Why I Broke Up With My Barbell and Cheated on It With My Atlas Stone
I remember the day like it was yesterday. I was sitting by my computer, writing programming for adventure racing. I thought about my past races, where I was lacking, where I excelled, and then it hit me. I made one of the hardest decisions of my life. I decided it was time for a break up with my beloved barbell, or I should say, a trial separation.
Then, the loneliness set in. What was I going to do? What was I going to program in? Who was I going to spend my time in the gym with? My barbell and I have a very tumultuous relationship, but a great relationship. My barbell was there when I was angry and would deal with me yelling at it when I didn’t hit a personal record or I dropped it, but it was also there when I made awesome gains, PRed, or aced my form. My emotions were tied into my barbell, but I was serious about splitting up for a short while. We needed a break from each other to see how I really felt about my barbell. I said goodbye and see you on the flip side.
While looking at my computer, blank and confused about what I was going to put into my programming, I decided to take a break and work out instead. I was already sort of cheating on my barbell with an Atlas stone as of late, so I went into the gym and picked up a stone. It was then the sparks began to fly with my new partner - strongman equipment.
If you CrossFit, you know the relationship with the barbell is almost an everyday thing, so even thinking about leaving it behind is difficult, but I find that strongman equipment is some of the most underutilized in CrossFit. Plus strongman-style training can make you stronger, which translates to gains when you decide to get back with your barbell. I did it, and maybe after reading this you may find the strength to make that break yourself, and understand that this breakup isn’t permanent.
Here are four reasons me and my barbell took a break:
Strongman equipment is the most functional equipment you can get.
What is more functional then picking up something awkward? If you have ever grabbed an Atlas stone, it is round and uncomfortable. If you have no grip strength, you can’t pick it up for a long period of time. If you tried doing the CrossFit workout Grace with an 135lb Atlas stone, more than likely you would burn out at around five reps if you could even pick it up. Barbells allows you to use your hands, but with something like an Atlas stone, you are utilizing pretty much every muscle of the body just to pick it up because of the lack of use with your hands. So, if you are one of those who can pick up a 135 pound barbell, you may not be able to pick up an 135 pound atlas stone as easily, if at all.
Strongman equipment builds grip like crazy.
Usually in time driven workouts the first thing to go is the grip. You may not reach failure in any other part of the body, but as soon as your grip goes, everything falls apart. Using equipment that is utilized in strongman, like atlas stones, kettlebells, axel bars, kegs (some filled), and logs, builds up the muscles that comprise your grip strength. The muscles that make up grip include: brachioradialis, extensors of the wrist and hand (they all have names but there are a lot), anconeus, flexors of the wrist and hand (again a lot of them), pronator teres, pronator quadratus, and supinator.
Did you realize that your grip required so many small muscles? These small muscles are susceptible to failure pretty quickly if you ignore them. In typical barbell-based training, you are not utilizing your grip for a long period of time, whereas with strongman equipment your grip is constantly being challenged because the objects are usually extremely awkward or require your grip for balancing an object. If you want your grip to be the last thing to reach failure during competition, work your grip with strongman equipment.
Strongman builds core stabilization.
Core stabilization is not just your rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, external obliques and internal oblique. It also includes the back! In strongman, you are working the front and the back portions that make up core stabilization at the same time. You may be asking why, and the reason is because many of the strongman implements and exercises require balance of an awkward object, pushing something, or carrying something. For example, if you do a barbell farmer carry, your core is engaged to protect the back and help lift the shoulders. To carry a yoke, you need your core and back engaged to balance the yoke while walking. To flip a 300lb tire, you have to engage the core and posterior chain in order to flip it and protect the body.
You work almost all of your muscle groups working with strongman equipment. In this, you create a good habit to translate to your barbell: always have core stabilization to protect yourself and to prevent injuries such as a frozen back, thrown back, slipped disks, and that is just to name a few injuries that come about from becoming lazy. Sorry to say it that way, but that is the cold truth of it. Usually with strongman equipment (key word being usually) if you do not possess base core stabilization strength, you can’t lift the object or push it, whereas sometimes with a barbell, you can lift the weight, but it’s very ugly to see. For example, I have seen people lift massive amounts of weight in deadlift, but the form after a certain threshold turns ugly. The back begins to curve (which means you lost your core stabilization), and the athlete begins to pull with the lower back (ouch). Strongman can help alleviate some of these habits with just a few pieces of equipment.
Strongman equipment is the epitome of variety.
Yes, you can do a lot with the barbell, but strongman is unique in many ways that make your workouts interesting and helps add variety for greater gains. Many of the barbell movements can get a little monotonous doing them all the time because a lot of it is pretty much the same. Strongman equipment can add to your workouts, especially if you are reaching a plateau. Some people say to work through plateaus, but a great way to get through your peak is to incorporate strongman movements and equipment to help make gains.
So, going back to my story above, did I leave my barbell forever? No I didn’t. We got back together and I have made huge gains after my stint with strongman. Did I ever give up on strongman? No I didn’t. I still continue to use strongman in my regular programming to help me with strength gains. The point I am trying to get at is there is room for both in your programming.
As a coach, it’s important to incorporate both modalities to create balance in your community. You only cheat yourself at the end of the day if you decide that only one modality for strength is the end all be all of CrossFit. I encourage you to make that hard break up with your barbell and say hello to your new friends, the strongman implements. When you are ready, you can go back to your barbell and see what sort of gains you have made just by doing strongman for a month. You may surprise yourself.
Photos courtesy of CrossFit Impulse.