Nothing about fitness is easy.
If you want results, you can’t afford to waste time with unproven fads and ineffective equipment. Lucky for you, one tool’s been helping people get strong, lean and athletic for well over a century — it's called the barbell.
The benefits of resistance training are extremely well-researched, and barbells are one of the most popular and time-tested ways to engage in this type of training.
Whatever your fitness goals, there’s a good chance a barbell can help get you there. So for most individuals, a barbell is absolutely worth it.
But is it right for you? And if so, what kind?
Let’s dive in and breakdown why a barbell should (or should not) be your next fitness purchase.
The Amazing Benefits of Barbell Training
A standard barbell weighs 45 pounds, which is heavy enough for many people to receive a positive training effect.
Add weight plates to the equation and suddenly the barbell becomes an endlessly customizable implement. This customizability makes it ideal for popular training goals, such as:
- Increased Max Strength
- Increased Power
- Increased Hypertrophy (Muscle Growth)
- Increased Muscle Endurance
- Increased Fat Loss
Training for these goals helps make us healthier, more resilient, more athletic, more toned/muscular, and less susceptible to age-related physical and cognitive decline.
RELATED: The 13 Best Barbell Exercises
Max strength is the maximum amount of weight we can lift for a small number of repetitions (typically one to three). Training max strength helps us increase our ability to produce more forceful muscle contractions. Powerlifters are the kings of voluntary muscle activation, and their training is done almost exclusively with a barbell.
Power is our ability to express strength fast. It’s crucial not only to explosive athletic movements, but also standing up out of a chair or catching ourselves after a stumble. Olympic weightlifters are some of the most powerful athletes in the world, and almost all their training is performed with a barbell. Most barbells feature rotating bar ends that make them ideal for moves like the Snatch and Clean & Jerk.
Hypertrophy is a fancy way to say building muscle. Lifting heavy stuff damages our muscles. This is actually a good thing, because if our recovery is on point, our body repairs the damage and produces thicker, more numerous muscle fibers in response. This is how we gain muscle mass. Progressive overload is the most important training factor for continued muscle gain, and a barbell may be the best tool for utilizing this key training principle.
Muscle endurance is our ability to contract a muscle repetitively over time. It’s extremely important for both endurance sports and functional activities like climbing long flights of stairs. Bodyweight moves, dumbbells, kettlebells, and machines are all great for enhancing muscle endurance. Barbells can also be an effective way to target this adaptation. Famous examples of barbell-based muscle endurance workouts include BODYPUMP (though it uses a lighter barbell) and the 225-pound bench press test at the NFL Combine.
Burning fat (or fat oxidation) is perhaps the number one training goal out there. While nutrition is the number one driver of fat loss, exercise also plays an important component. Virtually any type of barbell training can help us burn fat, though tactics like barbell complexes are especially effective for this purpose. CrossFit athletes sport some of the most impressive bodies out there, and their training routines include a heavy dose of barbell-based movements.
A Barbell May Be Best for Progressive Overload
Progressive overload is the idea that we must continually challenge our bodies in new ways to avoid plateaus. We can’t simply lift the same loads the same way over and over and expect to see continued results. The easiest way to utilize progressive overload is to lift heavier weight.
Unlike kettlebells or dumbbells, which have fixed weights that can't be easily adjusted, a quality barbell can accommodate anywhere from just a few pounds up to five- or six-hundred (and potentially beyond). Heavier weight plates allow users to quickly increase their load by significant amounts, while microplates allow a user to jump up by as little as half a pound at a time. This high degree of incremental adjustability helps ensure you can use the exact right loads for your ability level at any given time.
Barbells are also best for advanced training tactics like overcoming isometrics and band/chain-based accommodating resistance. While barbells are most commonly associated with the big three (the Squat, Deadlift and Bench Press) and Olympic weightlifting movements (the Snatch and Clean & Jerk), they can also be used for hundreds of other exercises.
Other popular moves include the Military Press, Bent-Over Row, Weighted Hip Thrust and Ab Rollout. More eclectic options include Thrusters, Zercher Squats and Bosch Cleans. A landmine attachment, a small piece of equipment that anchors one end of the bar, further expand the barbell’s vast exercise library.
The Potential Drawbacks of a Barbell
Barbells are an amazing training tool for many reasons.
However, they’re not always the ideal tool for the job.
While barbells work great for bilateral exercises (meaning moves that require both arms or both legs to work simultaneously), they’re not quite as good for unilateral exercises (or moves that demand a single limb work in isolation).
This isn’t as much of an issue for lower-body unilateral exercises. Moves like the Front Rack Reverse Lunge, for example, are actually best performed with a barbell. And while some find exercises like Bulgarian Split Squats and SL RDLs to be more comfortable with kettlebells or dumbbells, they can certainly be done with a barbell, as well.
Upper-body unilateral exercises are a different story. Since it’s extremely awkward to lift a barbell with just one hand, the options for this type of training are very limited. The easiest solution is to simply buy a landmine attachment.
