It has come to my attention that many new trainees who have spent some time in a gym have preconceived notions on how to lift weights. Much of this comes from experience as a gym member, prior lifting instruction from a personal trainer, a conversation with a physician or physical therapist who has never touched a barbell, or some other source of Bad Ideas. This results in me delivering the wonderful news that you do not know how to properly lift weights, you have been Doing It Wrong for years, and that 10 years of gym membership experience does not equate to years of proficient training experience. Sometimes, this leads to an eye-opening, developmental experience and other times this leads to a hand gesture and a refund request. As you can see, I am not cut out for Snake Oil sales and still feel this sense of obligation to be honest, even if it means turning away business.
Some basic definitions are in order. Free weight exercises refer to exercises performed without the assistance of machines or pulley systems where the lifter must complete the exercise in space. The most common types of free weight exercise equipment are barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells. There are others as well (e.g., Yokes, Atlas Stones, etc.) but since most of the general fitness clientele are not competing in Strongman, we will save those for another discussion. Free weight exercises use more muscle mass than those performed on exercise machines, specifically the muscles of the back and waist. This is a point that is often absent in the “free weights are better than machines” argument. The differentiating factor between lifting a free weight versus lifting on an exercise machine is that you are responsible for stabilizing your own spine in space. The muscles that attach to the spine are located across the back and around the waist. These include, but are not limited to, the rectus abdominis (“the abs”), the spinal erectors, trapezius muscles (“the traps”), and latissimus dorsi (“the lats”). Since these muscle groups are primarily responsible for maintaining spinal position (“posture”), they primarily function isometrically, which means that they do not change in length while producing force. During a Squat, Deadlift, or Standing Press, the muscles of the back and waist are contracting hard to maintain spinal position while the hips, knees, arms, or shoulders are moving the weight. You do not have a pad to push against as you would on an exercise machine and are thus responsible for keeping your spine rigid, which is part of the lift. This means that you do not neglect this to “Get the weight up” as most uncoached lifters do. Your back is never off the clock.
Barbell exercises are a sub-category of free weight exercises, meaning that they are done in space with no external assistance to lift the weight. The main barbell exercises are the Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press, Standing Press, and the Chin-Up as the honorary barbell exercise. Barbell exercises are the most superior of the free weight exercises from the standpoint of mechanical efficiency because a barbell does not change its shape with heavier loads, whereas dumbbells and kettlebells will become larger and more awkward, thus reducing the mechanical efficiency of the lift with heavier loads. In other words, a barbell loaded with 100 lb. sits in the same place, over the middle of your foot, in your hands, or on your back, as a barbell loaded with 1000 lb. because the load is on the sleeves that are of sufficient distance from the lifter. Therefore, very heavy weights can be lifted with a barbell, which can translate to greater strength and muscle acquisition. Thus, a barbell is arguably the most ergonomic lifting device to date. Not bad for a device that came into circulation over a century ago.
The barbell is great for loading normal human movements such as squatting down and standing up, picking up something heavy, placing something overhead, or pushing something heavy off your chest. Theoretically, if you overload these ergonomic and efficient movements with a heavy barbell, then the awkward things you must pick up out in the world, such as the large appliance out of the back of a pickup truck or large pieces of furniture during a move, are less likely to injure you because the muscle, joints, and connective tissues are sufficiently strong enough to support each other. The spinal stabilization component requires large amounts of force production from the muscles of the back and waist. This results in well-developed muscular backs, obliques, and abdominals and to a greater extent than exercises that train those muscles in isolation. For example, performing a bodyweight plank or plank with weight on the back is a notably different event than maintaining spinal position while squatting or deadlifting several 100 lb. Although other muscles are contributing to the actual lift, a large amount of force production from the spinal stabilizers is required to effectively complete the lift.
The benefits of barbell training cannot be overstated. However, the most important underlying assumption is that the lifter is performing the exercises with technical proficiency. It is safe to assume that poor body awareness is the rule (not the exception) with untrained or poorly trained lifters. After all, how many of you reading this have struggled with “bad posture?” It is widely accepted that playing basketball requires very specific instruction on how to throw and pass the basketball. The same can be said of a baseball pitch, shot put throw, swimming stroke, or even a non-sport related skill such as playing the piano, shooting a pistol, or even typing up words like I am doing right now. However, when it comes to lifting weights, many people assume they have achieved mastery through self-instruction or previous instruction from an unqualified person such as a physician or physical therapist who has never lifted weights or a personal trainer who is more qualified to sell you personal training than actually deliver it. Barbell exercises require specific knowledge, skills, and experience just as the activities listed above do. I have spent 25 years under a barbell, with the last 9 years lifting sufficiently heavy weights using a well-defined and well-tested model of barbell exercise performance that has worked for individuals as young age 10 years or as old as age 90.
Every time I coach a new lifter, something is inevitably wrong and often Very Wrong. The first thing we do is rebuild the lift using the techniques that I have been trained to use and modify them to accommodate the lifter. These techniques use the most muscle mass, throughout the longest effective range of motion, which allows for the most weight to be lifted. Some of the most common errors I encounter on Day One include and are not limited to, rounded backs on deadlifts, partial squats with poor knee control and excessive forward knee travel, strict presses that finish 4” in front of the head, push presses performed when strict presses are prescribed, close grip bench presses when bench presses are prescribed, shoulder protraction on the lat pulldowns or chin-ups, and many more. Notice that many of these issues are not nuances such as the “high bar vs low bar squats” or “sumo vs conventional deadlift” type arguments. These are fundamental issues of poor body awareness and an absence of understanding of the purpose of each lift. Correcting these issues requires a good coach’s eye, patience, and commitment on the side of the lifter, and effective verbal and tactile communication to achieve the desired results. This is developed through years of experience as both a lifter and a coach using a well-defined model. Chances are that you have not had any of this and simply picked up a bar and “just started lifting” for several years before you ended up under my supervision. However, those days are over if you and I are having this conversation, you will need to let the air out of your ego so we can get you moving safely and effectively. So now get out of your own way, fire yourself as a coach immediately, and let your Actual Coach, well, coach you.