This topic came about from often being asked what I think is the best piece of exercise equipment. In one sense, it surprises me that this could even be a question. But when we see different exercise systems and equipment so hyped, there really does seem to be more confusion than ever before as to what is the real deal and what is simply riding the latest marketing wave. Fitness has taken on an element of creativity over science and empirical results, and there are way too many “experts” who are more interested in cashing in than promoting the best possible fitness options.
EPE Training Systems is located in Laguna Niguel, CA. The website can be found at www.epetrainngsystems.com.
What do you think is the best tool ever created for getting strong and fit?
There are lots of opportunists in the fitness community looking to recreate the wheel and come up with the next big marketable way to train or instrument to use. I find both quite amusing, but also a little frustrating. Take for, example, some of the more recent pieces of equipment that “experts” have taken and converted into a “complete” fitness system. Many of these are fine as a component within a complete fitness program, but are lacking as a solo instrument.
We had the kettlebell break out in the 90’s and next thing you knew, people started actually getting certified on it. Think about it, certified on using one simple piece of equipment! Funny that I don’t see a certification on barbell training – and which piece of equipment do you think is more involved, more versatile, and more effective at reaching whatever fitness goals? I mean, COME ON (but more on this later)!!
So what else are they building entire training programs around? There’s the TRX, the sandbag, the ballet “barre”, the Pilates reformer, the goofy stuff on commercials, etc.
Anyway, I want to discuss my opinion on what is the single best instrument to be used in order to get strong and fit – which is, of course, the barbell (sorry dumbbells – you do come in a close second, though).
So what about machines?
Like everything else, there are some positive applications for the use of machines. Just to name a couple:
- They can be used to start progressing a novice towards the barbell
- Machines allow for some high intensity bodybuilding techniques that could potentially be dangerous to perform with free weight
- They’re fine for some single joint isolation movements, during the accessory portion of your workout, while trying to provide some extra focus to a body part for various reasons
But let’s face it, machines force your body to move in a pre-determined pathway. Not akin to the free form movement that mother nature designed our bodies to move in. This leads to potential for repetitive injuries, as well as inefficient path ways for increasing strength as it is displayed in our natural environment(s).
Also, machines support your body while providing stress to only the joints that are specifically being worked. In other words, we are not having to contend with moving a resistance in an environment which mimics how we have to contend with resistance in real life – whether it be making the bed or tackling a running back. The Universe does not provide for us an invisible seat and back rest to sit in, which puts us in the perfect position to place that bag of almonds back on the top of the cabinet shelf.
Okay, how about awkward objects and strongman equipment?
I love this stuff, and I use it with my clients, at EPE Training Systems regularly! I’ve even begun offering my “Strongman Hybrid Training” program, which is a combination of powerlifting, strongman training, and circuit training with various objects.
As great as this kind of training is, there’s a reason why Strongman competitors still use barbells in their training. Most of the Strongman implements are bulky, and this causes the center of these objects to be held further away from the trainees’ personal center mass (think the middle of your foot when you’re standing). The further away an object is from our center mass, the more awkward it is, and therefore the lighter the weight must be in order to move it. The most efficient way to get strong is lift the heaviest weight possible for the given number of repetitions, time, or distance. Because the barbell is so small in diameter, we are able to keep it very close to our body’s center mass, enabling the heaviest possible weight to be used.
Also, the barbell is the perfect instrument for incorporating the most important principal in strength training – “progressive overload”. Because we are able to alter and record the weight of the bar, all the way down to increments as low as ¼ lb, we have ultimate flexibility with incorporating intelligent strategies towards reaching our specific goals – be it strength, muscular size, conditioning, or sport-related performance.
Most Strongman and awkward instruments do incorporate same objects of different weight, but not to the same degree as the barbell.
Strongman was developed as a competition which displayed one’s strength. It is a sport, which requires skill, strength and conditioning. It was not developed as a means to get strong. Practicing it will make you brutally strong, no doubt. But, just like any other sport, the athletes know they better be squatting and deadlifting, and benching, etc, in order to be strong enough to compete at a high level.
Well, what about the kettlebell, it does everything the barbell can do, right?
Seriously? I mean, SERIOUSLY?!?! First of all, refer to the topic on strongman equipment. Everything that is done with a kettlebell can be done with a barbell, but with tremendously more weight.
Truth be told, kettlebells are an excellent means for conditioning, and too many people are recklessly performing Olympic style movements with barbells in a fatigued state. This is causing injuries, as well as lots of buildup of local and systemic inflammation.
Having said that, anyone tried a hard 10-20 rep set of squats lately? Tell me that doesn’t have a tremendous conditioning affect on you, and I guarantee you, you’re not training hard. Also, barbell complexes can be performed very safely, and are a tremendous means of conditioning, and fat burning!
The Pilates reformer strengthens you and makes you flexible, unlike weight training that causes you to lose your flexibility, right?
