Video: The Rise of the Barbell

If you want to get hot, you've got to go heavy.

For all of the cardio you’ve logged, all of the creative twists on bodyweight training you’ve tried, all of the yoga, plyometrics, and circuit workouts, there’s a staple that might not have always been en vogue, but has never, ever failed to deliver.

 “I don't think people ever "left" this type of training, but the sensations that have come over time have certainly diluted the interest in heavy barbell training," says Brian Robinson, personal training manager at Equinox 19th Street. “But as more science is released on pure strength, people are realizing the impact of compound movements and the efficiency they provide for strength gains and weight loss.”

In other words: For most of us, bulk is a four-letter word. But to get that lean, strong, sculpted physique, you’d be wise to get heavy. “People are results-driven and without fail, lifting heavy has prevailed in getting them the body and conditioning they desire,” says Annie Tran, a Tier 3+ personal trainer out of New York City’s 19th Street club, who demonstrates her prowess in the video above.

And despite its basic feel, heavy lifting cannot be reduced to simply picking things up and putting them down. The movement patterns are actually as nuanced as other, seemingly more sophisticated and choreographed forms of exercise. Proper technique and execution can mean the difference between injury and health, and it can also have real impact on the gains you make in strength and conditioning as well as in the results you see in the mirror. “For example, a squat, if done correctly, can give the butt that women desire, but if done incorrectly can lead to herniated discs, bad knees, and pancake butts. The difference is only about 15-20 degrees in depth,” says Robinson. “The same rules apply to the basic deadlift. You can either look like a brontosaurus—yes, I'm serious—or you can look like a Greek god, with same small degree of difference.”

The movement patterns are actually as nuanced as other, seemingly more sophisticated and choreographed forms of exercise.

And the benefits are more than skin deep. Annie Tran turned to heavy lifting after a cycling accident left her with 3 herniated discs. The practice allowed her to correct imbalances and re-teach her body proper movement patterns. “The human body is a wonder. It's much smarter than we think,” says Tran. “Without exercising and lifting heavy weights, my body would condition and protect itself from being injured again—instilling all the unwanted patterns it had learned after the accident. Correcting movement patterns and instilling them with heavy lifting has allowed my body to move without reluctance for over 5 years. It doesn't get better than that.”

Its universal promises notwithstanding, there is no one-size-fits-all regimen. “Not everyone is going to take the same approach to lifting because no two bodies are the same,” says Dorothy Davis, Tier 3 trainer at 19th Street, also featured in the video above. “What are you limited to in ranges of motions? Do you have any past injuries that need to be addressed? You want to make sure that your body is ready to handle the load you're about to tackle.” Which is why it’s best to start any heavy lifting regimen under the guidance of a personal trainer. “People will excel in certain parts of the movement, but it's the weaknesses we must address and fix,” explains Chris Guzman, Tier 3 trainer and USA Weightlifting certified coach. “The focus, the limitations, and breaking them down and perfecting technique are the goals, and then they can lift buildings.”

Whether you’re new to the practice, returning from a hiatus or ready to up your heavy-lifting game, these technique tips will prepare you to reap the benefits. Says Robinson: “Functional movement will always be at the top of the food chain, in my opinion, but barbells are definitely back.”

(1) Stay neutral. Find a neutral spine by lining your back against the wall and maintaining 3 points of contact (head, back and butt) with the wall, says Tran, a trick that helps enforce proper posture and alignment.  “Keep this alignment with your lifts from head to tail and your back will thank you.”

(2) Power through the hips. “You received hips from your mom for a reason! Use them!” says Tran.

(3) Work the floor. Allow the movement to happen from the ground up.

(4) Come prepared. In addition to hydration and ample sleep, warming up the movement pattern that you are training is important, says Lauren Williams, Tier 2 personal trainer at 19th Street, another lifting convert featured in the video. "This is another good reason to work with a trainer or expert. They can help you prepare your body for these lifts starting with your warm-up." 

Directed by Mike Rosenthal