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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
August 26, 2022
The classic barbell is a mainstay in fitness and human performance. Its beauty is in its simplicity and effectiveness, which makes it the best piece of training equipment you can own.
In fact, it’s all you need.
You don't even have to have many exercise to get an insane workout. Here are the 12 top barbell exercises to do, and simple variations to help spice up your routine.
The article covers:
We first need to clarify what a barbell is. Barbells are comprised of a long, solid piece of metal with two thicker pieces on the end known as collars to load the barbell.
Over the years, barbells have evolved in size and function. Today, there are a few common styles, including Olympic barbells, squat barbells, and power barbells.
Generally speaking, the Olympic barbell is the most common style in a typical gym. These come in two sizes:
There's a reason barbell training is the primary method for anyone serious about building strength and gaining muscle mass. You need to include more barbell exercises in your training program, and here's why.
The barbell is simply a tool to create an artificial load. Being so, there are very few limitations on how you can use one to perform an exercise.
This means that you can train the entire body with just a barbell. Every muscle group can be hit with this one piece of equipment, and all of the best compound exercises can incorporate a barbell.
Therefore, you need just a barbell paired with chin-ups to train the entire body.
Due to barbells being so versatile, they are easily the most cost-effective means if you want to train at home. The only other pieces of equipment you would need to buy are:
You can buy all that for the price of one machine that only trains one movement pattern.
The majority of barbell exercises consist of multi-joint movements, as that's what they are designed to do. In other words, they're designed to train multiple large muscle groups at once.
While machines allow compound movements, barbells do a better job of strengthening stabilizer muscle groups. These are muscles that support our primary muscles and provide balance.
Barbells are free weights that allow you to replicate the basic movement patterns one sees in real life, such as pushing, pulling, standing up, and kneeling.
Further, barbell training requires balance and higher activation in the stabilizer muscles because the barbell is a free weight. This more realistically mimics real life.
Progressive overload is the key to building strength and muscle mass. Because barbells are loaded with plates and use a definite weight, it's easy to monitor your progress and apply heavier loads.
Advanced lifters can even get microplates, which are weight plates that weigh a fraction of a pound. These are essential to providing a minimal increase in weight.
Resistance training, in general, is going to improve your hormone levels. In fact, just being physically active will have a positive effect when compared to being sedentary.
That said, using heavy compound lifts is superior and creates a larger secretion of hormones. And recent research shows that when comparing barbell movements to a similar machine movement (i.e., squat vs. leg press), the barbell releases a greater amount¹.
We firmly believe that the primary purpose for weight lifting falls under a few categories:
In other words, you do not choose an exercise for weight loss. Creating a caloric deficit, like through a cutting workout and diet plan, along with eating the best foods for muscles is your primary means of controlling your weight.
That said, weight training does burn calories, and because barbells allow heavy loads and use so much muscle mass, it burns more calories. Don't think of this as the reason to use barbell training; rather, it's more like a sweet little bonus.
Your body has a lot of muscles, and each one is hit with barbell training. Because we cover a lot in this article, we will briefly review them with basic descriptions. However, we encourage you to take the time to learn anatomy more in-depth.
The back muscles are responsible for pulling, extending the spine, and providing structure to the torso, always working in unison. In other words, basically any compound back exercise is going to train every back muscle.
The major back muscles are:
The shoulder muscles, also known as the deltoids, consist of three muscle heads. Together, these three muscles fully manipulate the arms. Different shoulder exercises target separate parts of the shoulder, but a few stand-out moves, like the overhead press, hit all the muscle heads at once.
The shoulder muscles include:
The arms consist of two sections: the upper arms and lower arms.
Together, there are basically three different muscle groupings:
The glutes are a set of three muscles that sit on the buttocks. Together, these muscles are the strongest in the human body and are primarily responsible for hip extension. They also play a role in virtually every movement the human body makes. And as a bonus, they can also make your jeans look phenomenal, which is probably why butt-lifting exercises are so popular.
The hamstrings sit on the posterior of the upper leg and consist of 3 muscles. Together, they are the primary knee flexors and play a role in hip extension. You'll see one or both of these movements in the best hamstring exercises.
The quadriceps contain four muscles that sit on the front of the upper thigh. Together, these muscles work together in quad exercises and in daily life as the primary knee extender.
The rectus femoris is the only quadricep muscle involved in hip flexion.
When we look at the human body, there are several primary movements that we want to try to replicate, making pulling exercises, pushing workouts, squatting, lunging, and hinging crucial for any routine.
We're starting with the only movement impossible to replicate with a barbell, and that's vertical pulling. Vertical pulling refers to exercises in which the arms grab an object from overhead and pull it toward the body.
Horizontal pulling is when you pull an object toward your body. All of the back muscles and biceps are involved in horizontal pulling.