There’s also some controversy around the traditional Barbell Deadlift. While it’s a fantastic exercise for those who know what they're doing and whose bodies are ready for it, the Trap Bar Deadlift (a variation that requires a special kind of bar known as a trap or hex bar) is generally considered safer and more beginner friendly.
Barbells are also pretty freaking big. The standard barbell measures 7 feet long (though 5 foot varieties are also available). That’s not a problem if you’ve got space to store and use it, but if you’re dealing with a very tight training area, kettlebells or dumbbells (or even a suspension trainer like a TRX) may be the smarter play.
The Right Price for a Barbell
While a barbell isn’t always the best tool for the job, it’s hard to match its overall effectiveness and utility (particularly when paired with a solid assortment of weight plates). A rack/stand and landmine attachment will only further enhance its value.
But when it’s time to buy, some may experience sticker shock with regards to the price of a barbell.
We previously wrote about why certain brands of barbells sell for many hundreds of dollars. It comes down to materials, manufacturing, demand and reputation.
Yet not all barbells are expensive. 1-inch barbells, in particular, tend to be far more affordable. Yet aside from some rare exceptions, serious fitness enthusiasts are likely better served by a standard (or 2-inch) barbell.
Luckily, you can find quality standard barbells that don’t cost as much as a new iPhone.
The $100-$300 range offers the best blend of quality and value. Bars that cost more than this tend to sport niche features that may matter to hardcore olympic weightlifters or powerlifters but don't move the needle for everyone else. Bars that cost less may be incapable of delivering the level of performance you deserve.
At HulkFit, we pride ourselves on crafting quality equipment that helps everyone experience the proven physical and mental benefits of resistance training. The HulkFit Olympic Barbell is where excellent quality meets extraordinary value. Our top-of-the-line version sells for just $129.99.
Of course, a bar with no accessories can be limiting. Let’s say you bundle the HulkFit Olympic Barbell with the following items:
- Two 45-pound bumper plates, two 25-pound bumper plates, two 10-pound bumper plates
- Two 5-pound cast iron plates, eight 2.5-pound cast iron plates
- Squat Stand Lite
That’s another $415 (give or take) in equipment, bringing us to about $545 total. This set-up would allow you to utilize bar loads ranging from 45 pounds all the way up to 235 pounds.
If that sounds like far more weight than you need, let’s nix the 45-pound plates and keep everything else.
That gives you a max barbell load of 145 pounds and an all-inclusive price total of about $365. This set-up would allow you to train at the following loads:
- 45 pounds (just the bar with no plates), 50 pounds, 55 pounds, 60 pounds, 65 pounds, 70 pounds, 75 pounds, 80 pounds, 85 pounds, 90 pounds, 95 pounds, 100 pounds, 105 pounds, 110 pounds, 115 pounds, 120 pounds, 125 pounds, 130 pounds, 135 pounds, 140 pounds, 145 pounds
This doesn’t account for the fact you could perform exercises with the weight plates themselves, also, nor the added utility of the built-in pull-up bar on the squat stand.
But let’s compare that to what $365 can get you in dumbbells.
We’ll use Amazon Basics Rubber Encased Hex Dumbbells for our comparison. A pair each of the 10-, 20-, 40- and 50-pound dumbbells would land you right around $365.
This set-up would allow you to train at the following loads:
- 10 pounds, 20 pounds, 40 pounds, 50 pounds, 80 pounds, 100 pounds
See the difference?
Even accounting for some additional accessories, the barbell gives you greater control over your loads plus a higher max weight on a dollar-for-dollar basis.
This will help you fine-tune your workouts to your exact needs, which can lead to superior results and help you avoid plateaus.
You’ll also never really “grow out” of a quality barbell.
With fixed weight dumbbells or kettlebells, you may find that certain weights no longer offer much utility as you get stronger. But with a barbell, you can simply buy more weight plates as you build strength. Machines may offer a high degree of customization, as well, but they tend to be far more expensive than barbells and offer less overall utility.
Is a Barbell Actually Worth It?
You expect hard work to pay off with results, and the right tools are a key part of that equation.
Barbell training is a proven way to help you become a stronger, leaner, more resilient, more athletic version of yourself.
Contrary to popular belief, barbell training is also quite safe overall. A 2017 review published in the journal Sports Medicine found barbell-heavy activities like CrossFit, Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting produced just 2 to 4 injuries per 1,000 hours of training. Compare that to a 2015 review published in the same journal which found recreational runners sustain 7.7 running-related injuries per 1,000 hours of running, and suddenly, barbells don't seem so dangerous.
If your training space is super compact or if upper-body unilateral exercises are a high priority for you, a barbell may not be the best fit (though again, the latter can be easily solved with the addition of a landmine attachment).
Barbells are also the best tools for progressive overload thanks to the easy ability to add/subtract weight and dial in the exact load you prefer. While dumbbells and kettlebells work, too, you may need a wide array of different weights to effectively challenge your body, and that ends up being far less cost-efficient.
Overall, we’d say a barbell is absolutely worth it.