).

    Powerlifters have careers that last into their fifties. Some of the strongest ones who compete where I live are in their mid-forties. Of course there are some nagging injuries, but that’s the nature of the universe we inhabit. Great success does not come without risk. You can sit around on your ass or swing a kettle or club bell or collide with other human bodies at full speed or get under way more weight than seems wise. You decide how bad you want something and accept the price you will have to pay to get it. A lot of us are happy to be the strongest guys for miles around for 20 years before we resign ourselves strictly to swinging odd objects as our only intense physical activity.

  6. Hi Gary,

    I don’t understand what you mean by shameless propaganda, but thanks for your comments. I’m glad we see eye-to-eye!

  7. I’m not here to fling dirt, but your article contains a lot of narrative without any data to back it up. This is the internet and everyone is entitled to an opinion, but be prepared for the criticism that comes with it.

    Even though Gary wasn’t professional, he posted legitimate questions that you avoided or at least dismissed.

    Where did you get your injury statistics? I searched google and found this. http://www.nyssf.org/statistics1998.html

    A bit dated but, I’m not the one advising people on a public forum. You’ll notice that Weight Lifting is statistically lower that the majority of other sports listed. Half as much as exercise without equipment.

    You claim that “lifting moderately heavy weights is damaging to overall health”. Again, I’d like to see references. There’s a rather large community of athletes, coaches, and entire sports bodies that blatantly disagree with that.

    You also claim that barbell training doesn’t transfer to sport? Where are you getting your facts?

    Properly coached, barbell training is one of the most effective tools for overall fitness I’ve personally ever seen. The picture you paint with this article is bold and against the grain. Let’s see some facts to back it up.

  8. Hi JP,

    Thanks for your comment. I am no stranger to criticism. I didn’t respond to Gary’s questions because I think he validated my argument. Pain and injury comes with the territory, and powerlifters are the athletes who understand this best. As far as I know, he and I see eye-to-eye.

    I thought it was fairly common knowledge that weightlifting is an activity that is known for creating injuries – not necessarily that result in emergency room visits like the statistics you quoted, but injuries nonetheless. There are many different types of injuries:

    1) injuries that result from an improper or deficient warmup
    2) over-use or repetitive stress injuries that are present in any specialized sport
    3) injuries that become worse due to the use of anti-inflammatories and other pain killers
    4) injuries that result from insufficient recovery or rehabilitation
    5) injuries from trauma, such as impact injuries so common in soccer
    6) injuries that result due to a genetic predisposition

    Obviously, some of these are related, but the point is that most injuries don’t actually end up in the emergency room and aren’t always represented in the statistics accurately. Obviously, full contact sports like soccer and hockey will have higher emergency room visit rates. Weight lifting is different because the injuries rarely occur instantly (ie trauma injury), they progress over time due to poor technique, overtraining, etc. That’s why the NYSSF you cited reports weight lifting as a lower injury sport than the others.

    You can find statistics everywhere. Here’s one: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5133a2.htm

    It says: “Exercise (e.g., weight lifting, aerobics, stretching, walking, jogging, and running) was the leading injury-related activity for women aged >20 years and ranked among the top four types of injuries for men aged >20 years.”

    It looks like a valid source to me, but my purpose is not to find perfect statistics to prove my points. “Statistics are statistics” as the saying goes. They don’t help us in real life. Sure, it’s interesting to know that soccer results in X amount of emergency room visits. Does that mean that I have an X% chance of going to the emergency room if I participate in that activity? Of course not, there are too many factors to consider and the statistics can’t possibly offer me a solution.

    What I’m trying to do with this article is espouse the inherent risks with conventional weight training, specifically barbell training, to get the truth out there. A lot of people are told that weight training will make them stronger and healthier (which is sometimes true if it is performed properly, not conventionally), and these same people are not told about the risks of weight training. Then, they begin an exercise routine and get hurt, sometimes seriously.

    I think we can all agree that a lot of people get injured while training. We don’t need a statistic to confirm this because it’s accepted knowledge. That’s enough incentive for me to speak my mind.

