Even if you love strength training and wear your calloused hands with #StrongIsTheNewSexy pride, chances are you shy away from your gym’s barbells.
We get it. Barbells are intimidating. They're probably longer than you are tall, are constantly surrounded by men without necks, and are typically left lying about with monstrous weight plates on each end (that’s bad gym etiquette, no-necks!).
“Most women feel like barbells are bro territory,” says strength coach and conditioning specialist Holly Perkins, author of Lift to Get Lean and founder of Women's Strength Nation.
After all, when barbells first hit the gym floor, they were meant for guys, says certified strength and conditioning specialist Lou Schuler, author of Strong: Nine Workout Programs for Women to Burn Fat, Boost Metabolism, and Build Strength for Life. Women typically didn’t lift out of fear of looking bulky or masculine (ahem, that's totally unfounded—and, hello, sexism). And barbells’s dimensions were modeled after men’s heights, strength, and hand sizes, he says. (An Olympic barbell is 1.1 inches in diameter, 7.2 feet long, and weighs 45 pounds, FYI.) So most women didn’t learn how to use them—and now many are terrified of looking silly trying to figure them out in front of the guys, says Barbara Walker, Ph.D., a sports psychologist with the Center for Human Performance in Cincinnati.
“The biggest difference between men and women in the gym is that men instinctively feel like they know what they’re doing, even when they don’t, and women feel like they aren’t doing things right, even if they are,” says Schuler. “In gyms, unfortunately, this is exacerbated by guys thinking it’s their privilege, if not their duty, to offer unsolicited advice.”
"The biggest difference between men and women in the gym is that men instinctively feel like they know what they’re doing, even when they don’t, and women feel like they aren’t doing things right, even if they are."
That inherent female self-doubt might be the biggest reason to grab ahold of a barbell, though. “Overcoming your fear of barbells can make women feel both physically and psychologically confident, strong, and empowered—and give them a major sense of accomplishment,” says Walker.
After all, you can do things with barbells you never would be able to with dumbbells or kettlebells. Because dumbbells are so long, they take the load off of your hands, wrists, and forearms to help you focus your weight-lifting efforts on the muscles you’re actually trying to work. “I deadlift 135 pounds with a barbell, but I can’t hold onto dumbbells that weigh more than 30 or 35 pounds,” says Perkins. “My hands just give out with heavier dumbbells.”
And we all know that lifting heavier weights is the key not only to building more muscle and blasting more fat, but also to feeling stronger. “It makes you feel badass,” says Perkins. “There’s something about picking up a real heavy barbell that just makes a woman feel more confident about herself and feel like she can do anything, whether it’s in or out of the gym.”
The first step to barbell-lifting glory, though, is mastering a few barbell basics. Here, Perkins shares four tips to make any barbell newbie lift (and look) like a pro.
"You can do things with barbells you never would be able to with dumbbells or kettlebells."
Start with Just the Bar
When working with a new piece of equipment, like a barbell, you need to master the movement before you start upping the weight. “You should be perfectly confident just using the bar for your first few reps or sets,” Perkins says. After all, the bar’s no joke. The standard Olympic barbell (the one you’ll find on the squat rack and at the bench press station) weighs 45 pounds all by itself, while shorter variations range from 27 to 35 lbs.
Adjust Weights Slowly—and with Help
If you step up to a barbell and it’s weighted heavier than you’d like—or if you’re comfortable with your barbell and feel ready to add some more weight to each side—it’s in your best interest to adjust weight plates slowly. After all, if the barbell is balanced on a squat rack or bench press station and one side suddenly weighs 45 more pounds than the other, it’s going to fly off—which could seriously hurt someone. When moving any weight plates that weigh more than, say, 20 pounds, go ahead and ask a friendly faced gym goer to put weights on one side while you do the same on the other, she says. It’ll keep things balanced out to prevent tipping.
Move with Care
To stay safe and also prevent inadvertently making a scene, never try to move a weighted barbell around the gym. Instead, take the weights off slowly and then move the bar. (If the bar is up high, you might need to bicep curl it down to the floor first.) To move the bar, tip it on one end so it’s standing straight up and down. Then, grab it with one hand positioned high on the bar and one positioned low, and pull it into your body and carry it around that way, says Perkins. It’s much easier than trying to carry the barbell around in a horizontal position—plus, it cuts your chances of accidentally whapping anyone with it.
Somewhere around your barbell should be two little metal clips (they have two handles and a circle at the end). These are what’s going to hold any weight plates you use in place and keep them from rattling around—or worse, falling off—during your workout. To use them, first slide on all of your weight plates, and then squeeze the clip’s handles to widen the circle, she says. After a little squeeze, you should be able to fit the circle over the end of the barbell and scoot it up snug against your plates. Repeat on the other side, and you’re good to go.