Strength & Conditioning

14 Essential Barbell Exercises For Strength & Muscle Mass

barbell exercises

Barbell exercises are an effective way to build muscle, increase strength, and improve your overall fitness.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner or an experienced lifter, this form of strength training can be tailored to your fitness level and goals making them accessible for most people.  

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So, whether you’re looking to lift heavy weights to add mass to your legs, or you just want to focus on your upper arms, by incorporating a variety of barbell exercises into your workout routine you can be sure to target every muscle group in your entire body.  

Before we jump to the best exercises for your barbell training, let’s address some commonly asked questions.

How Heavy Should A Barbell Be For Beginners?

If you’re a beginner to barbell workouts, it’s a good idea to just use the weight of the bar.  

Most barbells, such as an Olympic barbell, tend to weigh around 45lbs, this is heavy enough when starting out.  

This means you can concentrate on proper form and gradually allow your strength to increase before adding on any weight plates.  

Many barbell exercises are quite technical, so you want to make sure you can execute them properly before attempting to lift any heavy loads.  

This is also the best way of avoiding injury.  

Are Barbell Exercises Better Than Machines?

If you want to focus on compound lifts with plenty of versatility, then yes, barbell exercises are better than machines.  

What’s more, when using free weights you can improve your balance, stability, and functional strength.  

That being said, using machines in a gym do have their place.  

Gym machines are generally useful for working smaller muscle groups and performing isolation exercises.  

This can be helpful if you want to address any strength or size imbalances.  

Can You Build Muscle With A Barbell?

Yes, you can definitely build muscle using a barbell. In fact, barbell exercises are a key component of many effective muscle-building routines.  

By performing compound exercises, you can work many muscles at once helping to pack on muscle mass and increase your strength.  

Some of the most popular barbell exercises for muscle building include the squat, deadlift, bench press and bent-over row.  

Upper Body Barbell Exercises

If you’re looking to build upper body strength and muscle mass, barbell lifts are a great way to achieve your goals.

Here are some of the best upper body barbell exercises to add to your workout routine:

Overhead Press

The barbell overhead press, also known as the barbell shoulder press, is a classic compound exercise that will work the muscles of your shoulders (deltoids), as well as your triceps and upper chest.

It’s commonly performed using a barbell, but it can also be done with dumbbells or other types of resistance.

overhead barbell press
  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart holding the barbell up at chest height. 
  2. Keep your grip width just past your shoulders. 
  3. Brace your core and press straight up and overhead.
  4. Make sure to keep your elbows under your wrists.  At the top of the movement your body should form a straight line from top to bottom. 
  5. Hold briefly and use control to lower the barbell back to the start. 

Barbell Row

The barbell row is a great exercise for targeting your upper back muscles, including the latissimus dorsi along with your traps and rear deltoids. 

standing bent over row
  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold the barbell with an overhand grip. 
  2. Push your glutes back and hinge forward at your hips so that the barbell lowers towards the ground.  This is the start position. 
  3. Pull the barbell up towards your belly button, squeezing your shoulder blades together as you lift. 
  4. Lower the barbell back down and repeat. 

Barbell Bench Press

The barbell bench press is one of the most effective compound exercises for increasing muscle mass and strength to your upper body.

It’s a push exercise that primarily targets your chest muscles (pectoralis major and minor), shoulders (anterior deltoids), and triceps.

It’s a staple in many strength training routine and is popular with advanced lifters.  

Lying Barbell Bench Press
  1. Lie back on a flat bench and position your feet outside of shoulder width apart. 
  2. Push your shoulders into the bench whilst maintaining an arch to your lower back. 
  3. Push your feet into the ground for stability and then un-rack the bar (or ask your spotter to pass it out to you).
  4. Hold the bar so it’s directly above your upper chest.  
  5. Using control, slowly allow the barbell to descend towards your lower chest keeping your elbows tucked in as you go.  
  6. Once the barbell is just above your chest, use force to drive it back up to the start.  

Military Press

The military press is a variation of the overhead press with the main difference being foot placement.  

Instead of a shoulder width stance, you need to keep your feet together.  

When your feet are close together, this requires more stabilisation meaning there is better activation of your core muscles.  

The military press will also target your shoulders and upper chest. 