Vertical pushing occurs when you have an object overhead such as in the overhead press when you press the barbell overhead. The muscle trained are the shoulders, chest, and triceps.
Horizontal pushing occurs when you push an object away from the body, such as in the bench press. The muscle trained are the chest, shoulders, and triceps.
Many people confuse squats and hip-hinges. The main distinguishing factor is movement and flexion of the knee. When the knee comes forward and involves more knee extension (quadriceps activation), it's a squat.
Compared to the squat, in a true hip-hinge, the knee stays stationary and the shin vertical. The primary joint is the hips, with the posterior muscles being the primary movers.
The main muscles worked are the glutes and hamstrings. However, the erector spinae often plays a role in many hip-hinge movements.
A lunge is a movement in which a person takes a step forward with one foot and then lowers the body. Lunge exercises train every muscle in the lower body as well as improve balance.
There are also several types of lunges, such as the reverse lunge, which will hit the muscles differently.
We will break down the best barbell exercises into the upper and lower body to keep things organized.
First on the list are the best barbell exercises for the upper body. These barbell exercises will train the muscles that make up the chest, shoulders, back, and arms.
The standing barbell overhead press is probably the most underused barbell movement on this list, likely due to its difficulty. It involves pressing a loaded barbell straight overhead from the chest, and locking out the arms.
A cool fact about the overhead press is that it was actually an original movement in Olympic weightlifting. It was eventually taken out due to difficulty keeping standards for correct form (athletes began bending the back to extremes), but its legacy remains.
The overhead press might be the most challenging barbell exercise there is, but it will cause your upper body strength to blow up. Worth it!
How to do the Overhead Press:
Let's get into the horizontal press now. Perhaps the most popular barbell exercise, the barbell bench press is also one of the most misunderstood.
It is an amazing movement to improve the pushing strength and the upper body's overall musculature. However, it's not necessarily the greatest chest movement as many make it out to be.
The flat barbell bench press does train the chest, but it's actually more effective in increasing the size and strength of the triceps. Still, it remains one of the best barbell exercises because it is fundamental in providing a solid base to work from. You can also adjust your hand position, changing your barbell bench press grip to target different upper body muscles during the exercise.
We will also include several variations after our how-to, along with any modifications you need to make.
How to do the Barbell Bench Press:
Most will put the bench at 45-degree angle. However, play around with smaller angles as well. The only difference is the barbell will come down higher on your chest, and the incline will hit the upper chest more.
Again, experiment with various angles but the max should be 45-degrees. The barbell will come down on your lower chest, and the decline will target the lower chest to a higher degree.
For the close grip bench press, grab the barbell slightly narrower than shoulder width apart. As the barbell comes down, be sure to tuck your elbows. This creates greater flexion of the elbow while lessening the activity of the chest.
Place your hands wider than a traditional grip. This will cause less flexion in the elbow and greater activation in the chest.
Let's hit those back muscles now, shall we? The barbell bent over row should be your primary exercise for building your back muscles. It's really that simple.
This single movement is going to hit every single muscle in your entire back. If that's not enough, the bent-over row does a lot more, including training your biceps, particularly with an underhand grip, requires an intense isometric contraction in your posterior chain (erector spinae, glutes, hamstrings), and needs total core activation to support being bent over.
There are several barbell bent over row grips, and utilizing all of them will help you target each of the major back muscles differently.
Pay attention to the starting position for the bent-over row. It tends to be very difficult for some people, so take your time when first training.
How to do the Barbell Bent Over Row:
Use an underhand grip shoulder width apart, which is more narrow than the traditional grip. Your arms should slide against your body straight back, creating greater flexion in the elbows (greater bicep activation) and increasing your range of motion.
Now, it's time for the lower half. When using a barbell to train the lower body, you will hit every muscle in every movement. However, we still have more than one exercise due to how different movements activate the muscles differently.
The barbell back squat is the king of lower body exercise. It trains the entire lower body while placing huge stress on the core (in a good way). The barbell back squat is the best exercise to create strength in the lower body.
Often seen as a competition with the deadlift, these two are separate, but equally awesome, exercises. That said, we rank it as the No. 1 lower body exercise simply because of the much larger range of motion seen in the knees and hips.
Further, the back squat also requires significantly more mobility in your lower body joints.
How to do the Barbell Back Squat:
If the barbell back squat is the king of lower body exercises, that would mean the deadlift is the king of all exercises. While there's definitely room for debate on this, the deadlift is arguably the best of the best barbell exercises. Implementing the deadlift into your regular program will greatly strengthen and develop a ton of your major muscle groups.
Generally listed as a lower body exercise, the deadlift really stresses the entire body, primarily the lower body and back.
How to do the Barbell Deadlift:
An effective and easy variation is widening your bar grip and using a snatch grip. This is roughly 1.5 times your normal grip. It doesn't need to be exact, so an easy method is to place your index or middle finger on the outermost ring. From here, everything else remains the same.
