How to Derive the Best Results from Thick Bar Work
How it began …
The concept of using thick-handled equipment is not new. Alan Calvert, one of the true pioneers of weight training methodology, recommended this type of training in 1924 in his book Super Strength.
I first heard about the benefits of using thick-handled equipment, nearly 30 years ago. The problem was that at the time such equipment was hard to find. For the simple reason that nobody wanted it. What I ended up doing – at considerable expense – was to have the diameter of Olympic dumbbells increased for me. I have had a medicine ball manufacturer do so by using the same materials found in their medicine balls. These custom-made weights worked great. In fact I could not believe how sore my hands and forearms got from using them.
In my own home gym, and at the Ultimate Performance in Marbella, we have the Watson thick dumbbells. Ours go up in small increments: 0.5kg at a time! This is far better than 2 to 2.5 kg jumps you see in almost every gym.
One of the best compliments I had on my Arizona training facility came from strength legend Bill Kazmaier. When he came to my facility to get a shoulder treatment.
We have extra-thick dumbbell handles ranging from 10 pounds to 195 pounds and going up in 2.5-pound increments. He came early for his appointment, so he asked if he could get in a quick workout. Once he saw my thick-handled dumbbells, his eyes lit up like a four-year-old kid on Christmas morning. After his workout we had a quite an interesting chat on the value of thick handles in developing strength and mass.
Now, in every facility I design, from Dublin to Sydney, I have the owner purchase calibrated, thick-handled dumbbells, with handles that revolve.
Whether you are a bodybuilder or are training to be a better athlete, focusing on thick-handle exercises will help you achieve your goals faster.
Why do Thick Bar Work?
Reason 1: Transfer to sports
If nothing else, using thick implements takes care of grip and forearm training. Which is often neglected in many strength programs. In sport, upper back strength has to be applied through the grip. So if the grip is weak, then that strength cannot be utilized.
It’s also interesting to note that when asked what qualities he looked for to determine weightlifting talent, one Bulgarian coach said, “little men with big hands.” This was because if an athlete had a weak grip or small hands, it would be difficult for them to transfer the strength of their lower body to the barbell. Further, to accommodate the smaller hands and relatively weaker grip of women, the International Weightlifting Federation approved the use of a smaller-diameter women’s barbell.
In sports such as judo and wrestling, it has been shown that one of the best determinants of competitive performance is grip strength. Especially since much of the grappling moves require gripping with an open hand. In fact, two graduate studies research theses have shown that they predict the outcome of both the judo and wresting world championships!
Think about it. In real life, when you push or pull against something, whatever you are gripping is sure to be thicker than the 1 1/4″-diameter dumbbell. For example, athletes from the grappling sports like jiu-jitsu will have to grab limbs that far exceed the diameter of standard barbells and dumbbells. In strongman competitions, more often than not, gripping strength is the limiting factor.
The point I am trying to make here is that grip strength is important for sport performance but is often neglected. If you examine the workouts published by top strength coaches over the past three decades, seldom do you see any direct grip work. The common belief is “If you take care of the large muscle groups, the small muscle groups will take care of themselves.” Not quite. Rather than performing a few meek sets of wrist curls at the end of a workout, if anything at all. Using thick implements takes care of this important aspect of training. Seriously, if you train on thick implements and someone asks you the secret of your tremendous forearm development and grip strength, you could answer, “Presses and rows!”
Reason 2: Faster Strength Gains
Using thick implements increases motor unit activation in the muscles, especially the faster-twitch muscle fibers. This results in faster gains in strength. In extremely simple terms, motor units are specific types of cells that stimulate the muscles to contract. Although the exact mechanism responsible for the effects produced by using thick implements remains unknown. One theory is that thick handles may prevent inhibitory reflexes that reduce the amount of strength that can be produced. Just as applying the brakes while pressing the gas would reduce the speed of a car. Whatever the reason, trainees who practice thick-bar training report back to me that they can handle 10-12 percent more weight when they return to the regular-diameter handles. As for research in this area. I’ve read four peer reviewed papers that have shown that thick implements induce gains in both rate and magnitude.
Reason 3: Reducing the bi-lateral deficit
Finally, consider that thick-handled implements may help correct strength imbalances between limbs. To use the scientific terminology, it corrects the bilateral deficit. One doctoral thesis I read showed that subjects using thick dumbbells versus standard dumbbells corrected the difference in strength between the non dominant and the dominant arm. And I believe this will be supported in future research into this area.
Which diameter is best?
When it comes to upper body pulling, presses or curling motions. Varying the diameter provides new challenges to the nervous system. However, if you use a 2. 5 to 3 inch bar for pressing. I strongly recommend you do your pressing work in the power rack. Then you can use safety pins set a few millimeters off your chest. Or to do them in a dead-stop style with safety pins set at a predetermined height. In this case, you start from the bottom of the range, and you overcome inertia from a dead stop. Super plateau buster.
Who makes the best thick bar equipment?
By far, Watson Gym Equipment makes the best stuff. I helped them design quite a few pieces. Ranging from the revolving handle dumbbells and kettlebells to a variety of specialty bars.
For example, they make a great thick EZ bar where the sleeves actually rotate. Which will save your wrists and elbows from undesired torque.
Here is where to buy them:
Can I do deadlifts with a thick bar?
Depends. If you are working at improving the strength and mass of your posterior chain: NO. Published research shows that a thick bar lowers the load you can for regular grip deadlift by HALF. Hence, you won’t use enough to overload your glutes, quads, erector spinae, and hamstrings.
If you are working on your grip: YES
I would them for isometric holds of 8 seconds or so, at the end of your workout.
Can I do squats with a thick bar?
Yes, if you are certified moron, and severing your spine by dropping it is one of your goals in life.
Whether you are a bodybuilder, strength athlete, law enforcement officer or combative sport athlete, implementing thick-handle exercises will help you achieve your training goals faster.
Enjoy the journey,
Charles R Poliquin