The # Best Barbell Exercises and Workouts for Your Whole Body

The # Best Barbell Exercises and Workouts for Your Whole Body

Barbell exercises are the substance of the best strength training programs because they’ll help you gain muscle and strength faster than anything else.

What’s more, they simplify your training, too.

That is, the humble barbell can replace almost all of the machines and other tools and toys you see people faffing with in the gym.

With just a handful of compound barbell exercises you can train every muscle group in your body, top to toe.

In this article you’ll learn the benefits of barbell training and the best barbell exercises for your chest, back, shoulders, legs, arms, and abs.

Benefits of Barbell Exercises

1. They’re ideal for gaining strength.

There are three main reasons barbell exercises are ideal for building strength:

1. One of the best ways to get stronger is to train with heavy weights.

When you use dumbbells, you can only progress up to the heaviest dumbbells available in your gym (usually around 100 pounds), but no further.

While this is plenty to progress on most exercises, won’t be enough to achieve progressive overload on exercises like the squat, deadlift, bench press, and dumbbell row after several years of proper training.

With a barbell, though, you can push, pull, and squat far more weight than you ever could with dumbbells. Not only are barbells physically stronger than dumbbells (some can hold over 3,000 pounds), but they also allow you to put your body in a position where you can lift heavier weights more efficiently (for instance, the barbell squat vs the goblet squat).

Thus, you can get stronger with barbell exercises far longer than you can with dumbbells.

2. With most barbell exercises, you’re able to use both hands to keep the bar stable and the weight is evenly distributed over both the left and right side of your body, which makes it easier to push and pull heavy loads than with dumbbells.

For example, in the dumbbell bench press, you have to consciously fight to keep both of your hands about the same distance from your chest, whereas this mostly takes care of itself when doing the barbell bench press.

3. The exercises that allow you to handle the heaviest weights, such as the squat, deadlift, and bench and overhead press, are easier to perform with a barbell.

You can perform these exercises with dumbbells, but once the dumbbells get heavy (over 75 pounds), they become unwieldy, awkward, and at times, unsafe.

2. They’re adaptable.

Barbells can be used for many different types of exercise, including . . .

  • Bodybuilding
  • Powerlifting
  • Strongman
  • CrossFit
  • Olympic weightlifting

. . . which means that no matter how you like to train, you can almost always use a barbell.

3. They allow you to perform exercises safely.

Because your hands are “locked” in position during barbell exercises, you tend to have more control over a barbell than you do when you use dumbbells, which typically makes exercises safer.

What’s more, you often have to “nudge,” “flick,” or “clean” dumbbells to get them into the proper position to perform an exercise.

For example, in the dumbbell shoulder press, you have to lift the dumbbells onto your thighs then “kick” them up to shoulder height to get into the starting position.

Setting up like this isn’t so bad when the dumbbells are light, but it begins to feel unsteady and fatiguing as the weights get heavier (usually over 50 pounds or so for men and 25 for women).

Getting in position isn’t as precarious for most compound barbell exercises because they generally involve a power rack. This allows you to quickly get into a safe and efficient position before bearing any weight.

(Using a squat rack also makes it safer to drop the bar if you happen to hit failure on most barbell exercises.)

4. They allow you to increase weight in small increments.

Increasing the weight you lift over time—also known as progressive overload—is the most important driver of strength and muscle gain.

Most dumbbells go up in 5-pound increments, which means when you increase the weight for a dumbbell exercise, you typically have to lift a minimum of 10 pounds more than you previously did (each dumbbell weighs 5 pounds more than the previous ones you used).

When you’re new to weightlifting, 10-pound jumps from week to week are easy. As you nudge your genetic limit for muscle and strength gain, however, you won’t be able to progress this quickly, and you’ll need to increase the weights more gradually.

Most gyms have barbell plates as small as 2.5 pounds, which allow you to make smaller, more sustainable, 5-pound increases that allow you to keep getting stronger without becoming plateaued or injured.

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The 18 Best Barbell Exercises for Building Muscle and Strength

This list of barbell exercises is far from exhaustive, but it includes all of the best barbell exercises you can do for your entire body.

The Best Barbell Chest Exercises

1. Barbell Bench Press


barbell bench press


The barbell bench press is one of the single best upper-body barbell exercises you can do because it trains every major muscle group in above your waist, particularly your pecs, triceps, and deltoids.

