Boost Strength and Fitness with These Barbell Exercises
The humble barbell can be found in every gym in the world.
But despite being commonplace and the fact that most serious bodybuilders use one – it’s amazing that so many people still do barbell training wrong.
It’s not unusual to see people with years of lifting experience exhibiting bad form or poor technique. The barbell falls into the category "simple to understand, difficult to master."
There’s nothing too complicated about the equipment itself. It's essentially a long bar with weight plates on each side. But, without guidance it can take a lifetime to master all the various lifts.
That’s why we’ve put this comprehensive article together that will teach you how to use the barbell properly, why it’s such an important thing to master and how to avoid injury.
Dumbbell training and machines are important and should be a part of your routine, but for building pure strength and size, nothing can replace the good old barbell.
This benefit goes beyond just time-saving. Because barbells work different joints simultaneously, they prepare your body well for other activities, particularly sports. All sports require synergy and multi-joint movement, but also explosiveness and strength. That's why you see all kinds of professional sportspeople performing different versions of deadlifts, presses, and squats.
Most barbell movements are compound - meaning they involve more than one muscle group. Squats, deadlifts, bench - these are all examples of multi-joint movements. In other words, barbell movements are "best-buys" as you’ll get so much more from any barbell variation compared to any other exercise.
To put it simply - you can always use more weights with barbells than with dumbbells or machines, even if the exercise is identical.
With both arms working together, or having the weight placed evenly across your back/chest, allows the body to produce as much force as it possibly can, meaning you can lift more.
The strength benefit is benefits are obvious - the more weight you move, the stronger you become.
Here’s a breakdown of a few more benefits of using barbells:
Gaining strength | This is self-explanatory, as barbells allow you to lift the highest amount of weight. Basically, it’s the foundation stone of any strength training regime.
Growing muscles | We already mentioned this in the "overload" section - barbells allow you to progressively overload the heaviest weight, continuously challenging your muscles and causing them to grow. However, to get the best bodybuilding results, a barbell is not enough on its own. We’ll discuss this more in the "cons" section.
Losing weight | Because barbell movements require different muscle groups to work together, they burn a lot of calories at the same time. The fat-burning furnace continues days after the workout because the body needs to work overtime to fix the damaged muscles. Moreover, when it does fix them, new muscle tissue is created. Maintaining muscles uses up an enormous number of calories, meaning your body weight is sure to decrease more rapidly.
Also, if you’re on a calorie restricted diet, your body starts to break down muscle if you don't use them and you’ll end up looking "soft" even if you trim down. Using barbells regularly will prevent this muscle loss.
Athletic performance | As explained earlier, barbell movements translate very well into other everyday life and sports activities. Barbells are great for increasing strength and explosiveness, and you can use them to target specific performance goals such as improving your vertical jump. Professional athletes often use a wide variety of barbell lifts focusing on endurance, balance and relative strength.
Cons - Even the King of the Gym Has Some Flaws
Although you could just do barbell exercises all day long and look great, that doesn't mean you should train that way, here's why:
Hides imbalances and weak points | Sometimes, too much training with the barbell may hide some of your flaws. In many barbell exercises, you’ll train your whole body - both legs, and arms at the same time. To lift the maximum weight, the stronger side of your body will naturally take over.
Sometimes this is obvious - when you push up faster with your stronger hand on the bench for example. But sometimes it’s much harder to tell. That's why you need to include some unilateral work with dumbbells and machines. Cables are especially good for balancing as they create tension throughout the whole lift.
Difficult to master | While this is something that makes barbell training interesting, it can also make it risky if you don’t know what you’re doing. Unless you move with perfect technique, you are at risk of injury and creating imbalances.
To avoid this, make sure you always perform the motion in a power rack and with a spotter. The barbell can be tricky - when the weight is on your chest or over your back, there’s no easy safe escape mechanism. Take the time to learn proper form and never train with heavy weights alone.
Hard to isolate individual muscles | If your goal is to gain an attractive and toned-all-over physique, the barbell is not enough. Most movements performed with a regular barbell are compound. In compound movements, the stronger muscle group will always take over the lift, which will leave some muscles lagging behind – usually your arms.
Also, bodybuilders like to hit specific regions of the muscle - such as the biceps peak, rear deltoids, and similar - which are hard to hit with a barbell. Even if you’re not a serious bodybuilder you should mix dumbbells, barbells, and machines to get the most benefits from your workout.
How to Perform Essential Barbell Movements
This section will cover exercises you may already do, but if not, you simply MUST include them into your routine, or else you are going to leave some serious gains on the table.
Doing just these three lifts will engage almost every major muscle group in your body. That doesn't mean you should only do these three; it just means these are essential.
Be warned - these exercises are very taxing, so be sure to give your body time to recover and make sure to split them - do squats on Monday, bench on Wednesday, and deadlifts on Friday.