Overhead Military Press Exercise
  1. Stand with your feet together holding the barbell at your upper chest, just below your chin.  
  2. Engage your core and adopt a slight bend to your knees. 
  3. With your hands at shoulder width apart and elbows tucked in, press straight up and overhead. 
  4. Lock out at the top of the movement, then use control to lower the barbell back to the starting position. 

Incline Bench Press

The incline bench press is a variation of the barbell bench press that puts more emphasis on your upper chest muscles.  

You’ll need to perform the exercise on an incline bench or adjustable bench.  

The higher the degree of incline, the more your work the upper chest muscles.  

Man Performing Incline Barbell Bench Press
  1. Set the back rest to an incline of around 45 degrees. 
  2. Sit down and position your feet past shoulder-width apart. 
  3. Push your shoulders into the bench and keep a slight arch to your lower back. 
  4. Un-rack the barbell and hold it above your upper chest. 
  5. Keeping your elbows in, slowly the bar towards your lower chest. 
  6. Once at the bottom, use power to push the bar back up. 

Barbell Bicep Curl

The barbell curl is a pulling exercise which is great for isolating your biceps.  

As it doesn’t involve using multiple muscle groups, it’s important to stick to a light weight to ensure its properly executed.  

Standing Barbell Bicep Curl
  1. Take hold of the barbell with an underhand grip so your hands are around shoulder-width apart.  
  2. Hold the bar just in front of your legs and keep a slight bend to your knees.  
  3. Tighten your core and then curl the weight barbell up towards your face. 
  4. It’s OK to allow your elbows to come forwards slightly as you perform the exercise. 
  5. Hold briefly at the top before slowly lower the barbell back down. 

Front Raise

The front raise is an isolation movement that will firstly activate your front shoulder muscles and secondly, your upper chest and upper back muscles which help with stability as you perform the exercise. 

barbell front raise
  1. Take hold of the barbell with an overhand grip at shoulder width apart. 
  2. Standing upright, let the barbell hang down to your thighs and keep your shoulder relaxed. 
  3. Keeping your shoulders back and chest up, initiate the movement by flexing your shoulders and raising the barbell straight out in front of you. 
  4. Stop when the bar is just above shoulder height. 
  5. Pause for a second before slowly returning to the start.  

Lower Body Barbell Exercises

When it comes to building lower body strength and mass, weight training with a barbell is a must.

Here are some of the best barbell exercises to target the muscles of your lower body.  

Back Squats

When it comes to multi-joint exercises, the barbell squat is considered king and for good reason.  

It’s a functional exercise that works all the muscles of your lower body leading to immense strength gains and muscle growth.  

What’s more it encourages proper breathing patterns whilst burning a tonne of calories.  

It’s important to note that squatting is a very technical movement and if it’s your first time get some tips on proper squat form from a personal trainer or powerlifter.  

A good alternative to the back squat is the front squat.  

Front squats involve placing the barbell in front of you which helps to target more of your quadriceps and core.

Woman Barbell Back Squatting
  1. Take hold of the barbell with an overhand grip with hands shoulder-width distance. 
  2. ​Get under the barbell and allow it to rest along your upper traps.
  3. Un-rack the bar from the squat rack and stand with your feet shoulder width apart and toes pointing out.  
  4. Drive your hips back and bend your knees so you descend into a squat position.
  5. Keep your elbows under and don’t allow your knees to cave in.    
  6. Stop when you are parallel to the floor.
  7. Use explosive power to drive through your heels and back to a standing position.

Barbell Deadlift

The conventional deadlift is a compound exercise that targets your entire posterior chain, including your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings.  

As with the squat, it’s another technical movement that requires plenty of practice before lifting a heavy barbell.  

There are several variations of the deadlift including the Romanian deadlift (which works more of your hamstrings) and the sumo deadlift (which targets more of your glutes).  

Gym Barbell Deadlift
  1. With the barbell on the ground, stand with your feet hip-width apart.  Your shins should be an inch or so away from the bar.  
  2. Hinge forward at your hips and bend your knees, take hold of the bar with an overhand grip. 
  3. ​Keeping the bar on the ground, push your shins forward until they meet the barbell.  Your hips should drop slightly as you do this. 
  4. Pulling your shoulders back and chest up, pull the barbell directly up your body.
  5. Lock out your hips at the top to finish the movement. 

