Why you need to befriend the barbell at the gym

Using a barbell teaches your body to coordinate itself while pulling and pushing weight, and can make your fitness routine immensely rewarding

Pulasta Dhar
First Published18 May 2024
Take your time and be patient with yourself before trying out the barbell. Approach it as if it were a curious cat.
Take your time and be patient with yourself before trying out the barbell. Approach it as if it were a curious cat.(Unsplash/Anastase Maragos)

The barbell – and by this I mean the proper one, not the bicep curl barbell, or the EZ bar – is daunting.  

The Olympic bar is seven feet long and weighs around 20kg, with a lighter 15kg variant also available. It has the allowance to load weights to the sides. When attached to the Smith machine, it can be used for squatting and bench pressing as well. So, that’s the one you need to befriend at some point in your strength training programme.

Also read: Why you need to exercise the smaller, hidden chest muscles

You might want to gain or lose weight and/or muscle, but the strength factor is where the barbell wins. One could go so far as to say that without including the barbell in your routine, the fitness journey is slightly incomplete. It’s like how wine isn’t necessary with Italian food, but surely makes it more complete. 

The Olympic barbell as we know it now came into prominence during the early 1900s. Many variants were created,  and lifters around the world were using it to lift different kinds of weights. That was until Kasper Berg designed the one that became the standard – it was used in the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam. But the foundations, so to speak, were laid 20 years earlier. “In 1908, German Franz Veltum produced a disc barbell. The prototypical ‘Olympic’ revolving barbell with bearings was designed by Veltum and produced by the Berg company in 1910,” says an article on physicalculturestudy.com titled The history of the Olympic barbell

Fitness science has evolved and there is something for everyone these days. This means barbells can be replaced by dumbbells, dumbbells by resistance bands, resistance bands by a kettlebell and so on. Callisthenics is entirely dependent on a pull-up bar and dip machines. But when it comes to the four big lifts – the bench press, the squat, the deadlift and the overhead press – it is the barbell that makes them tough, fun, and effective. There is also a lot of learning to be done with a barbell in terms of technique that makes your fitness routine more rewarding and teaches the body how to coordinate itself to push and pull weight.

One might think dumbbells are easier than barbells, but that is a myth. Design-wise, because of the length of the barbell, it takes a lot of weight off the forearms and wrists, instead forcing the body to recruit the muscles that need to be recruited for an exercise. I can put two plates of 10kg on either side of a barbell and do an overhead military press (of total 40kgs), but I might not be able to pull it off with the same effectiveness with two dumbbells of 20kg each.

The fear of barbells, however, is real. To describe it in a relatable way, a barbell is less a bully, and more a big, friendly giant. But you can’t wait for it to come to you like a happy dog. It’s more about taking time and being patient with yourself before approaching it, as if it were a curious cat. It is about trust and building a relationship with it in the gym. The fear of barbells is not gendered, and a brilliant piece on Women’s Health quotes sports psychologist Barbara Walker saying that lifting barbells can make one feel “both physically and psychologically confident, strong, and empowered—and give them a major sense of accomplishment.” Walker works with the Center for Human Performance in Cincinnati and was making a comment on women in gyms specifically, but makes some pertinent points that are applicable to everyone when they see a barbell. 

The piece, titled How to Get Over Your Fear of Barbells, highlights how barbells were made keeping in mind the average body composition of men, but the badassery felt while using one is universal. 

How to get started on the barbell?
Start small at the Smith machine. Do a few barbell-only squats with help from a trainer in terms of technique. Or a bench press. Increase the reps gradually before clipping in weights. Again, start small. And then try the same without the machine’s help. Use lighter bars at first and work your way up. Do one of the big four lifts each day. The payback in terms of strength, growth, and technique is immense.

“It also teaches people something about themselves that they didn’t know before and that will carry over to every other part of their lives. It’s an invaluable opportunity for personal growth and provides the individual with a glimpse of the mental fortitude they didn't know they had,” writes former professional basketball player Steve Ross in an article for startingstrength.com titled Fear in Barbell Training (and How to Overcome it).

It’s time to replace the fear with calluses on the hands. Happy lifting.

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator, podcaster and writer.

Also read: Busting 5 common wellness myths






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