Great Barbell Workouts: 12 Barbell Exercises For Strength Training

Barbell exercises can be intimidating if you have never done barbell lifts before. 

The standard barbell alone typically weighs close to 45 pounds, and it is certainly long and unwieldy. For this reason, many beginners and intermediate lifters shy away from workouts with barbell exercises. 

However, even if you do not have a background in strength training and have not had the opportunity to work with a personal trainer, it is certainly possible to learn how to properly perform various barbell exercises. 

Advanced athletes can progress from basic barbell lifts to performing entire workouts with barbells.

In this article, we will discuss how to structure a workout with barbell exercises and provide step-by-step instructions for how to perform the following best barbell exercises for full-body barbell workouts:

A back squat.

Let’s dive in!

The Best Barbell Exercises For Your Barbell Workouts

Here are some of the best barbell exercises to include in your barbell workouts:

#1: Bench Press

The flat bench press targets the middle portion of the pectoralis major muscle, pec minor, and the deltoids in your shoulders.

Performing this as a barbell exercise versus using dumbbells allows you to lift more weight since it is easier to stabilize the bilateral bar to help you maximize your gains.

Here are the steps for this exercise with a barbell:

  1. Place a bench inside the power cage.
  2. Grip the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Lift the barbell up to unrack it, and then press it all the way up over your chest so that your elbows are locked out, being mindful not to bend your wrists as you lift.
  3. Slowly lower the bar down towards your chest, bending your elbows and allowing them to drop down below the bench.
  4. Once the bar reaches chest level, press it all the way back up for the next rep.

#2: Barbell Incline Bench Press

You can perform the incline bench press to target the upper portion of the pectoralis major muscle, pec minor, and the deltoids in your shoulders.

Perform the same steps but set the bench at a 45-degree angle. Keep your elbows tucked into your sides rather than flared out. Your forearms should be vertical.

#3: Barbell Split Squats

The barbell split squat is a more challenging unilateral version of the barbell squat. In this way, it improves balance and core strength and can be used to correct muscle imbalances.

Here is how to do this exercise in your barbell workouts:

  1. Stagger your feet so that your front foot is far enough in front of your body that when you drop down into a lunge, your front knee does not travel forward beyond your toes.
  2. Unrack the bar and place it on the upper portion of your traps.
  3. Keeping your shoulders back and core tight, bend your front knee to drop down into a split squat until the thigh of your front leg is parallel to the ground and your knee is bent 90° degrees. 
  4. Then, press through your heel on the foot in front to return to the standing position.
  5. Complete all of your reps and then switch legs.

#4: Barbell Bulgarian Split Squats

You can elevate your rear foot on a bench or a box behind you to progress the split squat and further isolate your front quad.

Place the stronger leg on the bench behind you and focus your reps with the weaker leg in front.

#5: Barbell Deadlifts

This is a key barbell exercise for the posterior chain muscles

Here are the steps:

  1. Set the barbell at mid-shin height and stand behind the bar with your feet hip-width apart. Keeping your back straight, hinge at your hips and grip the bar with your palms facing down.
  2. Keeping your chest up and shoulders down, press through your heels, using your glutes and hamstrings to pull your body upright into a standing position.
  3. Hinge at the hips to slowly lower the bar back down to mid-shin level.

#6: Barbell Calf Raises

The barbell calf raise is a great exercise for building size and strength in your calf muscles.

Beginners can start just standing on the floor, but performing this exercise off the edge of a step or box will increase the range of motion and work the eccentric or lowering portion of the exercise to maximize your gains.

Here are the steps for this barbell workout exercise: 

  1. Place a sturdy box or a platform inside the squat rack or power cage and stand on it with the balls of your feet such that your heels are hanging off the back.
  2. Place the barbell along your upper back, gripping it with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and palms facing forward.
  3. Raise up so that you are standing on your tiptoes, pausing at the top, and then slowly lowering down until your heels are dropped down below the level of the box as far as you can stretch.

#7: Barbell Back Squats

The back squat is a foundational barbell exercise for power and strength in the legs.

Here is how to do a back squat:

  1. Stand upright with good posture inside the squat rack with your feet about shoulder-width apart and positioned directly under the bar. 
  2. Unlock the barbell and rest it across your shoulders and upper traps.
  3. Bend your knees and sit your hips back as far as possible as you squat down, making sure to brace your core and engage your glutes. Keep your chest up and your shoulders back and down. Make sure that your knees do not travel forward beyond your toes.
  4. When your thighs are parallel to the floor, and your knees are bent to 90°, pause at the bottom position of the squat and then press powerfully through your heels to return upright to the starting position.

#8: Barbell Shrugs

The barbell shrug with the bar on your upper traps helps target the middle fibers of the trapezius muscle, which are chiefly responsible for shoulder stabilization.