Hip Thrusts

Barbell hip thrusts will isolate your glutes, adding mass, whilst also helping to strengthen your lower back and hamstrings.  

It’s a popular exercise amongst women, as it can help to shape and sculpt the glute muscles.  

Barbell Hip Thrust On Bench
  1. Start with your upper back and shoulder blades resting on something like a flat bench.
  2. ​The barbell should be positioned across your body, so it sits in the crease of your hip joints.  This allows for a full range of motion. 
  3. Make sure your feet are directly under your knees and that your body forms a straight from knees to shoulders. 
  4. Keep your chin tucked and core engaged. 
  5. Drop your hips towards the ground. 
  6. Squeeze your glutes and thrust back to the start.  

Barbell Lunge

Barbell lunges are a great way of working your quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes.  

It’s another functional exercise meaning that it follows common movement patterns that you’re likely to perform in everyday life.

Barbell Lunge
  1. Un-rack your barbell with a wide grip and ensure it’s resting across your upper traps. 
  2. Take a large step forward.
  3. Engaging your core, bend your back knee so it descends towards the ground stopping just before it touches the floor. 
  4. Pause at the bottom and push back up through your front foot. 
  5. Perform your reps and switch to work the other side. 

Bulgarian Split Squat

The Bulgarian split squat is a challenging unilateral exercise that targets your quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes.  

It requires a lot of balance and stability so it’s a good idea to practice without any weight to begin with.  

You’ll need a bench or step-up box to position your foot for this exercise.  

Barbell Split Squat
  1. With the barbell resting across your traps, stand with your back facing a bench. 
  2. Take one foot behind you and rest the top of that foot on top of the bench. 
  3. Push your glutes back, bending your front knee and dropping the knee of your back leg to the floor. 
  4. Concentrate on dropping down and not forwards.  The majority of the weight load should be positioned on your front leg.
  5. Once the knee of your back leg has touched the floor, push through your front foot to ascend back to the starting position.  
  6. Perform your chosen rep range on this leg before switching to the other leg.  

Standing Barbell Calf Raises

The standing barbell calf raise is an exercise that targets the calf muscles, specifically the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles.

It’s a great way to build strength and definition in the calves.

As you’re working on smaller muscles, there’s no need to focus on heavier weights with this exercise.  

  1. Adopting a shoulder-width stance, stand so that the front of your feet are resting on an elevated surface such as a weight plate.  This improves the range of motion for the exercise. 
  2. With the barbell resting across your upper back, push through the balls of your feet extending your feet as high as possible.  You should feel your calf muscles engage.  
  3. Make sure the movement is smooth with no ‘bouncing’. 
  4. Return back to the starting position and repeat for repetitions.    

​Barbell Good Morning

The good morning exercise is a compound movement that engages the muscles of your posterior chain including your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings.  

It’s popular amongst strength athletes looking to strengthen these muscles and improve hip hinge mechanics.  

Bent Over Barbell Good Morning
  1. Start by setting the barbell along your traps and holding it with a wide grip position. 
  2. Stand tall with your chest up, shoulders back, and a slight bend to your knees. 
  3. Keeping your back straight and your chest up, hinge at your hips, pushing your hips backward while allowing your torso to lean forward. 
  4. Your knees should remain slightly bent with your back straight, and the barbell should move downward.
  5. You should feel a good stretch to your hamstrings. 
  6. Push through your hips and engage your hamstrings and glutes to return to the starting position. Your torso should rise as you hinge at the hips.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, barbell exercises stand as a key component for effective strength training, offering a diverse range of movements that target various muscle groups helping to promote overall fitness. 

From the classic barbell squat that engages your entire lower body to barbell hip thrusts for sculpting the glutes, the above exercises provide a versatile toolkit for achieving strength, muscle growth, and improving functional fitness.

The key to harnessing the full potential of barbell exercises lies in proper form, gradual progression, and consistency.

As with any exercise, it’s essential to prioritize safety and listen to your body when performing any of the exercises mentioned in this article. 

By incorporating barbell exercises into a well-rounded workout routine, you’re not only building physical strength but also enhancing endurance, balance, and confidence.

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