Barbells and strength training go hand in hand.
For the first hundred or so years of their existence, barbells were mainly used by powerlifters, bodybuilders and high-level athletes.
But over the last decade or so, increased research and results associated with consistent barbell training have led individuals of all different backgrounds to get into the “iron game”.
In this article, we’ll discuss some of the best barbell exercises you have at your disposal.
What Makes a Good Barbell Exercise?
There are many barbell exercises out there. Not all are great.
The Barbell Upright Row, for example, is one move where risk outweighs reward. Its high likelihood of causing shoulder pain has led fitness expert Jeff Cavaliere to dub it one of the “world’s most dangerous exercises”.
Yet there are hundreds — if not thousands — of safe and effective barbell exercises.
We can’t cover them all, but what follows is a list of our thirteen favorites.
This is of course a subjective list, and there are many amazing moves and variations that didn’t make the cut!
Barbell Back Squat
A barbell allows us to overload our leg muscles with more weight than would be practical using dumbbells or kettlebells.
The Barbell Back Squat is one of the few movements where your glutes and your quads contract simultaneously thanks to a phenomenon known as Lombard’s paradox, which helps explain why it’s so brutally effective.
Everyone’s body is not designed to squat the same way, so take time to experiment with different bar positions and stances until you find your squatting sweet spot.
Barbell Bench Press
For decades, the standard test of strength has been the answer to a simple question.
“How much do you bench?”.
There’s a valid argument that Squats and Deadlifts are better indicators of overall strength, but there’s no doubt that building a big bench press requires serious dedication.
Perhaps the number one form mistake on the Barbell Bench Press is the dreaded “floating butt” — this occurs when your derriere floats off the bench as you fight to press the bar up. Good form requires five points of consistent contact with the bench/ground: your head, upper back, butt, and both feet.
The Dumbbell Bench Press may be a better choice for those who experience shoulder pain during the traditional Bench Press.
However, if you’re comfortable with the barbell, there’s a lot to love about this movement.
Barbell Olympic Lifts
This is a bit of a cheat because there are actually two major Olympic lifts — the Snatch and the Clean & Jerk.
Both are incredible tools for building overall fitness. They help improve strength, power, mobility and coordination, offering big benefit for both athletes and everyday fitness enthusiasts.
“(With) a big multi-joint movement like Olympic lifting or associated movements, you’re squatting, you’re deadlifting, you’re hip hinging, in a sense you’re rowing, you get good upper back stability work, overhead strength, shoulder stability, pressing movement,” Mike Gattone of USA Weightlifting told BarBend.com.
“You hit a lot of functional movement with very few exercises.”
The Olympic Lifts are highly technical and do take extensive practice to master.
If you’re not familiar, it’s probably best to find a coach to learn from.
You may not feel that extra commitment is worth it if you’re just a regular gym-goer who simply wants to burn some excess body fat, but for the right individual, the Olympic Lifts may be the the best barbell exercises out there.
Barbell Push Press
The Barbell Push Press is similar to a standard overhead press but incorporates some lower-body power that allows you to lift heavier weights and makes it a more full-body movement.
With a Push Press, you’re allowed to do a mini squat before driving the barbell overhead. This simple act helps you lift more weight and adds a larger cardiovascular element to the exercise. It’s also great prep for the jerk component of a Clean & Jerk.
Being able to Barbell Push Press the equivalent of your own body weight is an impressive display of overall strength!
Barbell Bent Over Row
Building a strong, toned back is a surefire way to standout from the crowd.
The Barbell Bent Over Row is up there with the very best back exercises.
This stellar move effectively targets the lats and traps.
One tip for better form is to initiate the row by driving your elbows back rather than thinking about using your hands to pull the bar.
Keep in mind that solid hip-hinge mobility and a baseline of core strength are needed in order to execute this move correctly.
Barbell Landmine Squats
This puts the barbell at a unique angle and changes the trajectory for all different types of movements, from squatting to overhead pressing.
That makes the Barbell Landmine Squats an amazing move for both beginners and advanced trainees alike.
Fitness expert and celebrity trainer Ben Bruno regularly uses Barbell Landmine Squats with the likes of Kate Upton. Note Bruno’s tips in the above video for a picture perfect Barbell Landmine Squat.
The Barbell Deadlift is one hell of an exercise.
It works a huge number of muscles and is incredibly effective for building strength and power.
Learning to properly lift a heavy thing off the ground requires practice and good technique. It also requires grit, toughness and perseverance.
As legendary strength coach Mark Rippetoe says, the deadlift “trains the mind to do things that are hard.”
Poor deadlift technique, on the other hand, can take a toll on the lower back. Which leads us to our next exercise …
Barbell Rack Pulls
This is an exercise where the barbell starts by resting on the safety rails. The height of the pins depends on what portion of the Deadlift you’d most like to focus on. Most people start with the barbell just above their bent knees.
Deadlift Rack Pulls are especially great for taller lifters or those with injury/mobility issues that prevent them from safely lifting off the floor.
Barbell Inverted Row
An unassisted Pull-Up can be almost impossible for new lifters (or even extraordinarily strong lifters who happen to carry a lot of body weight).
The Barbell Inverted Row remains a good test of relative strength while being a little more accessible.
The big key here is to make sure the J-hooks are set up at the right height. The more parallel your body relative to the ground, the more difficult the exercise will be. You can even elevate your feet on a bench or platform to take things to a new level.
Barbell Front Squat
The Barbell Front Squat is such a powerful variation on the traditional squat pattern it deserves its own dedicated entry.
Front squats shift the center of mass forward by placing the barbell across the front side of your body rather than the back. This allows for a more upright posture during your squat, enhancing the demand on your quads and making the movement more spine-friendly.
There are several different grips that can be used with the Front Squat. It can take some time to build up the requisite wrist mobility to utilize a full front rack grip — the cross grip is a good alternative for beginners.
Half-Kneeling Barbell Landmine Press
The standard Barbell Overhead Press is an awesome exercise.
But it’s not for everyone.
Many people lack the requisite shoulder mobility/stability to safely and effectively press a barbell overhead. Others try to cheat the movement by generating momentum from their lower body or arching their spine arch into a dangerous position.
Enter the Half-Kneeling Barbell Landmine Press.
The half-kneeling position removes the possibility of cheating with the legs and also makes it much easier to assume and maintain proper trunk position.
Meanwhile, the unique trajectory of the landmine allows the lifter to push the barbell overhead while tracing slightly forward, greatly reducing the risk of shoulder impingement and other common issues.
Barbell Good Morning
The Barbell Good Morning is an underrated lower back and hamstring exercise that can seriously improve your squat and deadlift form.
It’s an excellent way to strengthen muscles all across your posterior chain.
At first glance, the Barbell Good Morning may look like a squat gone wrong. But the move is actually a hip hinge pattern rather than a squat.
Pro Tips: go light, use a low-bar position with the barbell across your rear delts, and stop about 15-25 degrees short of parallel on your hinge.
Barbell Romanian Deadlift
The Barbell Romanian Deadlift (or Barbell RDL) is possibly the best barbell hamstring exercise at your disposal.
Not only does it increase strength and mobility in the hamstrings, but it also targets hard-to-train muscles in your glutes and lower back.
Start the exercise from the top position by un-racking the weight from a waist-level rack. This will help you “load” your RDL and perform the move with superior form. Focus on pushing your hips back and keeping your spine long as the barbell travels down, emphasizing the stretch on your hamstrings.
Great strength training demands a reliable barbell.
Yet some manufacturers charge upwards of $1,000 for a single bar.
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