How to: 

  1. Lie on a flat bench with your feet flat on the floor, directly under your knees.
  2. Pull your shoulder blades together and down, and without lifting your butt or shoulders off the bench, slightly arch your back.
  3. Grab the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart, take a deep breath, brace your core, and unrack the barbell.
  4. Bring the barbell to the middle of your chest, making sure to keep your elbows tucked at about a 45-degree angle relative to your body.
  5. When the bar touches your chest, explosively press the bar back to the starting position.

2. Incline Barbell Bench Press


Incline Barbell Bench Press


The incline barbell bench press is one of the most effective barbell exercises for your chest because it emphasizes the oft-neglected “upper chest.” Including it in your chest workouts ensures you build proportionate chest mass—“filling out” your entire pecs.

How to:

  1. Lie on a bench that’s angled at 30-to-45 degrees and place your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Pull your shoulder blades together and down, and without lifting your butt or shoulders off the bench, slightly arch your back.
  3. Grab the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, take a deep breath, brace your core, and unrack the barbell.
  4. Bring the barbell to your upper chest, making sure to keep your elbows tucked at about a 45-degree angle relative to your body.
  5. When the bar touches your chest, explosively press the bar back to the starting position.

3. Decline Barbell Bench Press


Decline Barbell Bench Press


Research shows that the decline barbell bench press trains the lower chest and triceps just as well as the flat barbell bench press (though it doesn’t train the shoulders quite so well). This means it’s a good addition to your routine if you want a break from flat benching or if you want to use the decline bench press as an accessory exercise for your pecs.

How to:

  1. Lie on a decline bench, secure your feet under the pads (if available) and adjust your body so your eyes are under the bar.
  2. Pull your shoulder blades together and down, and without lifting your butt or shoulders off the bench, slightly arch your back.
  3. Grab the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, take a deep breath, brace your core, and unrack the barbell.
  4. Bring the barbell to your upper chest, making sure to keep your elbows tucked at about a 45-degree angle relative to your body.
  5. When the bar touches your chest, explosively press the bar back to the starting position.

The Best Barbell Back Exercises

1. Deadlift


Deadlift


The deadlift trains every muscle in your back, though it’s a particularly good lower back barbell exercise. It also allows you to use some of the heaviest weights in any of your workouts, which means it’s ideal for gaining strength and muscle.

How to:

  1. Position your feet so they’re a bit less than shoulder-width apart with your toes pointed slightly out. Move a loaded barbell over your midfoot so it’s about an inch from your shins.
  2. Move down toward the bar by pushing your hips back and grip the bar just outside your shins.
  3. Take a deep breath of air into your belly, flatten your back by pushing your hips up slightly, and then drive your body upward and slightly back by pushing through your heels until you’re standing up straight.
  4. Reverse the movement and return to the starting position.

2. Barbell Row


Barbell Row


You can generally lift more weight with the barbell row than you can with other back exercises with a barbell, which means it’s a boon to any back workout for mass.

How to:

  1. Position your feet under a loaded barbell about shoulder-width apart with your toes pointed slightly outward.
  2. Bend over and grab the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip and with your palms facing toward you.
  3. Straighten your back and raise your hips until your back is roughly parallel to the floor.
  4. Initiate the movement by driving through your legs, then, using the momentum generated by your lower body, pull the barbell to your upper body, touching it anywhere between your lower chest and belly button.
  5. Once the bar touches your body, reverse the movement and return to the starting position.

3. Pendlay Row


Pendlay Row


The Pendlay row is a similar compound barbell back exercise to the barbell row, except you don’t use your lower body to help hoist the bar off the floor. This means you probably won’t be able to lift as much weight as you do with other row variations, but it also means your lats, traps, and rhomboids do more of the work and you aren’t limited by your lower-body strength.

How to:

  1. Position your feet under a loaded barbell about shoulder-width apart with your toes pointed slightly outward.
  2. Bend over and grab the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip with your palms facing toward you.
  3. Straighten your back and raise your hips until your back is roughly parallel to the floor.
  4. Pull the barbell to your upper body, touching it anywhere between your lower chest and belly button.
  5. Once the bar touches your body, reverse the movement and return it to the floor.

The Best Barbell Shoulder Exercises

1. Standing Barbell Overhead Press


Standing Barbell Overhead Press


The standing overhead press improves upper-body strength, chest, shoulder, and tricep size, and develops your whole-body balance and coordination.

