Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Shooting My Mouth Off...the random thoughts about Strength Equipment

As I've ventured into competitive lifting sports, I've looked back at non-competitive lifters and noticed something different that I never took notice of before:  often times, they get glued to specific pieces of equipment...and that often defines who they are as a lifter.  It's increasingly foreign to me as a competitor in my specific sport since I chose one that is decidedly non-specific in what we lift to begin with.

Still, it came up in a podcast that I did recently with Eric Fiorillo and I thought I'd take some time to discuss some of the strengths and weaknesses of different things people use to get strong.  There's not going to be any particular rhyme or reason to this except for what I don't think is frequently addressed when discussing these tools of the trade.

Barbells are the best tool for any kind of squatting or deadlifting.  That probably makes them the overall best strength building tools since those two families of lifts are probably the top two best body builders.  Barbells might also be the best tool for developing the biggest up strength with agonist movements.  Before you ask me what the fuck I'm talking about there, I'll save you the agony of having to stop looking at IG (or pornography) to open up an anatomy book to look up what that means.  When the body moves against resistance, the muscles involved break down into three categories:

  1. Agonist muscles:  initiates the movement
  2. Antagonist muscles: resists the movement (braking mechanism)
  3. Stabilizers:  holds the rest of the body in place while the movement happens.
Barbells are generally the best for number 1. 

I don't think barbells are the overall best tool for upper body development.  Sure, they can have, and continue build sick strength up there but those body parts can probably be developed in a less painful and more effective manner (with less weight.  I still love to use less weight in a harder manner) than a barbell.  

One of my favorite things in the world to do when someone asks me about kettlebell training is to tell them that anything they can do with a kettlebell can be done with a dumbbell.  The blank, lost look is amazing...and humorous.  That's not to say that there aren't things that kettlebells do better than dumbbells...and vice versa (I'll get to that shortly).  Kettlebells are better for doing movements for the lower body than dumbells are.  The signature swings and snatches are definitely safer to perform (as in:  keeping the object in your hands) as well as more difficult to do with (more intense muscular effort) a kettlebell.

For lower body development, kettlebells (and dumbbells, for that matter) are still notably behind barbells in developing the more max strength people crave with weights.  They're mostly good for accessory movements.   While kettlebells can absolutely be used for upper body movements (I use them a lot for pressing in my low ceiling basement) a dumbbell of equal weight will be noticeably harder with the same weight.

Aside from the hype, these reasons may be why kettlebells have never seriously cracked into the mainstream use of the fringe heavy lifting community:  inferior to dumbbells for upper body work and inferior to barbells for lower body work.

Lost among the hype of kettlebells years ago seems to be the effectiveness of dumbbell training.  If we really wanted to be honest with ourselves, dumbbells are probably the best tool for upper body work.   That probably gets lost on most people for several reasons.  Many of the lifts you can do with a dumbbell can be done with a barbell with  both greater weight and less ego-crushing effects.  Plus, they're probably more comfortable on the joints and safer as a result.  Lastly, it's getting harder to find gyms with dumbbell sets that exceed 100 lbs.

As discussed above, dumbbells would have to take a place behind kettlebells for lower body accessory work and a spot behind barbells for building max strength stuff for the same body parts.

These are a personal favorite, for a lot of reasons.  My reasoning for this goes back to that anatomy lesson above:  Sandbags are the safest way to flip to a strength training exercise that hits the stabilizer muscles in the body harder than it hits the agonist muscles.  If you think that's a detriment then you haven't tried lifting in a strongman competition...or in real life.  Most of the time, when you lift an object not meant to be lifted, your stabilizers will work a lot harder than the agonist muscles ever will.  I've outlifted people stronger at barbell lifting with odd objects because I'm stronger with my stabilizers.

Another reason why I love sandbags is that they can seemlessly move from static lifting to walking/carrying movements.  In fact, I've done exactly this in a single lifting movement.  This adds an extra level of versatility you probably won't get with other heavy objects.

I'm not the biggest fan of using sandbags for upper body work.  A sandbag big enough for lower body development will likely be useless for upper body stuff since it will be almost impossible to row, press, etc.  Also, Sandbags can't be used as freely for accessory or isolation work.  If anything, I view them as a barbell substitute when I can't barbell train...or as a strongman event.

Now, all the Caveats to The Above statements...
Many of the perceived strengths and problems with using all of the above-mentioned objects doesn't reside in the object itself but in two factors: how they're made and how they're used.  While barbells are rarely anyone outside of Crossfits go-to for conditioning work like kettlebells are, that doesn't mean they can't be used for conditioning.  Kettlebells can effectively be used to train things like overhead pressing strength.  Just because few do and there are better options out there doesn't mean they won't work.  

Also, consider that certain pieces of strength equipment are kind of rare.  As stated above, dumbbells above 100 lbs are problematic to find in many gyms. Some people have taken it upon themselves to build dumbbells that can be loaded up over 200 lbs because the utility of such heavy dumbbell rows is unmistakable.  Still, someone might label a dumbell row inferior to a barbell one simply because the weights needed to make a dumbbell row difficult aren't as easy to find.  That doesn't make the movement or the tool inferior, just not as practical or available to some.  

So, what I've tried to do with this entry is strip all of the issues concerning use, hype and manufacture out of the equation and evaluate just based what they're inherently best for.