Anyone who has visited my strength institute in Rhode Island can see that I’m a big believer in using thick-handled barbells, dumbbells and apparatus such as pull-up bars. Yes, thick-bar equipment is more expensive, but the results are well worth the investment, as they will produce superior results in strength training. That’s why I’m always interested in new ways to incorporate such training into an athlete’s workout.
Understand that I certainly did not come up with the concept, and in fact Alan Calvert mentioned this type of training back in 1924 with the publication of his book Super Strength Training. I learned about it in 1982 and gathered substantial empirical evidence about the effectiveness of such training by observing the tremendous upper body strength of athletes who perform work with an open hand, such as gymnasts.
From the standpoint of sport specificity, a strength coach should consider that outside of weightlifting and powerlifting, athletes in most sports must be able to apply force with an open hand. I’ve heard of one study of judo athletes in which the level of ability was highly correlated with grip strength – a fact that has not gone unnoticed by many of the elite in the grappling sports. Take amateur wrestling, for example.
One of my strength coaching colleagues told me that in the early ’70s during a press conference prior to a Russia versus US wrestling competition, it was brought up that the American wrestler in the 165-pound bodyweight class could bench press 365 pounds – quite a remarkable accomplishment in that time period, especially for a non-powerlifter. And consider that athletes were not using the elaborate equipment they have access to today that can add literally hundreds of pounds to a raw performance. The Russian counterpart responded by producing two pairs of pliers and proceeded to squeeze them so hard that they snapped! After the match, the defeated US wrestler commented that when the Russian grabbed his arms, he felt as if they were locked in a vise grip and that he immediately began to lose sensation in his arms and hands. Again, the US wrestler was certainly much stronger than the Russian from a weightlifting standpoint, but the Russian had achieved a remarkable degree of functional strength for his sport.
In every facility that I’m asked to help design, I insist that the owners purchase calibrated, thick-handled barbells and dumbbells. I have to add that it’s important you don’t sacrifice quality for price. I say this because I know that several equipment manufacturing companies now offer thick barbells, but to keep the price down these bars usually don’t rotate – essentially all you are getting is a large metal pipe. Without the rotation, considerable stress may be placed on the elbows, thus discouraging many athletes from using the bars frequently – or at all. For the best thick bars that rotate and even hold Olympic plates, I recommend you check out Grace Fitness (1-800-842-6637).
Bridging the Gap with Thick-Bar Training
One problem many strength coaches have is with inferring practical information from sciences such as motor learning. Not surprisingly, the themes of many seminars in strength training deal with “bridging the gap” between science and application. I would like to bridge the gap too, showing a unique way to apply the principles of thick-handle training to Olympic lifting – specifically, women’s Olympic lifting.
Posttetanic potentiation (PTP) is a motor learning concept that Roger M. Enoka defines in his remarkable textbook Neuromechanical Basis of Kinesiology. “The magnitude of the twitch force is extremely variable and depends on the activation history of the muscle. A twitch elicited in a resting muscle does not represent the maximal twitch. Rather, twitch force is maximal following a brief tetanus; this effect is known as posttetanic potentiation of twitch force.” What this means is that a more powerful muscular contraction can be achieved if that contraction is preceded by a strong muscular contraction.
Although research has shown that the use of electrical stimulation can elicit this response, Enoka notes that this effect also can be achieved through voluntary muscular contractions – and one such method is to use thick-handled apparatus prior to using standard-size apparatus. Now let me show you how to apply PTP to Olympic lifting.
In weightlifting competition, two types of barbells are used. The one for men is slightly larger in diameter than the women’s (28 mm versus 25 mm). A woman’s hands generally are smaller than a man’s, and using a larger-diameter barbell would make it more difficult for women to grip and therefore would reduce the amount of weight they could lift due to poorer mechanical leverage. When gripping the barbell, lifters often use a “hook” grip, which consists of wrapping the fingers over the thumb. With a larger barbell, there would be less surface area on the thumb to supply leverage for the fingers. Also, it should be noted that weightlifters can often lift more weight using straps (usually a cloth-type material that wraps around the wrists and the barbell), suggesting that the strength of the grip can be a limiting factor in performance of this sport.
