After a long hiatus – over a decade – I’m back to the barbell for the majority of my exercises. Bench press, bent over row, military press, squat, deadlift, and shrugs.
In less than 6 weeks, I feel twice as strong. I’m not, but thanks to neurological adaptations I’ve added about 20 pounds to all my lifts. I can feel my body getting bigger and I’m rekindling old high school memories of leaving the weight room walking on jell-o legs that can barely hold me up.
There is nothing quite as satisfying (to me, at lease) of having lifted some heavy weights and then feeling completely relaxed after the effort.
If you buy no other pieces of equipment, a barbell and a bench can forge a body full of strength and vigor. You’ll easily accomplish hard yard work. You’ll handle the luggage at the airport without using sissy roller bags, and if you’re skinny, you’ll be able to pack on some muscle and gain some weight (my current goal).
My barbell program is simple and straightforward and comes courtesy of Jim Wendler’s excellent 5/3/1 book. (5/3/1: The Simplest and Most Effective Training System to Increase Raw Strength) The focus is on four exercises: the bench, squat, deadlift, and military press. In addition to these four exercises, you perform assistance work which balances out the body and helps with the main lifts.
For example, bench press is balanced out by rows, military press balanced out by chins or pull ups, squats are balanced out with deadlifts which are both assisted by exercises like swings, leg curls (using jungle gym straps), glute/ham raises, one-legged squats, goblet squats, and the like.
The beauty of the program is that everything is based off of 90% of your 1-rep max. So every workout you simply follow percentages of your 90% max for the specified number of reps and then go all out on the third set. Then you do your assistance work. Then you’re done. No guessing and because you start out conservatively, you don’t fall into the trap of trying to go too heavy too soon. A real danger with over-enthusiastic people like me.
There is warm up, stretching, and conditioning work in addition to that. I’m doing this 3 days a week and getting everything done in under 2 hours per week and making great progress. How cool is that? For less than 2 hours per week I am transforming my body from a lean kettlebell lifter build to something a little more spectacular. And I’m getting much stronger.
While I haven’t been physically limited, the added strength will make things easier. And having extra strength is like having extra money – it’s always welcome. Following the 5/3/1 program is easy, intuitive, and straightforward.
The thing is making the time to do it. That’s always the thing with exercise for most people. You know what I do? Set my alarm early and then actually get up. I do some breathing and relaxation exercises, drink a half a cup of coffee, warm up, and then go at it. It’s just recreating the scene I played out in my mind the night before—that’s right—I visualize the workout before I actually do it. Just as I try to visualize the sequence of events of the following day.
That’s what barbells do and I had forgotten all about it. They force you to focus your mind. To kick out all the extraneous thoughts and just focus on the task at hand. Having a heavy weight above you or on your back demands concentration. They are a meditation. They are fun. They get you strong. They transform your body and make you look good (especially when you get your diet right). Barbell strong.
Check out the 5/3/1 book by Wendler and construct your program in a spreadsheet and get to work!