Why We've Moved Away from Bars

Jul 25, 2022


No, this is not a story about my personal struggles but rather an explanation of why we have chosen dumbbells and individual pulley handles over straight bars.

For a really long time the barbell ruled. Straight bar bench, back and front squats, and straight bar deadlifts were the norm. Things like dumbbell bench press, dumbbell incline press, and goblet squats were either ignored or, viewed as accessory or auxiliary lifts.

However, over the last two decades I have seen us move away from fixed bars in almost every lift we do. The two exceptions are the hang clean and the bench press. Our “squat” racks have become bench press stations and pullup bars and we rarely see a bar in the rack at chest height.


What happened?  

I think over the years we came to the realization that for a bunch of reasons the straight bar was just not the best choice.

Our process was simply to move away from the “this is the way it was always done” mentality and progress to thinking in a more logical fashion.


 The book Think Like A Freak contains this quote:

“the conventional wisdom is often wrong and a blithe acceptance of it can lead to sloppy, wasteful or even dangerous outcomes” 


1. Deadlifts - We exclusively Trap Bar Deadlift ( some people like the term Hex Bar Deadlift). I've talked about this numerous times but, for us the Trap Bar made the straight bar obsolete as it applies to the deadlift. The ability to be “inside” the bar makes the lift far easier to teach and far easier to perform. It seems like only real powerlifting purists ( and Elsbeth) have hung on to the Straight Bar Deadlift.


2. Pressing- the bench press is one exercise we have kept, primarily out of convention. Athletes love the bench press and, I honestly think it would be bad for business if we eliminated it from our athlete program. However, our adult clients never press a straight bar on any exercise (including the bench press) unless they specifically ask. We never do a straight bar bench press, incline or overhead in any of our adult programming. In our athlete program the only straight bar press is the bench press.

There are two major benefits here to dumbbells over barbells.

  • Having to independently balance and control two dumbbells is just better. Plain and simple. Any ability to compensate is taken away or drastically reduced.
  • Dumbbells are what we would dub “shoulder friendly”. The shoulder joint seems to self select a path that is most comfortable when using dumbbells. This is not as achievable with a straight bar. Although you may be able to play with shoulder angles with a bar, you lose the ability to rotate the dumbbells in the transverse plane.

Exception? Beginners. I do prefer bars to dumbbells for beginners as it less neurologically complex to control a bar rather than attempt to control two dumbbells.



3. Squatting- this one is easy as we eliminated back squats years ago. Beginners start with press out squats or goblet squats. In this case there are a number of reasons this is an improvement.

Both Press Out Squats and Goblet Squats have a self limiting effect. They are hard to do wrong and, in fact make you do things right. Getting a bar into the front or back squat position may be a real mobility challenge particularly for an adult client.



4. Pulling- we will still do chin-ups and parallel grip chin-ups with athletes from a “normal” chinup bar. However with the advent of Functional Trainers and Suspension Trainers we have moved to independent hand grips for pulldowns and rows. In this case ( pulldowns on a functional trainer or suspension rows) the shoulder can move from internal rotation to external rotation.  I often describe the shoulder as a spiral/ diagonal joint. The shoulder seems to function better when not prevented from moving through rotation.


To sum up, straight bars go a long way toward determining bar paths and, I'm not sure that is a good thing for our joints, particularly our shoulder joints.