“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”— Robert A. Heinlein
When people train or exercise, they tend to gravitate towards one discipline. Some people get a sense of pleasure out of “mastering” a certain skill. Some folks only “enjoy” a particular type of training. Others just don’t have time for a bunch of non-sense and stick to one specialty for the sake of simplicity. But is one discipline (whether it be barbell training, kettlebells, parkour, or gymnastics) all you need?
Why Do You Only Lift Barbells? Would You Be Better Served by Expanding into Other Methods?
I’m not going to tell anyone they’re an idiot for choosing one discipline. That would be stupid. Just hear me out, though… Obviously, you don’t develop every possible physical attribute with barbell training alone. (And because barbell training has grown in popularity over the past few years, this will be our focus). Still, you may not give two craps about maximizing every aspect of physical performance. You just want to lift the heaviest weights possible, or be as muscular as possible, or whatever.
But what about the ability to move your own body? Being able to pull yourself over a bar? Pulling yourself over a bar… with one hand? Sprinting as fast as possible? Doing a cartwheel or a backflip? On one hand, you may see them all as silly, unnecessary BS. On the other hand, you can see them as awesome physical feats that not everyone can perform.
My point is that the physical improvements you get from barbell training are limited. If you can deadlift 800 lbs, you’re guaranteed to be strong. You’re NOT guaranteed, however, to have excellent mobility, balance, coordination, and all of those other fancy things.
If strength and/or size are literally the only two things you care about, then no need to keep reading. If those other physical attributes interest you, then I invite you to finish this article.
As for all those cool things I mentioned earlier, the best way to become able to do them is through bodyweight training.
Combining Barbell and Bodyweight Training – like Yin and Yang, or Some Other Cool Analogy
Barbell training and bodyweight training are two fairly different methods with two fairly different sets of results – yet they compliment each other so damn well. Barbell training develops raw strength, muscular size, mental toughness (if the weight on the bar is scary enough), and power. Bodyweight training builds the strength to control your body under various leverages and odd-positions, balance, proprioception, and speed (if using plyometrics and sprints).
Although the qualities developed are different, they build upon and assist each other. Take the overhead press and handstand push-up for example. The two are both vertical pushing movements, yet the former only requires brute strength, while the latter is heavy on balance. Ask yourself this question… all else being equal, who would have an easier time learning the handstand push-up: someone who presses 135 lbs, or someone who presses 225 lbs? Another question… all else being equal, who will have the stronger overhead press: someone who cannot do handstand push-ups, or someone who can do 10 handstand push-ups?
Barring that you aren’t an elite gymnast or powerlifter, you can definitely benefit by combining barbell and bodyweight training.
How to Actually Train Barbell and Bodyweight Simultaneously
Here are some ideas to consider when attempting to actually integrate the two disciplines…
You can’t double your training volume and frequency overnight. Chances are your body won’t cooperate with you if you throw a full training routine ON TOP of another routine. Don’t do that. Be smart and ease into it. If you’ve been doing barbell training, add in one bodyweight exercise per week and gauge how you feel. Another way of doing it is to scale back barbell training, and throw in a bit a bodyweight training on top. That way, you have two bare-bones routines that resemble one whole training routine, volume-wise.
Cut out the unnecessary stuff and focus on the core movements. Referring to the previous point – you don’t want to be stuck doing 20-30 exercises in one workout. If you do heavy bench presses and later have to work on handstand push-up progressions, do you really need to triceps extensions and front raises too? Your shoulders and tris will be fried before you get to work on the bodyweight exercises. Same goes with legs – after heavy back squats, you may not have much left in you for sprints, so why do high-rep RDLs and front squats too?
Sprinkle in rehab- and isolation-exercises as needed. You already know that a million exercises per session won’t be feasible. Still, you are going to need to deal with glaring weaknesses. Tiny arms? Throw in some curls at the very end of a session. Shoulder issues? Do your face-pulls, external rotations, and what have you. Small calves? Have a grand ol’ time with calf-raises afterwards. Just don’t go crazy with too many exercises.
