The Benefits Of Thick Bar Training

There has recently been something of a re-discovery of thick bar training; a training style which Old-Time Strongmen knew all about and used to great effect but which has almost been forgotten in modern times.

In this article, we will examine how thick bar training works, why it is now used by bodybuilders, NFL teams and Special Forces soldiers and why it can make a BIG difference to YOUR muscle and strength gains.

What Is Thick Bar Training?

If you are not familiar with thick bars, they are simply barbells, dumbbells and pull-up bars with a much thicker handle. A standard barbell, dumbbell, or pull-up bar typically has a handle with a diameter of about 1 inch. A thick bar will often have a diameter of more like 2.5 inches (some look more like truck axles) and if you have ever picked one up you will know that it feels completely different. A recent article contained a comment by a very experienced powerlifter who had recently switched to thick bars. He said: it was like picking up weights for the first time again. Many lifters report a similar experience.

So, thick bar training simply means using a thick barbell, thick dumbbells and thick chin-up bar in your usual training program.

The History Of Thick Bar Training

Thick bar training was born by accident really. In the old days, there was no such thing as a standard barbell and good quality training equipment was often hard to find. You could not just drive down to your local gym equipment store and pick up a set of free weights.

So, old time strongmen either had to have their equipment custom made or improvise and fashion their equipment out of what they could find in scrap yards. This made for some interesting equipment and is the reason for the famous challenges they performed like the Wheels of Appollon (railway wheels) and the Thomas Inch Dumbbell.

The turn of the century strongmen, many of whom were much stronger than most of our modern champions, were well acquainted with the incredible effect of thick bar work. They thrived on it. Thick bar work is thought to be one of the reasons that they were able to develop levels of upper body power and muscularity which are almost difficult to believe.

Thick Bar Training Today

Now, in the modern day, thick bar training is relatively unknown among the mainstream fitness crowd but it is widely used by the military and elite athletes and more and more people, especially bodybuilders, are discovering its benefits.

The recent re discovery of thick bar training can be attributed in large part to its use by many of todays most highly respected strength coaches who have revived it to great effect with their elite athletes. Here is what some of them have to say about it:

Charles Poliquin, trainer of over 400 Olympic athletes: I am a big believer in using thick-handled barbells, dumbbells and apparatus such as pull up bars. The results are well worth the investment, as they will produce superior results in strength training.

Dave Tate, world famous powerlifter: Once you go fat [thick, fat bar training], you will never go back.

Brooks Kubik, author of legendary training manual, Dinosaur Training: Using a thick handled bar is one of the very best things you can do to develop maximum muscular size and strength. The thick bar work allowed them [old time strong men] to develop levels of upper body power virtually incomprehensible to those who train only with regular bars.

Joe Pro-Maker Defranco, world famous strength coach who has worked with players on all 32 NFL teams: Invest in a thick bar and do all of your exercises with it. I have every thick barbell and cable attachment known to mankind at my gym.

How And Why Does It Work?

The interesting thing about thick bars is that many people (understandably) have trouble seeing how something as simple as switching to a thick bar can supposedly unlock such major muscle and strength gains, not just in the hands and forearms, but throughout the whole body.

That understandable skepticism might change the first time you use a thick bar.

In fact, you may want to take it easy the first time. Many trainees report that their forearms and biceps are sore to the touch for days after the first time using with a thick bar.

There are several reasons why they work so well:

1) Irradiation and harder muscle contractions

Thicker handles stimulate far more muscle activation in the hands and forearms and in the upper arms and whole upper body. How does working the hands and forearms harder increase muscle and strength gains in the whole upper body? It works by the principle of irradiation.

When you contract a muscle hard, the muscles around it contract as well. Therefore, to get a maximal contraction in your biceps, for example, you need to get your forearms contracting maximally too.

Let me demonstrate. Try flexing your bicep as hard as possible without making a fist. Now try and flex your bicep as hard as possible while making as tight a fist as possible and squeezing. You should be able to contract your bicep much harder when making a tight fist. If you flex your forearms hard enough you will begin to feel tension not just in your arms, but in your shoulders, chest and back.

This is called irradiation. What is happening is that the nerve impulses of surrounding muscles can amplify the effect of that muscle. Because thick bars make your hands and forearms work harder, the contractions in other muscles including the biceps and triceps and even the muscles in the shoulders, back and chest, will contract much harder which means more strength and more muscle.

You can use a standard bar and squeeze it hard but this doesnt work the way a thick bar does. If you grip a standard bar hard while doing something like bench presses you will begin to feel the effects of irradiation. The problem is that gripping a regular bar is really easy and its small diameter makes it very difficult to squeeze it hard.

The great thing about thick bar training is that you have no choice but to grip the bar hard because its hard to hold on to. If you use a weak grip doing thick bar pull ups, for instance, you simply will not be able to hold onto the bar. When you do pressing movements, you will be able to generate a better squeeze and more tension onto the bar compared to a thin bar. This will allow you to use the irradiation principle to the max. You will be able to lift more in the military press, bench press, etc.

