(c) Image by FeelNumb.com
Written by Dave Thomas
Good movement is like a good a song. It requires many different components that all blend together to create something great. In the case of strength and conditioning, those components are the different loads we can apply to our body, and how quickly we create force to move them.
Google something like “the benefits of barbell training” and you will likely be returned results that are more in line with “barbell vs. dumbbells”, not really focused on what you were asking. Why is it we want to pit equipment against each other? We need to be inclusive of our tools, not exclusive.
A not uncommon tale that I see unfold at the gym is this. Member joins gym. Member has no agenda other than “lose weight and get a little stronger”. Member succeeds in this for a long time. Member starts to enjoy certain movements over others. Member starts doing those movements in disproportionate frequency and ignoring things he/she thinks she has graduated from. Member keeps doing this. Member loses other skills. Member asks Dave why their X, Y and Z have gone down.
There is nothing inherently wrong with doing the things you like to do. Hell, I do it and that’s why we go to the gym. To enjoy our efforts. If you are a competitive athlete then specializing is part of the gig. Not everyone will benefit from the same equipment. A beginner focusing on heavy barbells is just as asinine as a highly experienced lifter making push-ups the basis of their program. But most of us train in order to become a capable human being in many different capacities like like running fast, jumping high, and more accurate darts after five beers.
Here’s an overview of why it pays to form the whole band and resist the temptation to go solo.
Purpose: Movement, Athleticism
The drummer is often the superior musician in the band who rarely gets the proper credit he or she deserves. They keep the cohesion of the song, they maintain the rhythm, and they keep everyone is in line when they’re off gallivanting all over the stage. The drummer is sort of like the foundation for the song on which everyone else operates.
This is the role of our body weight movement and function.
For the sake of our broad definition of calisthenics, we include:
- Body weight movements like pull-ups, push-ups, pistol squats, body weight squats, and burpees.
- Plyometrics like box and broad jumps, sprints, and low impact variations like ladder drills
- Gymnastic movements like ring work, hollow variations, etc.
Admittedly, I am taking some liberties in what I throw into here, but it’s to illustrate the need for proper body function without load, as well as the importance of accessing multiple planes of movement.
Body Weight Push, Pull and Squat
If we take an ill-prepared body to any serious lifting program, it’s sort of like trying to drag race a busted ass ’03 Sentra. You will lose.
- Movement Grooving & Relative Strength – If you cannot body weight squat properly, you have no prayer of ever back squatting properly. It’s a quote I have dropped many times on this blog but as deadlift world record holder Andy Bolton cautions, “It takes three thousand reps to undo a faulty movement pattern and re-groove it”. To ensure bad habits do not get ingrained, this foundation needs to be owned. Control, power, and strength in multiple directions with both halves of the body so that movement pattern and motor learning are established. For those who already own it, there is no doubt you will not benefit a ton from body weight strength (gasp, I know). However, it is still very important to ensure you move like a human, and not some robot that only functions under load. I recommend de-loads and body weight work every so often to sort of “re-certify” your movement pattern.
- Shoulder Function – Body weight work like pull-ups and push-ups are an integral part of establishing and maintaining scapular function across all other movements (and a perdsonal pet peeve when I see capable folks performing them thoughtlessly).
- Lat Building – Lots of pull-ups also signify strong lats, which will carry over to stability in the thoracic on major lifts like back and front squats, and deadlifts.
The unstable nature of rings and gymnastics movements creates very unique and beneficial demands on the body.
- Increased Motor Recruitment – The unstable nature of rings and gymnastics movements forces us to recruit more motor units in order to perform the movement, making them an effective strength training tool. For example, a ring push-up is substantially harder than a floor-based push-up for those reasons.
- Open Chain Strength & Power – Rings also integrate open chain strength, power, and coordination in a way that other equipment does not. A barbell movement like a hang clean might also work those three skills, but it does so with your feet initially connected to the floor, making the floor a springboard of sorts. Gymnastic movements take the feet off of the floor and create an open-chain set-up where we must create coordinated power on our own. This makes it a very unique and effective training tool for athleticism.
If barbells comprise our only form of power training, then we are training knee and hip extension at slow speeds.
- Rapid Knee and Hip Extension – Jumping powerfully requires us to rapidly extend our hips and knees to produce power and acceleration, as well as deceleration with focused landing technique. The ability to land is a very important athletic skill.
