For decades there’s been this battle about how slinging around barbells is superior at building muscle than using pansy ass machines.
The clichés are endless.
“Just use both”.
“Well, machines have their place but if you really wanna get big and strong, well you gotta pick up some heavy ass barbells.”
Ok right there, that’s where you lose the argument all by itself. When you try to use Ronnie Coleman as the basis for something working. Using Ronnie Coleman is like the physique version of Godwin’s law. Once you use “Ronnie did it…” you just lost the argument.
I want to be clear here that we’re talking about getting bricked up, and not building maximal strength in the big three. I have to state that because as soon as you start talking about this topic some troglodyte poster child for lifting mental poverty will show up with zero reading comprehension and immediately start vomiting about building maximal strength. Usually with the big three because after all, those are the only barbell lifts that exist.
That’s sarcasm in case that’s not a second language for you.
Believe it or not, barbells have a lot of significant limitations when it comes to training purely for hypertrophy. And if I’m being more logical the best way to phrase it is that barbells are really sub-optimal for good hypertrophy programs than dumbbells, cables, and machines.
Machines, especially well-designed ones, come with far fewer limitations and are much better choices for building some sweet ass assless chaps muscle mass.
Why sweet ass assless chaps muscle mass? I have no idea, I literally just thought it sounded funny in my head when I was writing it.
Let’s move on, shall we?
Have you ever heard a bro-dude talmbout lifting weights to get swole and he’ll bring up something about how you can’t use some machine because “it takes the stabilizers out, dawg. You can’t get swole that way, bro.”
Have you ever asked this person exactly what stabilizers they are referring to?
100 out of 100 times they won’t be able to answer with anything that makes any sense.
For example, if you bench press then the anterior serratus needs to stabilize the scapula in the frontal plane during the concentric. And the rhomboids and traps work to stabilize the shoulder during the eccentric, while the lats work to stabilize the humerus and the biceps the elbow, etc so forth and so on.
If you do chest press on a machine then what actually happens? You guessed it.
Those stabilizing muscles simply lay down and tell the nervous system “just let the machine get it!”
Then the machine does it all by itself and boom, no muscles are even trained.
Of course, that’s not actually what happens. Because your body really doesn’t work that way.
What happens in both situations is that your nervous system actually understands joint movement, and knows the amount of force needed to be produced by the muscles moving those joints. Being on a machine doesn’t mean that the stabilizing muscles do no work. It means that the working muscles have more stability via the machine itself, and therefore can produce more force on that stable joint.
I want to repeat this using different words because I’ve heard so many ding-dong gym bros repeat the nonsense about how machines are inferior to barbells due to the fact that it takes away the “stabilizer muscles”.
Having more stability in an exercise, especially if that stability is provided by the actual machine, is BETTER than having to use your body to provide the stability itself.
When the stability is high, then there’s less input by the antagonist muscle groups to that movement, and the muscle you’re working can produce more force off of a stable joint.
When stability is low, antagonist muscle activation is higher, and this downregulates the agonist muscle’s ability to produce force because the joint is in a less stable position and they are trying to create stability.
This makes more sense when you use examples like a bosu ball or hurricane bar to bench press with. However even something as standard as a barbell squat is less optimal than a Pendulum squat or a good hack squat because if you’re trying to train the quads for example, once you start to fatigue in a standard squat, you’re much more likely to change the motor pattern of the squat, in order to allow yourself to compensate with other (non-fatigued) musculature. Making it a less effective quad movement.
Unless you reverse band or band a barbell in a movement, it’s always going to have a limited resistance profile where it’ll be heaviest in some movements where we are literally in the weakest positions, and offer up less resistance where we are strong(er).
For example, in a barbell row as we pull and the muscles of the back shorten and lose the ability to produce force, the resistance profile of that exercise is ascending. Meaning, the barbell row is the hardest where we are the weakest. Ideally, we’d want it to be heaviest where we are stronger and in a longer muscle length, and then have the resistance drop off where we are weakest.
But dude to gravity, that just doesn’t happen.
Now to be fair, there’s lots of machines that have crappy resistance profiles as well. But most machines are made in order to try and match the average strength curve. But even if not, there’s often ways to manipulate your setup on a machine in order to get an optimal resistance profile in contrast to what you’re getting with a barbell.
Does this mean that we always need a perfect resistance profile for every movements?
Absolutely not. In fact, there’s a significant amount of research showing that different resistance profiles have different effects on regional hypertrophy. Meaning that, how you perform the movement and where it’s being stressed the most in said movement, is going to have a direct effect on what region of the muscle fibers do the most work and get the most tension.
So a variety of resistance profiles are a good thing, but barbell tend to offer up severe limitations in this area.
Locks the joints into specific positions
And lastly (though I could make many more of these points), a barbell locks the joints into a specific position, and well, there’s just no room to maneuver.
This is a big hindrance for things like pressing and pulling where with more optimal hypertrophy movements we want more arcing motions or want different hand positions in order to put those joints into a more optimal position to target certain tissue.
The pecs for example do humeral adduction. As the pecs shorten they want to bring the hand and arm to the centerline of the body. With a barbell it gives you a big “FU man, you’re locked onto me like a tick in the Mississippi summer”.
Technically humeral adduction still happens with a barbell but it’s massively limited due to the hands being locked onto the bar in whatever position they are in. With a cable or dumbbell or pec-deck, it allows humeral adduction to occur as the pecs shorten. This is what we want out of good hypertrophy movements.
With a shoulder press you cannot get the anterior deltoids into a good lengthened position or allow the shoulder to move into a natural pattern of flexion and adduction as the delts shorten. With a barbell overhead press, you’re training the actual press itself since what it does is involve a lot of muscles.
And that’s another thing and maybe even the main thing. Barbell movements tend to work a lot of different muscles at one time, and that literally isn’t what we want when we’re trying to grow musculature.
We want to create a concentrated degree of tension on the tissue we’re trying to grow, rather than spreading it around to lots of different areas, without maximizing tension in any one place.
So what movements do you suggest?
Well with a barbell the glute bridge and romanian deadlift are still good selections to use with it. But outside of that it starts to get rather slim.
Let’s look at what are better options for most muscle groups.
Leg Press (feet low)
Stiff Legged Deadlifts
RDL’s (there’s a barbell)
45 degree glute raises
Converging chest press machines
Proper lat pulldowns and lat rows
Neutral grip chest supported rows
Cable curls of various kinds
Cross body extensions
Overhead Triceps Extensions
Rear Delt Rows
What’s the take away?
This isn’t an all-encompassing list but you could literally use the movements on this list and build out a very efficient training program for hypertrophy.
And that means outside of some occasional barbell RDL’s you’d never have to strap yourself into a barbell and repeat dumb phrases about “big compounds are what build the mass” and other such gems.
More importantly, it’s also important to understand that a high degree of strength can and still will be built with good hypertrophy training. After all, progressive overload is how we measure if a training program is working, and that means beating previous training session performances via more load or reps performance with the same load.
But none of this requires barbells.