Monday, April 22, 2013

The Two-Barbell Rule

Thoughts on the Two-Barbell Rule
     Over at T-Nation, Tony Gentilcore has an article where he mentions something he calls the “two-barbell rule.”[1]  The “rule” is pretty simple: At each training session, perform two barbell exercises before doing anything else.
     Although I never thought about making this one of the “rules” of training, I like it.  In fact, a couple of things crossed my mind upon reading about it.  First, I wished I would have thought of it myself—it’s one of those things that’s so simple, it should be blatantly obvious to most lifters, but it’s not.  Second, I realize that I “do” this rule almost every time that I train myself or others.
     The two-barbell rule—although simple, and although it should be obvious to most lifters—needs a little clarification.  What I would like to discuss here, then, is ways that you can make this “rule” work.  If applied properly, in fact, I think it can be the thing that takes your training from mediocre or only “so-so” to truly effective when it comes to building muscle, adding strength, or the combination of both.
The “two barbell rule” is what makes the rest of the training session “work.”  I love full-body workouts (that should be obvious if you’ve read even just a handful of my articles), and I love full-body “split” workouts possibly even more.  But for any kind of full-body workout to “work” (“split” or otherwise), you need to make sure that you employ the two-barbell rule.  I’m afraid that a lot of lifters don’t do this—probably quite unintentionally, but they still do it.  It’s common, for instance, for a lifter to start a full-body workout with squats (an excellent barbell exercise) and then move on to bench presses[2], chins, dumbbell curls, ab work, and then whatever machine work they can come up with—but this is not an effective use of the two-barbell rule, even if bench presses are used.
     However, the dynamic completely changes once squats plus another effective barbell movement is added to the picture.  To clarify, here’s an example of a “bad” full-body workout:
  1. Squats: 5 sets of 5 reps
  2. Dumbbell bench presses: 5 sets of 5 reps
  3. Chins: 3 sets of 8 reps
  4. Dumbbell Curls: 3 sets of 10 reps (each arm)
  5. Ab work
     After just writing that, I realize, “Holy crap; I’ve written workouts such as that before.”  But don’t worry, I can do better.  (You can too.)  Here’s an example of a “good” workout:
  1. Squats: 5 sets of 5 reps
  2. Deadlifts: 7 sets of 3 reps
  3. One-arm dumbbell overhead presses: 5 sets of 5 reps (each arm)
  4. Chins: 5 sets of max reps
  5. Farmer’s walks: 3 sets for distance
  6. Ab work
     And here’s an example of another good workout:
  1. Power snatches: 8 sets of 3 reps
  2. Front Squats: 5 sets of 5 reps
  3. One-arm dumbbell rows: 4 sets of 8 reps (each arm)
  4. Sled drags: 3 sets for distance
  5. Ab work
     Add in a third workout of similar ilk and you have three excellent training sessions for a three-days-per-week routine.
     If you want to train more frequently, that’s not a problem.  You could easily train daily and use the two-barbell movements as the only exercises in the workout.  Let’s say you wanted to train 5 days per week, Monday through Friday, then you could do the following for 5 days straight:
Workout One:
  1. Squats: 5 sets of 5 reps
  2. Overhead Presses: 5 sets of 5 reps
Workout Two:
  1. Deadlifts: 7 sets of 3 reps
  2. Barbell Bent-over Rows: 5 sets of 5 reps
Workout Three:
  1. Power Cleans: 8 sets of 3 reps
  2. One-arm Dumbbell Presses: 5 sets of 5 reps[3]
Workout Four:
  1. Bottom-position Squats: 5 sets of 5/4/3/2/1
  2. Power Snatches: 8 sets of 2 reps
Workout Five:
  1. Deficit Deadlifts: 5 sets of 5 reps
  2. Overhead Squats: 5 sets of 5 reps
     On each day, you could add some ab work or some “carry” work, and you would definitely not be worse for the wear.  Also, I realize that a lot of you are going to go crazy—or at least feel as if you are—if you don’t include some flat bench pressing, so don’t be afraid to do a little barbell bench presses one or two days per week.

[1] He, in turn, apparently got the idea from Jim Wendler.  I have never heard of Gentilcore until this article—although it seems as if he has some pretty good stuff—but I don’t think you can go too wrong with most of Wendler’s thoughts on training.
[2] Yes, yes, I know: the bench press is technically a “barbell” exercise, but it’s the worst of the lot.  Overhead presses, power cleans, full cleans, snatches (in all of their variety), deadlifts (in all of its guises), and the full spectrum of squats (back, front, overhead, bottom-position, etc.) are more what I had in mind.
[3] I know damn well that I just “broke” the rule, but I’m going to say that heavy one-arm dumbbell presses are the exception.  They are tough as hell, and mimic well the effects of other barbell exercises.

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