    If you want more evidence, please see this quote from Scott Sonnon’s website flowcoach.tv. Scott is one of my coaches:

    “Chester S. Jones of the University of Arkansas and his colleagues reviewed statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on hospital emergency room visits from 1978 to 1998. Based on 101 hospitals in the CDC’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, the researchers projected that 980,173 people were treated nationally for weight training-related injuries over the 20 years. The weight training injury rate rose by 35 percent over that period. And some groups had far greater jumps in their emergency room visits. The largest spike was in injuries per 100,000 men 65 years of age and older, which rose 303 percent from 1978 to 1998, the study said. Injuries per 100,000 women ages 45-64, the second greatest spike, rose 281 percent.”

    And please see these resources for more information:
    Jones, C. (in press). Epidemiology of weight training equipment-related injuries to young children in the home. Journal of Childrens Health.
    Jones, C., & Turner, L. (2005). Non-equipment exercise-related injuries among US women 65 and older: Emergency department visits from 1994-2001. Journal of Women and Aging, 17(1).
    Also see this article about bodybuilding legend, Dave Draper, who says lifting weights will make you injury bound:
    http://johnsifferman.com/blog/bodybuilding-legend-says-lifting-weights-will-make-you-injury-bound/

    We only have bits and pieces of research to form conclusions, and research does tend to play catch-up with the in-the-trenches trainers and coaches. However, I think the anecdotal evidence is overwhelmingly assured that weight training leads to injury quite often (not always severe injuries that require hospital visits).

    See this article about research:
    http://johnsifferman.com/blog/the-problem-with-research-and-the-solution/

    Please read my point that lifting heavy weights will lead to injury in context of the entire article. Conventional weight training, as it is traditionally taught, will lead to injury. Some of these injuries can be prevented when proper training protocols are implemented, but this is rarely the case. Some injuries are unavoidable, like trauma, for instance. There is a health-first method for training with barbells. So, in that light: barbell training does not guarantee injury. Rather, conventional or traditional barbell training will guarantee injury. And of course, that’s subjective. Please see my above comment directed at Chris.

    Also, regarding barbell training not transferring to improved sports performance, here is the collection of research I have archived:

    “STRENGTH ACTIVITIES ONLY IMPROVE SPECIFIC STRENGTH”
    Luecke, T., Wendeln, H., Campos, G. R., Hagerman, F. C., Hikida, R. S., & Staron, R. S. (1998). The effects of three different resistance training programs on cardiorespiratory function. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 30(5), Supplement abstract 1125.
    Four groups of young men performed different strength training activities:
    LR (N = 9) performed 4 x 3-5 repetitions;
    IR (N = 11) performed 3 x 9-11 repetitions;
    HR (N = 7) performed 2 x 22-26 repetitions, and
    C (N = 6) did not train.
    Training lasted eight weeks and comprised three lower extremity exercises.
    All groups improved in 1 RM on each of the training exercises. No changes were exhibited at 60% of 1 RM. VO2max and VE were unchanged due to training. HR was the only group to show a significant increase in time to exhaustion and maximal power output.
    A high number of repetitions was associated with specific local muscular endurance changes.
    Implication. Strength training improves strength in the exercises used for training. High repetitions are required for improvements in muscular endurance but then, the improvements are exercise specific.

    “STRENGTH TRAINING EFFECTS ARE SPECIFIC”
    Harris, G. R., Stone, M. H., O’Bryant, H. S., Proulx, C. M., & Johnson, R. L. (2000). Short-term performance effects of high power, high force, or combined weight-training methods. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 14, 14-20.
    The purpose of this study was to examine the effects of three different resistance-training methods on a variety of performance variables representing different parts of the force-velocity curve. After four weeks of high-volume training and pretests, male college football players were assigned to high-force (N = 13), high-power (N = 16), or a combination (N = 13) training group. Training was conducted four days per week for nine weeks.
    The high-force group trained at intensities of 80-85% of 1 RM. The high-power group used intensities equivalent to 30% of peak isometric force. The combined group used both forms of training. Measurement variables included 1RM parallel squat, 1 RM quarter squat, 1 RM mid-thigh pull, vertical jump, vertical jump power, Margaria-Kalamen power test, 30-m sprint, 10-y shuttle run, and standing long jump.
    The high-force group improved in the squat, quarter squat, mid-thigh pull, and M-K test.
    The high-power group improved in the quarter squat, mid-thigh pull, M-K test, vertical jump, and standing long jump.
    The combined training group improved on the squat, quarter squat, mid-thigh pull, vertical jump, vertical jump power, and shuttle run.
    Body mass and composition did not change over the study period.
    This investigation showed improvements occurred in activities that were like those involved in training. Slow strength movements improved slow-strength activities. Fast-power movements improved fast, powerful movements. When both forms of training were combined, the greatest number of performance factors was recorded. No form of training improved the 30-m sprint, the activity that is most likely to represent a sporting demand.
    The findings of this study are limited to the actions trained and the actions tested, most of which were strength-training-type activities. It would be wrong to generalize and contend that combined training will improve sport performances that involve a variety of modalities. That assertion is too big a jump for what was found in this investigation. This study is limited to demonstrating its specific training effects.
    Implication. Strength and power training activities improve strength and power activities.

