Train with thick bars to improve grip and forearm strength. If nothing else, you’ll be more powerful in everyday tasks, and have a stronger deadlift. Naturally, thick or “fat” bars should be used in addition to regular diameter dumbbells for best results—variety is essential in the weight room. It’s never a smart idea to be too restricted or do the same thing every day if you want to get results. And thick bars are an essential addition to your program because they will make you stronger and help avoid injury. They’re also fun and can help prevent boredom.
Simple Reasons to Do Thick Bar Training:
- You’ll improve grip by increasing strength and neural drive in the hand and forearm muscles, allowing you to deadlift more.
- You’ll improve forearm strength and your joints will feel better. You may even get rid of tendinitis and pain in the elbow.
- You’ll have forearm and hand strength that will transfer to combative sports that include grabbing or grappling abilities. You’ll likely improve at catching a basketball or football as well.
- Ladies, if you struggle with catching the basketball, want to get better at snagging the football, or prevent tendinitis that hampers your tennis or golf game, this is particularly important for you! You won’t get big, unsightly forearms, but you will have more transferable hand strength.
Thick bars have been around for a while, and there is research to support their use, but not a lot. It seems they haven’t caught on in the U.S. as much as you’d expect considering the injury prevention and strength benefits. Cost may be a factor because mainstream gyms and financially strapped sports programs opt for cheaper, better known equipment. Let’s check out why thick bars are a good investment and how they can help you take it to the next level.
Thick Bar Training Increases Neural Drive
Training with bars that are thicker than the standard dumbbells or Olympic barbell will increase neuromuscular strength in the forearm and hand. The key is to train pulling and curling motions with thick bars to get this benefit because those lifts are when the hand and forearm are being maximally challenged to hold the bar against gravity. This is the best way to maximize neural drive.
Research Supports Thick Bar Use
A study from 1992 in the International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics that examined how three different bar diameters affected neuromuscular strength supports thick bar training. Researchers tested how muscular strength and neural drive vary based on the size of an industrial handle as applied to three different resistances. They compared a handle matched to the inside grip diameter, a handle one cm smaller than the inside grip, and a handle one cm larger than the inside grip, and tested electromyographic (EMG ) activity.
They found that the smallest handle elicited the greatest maximal voluntary contraction and the lowest neuromuscular activation as assessed by EMG.
The largest diameter handle triggered the greatest neuromuscular response, and the smallest maximal voluntary contraction than the other two sizes. The study population included individuals who had no resistance training experience but did regularly grip handles in their jobs and exert force.
This study supports the use of thicker bars for greater neuromuscular activation of the forearms and highlights what we will see in additional research—that maximal strength may not be as great initially with thicker bars.
The key is that with training, you’ll be able to exert greater strength when using bars with wider diameter, and will benefit from improved neural drive and improved forearm strength when you go back to lifting with a standard bar.
What Exactly Happens When Pressing With Thick Bars?
A 2008 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research may appear to give contradictory results to the 1992 research, but at closer look it just provides guidance into when and how to program thick bar training. This study tested two different bar diameters (standard size of 2.8 cm vs. thick bar or 5.1 cm) on neuromuscular activation and strength.
Researchers used college-age men with previous resistance training experience. They measured EMG for the pectoralis major and the forearm flexors during a unilateral isometric bench press at an intensity of 80 percent of the 1RM. They tested isometric activity at two joint angles in the bench press: the first angle was with the elbow joint at a 45 degree angle; the second position was with a 90 degree angle at the elbow joint and the shoulder joint parallel to the elbow joint. Participants performed three repetitions for each exercise and held the contraction for five seconds.
There was no difference in maximal weight lifted between the two bars, likely because the bench press is a pushing motion and the prime mover was the pectoralis and not the forearm muscles. Also, an isometric contraction rather than a dynamic one was used, which will naturally affect force. If the lift had been a pulling exercise such as the deadlift, the maximal contraction would likely have varied based on the bar diameter as we’ll see in the 2007 study reviewed below.
Take note that there was a difference in EMG activity between the bars, and you might be surprised to find that the thinner, standard Olympic bar elicited the greatest muscle activity in the forearm muscles, indicating higher neuromuscular drive from the this bar. This was the case for the forearm muscles for both joint angles.
For the pec major at the 45 degree elbow angle there was greater EMG activity with the thin bar, but there was no difference for the pec at with the 90 degree elbow angle based on bar diameter.
The essential point to make here is that the bench press is not an ideal exercise to use to test the overall utility of thick bars. With a bench press the athlete is at a mechanically advantageous position, and grip strength is not a limiting factor. To effectively improve grip and forearm strength you, want to use exercises that will challenge your weakest link at its weakest position. The forearm and hand are not in a weak position when pressing, rather they are advantaged.
In comparison, in a curling exercise such as the bicep curl, you might think that the hand and forearm are at a mechanical advantage when grasping a thick bar, but if you focus on the eccentric portion of the curl with a very slow negative and a heavy weight, you’ll find that thick bar curling is excellent for improving grip and forearm strength.
Eccentric-Enhanced Training with Fat Bar Makes You Stronger
Steve Channell wrote a review of thick bar training in 1990 that was published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal that supports this. He highlights that the muscles of the hand and forearms are in a constant state of contraction with a thick bar, particularly during the eccentric contraction. With a smaller bar during the eccentric contraction, the hand and forearm muscles may “rest,” especially if less than ideal technique is used as in the case of young athletes with limited experience.