How to:

  1. Set a barbell in a rack at the same height as your upper chest. Grip the bar with a shoulder-width grip and your palms facing away from you.
  2. Unrack the barbell and take a small step backwards with each foot, keeping your wrists stacked over your elbows, and your elbows tucked close to your sides.
  3. Plant your feet just outside of shoulder-width, brace your core, squeeze your glutes, and push the bar off your chest toward the ceiling.
  4. Once your arms are straight and your elbows are locked out, reverse the movement to return to the starting position.

2. Seated Barbell Overhead Press


Seated Barbell Overhead Press


The seated barbell overhead press and the standing barbell overhead press are very similar shoulder barbell exercises. However, because the seated barbell overhead press doesn’t require as much full-body coordination, you can lift heavier weights and progress faster, which is generally better for muscle growth.

How to:

  1. Set up an upright bench in a squat rack or power rack, or use a seated barbell press station.
  2. Sit in the seat and press your back against the bench, reach your arms overhead, and take a note of the height of your wrists in relation to the rack—this is the height you should set the barbell on the hooks.
  3. Set the barbell on the hooks, sit down, and grip the bar with a shoulder-width grip and your palms facing away from you.
  4. Unrack the barbell and lower it to your collarbone.
  5. Once the bar reaches your collarbone, press the bar toward the ceiling and return to the starting position.

3. Barbell Rear Delt Row


Barbell Rear Delt Row


The barbell rear delt row is a great exercise for training your rear delts, which are small, stubborn muscles that often need a bit of extra attention if you want them to grow as quickly as your other shoulder muscles.

How to:

  1. Position your feet under a loaded barbell about shoulder-width apart with your toes pointed slightly outward.
  2. Bend over and grab the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip and with your palms facing toward you.
  3. Flatten your back so that it’s roughly parallel to the floor and let your arms hang straight down.
  4. Pull the barbell to your mid chest, making sure to flair your elbows at about a 60-degree angle relative to your body.
  5. Once the bar touches your body, reverse the movement and return to the starting position.

The Best Barbell Leg Exercises

1. Barbell Back Squat


Barbell Back Squat


The barbell back squat is hands down the most effective barbell quad exercise you can do for building size and strength. It also allows you to use very heavy weights, which maximizes tension in your muscle fibers and thus muscle growth over time.

How to:

  1. Position a barbell in a squat rack at about the height of your nipples.
  2. Step under the bar, pinch your shoulder blades together, and rest the bar directly above the bony ridges on the bottom of your shoulder blades.
  3. Lift the bar out of the rack, take one or two steps backward, and place your feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart with your toes pointing slightly outward.
  4. Sit down and remember to keep your back straight and push your knees out in the same direction as your toes throughout each rep.
  5. Stand up and return to the starting position.

2. Barbell Front Squat


Barbell Front Squat


Most people think of the front squat as a quad exercise, but studies show it’s one of the best barbell glute exercises you can do, too. What’s more, research also shows that the front squat places considerably less compressive forces on your knees and lower back, which make it a particularly good alternative to back squats for people who have knee or back issues.

How to:

  1. Position a barbell in a squat rack at about the height of your breast bone (usually an inch or two higher than you would for the barbell squat).
  2. Grab the bar with a shoulder-width grip and your palms facing away from you.
  3. Step closer to the bar so that it presses against the top of your breast bone and push your elbows up and out in front of the bar.
  4. With the bar resting on the front of your shoulders and held in place by your hands, lift it out of the rack, take one or two steps backward, and place your feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart with your toes pointing slightly outward.
  5. Sit down and remember to keep your back straight, elbows up, and push your knees out in the same direction as your toes throughout each rep.
  6. Stand up and return to the starting position.

3. Romanian Deadlift


Romanian Deadlift


The Romanian deadlift (RDL) is a fantastic barbell hamstring exercise because it allows you to lift heavy weights, making it ideal for gaining muscle and strength. It’s also less fatiguing than other deadlift variations, so you can do it more often without wearing yourself to a frazzle.

(Fun fact: During a set of RDLs, your upper back has to work hard to prevent your shoulders rounding. This makes the RDL one of the best barbell trap exercises you can do, too.)

How to:

  1. Stand up straight holding a loaded barbell with a shoulder-width, overhand grip (palms facing toward your body).
  2. Flatten your back and lower the weights toward the floor in a straight line while keeping your legs mostly straight, allowing your butt to move backward as you descend.
  3. Once you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, bend your knees slightly more, and continue lowering the weights until your lower back begins to round—just below the knees for most people, and about mid-shin for those who are particularly flexible.
  4. Reverse the movement and return to the starting position.