Interestingly, the barbell hip thrust is the only single joint exercise on this list. However, that joint is the hip and utilizes the strongest muscles in the human body, the glutes.
This means the load can be placed directly on the joint in the hip crease providing a direct force. In fact, this is the only exercise that does this. That said, it is basically universally agreed that it is the best glute exercise.
How to do the Barbell Hip Thrust:
The barbell lunge will switch things up a bit as it's the only unilateral exercise on this list. While both legs are involved, the primary muscles activated only occur in one leg.
Other than giving you the ability to identify muscular imbalances, the lunge is perfect for improving balance and moving a weight under motion.
How to do the Barbell Forward Lunge:
Don't be confused. When it comes to front squats vs. back squats, both may be barbell squats but are rather different in biomechanics and muscle activation.
The front squat gets its name as the barbell is placed on the front of the body rather than on the back (which makes sense). Even though this may only mean the bar placement differs by a few inches, those inches cross the body's center of gravity.
As a result, the body's biomechanics are drastically altered as the body lowers to keep the bar over the ankle straight. For this to occur, the torso remains much more vertical with less hip flexion.
This should create higher activation in the quadriceps but the data actually isn’t that clear. However, one major benefit is there’s less force on the spine². Plus, there's also serious activation of the core muscles and upper back to prevent it from flopping over. In fact, studies even show it generates more muscle activity in the shoulder muscles compared to an overhead squat³!
How to do the Barbell Front Squat:
The last lower body exercise is the Romanian deadlift. This hip hinge movement has a similar movement pattern as the deadlift and uses the same muscles. There are a few major differences, however, including that the starting position begins with standing, the hips have greater flexion, and the knees are slightly bent. And finally, the loaded barbell never touches the ground.
As a result, the Romanian deadlift is a much more effective exercise to hit the posterior chain.
How to do the Barbell Romanian Deadlift:
You can also use the snatch grip with the Romanian deadlift.
Every athlete needs some power in their training. Here are two of our favorites.
The clean and jerk is an amazing power exercise, combining two movements into one of the most challenging barbell exercises. While it can take some time to learn, it would benefit any athlete who puts in the time and wants to improve their strength and lean body mass. The power clean is easier to perform compared to a full clean as you don't need to drop into a squat.
How to do the Power Clean and Jerk:
The snatch grip high pulls a highly effective power movement. Also, it will build a crazy strong upper back.
We like it because it's much simpler to perform than other Olympic movements. At the end of the day, it's a clean without actually catching the bar.
How to do the Snatch Grip High Pull:
You probably weren't expecting to see a core exercise on here, but - surprise! Most barbell exercises people speak about are those performed for the upper and lower body. However, this single barbell exercise is likely the only core exercise you'll need to do.
That's why there's only one.
Who needs dumbbell ab exercises when you have the barbell rollout? The barbell rollout is a rollout done on a barbell rather than one of those little plastic toys. While those would work, using the barbell has two unique advantages: 1) You can add weight plates to load the barbell and increase the intensity, and 2) The barbell allows wider hand placement for those who lack shoulder mobility.
How to do the Barbell Rollout:
A few things to keep in mind: You can not perform this with an empty barbell. You can only use full-sized plates with a metal ring. And, eventually, you want to progress to doing them standing.
The above barbell exercises are all you need to get an awesome workout in, especially when you manipulate your training variables, switching up things like hand grips. Below are some workout tips to help you make the most of your barbell training, whether you're focusing on barbell leg exercises or barbell back exercises.
The general public often tries to combine strength and hypertrophy, but they're two different physiological adaptations.
When discussing strength training vs. hypertrophy, strength training refers to improving the intramuscular system and making the existing muscles function better together. As a result, you become stronger. This is best done with loads of 85-95% 1RM and reps of 5-1. For average lifters, 85% is generally heavy enough.
Hypertrophy training refers to the actual muscle getting larger. This may or may not include strength gains. The primary driver for muscle hypertrophy is volume and is best done with loads of 70-80% 1RM (or less) with loads of 8-12, or more.
During your training, train each muscle group twice per week. To be clear, this doesn't mean two exercises but two days a week. This allows you to get in the most amount of quality volume while still allowing time for rest.
Because barbell training allows for large loads and uses so many major muscle groups, it can be taxing. This is why serious barbell training requires adequate muscle recovery and calories. The easiest fix for improving your recovery is to focus on the importance of sleep. Get a minimum of 6 hours but allow up to 9 if needed.
While you can get in a caloric deficit for cutting, it should be minimal (300-500 caloric deficit, max).
There are many ways to run a barbell training program. Here's how a 4-day upper-lower split may work.
That's it. At the root of it, barbell training is simple. You take a bar, put some weights on, and follow the challenging barbell exercises we listed above. Put in the work and build up time under the barbell, and you will achieve whatever goal you may have.
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