Wrong, stupid. Very wrong. First of all, why would we ever want to strengthen ourselves on our backs when we seldom ever are in a position to display strength from our backs? If you want to be strong in a way that manifests itself in the environment that mother nature created for us, then you better train in a manner that resembles the neuromuscular pathways in which we use to thrive in this environment. Pilates comes closest to resembling a bug that rolled onto it’s back and can’t get up – not a thriving physical human being, taking charge in his or her daily environment.
Secondly, flexibility is way over emphasized in some circles. Just ask retired Cirque de Soleil performers. For several of them, their tendons around their joints are permanently overly-stretched out, and they no longer have the muscle to compensate – big problems. And yes, this is an extreme example, but it’s important to understand that more is not always better when dealing with flexibility. We need to be flexible enough around our joints to be able maintain a balanced musculoskeletal system. Most well-rounded barbell programs do contain some portion of dynamic stretching, and even some static stretching for those difficult areas. But also, barbell exercises taken through full ranges of motion do much to develop a very functional form of flexibility, which applies to our joints’ range of motion while our bodies support themselves in movement.
How about (blank) cardio machine, bike, whatever?
Whatever your fitness goals ultimately are, you will not get there efficiently without having forged a base foundation of strength. That’s just the fact of the matter. Conditioning is improved through depleting oneself of metabolic substrates (which are your sources for energy). This causes your body to both become more efficient with its use of those substrates, as well as become more efficient at storing and replenishing these substrates. As your body accomplishes this, you increase your conditioning, as well as typically get leaner.
So it stands to reason that the more efficiently you can deplete your body of these substrates, the quicker and more effective your body will be at performing the aforementioned tasks. Well, it also stands to reason that the stronger you are, the more efficiently you will be able to push yourself and deplete your body of these metabolic substrates.
I train people every day and, without fail, the weaker trainees can never push their conditioning as well as the stronger trainees. So if you want to increase your endurance, or just get leaner – you will reach your goals much quicker if you have developed your base strength. And besides, who wants to be that skinny fat person anyway?
For more information about EPE Training Systems go to: www.epetrainingsystems.com.
So what about calisthenics?
Calisthenics are fine, but certainly come with limitations. That’s why, when people start to get strong, they have to add weight to their pull-up, dips, push-ups, and ab work. Only now they are no longer performing calisthenics.
When we exercise, we first determine what exactly our goals are. We then determine a repetition scheme that will deliver our goals. The rep scheme will then determine the amount of weight we use. With calisthenics, your body weight is predetermining your rep scheme. This is okay for a while, but ultimately, it is (pardon my French) ass backwards. It’s putting the cart before the horse. Eventually the reps are going to get too high for efficiently developing strength or lean muscle mass.
Listen, I don’t give a rat’s ass what Herschel Walker did. He is a genetic freak and therefore is the last person I want to take fitness advice from.
I love calisthenics, and they do some great things such as; developing initial strength, core strength development, they make for a great starting point before progressing to weights, they are excellent for use in conditioning circuits, etc. It’s just that they can’t touch the barbell.
What about the dumbbell? It has all the benefits of the barbell, but also possesses an instability element.
Yes it is and does all that, and more even. And that’s why dumbbells are used by every person I train. They also can be easier on the shoulders, elbows, low back, etc. And they do help promote stability, that you can then take back to your barbell exercises and improve upon them. But it is this very instability point which is why they are typically used to assist the main barbell exercises rather than being the main exercise.
We’ve already discussed that the quickest way to one’s goal is to use the greatest amount of resistance that can be applied within the specific parameters of that goal (i.e., a specific rep count). Try lifting the heaviest barbell weight you can overhead for ten repetitions. Then do the same with dumbbells. The combined weight of the dumbbells will not come close to the weight of the barbell. Enough said. Dumbbells are great, but if you could only use one, it has to be the barbell.
Well, how bout the barbell?
You are correct, Sir. Nothing comes close to taking the greatest amount of resistance possible and moving it, in a non-guided manner, against gravity – while calling upon not only the main driver muscles (agonists), but requiring the use of the antagonist muscles (think triceps when performing an biceps curl) along with the stabilizing and postural muscles and proprioceptors, all working together to accomplish this singular task! This is how our bodies are designed to move in nature. If we train any differently, or with less than optimal resistance, our bodies simply will not respond as efficiently – from a physiological (muscles and tendons), neurological (central nervous system), or endicrinological (hormones) context.
The barbell is not only the best tool available in the tool shed, from an overall viewpoint. It has no flaws. It is the perfect weapon for the following goals, and then some:
- Strength development
- Hypertrophy (building lean muscle mass)
- Power development
- Rate of force development
- Starting Strength
- Strength Speed
- Speed strength
- Speed development
- Conditioning and strengthening the heart
- Fat loss
- Increasing bone density
- Building confidence and self-esteem
- Help for maintaining flexibility, joint integrity, & reducing arthritic inflammation
- Reducing chance of disease
- Improving sleep and stress levels
- Etc, etc, etc.