With the grip being so important, it would be a good strategy to finish off a workout with a few sets of thick-handled upright rows, or by using protocols I’ve described in my other articles on this subject. But I’d like to introduce another method, one that adheres more closely to the principle of specificity of training.
Richard A. Magill’s textbook on motor learning, Motor Learning and Control: Concepts and Applications, discussed the concept of transfer of learning, which he defines as “the influence of previous experiences on performing a skill in a new context or on learning a new skill.” It follows that 1) a positive transfer is defined as a previous activity that improves performance, 2) a negative transfer decreases performance, and 3) a neutral transfer has no effect on performance. Magill also states that the more similar the skills are, the greater will be the transfer of performance. This effect he describes as the “identical elements theory.” Now let’s combine all these principles with PTP to make an extremely effective workout for female weightlifters.
One method I am using to increase immediate gripping strength and overall athletic performance with one of my elite female weightlifters is to have her perform her warm-up sets with a men’s barbell and then switch to a women’s barbell. When this lifter uses the men’s bar, she is activating more motor units than with the women’s barbell and thereby creating a PTP effect. When she switches to the women’s bar, those fibers are still activated. This effect, plus the increased mechanical advantage of using the smaller-diameter bar, increases her immediate gripping strength and has a positive impact on performance. Also, the two barbells are designed so similarly that the skills used in performing the snatch are not adversely affected, fulfilling the requirements of the identical elements theory.
In addition to using the men’s barbell for warm-up sets, you can apply this type of training with a set/rep sequence known as “wave loading.” In this method, which is discussed extensively in my PICP courses, an athlete works up to a relatively high weight and then reduces the weight and pyramids back up to an even higher weight. One legendary strongman who used a type of wave loading is Doug Ivan Hepburn, a world weightlifting champion in 1953. One of Hepburn’s training methods was to perform heavy singles in a specific weight training exercise to activate a large number of muscle fibers, and then immediately follow those sets with lighter weights and more reps. The result was he was able to handle more weight with the higher-rep sets than he could otherwise.
Using a men’s bar, a female lifter would work up to a maximum single, and then reduce the weight (usually about 20 percent) and pyramid back up to an even higher weight. An athlete who snatches 150 pounds might perform two waves in this fashion to achieve a personal record of 155 pounds:
Wave 1 (men’s bar): 45 x 5, 85 x 3, 105 x 3, 115 x 2, 125 x 2, 135 x 1, 140 x 1, 145 x 1
Wave 2 (women’s bar): 120 x 2, 130 x 1, 140 x 1, 145 x 1, 150 x 1, 155 x 1
Another method, possibly more suited to submaximal training sessions, is to alternate between sets using a men’s barbell and sets using a women’s barbell. Once again using the example of a female athlete with a 1RM snatch of 150 pounds, a snatch workout might be designed as follows:
Men’s bar: 45 x 5, 85 x 3, 105 x 3, 115 x 3, 120 x 3
Women’s bar: 130 x 2 x 2 sets
Men’s bar: 125 x 2
Women’s bar: 135 x 2 x 2
Men’s bar: 130 x 2
Women’s bar: 140 x 2 x 2
It could be argued that a weightlifter could perform an upright row with a thick-handled barbell between each heavy snatch with the women’s bar to get the same effect from a motor recruitment standpoint. However, when speaking in terms of maximal transfer of learning, this approach is not considered sport specific because during an upright row the elbow flexors and trapezius muscles are used to lift the barbell, whereas in the snatch lift these muscles are used more to pull the body under the barbell.
One additional benefit with all these methods is that they don’t require performing additional sets, as would be the case when performing thick-bar training at the end of a training session. Being able to accomplish the same amount of quality work in a shorter period has always been one of my goals, which is one reason my programs have proven so effective for elite athletes.
In January I held my first International Strength Camp for weightlifters and I am pleased to announce that three of the Canadian weightlifters who attended went on to win their national championships this year. My hope is that the results these athletes are achieving will generate interest in these innovative training methods not only within the weightlifting community but also from other athletes and trainers. When it comes to strength, we can all use an edge.
...haven't got a thick bar? No problem. Here is a great alternative: Fat Gripz