    “STRENGTH TRAINING ONLY AFFECTS THE TRAINED EXERCISES”
    Fagan, C. D., & Doyle-Baker, P. K. (2000). The effects of maximum strength and power training combined with plyometrics on athletic performance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 32(5), Supplement abstract 659.
    Ss (M = 19; F = 14) were randomly assigned to two training groups; maximum strength (85-90% 1 RM) and plyometrics, or maximum power (30% 1 RM jump squats) and plyometrics. Female competitive soccer players (N = 6) served as a control group. Training was performed twice a week for 10 weeks.
    Both groups improved in lower body power and strength. Both forms of training were equally effective in increasing squat strength to perform plyometrics. However, sprint speed over distances of 5-40 meters did not change, therefore, this form of training was very specific and did not carry-over to a useful athletic pursuit.
    Implication. Strength training only has specific effects on the trained exercises.

    “PUSH-UPS AND BENCH-PRESS DO NOT PREDICT MUSCULAR STRENGTH OR ENDURANCE”
    Laviano, T., Kierfer, S., Otto, R. M., Wygand, J., & Carpinelli, R. (2000). The relationship of benhc press and push-up performance to muscular strength and muscular endurance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 32(5), Supplement abstract 1780.
    An evaluation of the ability of different speeds of push-up and bench-press to predict muscular strength and endurance was conducted. Ss (N = 31) engaged in six crossover trials (three push-ups, and three bench-press). Muscular strength was evaluated with a free weight 1 RM bench-press. Muscular endurance was measured using 70% 1 RM bench-press at each of three durations: 2-sec concentric, 2-sec eccentric; 4-sec concentric, 4-sec eccentric; and self-selected pace. Push-ups were also performed at the three durations with females doing a modified push-up.
    There was a significant difference in the number of repetitions performed between the three conditions. Only three low statistically significant correlations between the strength and endurance measures and the performances were revealed.
    Faster movement speed exercises facilitated higher numbers of push-up and bench-press repetitions. Thus, those exercises relate to performance depending upon speed of execution and therefore, cannot be used for prediction unless movement speed is standardized. Although push-ups and %1 RM bench-press are considered to be indices of muscular endurance, they were not shown to be in this study.
    Implication. Although common indicators, push-ups and bench-presses are not good predictors of muscular strength and endurance.

    “SQUAT TRAINING DOES NOT IMPROVE VERTICAL JUMPING”
    Weiss, L., Fry, A., Wood, L., & Melton, C. (1998). Comparative effects of deep versus shallow periodized squat training by novice lifters. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 30(5), Supplement abstract 942.
    Ss (M = 10; F = completed periodized machine-based heavy-resistance training to determine if manipulating range of motion would have an effect on strength and power adaptations. Three groups were formed: a) deep squats that required the tops of the thighs to be parallel to the floor, b) shallow squats that were half the depth of the deep squats, and c) controls that did not participate in strength or power training. Training occurred three times per week for eight weeks.
    Two forms of vertical jump were not improved by either form of training. The deep squat group was the only group to improve 1 RM shallow-squat strength.
    It was concluded that training protocols were specific in their effects. Deep squats appear to elicit the best improvements for both shallow and deep squatting performance. Mahcine-based, periodized squat training does not enhance velocity-controlled squatting force and power or vertical jumping performance.
    Implication. Machine trained squats do not transfer effects to other forms of performance. Strength gains are particularly specific.