The Best Barbell Arm Exercises

1. Barbell Curl


Barbell Curl


The barbell curl is the most effective barbell bicep exercise because it allows you to use maximally heavy weights, which is beneficial for gaining strength and muscle.

How to:

  1. While standing up straight, hold a barbell with your palms shoulder-width apart and facing away from you.
  2. Your arms should be straight and the bar should be resting against your thighs.
  3. Bring the bar up to shoulder height by bending at the elbow, and then lower it back to the starting position.

(Tip: To make this exercise more challenging and effective, raise the bar up to eye level, allowing your upper arms to move forward, then lower it to the starting position).

2. Close-Grip Barbell Bench Press


Close-Grip Barbell Bench Press


The close-grip bench press is most people’s go-to barbell tricep exercise because it allows you to safely and effectively train all three heads of the triceps with heavy weights (which can be difficult with other triceps exercises, like the skullcrusher).

How to:

  1. Lie on a flat bench, pull your shoulder blades together and down, and without lifting your butt or shoulders off the bench, slightly arch your back.
  2. Grab the bar with a shoulder-width grip or slightly narrower and unrack the barbell so it’s directly above your chest.
  3. Bring the barbell to your lower chest while keeping your elbows tucked at about a 30-degree angle relative to your torso.
  4. When the bar touches your chest, explosively press the bar back to the starting position.

3. Lying Barbell Triceps Extension (“Skullcrusher”)


Skullcrusher


The lying barbell triceps extension (aka the “skullcrusher”) is a great barbell exercise for arms because it trains the slightly smaller medial and lateral heads of the triceps, ensuring you have defined, proportional upper arms. Although you could say this exercise involves an E-Z bar and not a regular barbell, an E-Z bar is simply a slightly lighter barbell with a slanted grip.

How to:

  1. While lying on a flat bench, hold a barbell above your chest with a shoulder-width grip.
  2. Bend your elbows and lower the bar until it’s right above your forehead, and then reverse the movement to return to the starting position.

(Tip: If you want to increase the range of motion of this exercise, lower the bar behind your head until it’s almost touching the bench.)

The Best Barbell Ab Exercises

1. Barbell Landmine Rainbow


Barbell Landmine Rainbow


The barbell landmine rainbow is a great barbell core exercise because it forces you to stabilize your core muscles under load, which builds the type of core strength and stability you need if you play sports that require you to twist and turn at speed.

How to:

  1. Place one end of an empty barbell in a landmine attachment or wedge it into the corner of the room and load the other end with weight plates.
  2. While facing the weighted end of the barbell, use both hands to hoist the barbell up to chest height.
  3. Press the bar overhead, then keeping your arms straight, lower the bar down toward your left hip, pivoting your right foot inward as you lower the bar.
  4. Using your core, drive the bar in an arch until it’s back overhead, then lower it down toward your right hip, pivoting your left foot inward as you lower the bar.
  5. Continue to alternate from side to side for the desired number of reps.

2. Barbell Rollout


Barbell Rollout


 

Studies show that the barbell rollout is an extremely effective exercise for training all parts of the abs and core, especially the rectus abdominis and the obliques.

How to:

  1. Kneel down on the floor with a loaded barbell in front of you.
  2. With your arms fully extended, grab the barbell and slowly roll it away from you.
  3. Brace your core tightly so that your torso remains rigid and your lower back flat.
  4. Roll the barbell until your body is as close to parallel with the floor as possible then roll yourself back to the starting position by flexing your abs.

Tip: start with your knees and feet in contact with the floor, but as you get stronger you can cross your feet and lift them off the floor a few inches to make the exercise more difficult.

3. Barbell Sit-up


Barbell Sit-up


The biggest benefit of the barbell sit-up is it’s easy to add weight to. Being able to add weight to “sit-up” exercises increases their effectiveness and allows you to take advantage of progressive overload (which is the most important driver of muscle growth).

How to:

  1. Lie on a sit-up bench with your feet wedged under the foot pads.
  2. Using both hands, hold a barbell directly above your chest with your arms straight.
  3. Keeping your arms perpendicular to the floor and your back flat, use your ab muscles to lift your chest toward the ceiling until your lower back comes completely off the bench.
  4. Reverse the movement and return to the starting position.

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