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One of the first things CrossFit newcomers notice is that we tend to use barbells…a lot.

However, for many people, the barbell, despite its simplicity, is rather intimidating. I notice a lot of trepidation, particularly among women, when it comes to incorporating it into their workouts. Many prefer to stick with dumbbells, which is fine – for a while. Eventually, the benefits of the dumbbell will plateau and it will be difficult to make further progress in overall strength.

It is likely that some of the fear surrounding the use of barbells simply comes from not really understanding its benefits and why we use them. So, let’s spend a little time discussing this simple tool.

That, by the way, is the first and primary benefit: its simplicity. You have undoubtedly noticed that the machinery at your local gym has become increasingly complex. Some resemble medieval torture devices with levers, ropes, pulleys, and other moving parts that provide resistance or allow you to use your body weight to gain strength.

In contrast, the barbell is just that: a bar. Yet, used correctly, a single bar – even one without additional weight plates on the ends – is extremely effective in building strength because it requires you to engage multiple muscle groups to use it. For this reason, moves like the deadlift, the clean and jerk, and the snatch have been staples in Olympic weightlifting competitions.

Unlike machines, where dozens of them are required to hit all of your muscle groups, you can work all of the same groups with just a single barbell and a handful of relatively simple moves. One of those simple moves, for example, is the deadlift. This single move requires you to engage your back, quads, glutes, hips, hamstrings, shoulders, and arms. No single move on a single machine is going to match that in terms of efficiency and effectiveness.

Another benefit to using barbells is the ease with which one can incrementally increase weight. The standard Olympic bar on its own, without plates, weighs 45 pounds. So, for many novices, it is a great place to start, though many will be surprised how quickly they are ready to move up in weight.

You will quickly realize that 45 pounds are relatively light because unlike other pieces of equipment or moves that isolate one or two muscles, the barbell and the moves associated with it require the use of nearly your entire body. When you perfect the correct technique and form, all of these muscle groups work in concert, exponentially increasing your ability to lift heavy loads.

Furthermore, because of its length, which is just over 7 feet, the barbell requires you to engage all of these muscles, as well as your core, in order to maintain balance.

Speaking of balance, using the barbell also helps you develop strength evenly on the right and left sides. An imbalance of strength between these sides can lead to significant problems with your gait, motion patterns, and posture, all of which could lead to injury.

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with dumbbells or kettlebells. In fact, we use these a lot as well. However, when used as a substitute in exercises traditionally performed with a barbell, different muscle groups are used and used in different ways. So you are getting the benefit; just not the benefits you would be getting by using a barbell. Moreover, it’s more difficult to move up in weights incrementally and you’re more likely to hit a maximum, not only in terms of what your arms can handle, but dumbbells themselves only get so heavy. Most max out at 50 lbs.

We would certainly never discourage members from using dumbbells if that is what they are most comfortable using. However, because of all the reasons detailed above, we urge members to transition to the barbell eventually, preferably sooner, rather than later.


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