- Rate of Force Development – In strength speak, jumping will improve the rate of force development, which is how quickly we can contract and create force to move an object. With jumping, it is our body weight, but this has high transference to barbell movements that have a stretch shortening cycle component to them, like back squats and hang position Olympic lifts.
There’s a reason why weightlifters jump often and can jump through the roof.
Without body weight mastery, we cannot fully master weighted implements on top of the body. And we’re certainly no damn “athlete”. For this reason, calisthenics are the true foundation.
- Lacking in Absolute Strength – Compared to other options, calisthenics do not build absolute strength well.
- Barrier to Entry – Many gymnastic and plyometric movements require a strength pre-requisite, making them not accessible or appropriate for all levels.
Barbells: Lead Vocalist
Purpose: Strength, Muscle, Power, Work Capacity
The lead Axl Rose cigarette smoking whiskey drinking mother fucker. They get all the glory, sometimes rightfully so, but often times in spite of the fact that other members are contributing just as much and working just as hard. When it’s all said and done, no band can truly be great without a great front man, and when they leave, their absence is felt.
- Absolute Strength – Barbells build the most absolute strength of any implement we use because they allow the heaviest weight. The end. This simple fact does not, and should not be over-complicated. Yes, there are other ways to build strength with other equipment through isometrics, tempo work and other manipulations, but nothing produces raw, absolute strength like a barbell.
- Metabolic Upgrade – Because they are mostly compound lifts, barbells build muscle extremely well. We need muscle, so cut the shit if you’re still into this, “Will this make be bulky” fear.
To illustrate this point, I am going to borrow from my 2015 article.
Muscle is a good thing. Metabolically speaking, adding distributed, athletic muscle from barbell strength training is very advantageous because the amount of muscle we have on our body is directly proportionate to how many calories we are able to burn. Muscle is a very metabolically active tissue, so the more we have of it the more calories we burn.
Your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) is the amount of calories your body burns at rest, daily. With more muscle comes an increased BMR and greater caloric expenditure while we’re sitting around doing nothing. Playing Arnold Schwarzenegger in Mobile Strike, posting about the death of which celebrity you didn’t know, scrolling Instagram for the 82nd time today. Just kickin’ back burnin’ cals.
Now, there is no such thing as trading fat for muscle. One does not turn into the other. But over time, a focus on building your strength will have a favorable metabolic effect on both your ability to build muscle and burn fat.
A 165 pound person comprised of 25% body fat will burn less calories than a 165 pound person with 18% body fat.
Barbell strength training most effectively achieves re-composition of this variety. There is simply no comparison to the metabolic and physiological effect that a loaded back squat has in comparison to holding a warrior pose, going for a run, or even a kettlebell goblet squat.
- Single Plane of Movement – Barbell lifts typically provide only sagittal plane movement limited to just flexion and extension. Very effective, but can produce robotic like movement pattern if not varied.
- Mobility Pre-Requisites – The biggest limitation is they are not accessible for everyone out of mobility and core strength concerns. This also makes it the industry’s greatest fuck up, when we put ill-prepared “athletes” under a barbell with no mobility, no movement patterning, and no idea how to stabilize. For example, if the ankle can’t properly dorsiflex then back squats will be detrimental because we’re going to set off a chain reaction of bad, loaded movement. Same goes for overhead movements on ill-prepared shoulders, and deadlifts on weak posterior chains.
Dumbbells: Lead Guitar
Purpose: Stability, Unilateral Training
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, we appreciated a good lead ax slayer. He got into an aggresssive power stance, popped his shirt off, and melted all of our faces. Now, that day is dead and John Mayer qualifies as a great guitar player.
Dumbbells, done right, were once a heavily relied upon, excitable way to train, develop muscle, strength, and burn calories. Now, we see some gyms literally freak out when they are forced to buy them and talk about dumbbells like they are the fucking shake weight.
- Unilateral Training – We need unilateral training. Period. While you can certainly obtain a unilateral benefit on the legs with barbells, you cannot with the upper body (er, maybe some) and the dumbbell is where we slay the majority of our single-arm, upper body training.
Reason being, to:
- Isolate the individual shoulder complex and train its stability and mobility. The shoulder is the most mobile and unstable joint in the body, and it benefits greatly from functional strength stability training.
- Correct any dominant limb imbalances to a variance of 10% or less.
- Train the anterior core to resist rotation.
- Produce a neuromuscular effect where we recruit more intensely to execute a lift.