Crank up the volume slowly overtime. You benefit from increasing volume up until a certain point. Too much too soon = injury. How much volume that requires is unique to each person, but everyone has their limits. The good thing is that as you become stronger and more advanced, your body can handle more volume. And that’s nice, because as you become more advanced, your progress slows down. The extra volume you’ll then be able to handle will act as extra “stimulus” to keep your progress chuggin’ along. Obviously you won’t get better at the same rate as before, but it still helps.
Find a sweet spot between volume and intensity. This is pretty self-explanatory. Try to cover both for the sake of getting stronger (through intensity), and building muscle, strengthening connective tissue, and practicing the movement (through volume/repetition). Hammering both in the same workout will make you miserable. Either alternate days of volume and intensity, or have a moderate amount of both in each workout. I prefer the latter.
Ensure there is balance between agonists and antagonists. Look at your program, and create ratios based on volume/reps for the following: scapular retraction vs. protraction, scapular depression vs. elevation, shoulder extension vs. flexion, quad-dominant vs. hamstring-dominant. You want these ratios to be as close to 1-to-1 possible. For example, if there is an imbalance between quad-dominant and hamstring-dominant exercises, maybe throw in some leg curls or glute-ham rasises.
A Sample Program for You Lucky Sunuvaguns
Currently, I’m training using barbells and bodyweight, and love it. Here is a snapshot of what my program looks like. I based it off the principles just discussed and it’s been going great so far.
The barbell portion of the program is essentially a Doug Hepburn heavy singles routine. Start out at 3 singles, using 90% of your 1RM, and add one single after every successful workout. Reset the reps and add weight after hitting 10 or 11 singles, which should take 3 weeks if you workout thrice weekly and add a single for each workout. More advanced trainees will take longer to increase the singles, ultimately making the progression slower.
I stick with the overhead press, front squat, and deadlift/power clean/speed deadlift. Why? Because they are basic compound lifts. Why not back squats? Because front squats and deadlifts improve my back squat without having to actually back squat. Why not bench press? because my shoulder is royally screwed from a chronic injury. I still get a push, pull, and squat with this set-up. Why not deadlift each day? Because deadlifting heavy 3x weekly is madness. I’m not getting too much in terms of hypertrophy with this set-rep scheme, but the low-rest and high-frequency ought to contribute somewhat.
On to the bodyweight exercises. I once again use a push, pull, and squat (or, legs). These will all be progressions – meaning, once you hit 3 or 4 sets of 12 reps with one variation of the movement, you move on to a harder variation of the movement and start with sets of 8. This contrasts the intensity of the barbell exercises. The end-goals here are the one-arm chin-up, weighted muscle-up (combining the pull-up and dip progressions), one-arm row AND/OR front lever row, weighted one-arm push-up, and weighted elevated handstand push-up.
Notice how the bodyweight “pulls” include 4 sets, but the “pushes” include 3 sets. This is for the sake of balance, since this program also involves a couple singles of pressing each day. I also perform band pull-aparts and rotator cuff exercises later in the day just for good measure.
Also, you’ll realize that I don’t include sets/reps for certain exercises. For pistol squats, that’s because any healthy individual will achieve a pistol squat fairly soon, thus progression ends there. At that point, it’s up to you or the trainee on what should be done. One idea is to do one set to near-failure, and increase the reps over-time. There’s a reasoning behind each exercise labeled “N/A” but it’ll take me forever to explain each.
High-rep back squats are included as a “bodyweight” exercise simply because there aren’t that many good bodyweight exercises for legs. Thus, I made a little substitute here.
The ancillary stuff (the last 3 exercises for each day) is included for core, grip, and “extras”. These extras include traps, biceps, and hamstrings. Reasons include vanity and injury-prevention.
One final note to be made is how each day includes some aspect of conditioning. Day 1 has farmer’s carries, day 2 has high-rep back squats, and day 3 has sprints. On top of all that, the minute-long rests for the barbell exercises help increase work capacity.
Wrapping It All Up
Barbell training and bodyweight training each help improve a person’s fitness, but each tend to lack in something. Combing the two training methods not only make you more well-rounded physically, but improve upon each other, further enhancing your physical abilities. Careful considerations must be made before training the two methods concurrently, however.
For anyone relatively new to barbell training and bodyweight training, feel free to check out two books that I consider are the “bibles” of these respective discplines. These books are Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training by Mark Rippetoe and Overcoming Gravity by Steven Low.