Barbell training is one of the best ways to get fit. If your goals involve getting stronger, adding muscle mass, maintaining strong bones as you age, or increasing sports performance, this training might be the best tool to meet them. It is also a lot of fun.
But barbell training is greatly misunderstood. This usually happens for one of two reasons:
1 - People allow themselves to become intimidated by the tool.
2 - The tool has been overcomplicated in how it is used.
Don’t Be Intimidated
One of the reasons the barbell is such a great tool is that it allows you the ability to adjust the weight to meet you exactly where you are, along with there being no fear of running out of the ability to advance.
A standard empty bar weighs 20 kgs (or 45 lbs) and the women’s version weighs 15 kgs (or 35 lbs). If these weights sound like a lot you have to understand what kind of movements you will be doing with the bar–full body movements that allow you to lift numbers that might sound ridiculous. It is also important to remember the “weight” is not the only factor that affects how hard it is to lift something. A 50 lb bag of dirt is much harder to lift than a 50 pound barbell. A couple of reasons for this are that you can get a better grip on the barbell, and you can get it closer to your center of mass.
Plus, you can find barbells that start at lower weights than standard. You probably won’t need them but they do exist.
But what are these full body lifts that you should be doing with a barbell and how do you put them into an effective training program for beginners? Let's take a look at the 4 basic and most important exercises that can be done with a barbell.
The Barbell Squat
Whether you want to add muscle or lose fat the barbell squat is the most important exercise to get good at, and use. It uses almost all of the muscles in your body and will change the hormonal environment making progress on all other exercises easier.
Pretty much everyone who trains with barbells should do squats.
There are actually many types of squats that you can do with a barbell. This is due to the many options for where the bar can be supported on your body. Holding the barbell overhead (known as an overhead squat) is very different from holding it on the front of your shoulders (a front squat) or the crooks of your elbows (known as a Zercher squat).
The squat being referred to here is the Barbell Back Squat, which means it is supported on the back of your shoulders. But even here there are two variations: the “high” bar back squat where the barbell is supported on the top on your shoulders and the “low” bar back squat where the weight is supported near the spine of the shoulder blade. This is only a 2 or 3 inch difference but does completely change the mechanics and muscles used in the exercise.
While the “high” bar position is the most logical place to put the bar, for most purposes the “low” bar position is better. There are many reasons for this but here are the two main ones:
1 - It will allow you to lift more weight => Which means faster results
2 - It will put more of the load on your hips => Which is preferable to the other option on the knees which are smaller and less robust and not as good at supporting weight as the hips
This is something that is debated, but most people agree that for most people the “low” bar lift is the type preferred.
And quick tip – If you are ever looking to hire a coach to teach you the barbell lifts asking him/her which is his/her preference here and why is an excellent question. Not because there is a correct answer, as there are some great coaches who will teach and use the high bar squat, but because there are many “coaches” and “personal trainers” who don’t know the difference. While they may be great at teaching other things I can promise you that they don’t know squat about barbell training (pun intended).
The exercise involves learning how to put the barbell on your back (in the low bar position), walking out of the rack, sitting your hips back and down until the top of your hip crease is lower than the top of your knee, then driving your feet into the floor to stand up. After you have finished the amount of reps for the set you must safely walk the bar back to the rack before you can rest.
The Barbell Military Press
Often abbreviated to the “press,” the military press is the most functional upper body exercise that can be done with a barbell. It is also great for developing your shoulders and arms. But my favorite use of it is simply a diagnostic test for shoulder health. Inability to get into the top position tells us that your shoulders need some work.
It involves standing on two feet (legs locked straight) and pressing a barbell overhead to lockout position, then slowly bringing the bar back down to your chest and repeating.
This exercise works an important range of motion for long-term shoulder health and injury prevention that many people are missing from their daily lives: reaching overhead.
Your body works on a principle of “use it or lose it” and if you never reach your arms overhead you will eventually lose the ability to do so. Then when an opportunity arises and you have to reach over your head – say, to get a book from a high bookshelf or a pot out of a high cupboard, your body has to find a way to cheat – usually by overarching your lower back and wrecking your lower back.
The Barbell Deadlift
This exercise involves grabbing a barbell that is resting on the ground in front of you and standing up while still holding the bar. The bar will almost reach the height of your hips and you must get completely straight (or as I call it standing plank) to complete the lift. It is then either lowered or dropped back to the ground and repeated.
It teaches you one of the most important skills you can learn from exercising: how to lift something properly from the floor. If you think that deadlifts are “bad for your back” then you are saying that lifting things from the floor is bad for your back which would make life bad for your back.
The truth is that lifting things from the floor improperly is bad for your back. Learning how to deadlift correctly means learning how to do this in a safe manner. Being able to do this will keep your back safe and healthy, helping you to avoid the common problem of throwing out your back when lifting light objects from the floor.