    “TRADITIONAL WEIGHT TRAINING OF NO BENEFIT TO FOOTBALL LINEMEN”
    Harney, R. G., Purcell, M., Martinez-Arizala, G., Reed, E., & Serfass, R. (2001). Relationship between anthropometric measurements, traditional modes of testing and training, and blocking performance in collegiate football linemen. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 33(5), Supplement abstract 1387.
    The performances of blocking and charging football skills were correlated with their traditional weight-training activities (bench press, squat, and power clean). College football linemen (N = 10) performed the skills against an instrumented blocking sled as well as maximal assessments of the weight-training activities.
    Low, non-significant correlations between the training activities and skill effectiveness showed that training on those weight activities does not transfer to skill performance. Training would have to be more specific to be of value.
    Implication. Traditional weight training activities do not transfer to the American football skills of linemen.

    “HEAVY-RESISTANCE TRAINING DOES NOT IMPROVE SEATED SHOT PUT POWER”
    Mayhew, J. L., Ware, J. S., Johns, R. A., & Bemben, M. G. (1997). Changes in upper body power following heavy-resistance strength training in college men. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 18, 516-520.
    The effects of heavy-resistance training on measures of bench press power using absolute loads and seated shot put performance were measured. College men (N = 24) trained twice weekly for 12 weeks. Bench press power was measured by timing free weight actions at 30%, 40%, 50%, 60%, 70%, and 80% of 1 RM.
    1 RM performance increased significantly (9.1%) after training. There was no change in shot put performance. Peak power was produced between 40-50% of 1 RM before and after training. There was no relationship between changes in shot put performance and changes in resistance-training strength.
    Implication. Heavy-resistance training improves the activities involved in the training, such as 1 RM. Such gains are not transferred to more explosive activities. This adds support to the specific nature of resistance training and its inability to transfer to other activities.

    “STRENGTH AND POWER TRAINING IN YOUNG MALE BASEBALL PLAYERS DOES NOT IMPROVE FUNCTIONAL PERFORMANCE”
    Hetzler, R. K., DeRenne, C., Buxton, B. P., Ho, K. W., Chai, D. X., & Seichi, G. (1997). Effects of 12 weeks of strength training on anaerobic power in prepubescent male athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 11, 174-181.
    Two groups of 10 prepubescent and pubescent male baseball players trained three times per week for 12 weeks using a variety of general free-weight and machine exercises designed for both strength and power acquisition. One group was experienced in strength training while the other comprised novices. A comparable control group (N = 10) did not perform the training program but did participate in all other non-experimental activities.
    For the experienced, novice, and control groups respectively, the following gains were recorded: leg press — 41%, 40%, and 14%; and bench press — 23%, 18%, and 0%. Both training groups were significantly better than the control group. Similarly, the two training groups improved in vertical jump. However, the control group improved to a significantly greater degree in peak and mean anaerobic power and the 40-yard dash.
    The training regime improved the training activities but did not transfer to functional performance measures. One could argue that the training actually caused anaerobic power and 40-yd dash measures to decrease, particularly in the experienced strength-training group.
    The metabolic changes in training groups did not transfer changes in energy potential to dynamic cycling, supporting the principle of specificity. In particular, the high force/low velocity aspects of the training did not transfer to high velocity activities.
    Implication. Strength and power exercises in pubescent males improved training exercises but produced worse performances in functional strength and power activities than in a non-training comparable group. Performance benefits from such training for this class of athlete are unlikely.