The extra work done during the negative phase of the repetition with a thick bar by the flexors and extensors of the forearm is an ideal way to develop forearm strength. During the down phase of the bicep curl, the forearm muscles must work against the weight in order to maintain hold of it, while they are simultaneously counteracting gravity.
Channell writes, “the actual grip on the thick bar becomes a major component of the movement , whereas with a regular bar, an athlete may often just hang on to or wrap his or her hands around the bar; seldom is the athlete actually gripping it.” He notes that the exercises that train the grip and forearms the most with the thick bar are upright rows, standing curls, and preacher curls. He likes thick bar training to mix things up, and prevent boredom, while providing a new kind of stimulus to the muscles.
Maximize Training With Thick Bar: Six Lifts Explained
A study from 2007 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research provides insight into programming different lifts, neural drive, and the thick bar. Participants were college-age males with weight lifting experience.
Researchers tested three bar diameters on maximal strength in six exercises. They also tested grip muscular endurance and correlated these results with the lifts in order to identify if hand and forearm grip were a factor in allowing participants to lift bigger loads. Unfortunately, they didn’t test EMG activity in this study.
The bars used were a standard Olympic bar, a two-inch (5.08 cm) bar, and a three-inch (7.62 cm) bar. The exercises tested were the deadlift, upright row, bent-over row, bench press, shoulder press, and arm curl. Note that the mechanics of the lifts vary in that three are pulling (deadlift, upright row, bent-over row), two are pushing (bench and shoulder press), and one is curling (arm curl).
Only three exercises were tested per session (stressing different muscle groups and different mechanics). The grip endurance test was done on a different day and involved the subject standing erect in the lock-out position of the deadlift using a pronated grip. They held the loaded bar with 75 percent of the 1RM load for the deadlift for as long as possible.
For all exercises tested, participants were able to lift the greatest amount with the Olympic bar, followed by the two-inch bar, and then the three-inch bar. Differences between the loads lifted were not statistically significant for all lifts. Rather, for the deadlift and bent-over row, significant reductions in load were seen when using the thicker bars versus the standard Olympic bar.
For the deadlift with the two-inch bar participants lifted on average 28.3 percent less, and with the three-inch bar they lifted 55 percent less. In the bent-over row, with the two-inch bar they lifted 8.9 percent less weight, and with the three-inch bar they lifted 37.3 percent less.
Clearly, although participants were likely maximally activating their hand and forearm muscles in these lifts, they did not get nearly as much stimulus to the leg and lower back muscles as they would with a standard bar. But, remember that participants had no experience training with thicker bars, and naturally, no one is going to recommend you train pulling exercises like the deadlift with a thick bar forever.
For the upright row and arm curl, significant reductions in maximal weight lifted were observed only with the three-inch bar (26.1 percent less weight for the upright row and 17.6 percent less for the arm curl compared to the Olympic bar). The two-inch bar and Olympic bar allowed participants to lift equal weight. No significant differences were seen in maximal weight lifted for the different bars in the bench and shoulder presses.
Greater Grip Strength Equals Greater Maximal Lifts
Interestingly, time to exhaustion for the grip endurance tests were 40 seconds for the Olympic bar, 49 seconds for the two-inch bar, and 46 seconds for the three-inch bar. Difference in time to exhaustion was statistically significant for the variance between the Olympic bar and the two-inch bar. It is suggested that this is due to “a more favorable interaction of grip span and loading.”
Take note that individuals with greater grip strength had less decrease in maximal lifts with thicker bars, indicating that greater grip strength is a factor in optimal performance for all bar diameters.
DOMS In the Forearms Are An Indicator of Greater Stimulus
It’s noteworthy that participants reported greater delayed onset muscle soreness in the forearm following testing with the three-inch bar, indicating that the thicker bar provides greater stimulus to the forearm muscles. Greater stimulus equals more neuromuscular stress and ultimately greater strength and performance gains. Too bad they didn’t test EMG!
Researchers note that there was no significant differences in 1RM lifts between the bars for the pushing exercises, which was not surprising since grip strength is not a primary factor for peak performance in these exercises. Surprisingly, participants reported feeling greater comfort when performing pushing exercises with the thick bars, despite a hypothesis that they’d describe higher levels of discomfort with thick bars because a greater surface area of the hand is engaged with the bar and greater pressure may be placed against the thumb.
Takeaway that thicker bars develop grip strength, and that greater grip strength will likely lead to greater maximal lifts in pulling exercises such as the deadlift and bent-over row because grip will not be as much of a limiting factor.
Researchers caution training with thicker bars all the time because doing so will likely require significantly lighter loads to be lifted, particularly in the pulling exercises.
World-Class Gripper Tells Us How To Take Your Grip To the Next Level
Richard Sorin, winner of many world-class grip contests, was interviewed on grip training and strength in the Strength and Conditioning Journal. He said that variety is the key, and suggests lifting sacks of sand, in which the handhold ability would always be shifting. He also likes oversized soft-handle dumbbells because they demand the hand to be open more. Plus, grasping them makes you hold onto a semi-dynamic fixture just like if you are grappling in wrestling or grabbing an opponent in football. The load is shifting, requiring more stabilization in the hand and forearms.
Sorin incorporates grip training into his regular arm workouts and likes using the thick bars. He notes that he had his best grip performances after training deadlifts and shrugs with a two-inch bar!
He says that his loads in the deadlift and shrugs were lighter at first, but that “after a while my number in the deadlifts and shrugs started to approach what they were on a traditional bar.” He suggests that having a stronger grip supported a heavier deadlift as well.
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