- Shoulder Stability & Development – Along with landmines, dumbbells are among the best tools we have to develop functional shoulder joint stability. For example, when you hold a barbell overhead, you hold it with two arms, which disperses the demand on each individual shoulder. But, when you hold a single dumbbell overhead, you are able to isolate and target that shoulder’s stability. Barbells also have the drawback of potentially overloading poor shoulder mobility. The harsh reality is most new athletes are not prepared for barbells from a functional mobility perspective. If you press an athlete overhead who is immobile in the thoracic, they will upwardly flare their rib cage, not only compromising the shoulder, but compress the lumbar spine in a position of hyper-extension, giving them a nice low back bag of dicks instead of strength. Dumbbells remedy this.
Rather than add strength to dysfunction, dumbbells develop function and build strength.
- An Underrated Option for Muscle Growth – EMG activity on the dumbbell bench press has shown relatively equal activation of our pressing muscles, but a greater activation of the biceps. This is because of antagonistic stability demands forced into action by dumbbell loading.
Some of my favorite dumbbell movements that I program on a weekly basis are:
- DB Snatch – One of my favorite movements since we opened.
- DB 1-Arm Row – Build a strong upper back and train the obliques contra-laterally.
- Renegade Row – Anti-rotation sex.
- DB Bench and Floor Press
- Absolute Strength – They do not build absolute strength in the same manner as a barbell. The loading scheme is too mechanically challenging at heavy weight to train the lower body as effectively as a barbell.
Kettlebells: Bass Player
Purpose: Joint Friendly Strength, Muscle Endurance, Multi-Plane Training
Thrown in the corner and never given a solo, bass players very rarely get the recognition they deserve but if you have a good one, it’s a huge asset to band that performs well together. The fitness industry treats kettlebells like the lonely bass player. Taken for grant it, never given much talk, yet few understand their true potential to a band when you have a really good one.
- Rapid Extension – They build very explosive power and the full, complete hip extension.
- Performance Muscles – Swings focus on the lower posterior chain and the lats, two very important groups for strength and performance. In addition, most kettlebell movements either transfer force through the core (swing, snatch) or require the anterior core to be braced with peak tension (squat, press, Turkish get-up). If you recall from the core section of my landmine article, this has a very positive impact on spinal resiliency in other lifts.
- “Strength Efficient” – You can also create flows seamlessly to different movements like the video above, which creates very time effecient metabolic circuits, and/or strength.
- Multi Plane Accessibility – A major benefit that I love is the ease in which we can vary the plane of movement. Accessory movements like the windmill, curtsy lunge, and Turkish get-up, take the body through multiple planes of movement while also building strength.
- Absolute Strength – They are not as beneficial of an absolute strength building tool as the barbell because the load is much less.
Medicine Balls: Rhythm Guitar
The medicine ball is like the rhythm guitar player. We see it up on the board, we might glance at him and say, “that’s nice”, but then our eyes and ears go back to the lead singer or lead guitarist. When we perform movements with a med ball, we don’t really ever pay much attention to them or what it’s really doing for us.
- Repeatable Power Production – Medicine balls are very effective at training power production. I really like light and body weight power applications because there is no technique to get in the way. It’s just primal output and maximum rate of force development. Other tools can often be too heavy and too mechanical to focus on true speed and power. It is a perfectly safe tool for beginners and a highly effective tool for advanced athletes to refine pure power in a reduced load manner. They are also very safe and have a high degree of “repeatability” without risk of injury.
- Multi-Plane Movement – Like the kettlebell, the medicine ball can also very good at training the transverse and frontal plane through various lateral and rotational versions of movement.
- Unique Demands on the Core – Lastly, because of the fact it can roll, it’s easy to create unique challenges on both shoulder and core stability, that might not otherwise be achievable.
They won’t build much real strength or muscle.
- Calisthenics – Movement and Athleticism
- Barbells – Strength, Muscle, Power, and Work Capacity
- Dumbbells – Stability and Unilateral Training
- Kettlebells – Joint Friendly Strength and Muscle Endurance
- Medicine Balls – Power
We all train for different reasons and have different goals. The frequency in which we train with different implements is heavily dependent on goal and training experience. Stronger, more advanced folks are going to benefit from a much larger dose of barbells. Less experienced folks will benefit more from calisthenics and reduced load movement. The important takeaway is to always have some relationship with all of them, so that we constantly maintain our skills.
Hopefully, I made a decent enough argument to day to get you paying a little bit more attention to less sexy stuff, and maybe try to get to second or third base with a lonely drummer or bass player after the show. For you young co-eds out there who only listen to electronic music and didn’t get any of this, I got nothin’.
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