    “CONVENTIONAL STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING PROGRAMS DO NOT IMPROVE DYNAMIC PERFORMANCES IN FOOTBALL PLAYERS”
    Miller, T. A., White, E. D., Kinley, K. A., Clark, M. J., & Congleton, J. J. (1999). Changes in performance following long-term resistance training in division 1A collegiate football players. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 31(5), Supplement abstract 1467.
    This study analyzed performance changes in the squat, 20-yard shuttle run, 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical jump, and power clean in collegiate football players who had experienced a long-term, periodized strength and conditioning program at Texas A&M University. Players from 1993-1998 (N = 261) were tested twice per year. Ss were assigned to groups based on playing position: 1) defensive backs, running backs, and wide receivers; 2) kickers linebackers, tight ends, quarterbacks, and specialists; and 3) linemen. Relationships between performance changes and training time, body fat, and bodyweight were determined.
    Body fat had a significant negative association with performance in all six activities for all groups. Neither training time nor bodyweight was related to 20-yard shuttle running or the 40-yard dash but both were related positively to the bench press and power clean. Bodyweight was significantly related to squatting performance. Results in the bench press, power clean, squat, 20-yard shuttle run, and 40-yard dash were consistent across all groups. For vertical jump, time showed a slight positive association only for group 1. Body weight had a positive effect on all three groups, being strongest in group 1 and weaker for the other two groups.
    A strength and conditioning program was related to performance changes in strength and conditioning activities. However, there was little to no association between program training and the dynamic performance activities of vertical jumping, 20-yard shuttle run, and 40-yard dash, they being activities that could be transferred to game situations.
    Implication. Strength and conditioning programs for football players make them better strength and conditioning trainers. There is little evidence of transfer of training effects to dynamic performances that are likely to be more associated with football playing performance. Increased body fat appears to hinder performances.

    “TRAINING SPECIFICITY – NO VALUE IN WEIGHTS”
    Bell, G. J., Petersen, S. R., Quinney, A. H., & Wenger, H. A. (1989). The effect of velocity-specific strength training on peak torque and anaerobic rowing power. Journal of Sports Sciences, 7, 205-214.
    Eighteen varsity oarsmen from the University of Victoria were divided into three training groups: (a) high-velocity repetition (HVR) training, (b) low-velocity repetition (LVR) training, and (c) a no-training control. Rowing-specific exercises were performed on Hydra-Fitness machines in a repeated circuit format with the HVR group performing 18 to 22 repetitions and the LVR group performing six to eight repetitions of each exercise.
    Training effects were measured on a rowing ergometer. A 90-seconds maximum performance was measured every 15 seconds with the 15 to 30 seconds interval being used as the measure of peak power output. The high lactic acid levels recorded in the subjects validated the test as being a measure of anaerobic capacity and power output.
    It has been estimated that the contribution of anaerobic energy to rowing ranges from 14 to 23 percent. Usually, those contributions are greatest in the starting and finishing efforts of a race. The point behind this study’s resistance training program was that it should increase power and rowing ergometer performance should improve since the exercises used the muscles that are involved in the sport. The investigation assessed how much of the specific-resistance training effects transferred to ergometer work and thus, reflected the benefit of such training for rowing performance.
    The results showed that there were specific changes in the performance of the specific resistance exercises, that is, the athletes became better resistance exercisers. Those changes were specific to the velocities of training. The HVR group performed better in the high velocity range of movements while the LVR group was better at low velocity actions. Contrary to what has been reported by Moffroid and Whipple (1970), each of the training groups changed specifically, that is, the high-velocity group did not show any improvement in low-velocity movements.
    The control group worsened in performance. There was no change in either training group in peak power output or lactic acid levels. This finding was surprising because the strength program was specifically designed to enhance the strength of the muscle groups involved in rowing. Since power is dependent on both force and velocity, the observed improvements in torque with resistance training should, theoretically, have contributed to an increase in rowing power. That theoretical position was not supported by the results of this study in these high-caliber athletes. The lack of improvement contradicts the recommendations of many coaches and the content emphases of many rowing training programs. This negative finding might be explained by the fact that the movement patterns involved in rowing are very complex and require a high degree of skill. The training effects that were observed in this study were specific to the resistance-training mode and did not transfer to the more complex action involved in the sport. This restriction supports the training principle that training effects achieved on simple activities (such as specific resistance exercises) do not transfer to complex activities.
    This study failed to show performance benefits that are supposed to result from resistance training programs. It supports the absolute specificity of training principle and suggests that an emphasis on resistance training in high-level athletes is not useful for improving performance. Such programs may even restrict the volume of beneficial specific training that can be achieved because of the level of fatigue that results from their execution. Neither modern training theory nor the mounting evidence of the ineffectiveness of specific resistance training programs supports the continued emphasis on this type of training as a means of generating performance improvements in high-caliber athletes.
    Implication. Traditional use of resistance training programs that are “meant” to improve performance should be questioned. The only time that resistance training may be of value would seem to be in the transition (off-season) for basic preparatory training phases. There is the possibility that fatigue generated by strenuous resistance activities will: (a) diminish the physical resources that can be applied to specific beneficial training;
    (b) detract from the amount of available training time so that the volume of specific beneficial training is reduced; and
    (c) the training effects from resistance training will be incompatible and interfere with beneficial specific training effects (principally those of aerobic adaptation).