Plus, this barbell positioning helps prevent your shoulders from rounding forward, as can happen with dumbbells in the racked position.

Here are the steps to perform this barbell exercise:

  1. Set the bar just below hip level and stand with it behind you so that you are facing away.
  2. Grip the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart using an overhand grip so that your palms are facing down.
  3. Release the bar by twisting it and lifting it upward, and then shrug your shoulders, squeezing your traps and shoulders at the top position for a full breath before slowly lowering back down. The range of motion of this exercise is not very large, so you really want to maximize the workload on your muscles by focusing on squeezing your traps as hard as possible as you shrug and hold the top position.

#9: Barbell Good Mornings

This barbell exercise is a fantastic posterior chain exercise. 

However, it is in advanced barbell exercise, so while you are mastering the technique, be sure to use a lighter weight.

Here are the steps for performing this exercise with a barbell:

  1. Place the barbell in the squat rack just below shoulder level.
  2. Unrack the barbell and set it on your upper traps. Walk out of the squat rack two or three steps so that you have enough room.
  3. Allow a slight bend in your knee as you hinge at your hips until your torso is nearly parallel to the floor.
  4. Engage your hamstrings and glutes to raise your body back up to the erect standing position.
  5. Carefully reset the position of your torso and hips to begin the next rep.

#10: Rack Pulls

The rack pull is a variation on the deadlift that focuses on a smaller range of motion to highlight glute muscle lockout strength.

Because of the reduced range of motion, you can lift heavier weights, which can help increase mass and strength in your glutes. 

Compared to the conventional barbell deadlift, the rack pull variation has a range of motion that is easier on your spine because you aren’t hinging as far, which makes it easier to maintain a proper neutral spine throughout the range of motion.

Accordingly, this is also a great exercise to include in barbell workouts for beginners because you can still make impressive gains in size and strength without needing to master harder techniques.

Here are the steps to perform this exercise with a barbell:

  1. Place the barbell at a level in the squat rack that is just above or below your knees and stand facing it with a standard deadlift stance.
  2. Keeping your core tight and engaging your glutes, hinge down to grip the barbell, placing your hands shoulder-width apart and palms facing the floor.
  3. Retract your shoulder blades, squeezing your upper back while keeping your chest up and shoulders down.
  4. Press exclusively through your heels as you contract your glutes and pull the barbell up until you have reached the lockout position.
  5. As slowly as possible, hinge at your hips and return the barbell to the starting level before performing the next rep. You should not re-rack the weight until you are done with your entire set.

#11: Barbell Biceps Curls

Most people who are newer to weightlifting perform biceps curls with dumbbells, cables, resistance bands, or possibly kettlebells. 

However, the barbell biceps curl is a great way to improve biceps strength and mass because you can load up the bar with a lot of weight.

Here are the steps for how to perform this exercise with a barbell:

  1. Grip the barbell with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and palms facing away from your body. Keep your core tight, chest up, and spine long.
  2. Keep your shoulders locked in place as you curl the barbell up to shoulder height, allowing your elbows to drift slightly forward as necessary, though they should still be tucked in towards your sides.
  3. Pause at the top position, squeezing your biceps to maximize the contraction.
  4. Lower the barbell as slowly as possible.

#12: Barbell Overhead Carries

This is one of the best total-body barbell exercises to include in your barbell workouts. 

While it certainly increases the strength and muscular endurance in your shoulders, it also requires tremendous core stabilization, upper back strength, and single-leg balance and strength.

Walking slowly is not only safer, but it will maximize the time under tension and single-leg balance requirement with each step.

This is a great exercise to include in advanced barbell workouts, but if you are just getting started with weightlifting, don’t worry about adding much weight to the barbell. Focus on increasing time under tension with an unloaded barbell.

Once you have done more barbell workouts, you can increase the weight up to about 60 to 80% of your overhead press one-rep max weight.

Here are the steps for performing this barbell exercise:

  1. Grip the loaded barbell and press it straight up overhead as if performing a barbell shoulder press. Your hand should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, and palms facing away from your body.
  2. Keep your chest up, shoulders down, and biceps positioned just behind your ears.
  3. Slowly walk forward for the desired distance or time, staying present and focused and being very mindful of your path so that you do not trip.
  4. Carefully re-rack the weight when you are done.

Note that when you are doing barbell workouts for strength, aim for 2-6 sets of 3-5 reps using at least 85% of your one-repetition maximum (1RM) for the load. The fewer reps you perform, the closer to 100% of your 1RM you should strive for.

With barbell workouts for hypertrophy (muscle growth), try to perform three sets of each barbell exercise, using loads that are 70 to 85% of your 1RM for 8 to 12 reps.

You can read tips for how to build muscle fast in our muscle-building guide here.

A barbell backsquat.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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