The deadlift is the most hardcore movement you’ll see performed in any gym. It’s so basic and so natural - lifting a weight off the floor is a common everyday activity. At least it was, in the pre-computer, sit at a desk for 12 hours a day era.
Yet, it’s extremely challenging on the body, and you need to do it correctly if you want to avoid injuries. What's more, it's the scariest sounding exercise, sharing the title with "skull-crushers."
Here’s a straightforward guide on how to deadlift properly, to relieve some of your fears:
- Place a loaded barbell on the floor.
- Stand next to it, feet hip-width apart, toes slightly pointing outwards.
- The barbell should be over the middle of your feet when looking from above - over your shoelaces.
- Start bending from your hips (hinging) while keeping your back stable. Then bend your knees and grab the barbell, but don’t pull it up yet.
- As you bend the knees your shins should move forward to touch the bar- once that happens, stop. That’s your starting position.
- Your arms should be touching the outside of your knees, that's the proper hand width. You can have either a mixed or overhand grip.
- Your shins should be touching the bar.
- Your back should remain in a natural position, shoulder blades protracted (packed together), with lats pulled tight.
- Your chest should be up, and you should look straight ahead of you.
- Now, brace your core (you can hold a big breath) and push through your heels, extending the knees and breaking the inertia with the power of your legs.
- Once the bar passes your knees, explosively extend your hips until you are completely straight with the bar touching your thighs. Remember not to overextend your back by arching backwards. Standing up straight is enough.
- Reverse the movement - start from the hips, then bend your knees until the barbell touches the floor.
- Remember that this is a ‘DEAD’lift, so before starting the next rep the barbell should be entirely on the floor, with no inertia i.e. a dead weight.
Barbell squat is the best lower body muscle builder, period. Here’s how to do it:
- Use a squat/power rack.
- Place the bar on the holders at shoulder height and load it.
- Stand under it and place the middle of the bar over your traps, just behind the neck. Your hands should hold the bar on both sides, for stabilization.
- Push up with enough force to un-rack the bar and take a step back.
- Your feet should be at shoulder width, toes pointing out.
- Your shoulder blades should be stacked forming a nice stable platform for the bar.
- Brace your abs and hold them tight throughout the whole movement, back straight.
- Start slowly lowering the bar by breaking at your knees first, then sitting back with your hips, but remaining upright.
- Your knees will travel forward, even past your toes, which is perfectly OK, as long as you check the next step.
- During the whole movement, your heel should remain glued to the floor, your entire weight distributed along your heels and the middle of your foot, never on your toes.
- Lower the bar as much as you can, without compromising form.
- Once you reach the bottom, push hard through your heels and the middle of your foot, lifting the bar up. Push explosively, but remain in full control, never let the bar bounce or move.
- Stand back up to the starting position, and repeat for the prescribed number of reps.
If you ask any bro, the bench press is the most important movement of them all, alongside biceps curl! But even though it is the favorite move of casual lifters, the bench press is the ultimate test of upper body strength. It will also help you gain size by hitting your pecs, shoulders and triceps. Here's a full description of how to bench press properly:
- Lie underneath a loaded barbell resting on the bench press station.
- Pack your shoulder blades together, creating a strong platform. They should remain that way throughout the whole set.
- You can slightly arch your lower back, as long as your shoulder blades and glutes are pressed firmly against the bench.
- Your feet should be placed firmly on the floor, under slight tension - that way you will be able to generate more force.
- Your eyes should be looking straight up, directly at the bar.
- Place your hands on the bar, a little wider than shoulder width, and un-rack it. Keep your elbows locked, that’s the starting position.
- Start slowly lowering the bar by flexing the elbows. The angle between elbows and your torso should be less than 90 degrees - the lower the angle, the less stress on your shoulders. Wider angles increase the risk, but will engage your pecs more, so use with caution.
- Lower the bar slowly, towards your middle chest, maintaining full control.
- Continue until the bar touches your chest, and push back up, concentrating on using your pecs.
- Don't bounce the bar off your chest; you can end up with broken ribs.
- Lift the bar until your elbows are fully locked, making sure your chest is continuously under tension, not just triceps.
- Briefly pause at the top and continue to the next rep.
Get Going with the Barbell
Although you might feel intimidated by the barbell, as many beginners are, don't skip it. Remember, each of those jacked dudes around you started from somewhere, and nobody will judge your weight – most people are more concerned with what they’re lifting.
In fact, don’t use any weight to begin with - start with just an unloaded bar until you master the technique. When you’re ready, start adding weights. For beginners, the weight progresses rapidly, and you will make significant progress on all three major lifts in no time at all.
Just focus on ironing out your technique until it's perfect, not only because it will make exercising safer. Proper technique is the most optimal way to lift - in other words, with proper technique you’ll be able to lift the most weight.
Also, remember to switch things up - barbells, dumbbells, machines – they’re all in the gym for a reason. The barbell might be superior in many ways, but all pieces of gym equipment have their place in a balanced workout plan.