    “STRENGTH TRAINING EFFECTS DO NOT TRANSFER”
    Hetzler, R. K., DeRenne, C., Buxton, B. P., Nelson, K. R., Seichi, G. M., Chai, D. X., & Ho, K. W. (1994). Effect of 12 weeks of strength training on anaerobic power in pubescent male athletes. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 26(5), Supplement abstract 469.
    Control, experienced, and inexperienced males (13.6 +- 3.9 yrs), after strength training (3 days/wk) were evaluated on the Wingate, Margaria, and Sargent Jump tests, 40 yd dash, leg press (1RM), and bench press (1RM). It was found that improvements in strength occurred in the training exercises but there was no increase in anaerobic power tests. Implication. The benefits of strength training are limited in adolescents. They do not transfer to anaerobic performance in activities other than the training exercises themselves.

    “FAILURE OF STRENGTH TRAINING TO IMPROVE THROWING VELOCITY”
    Bloomfield, J., Blanksby, B. A., Ackland, T. R., & Allison, G. T. (1990). The influence of strength training on overhead throwing velocity of elite water polo players. Australian Journal of Sience and Medicine in Sport, 22(3), 63-67.
    The relationship between muscular strength and morphology with overhead throwing velocity was examined in elite water polo players (N = 21). A strength training and no-training control group were formed.
    An 8-week program using “Nautilus” equipment and emphasizing upper body strength development was employed. Regular swimming and game practice continued.
    Significant relationships were found between throwing velocity and standing height, body mass, lean body mass, stem length, bicromial width, arm girth, and forearm extension strength.
    Following strength training, no change in throwing velocity was observed in either group. In the strength training group there were significant increases in arm girth, mesomorphy, and arm medial rotation strength.
    The authors explained the results this way:
    “It is more likely that this homogeneous group of elite water polo players already possessed optimum levels of upper body strength . . . and that diminished strength returns were gained from the extra training. More substantial strength gains would have been expected from players of lower calibre with poorer overall physiques.” (p. 67) Implication. The study really shows strength training on unrelated activities does not improve speed actions. Strength training had no carry over to the skill tested because it was neither neuromuscularly nor modality specific.

    “WEIGHT TRAINING EFFECTS AND MECHANISMS ARE SPECIFIC”
    Butchar, J., & Becque, M. D. (1966). Effects of high and low intensity weight training on iEMG and force. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 28(5), Supplement abstract 1139.
    High and low repetition training programs were evaluated for effects on the EMG to force relationship. Low repetitions (LR) were 2-6 and high repetitions (HR) were 10-15, both for 3-4 sets per session twice per week. EMG recordings were integrated (iEMG).
    The iEMG to force ratio increased for the LR group and decreased for the HR group. Low repetitions increase activation and strength. High repetitions increased strength but did not increase activation. It was concluded that the mechanism for strength increase in experienced lifters is dependent upon the loads used.
    Implication. Weight training effects are specific to the load used. Consequently, any changes demonstrated are unlikely to transfer to other activities because the training effects are so specific.

    Also see…

    Specificity in training:
    http://johnsifferman.com/blog/how-much-carry-over-does-weight-lifting-have-in-real-life-will-your-time-under-the-iron-help-you-on-the-field-on-the-mat-or-in-the-ring/

    Does General Training Even Exist?
    http://johnsifferman.com/blog/general-conditioning-does-it-even-exist-and-if-so-how-do-we-improve-it-plus-the-back-burner-strategy-revealed-teaching-you-how-to-master-several-different-physical-skills-or-fitness-qualities/

  9. I also wanted to reiterate my disclaimer in the article. I am NOT against barbell training – it’s actually in my “top 10 training tools” list. It’s a great tool when used in the right context, terrible tool when used in the wrong one.