Of course, more muscle activation means significantly bigger muscle and strength gains.

2) Weak links (and neural inhibition) eliminated

Your body is highly sophisticated. It has protective mechanisms built-in to minimize the risk of imbalance and injury. Therefore, it will hold back the strength and size of some muscles if it detects that other muscles around it are too weak. This is known as neural inhibition.

This is one reason that successful powerlifters work hard to build huge, powerful back muscles; to improve their bench press. Sounds counter intuitive at first but training your back pulling muscles gets you stronger on your front pushing muscles. They do this because they know that their body needs that balance and stability to get stronger.

Thick bars make your hands, fingers and forearms so much stronger that your body can finally stop holding back the muscle and strength gains in your upper arms, back and chest.

3) Training at all angles automatically

Thick bar training automatically trains your hands, fingers and forearms at all angles. If you are bench pressing, the thick bar will train your hands and forearms in a completely different way than if you are doing chin ups on a thick bar. Other grip training methods like grippers can be useful too but they are one-dimensional, training the hands and forearms in the same way over and over which can potentially lead to imbalances and injury.

Thick bars also perfectly replicate the natural function of the human hand i.e. lifting heavy, awkward objects. Humans have evolved to use their hands to climb trees and rock faces, carry logs and animals. Thick bars are a great way of replicating this.

4) Grip training no longer an afterthought

Training the grip, hands and forearms has often been relegated to an afterthought. Most trainees have thrown in a few wrist extensions or grip exercises after a training session. With thick bars, you are training your grip and forearms the whole time and you dont even need to do any extra exercises.

5) Concentration / focus

Because thick bars are harder to handle, you need to concentrate a lot harder to lift the weight. Some credit this alone with making them significantly stronger.

Thick bars are more difficult to control. Compared to an Olympic barbell, a bar with a 2 inch or 3 inch diameter seems like a log. Imagine bench pressing, military pressing and deadlifting a telephone pole! That’s what it feels like when you use a thick bar. You cannot rely purely on style, form, timing or technique to complete a lift. You have to do it with sheer strength.

6) Less stress on joints, less injuries, less imbalances

This is an interesting one. Many people use thick bar training because of how fast it adds muscle to their body compared to standard bars.

It is also interesting to note, though, how many lifters report that thick bar training has actually cured (and presumably therefore, prevented) all types of injuries including wrist, elbow and shoulders issues.

It seems that thick bars shift the stress off the joints and onto the muscles which is, of course, exactly what we want.

This effect is thought to be because a thick bar spreads the weight over a larger area of the hand (just imagine bench pressing with a thick bar) which, in turn, means that that weight is more evenly distributed throughout the entire arm. Its a bit like this difference between someone standing on you wearing sneakers and someone standing on you wearing high-heeled shoes (neither are recommended, by the way). As a result, lifters who have long since given up various pressing movements like bench presses and overhead presses are often able to perform these exercises again pain free (in some cases, instantly) the first time they use a thick bar.

In addition, the thick bar also changes the biomechanics of the lift enough so that when you pick up a thick bar, forearms extensors (the muscles on the top of the forearm) and forearm flexors (the muscles on the bottom) both work similar amounts (if you just pick up a thick-handled dumbbell you will instantly feel that). With standard bars, the forearm flexors do almost all the work which can cause imbalances, injuries, strength plateaus and tendonitis.

Of course, fewer injuries mean more productive training too because consistency is essential.

How You Can Use Thick Bars To Increase Your Results

So, we explored what thick bars are and how they work.

Now, here are the take home points for you:

This part is simple. Use them for everything. Use thick barbells, dumbbells and pull up bars for all exercises: bench presses, overhead presses, chin-ups, pull ups, rows, deadlifts, curls and tricep extensions. It is common for lifters to have to reduce the weight at first (in some cases significantly) which really shows up the weakness they may not have realized they had but they soon bounce back and go well beyond their previous training maxes.

A NOTE OF CAUTION: always use a properly set up power rack or competent spotters for thick bar bench presses and overhead presses. Never lift a thick bar over your body without one or both of these. Its unlikely that you will ever drop the bar but there is an increased risk so dont take the chance.

Take extra care when you begin to incorporate thick bar work. Drop the poundage at first. You will not be able to handle your regular poundage when you first begin thick bar movements but, dont worry, your hands and forearms will quickly catch up and you will blow your old max lifts out of the water.

Where Do I Find A Thick Bar?

There is the only drawback with thick bars. They are rarely found in gyms because they can be very expensive. If you dont fancy throwing down some major cash on thick bars, thick-handled dumbbells and thick pull-up bars, then get yourself a thick bar adapter, they are portable and fit on almost anything) but they are a fraction of the cost. Strength legends Dave Tate and Charles Poliquin both recommend them too.


Thick bars develop levels of muscle and strength that cannot be duplicated with standard equipment.

It is not uncommon for even an experienced lifter to make significant muscle gains in just a few months by switching to thick bars.

Get a MANUS Grip and add some serious meat to your frame!