We all know someone who “threw out their back” doing something like lifting a pencil or a book bag. Learning how to deadlift will teach you the proper mechanics and strengthen the muscles so that this does not become you one day. However, avoiding learning how to deadlift will cause you to get weaker and when it comes time to lift something from the floor you will do it poorly risking an injury.
This exercise is a close second to the squat in its importance. The main reason why it is lower is because it has a shorter range of motion and you don’t have to lower the weight back to the ground.
Having a shorter range of motion means less muscle used (although because of the leverage most people can deadlift more than they squat) and it also means that it won’t do as much to build and maintain flexibility the way full range squats do.
The Barbell Bench Press
This is unfortunately the most popular exercise done with a barbell. The reason this is unfortunate is while a good and important exercise it is the least functional. But since “bro” gym culture is about getting a big chest and biceps, everyone's favorite beach muscles, this is the exercise to achieve that look.
Even if your goals are only about getting a big chest and biceps, squats are still the foundation of a good barbell program. Doing squats will help your body adjust its hormones and recover faster to make that happen.
Plus you might think legs don’t matter but having disproportionately small “chicken” legs is not attractive.
This, however, is still an important and great exercise. Having a horizontal push in addition to a vertical push helps you have a more balanced body–both aesthetically and functionally.
This exercise involves laying on your back and taking the bar out of the rack with straight arms (often assisted by a partner, who is called a spotter). Then you lower it until it touches your chest and then you press it back up to finish.
The Beginner’s Program
This program comes from an excellent book Starting Strength, which has great in-depth details on how to perform these four basic lifts (and one additional lift not covered in this article).
You could also hire a coach either in person or online to help you learn the lifts. Nothing will ever replace a hands-on coach teaching you the lifts, but with the high-powered camera you keep in your pocket (on your cell phone), sending high quality videos to a coach anywhere in the world can also help you learn how to do the exercises with correct form.
The online option also has the advantage of being more flexible from a scheduling point of view and likely cheaper.
Once you know the lifts you can perform two different workouts which we will call A and B:
The first two exercises are done for 3 working sets of 5 and the last exercise is done for 1 working set of 5. Notice the last exercise is always the deadlift. Working set means not a warm-up set. You should start with 3-5 sets of 5 with lighter weights to help your body warm up (physically and neurologically) for the workout that is ahead of you. In between sets you should take at least 2-3 minutes (with 3-5 being a better range). The rest is critical: DO NOT SKIP IT.
On your first day be conservative. Build up slowly and once a set of 5 feels heavy (7 or 8 on a scale of 1-10) stop there and do 2 more sets with that weight. I cannot tell you what weight you need to start with but the most important thing is that you can complete the 3 sets of 5 reps with good form. If you pick a weight that's too low it doesn’t really matter, as you will be adding weight every workout and will soon be at the proper weight. However, going too high means you will sacrifice technique which will both slow down your progress and make you susceptible to the risk of injuring yourself (which will really make progress hard).
This workout is designed to be done 3 days a week, with at least one day of rest in between training sessions. Do not skip the rest; you don’t get stronger while lifting weights, you get stronger recovering between training sessions.
For example, you could train “Mon/Wed/Fri” or “Tue/Thur/Sat.” The exact schedule depends on the personal commitments in your life and where you train.
If you invested in a home weight set you can pretty much train when you want. But if you joined a commercial gym and want to train after work you probably want to avoid Monday. All the benches and squat racks will likely be taken and the longest part of your workout will be waiting to get the equipment that you need.
How Do You Progress?
Add a little bit of weight to the bar for your work sets every single workout. For males this means 5 lbs (2.5 pounds each side) on the bench and the press and 10 lbs on the squat and the deadlift (5 pounds each side). Females often need smaller jumps like 2.5 pounds total on the bench and press and 5 pounds on the squat.
Pro tip – If your gym doesn’t have small increment weights buy a personal pair and keep them in your gym bag. Two 1.25 lb weights (or 2 x .5 kg weights) don't weigh much. And even if there are only a couple pairs around the gym not having to hunt them down will make your workout shorter and easier.
Isn’t This Too Simple?
No! And if you think it is too easy then you haven't given this program a try. It works and is the fastest way to get results from your barbell training. Many people stay weak and flabby despite working out, because they do too many exercises, and are constantly playing with reps and sets. This is unnecessary. Follow the program until it stops working. Which will take much longer than you think, unless you do something stupid like make bigger jumps than prescribed, skip or add too many workouts, or mess up your ability to recover by having a terrible diet or not sleeping enough.
“Make everything as simple as possible, not any simpler.” – Albert Einstein.
Getting physically fit is much less complicated than most people think. No matter what the modality there is usually a basic and effective program that will get you all the results you want without a lot of thinking.
You are not the first person to get in shape with a barbell. But you can be the next. All you have to do is work hard. Focus on the basic exercises and have the patience to stick with a tried and true program like the one listed above, using the four best barbell exercises.
If you have any questions feel free to send me and email (David@magenfitness.com).
And if you found this informative, sign up for my free weekly newsletter. Get health and fitness tips delivered weekly to your inbox as well as new articles that I publish.