  10. As someone who’s just starting out, and a complete layman, I want to ask a few questions.

    I noticed that most of the studies you cited tested groups with low amount of participants (less than 20 in a lot of cases). The only exception being the College Football Players (I think Texas A&M, at 261 participants). Considering that there are millions of athletes in the U.S. (high school up to professional sports), I don’t think that there’s enough results to justify the assertion that it doesn’t really help with other types of activity or than the specific lifting. Again the only one that looks valid is the college foot ball player one you sited above.

    Even if we accept the fact that it didn’t help those tested, could we conclude that as they are actually athletes who have to keep in top condition, that maybe most of these individuals were at the top of their game (no pun intended)? In other words since they do a variety of training if they tested on the barbell or any weight lifting for that matter would you really see any improvement? (Yes everyone can improve, but perhaps their weight training couldn’t improve them anymore other than keeping them in good shape.)

    So take me who’s 190lbs at 27% body fat (male) 5’4″, reasonably out of shape one might even call me obese. And only lifting about 80lbs in say a bench press or other (since I’ve done a little bit). If I train with barbells (assuming I train properly enough not to get any immediate injuries), would I not improve in other activities not related to the specific strength training exercises?

    I think some of this is a little bit biased really. You say you’re not against barbell training and that it’s in your ‘top 10 training tools’ list and yet you mostly say in this article, that it does nothing but injure you (in the long term) and doesn’t apply to any other activities than specific to the actual lifts you do, it says to me that it’s really not in your top list of training tools because if it was you would probably have more pros than cons about it and would be biasing it toward proper barbell lifting.

    I realize this is coming like 3 years later, but I felt I had to comment because when looking up in google beginner barbell routines this was the first thing that came up. Looking over your site gives me the impression that you’re a bodyweight kind of guy (not that you don’t have articles on weight training) which is sort of motivating this kind of post. Also I notice you’re relatively normal size (that is non-obese healthy), there’s no doubt what you seem to prefer.

    Not trying to be a jerk or anything.

    Keith Weatherby II

  11. “We see this most obviously when powerlifters and many olympic weightlifters need to retire early from their sports because their bodies simply cannot take the injury anymore.”

    Do you have any evidence that olympic lifters “need to retire early” due to injuries? I’m genuinely curious, since I’ve not been able to find anything about the incidence of injuries in olympic or power lifters. If there is no evidence to support this statement, then it seems like a rather illogical argument, considering such physically intensive sports are typically conducive to the young, therefore a rational olympic lifter would understand that unless they are genetically gifted or on steroids, trying to win becomes much more difficult with age.

    “Also, regarding barbell training not transferring to improved sports performance, here is the collection of research I have archived:”

    I find this to be a rather ridiculous and completely illogical argument. If a barbell training program makes you stronger, than how will it NOT transfer to improved sports performance??? Unless the “sports” you have in mind involve cards or riding horses, I don’t see how this argument can withstand even the most cursory logical analysis…

    I have to say, I’m disappointed in the amount of apparent conjecture and clear confirmation bias that this article seems to be based on. I am generally very impressed with your articles, but this one is a real bummer.

  12. Jim Bob

    First off I will say I am an active Powerlifter. Powerlifting is a sport, and as such we train for our sport. I do not walk around professing to be the strongest guy on planet Earth, nor do I lecture people on the intricacies of my sport, or offer any type of “personal training.” As counter intuitive as this may sound we Powerlifters are not obsessed with strength. People tend to see us that way because they do not understand this sport. Especially in the United States. What we are obsessed with is perfection. We obsess about performing our lifts with technical perfection. Strength is a byproduct of our pursuit of this.

    As far as this article goes. It is your opinion, and we all have one. I will caution you on floating studies and statistics around though. My wife is a Statistician, and through her I have learned how misused studies and stats are when people try to make a point on something. I will refer you to the great Wikipedia…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Correlation_does_not_imply_causation

  13. After reading both your comments on the injury risk on barbell training and most of the abstract your reference i need to comment on your general lack of academic competence to actually understand what your referencing.

    1. Your statistical comment on the injury rate of weightlifting clearly shows a lack of statistical knowledge. Weightlifting comes up as high in injury rate but the is not correct for exposure time. If a lot of people resistance train with barbells a lot of people will get from barbell training. Is the problem exposure or risk?

    2. Your speaking of barbell training in general why not post a review instead of selected articles, which you clearly have hand picked to prove your point.

  14. @Jim Bob: a thousand times yes. To the author of this article: -correlation does not equal causation.- This is a common error I see all over the place, in studies and articles of any subject. Just as with anything a person can possibly do, heavy barbell training when done wrong will create all sorts of issues; however, done right, it is hugely beneficial for anyone. It’s the weightlifter’s onus to learn to do things right; to blame the exercises themselves for causing injuries is to assume that correlation does, in fact, imply causation – a really unscientific and irresponsible idea.

    The rest of the article, though, was a pretty decent read.

  15. I’ve found myself moving away from heavy weight lifting on the barbell now . I used to be one of them guys who was constantly adding weight when I got to five reps . Just ended up with lower back and joint problems. I tend to stick to body weight training these days and when it comes to external resistance I don’t lift more than my bodyweight on the bar . I’d much rather squat my bodyweight for 20reps then try to lift the weight of an elephant for 1 rep.

  16. I agree with this article. This industry is going to have to evolve. It’s time for overuse of the saggital plane and compression training to come to an end. This his no carry over into true functional strength this day and age. If people recognized that human beings move in accordance to a specific biological blueprint this type of training really would not make any sense. We are bipedal and move unilaterally by oscillating our load from one side to the other and moving 3 Dimentionally within a 3 Dimentional environment so why train line early by moving like a kangaroo? We also are suspension structures held together by a fascinating fascia system not compression structures. Training in this fashion goes agains our biological design. That’s just my 2 cents.

  17. I agree with this article. This industry is going to have to evolve. It’s time for overuse of the saggital plane and compression training to come to an end. It has no carry over into true functional strength this day and age. If people recognized that human beings move in accordance to a specific biological blueprint this type of training really would not make any sense. We are bipedal and move unilaterally by oscillating our load from one side to the other and moving 3 Dimentionally within a 3 Dimentional environment via the use of our sling systems so why train linearly by moving like a kangaroo? We also are suspension structures held together by a fascinating fascia system not compression structures. Training in this fashion goes against our biological design. That’s just my 2 cents.

  18. I have just stumbled across this debate whilst doing some research on barbell training. I am an accredited S&C coach currently working in professional football / soccer. I found reading through peoples comments very interesting and highlights the fact there is still a lot of “the unknown” when is comes to training and developing athleticism.
    For me it comes down to assessing the individual needs of an athlete before deciding which is the most appropriate training modality for that athlete as it is definitely not a one size fits all approach. Whenever you look at research articles there will also be conflicting literature due to the nature of the study design, methodology and interpretation of that data. I have a published study in the JSCR which found a positive correlation between leg strength and jump height & 30m sprint times. Concluding that strength is an essential quality for building the total athlete, therefore advocating the use of barbell training to improve relative strength.

    I would then also agree that strength alone is not enough and this is where I would like to refer to the force velocity curve. To build better athleticism you need to be training the full spectrum of this curve – Strength, strength-speed, speed-strength and speed. In order to do this effectively I believe you should be using a number of tools / modalities to best achieve these outcomes. i.e barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, sleds and bodyweight.

    I could carry on harping on about the physical qualities needed to be a well balanced athlete and the best methods to developing these qualities but I think the point I am trying to get across is that there is no best or worst modality, just the right modality for achieving a specific outcome with an athlete. So for me its about having an understanding of what you are trying to achieve (needs analysis & goal setting) and then determining the best method of training to achieve the goals you are working towards (programming).

  19. It seems like a lot of people get into weight lifting without even being able to do many pushups or not having any kind of athleticism at all, and they quickly get hurt, not just from lifting too much but from being unfamiliar with that level of physical activity and stressing their body too much. Conditioning is so important. Didn’t Arnold recommend people spend a month or two doing bodyweight exercises before they ever step foot in a weight room?

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