The best barbell exercises everyone should do
While bodyweight training should be a cornerstone of your military fitness training, when it comes to building strength, barbells have their place too. With barbell exercises, you can add as much weight as you want to make your muscles stronger. With many bodyweight exercises, once you have mastered them, the only way to make your workout harder is to do more reps. That’s good for your muscular endurance, but not so good for developing strength.
People have been successfully using barbells to get stronger for hundreds of years. They might be “low tech” compared to resistance machines but, sometimes, the simplest solution is the best.
If you want to get seriously strong, make sure you include the following five exercises in your workouts.
Note: You won’t find instructions in this article how to do these exercises – there isn’t enough space! Think of this article as a guide to the best exercises and justifications for including them on this list. If you want to learn how to do them, fire up Google or check out YouTube.
No exercise builds functional strength like deadlifts. Using virtually every major muscle in your body, the deadlift replicates the most important and common test of strength you will face – picking something heavy off the ground. Not only is the deadlift a crucial exercise, but it also teaches you how to lift heavy things safely, i.e. using your legs, bracing your core, and keeping your back in a neutral (slightly arched) position.
- Overhead presses
The overhead press is one of the most important upper body exercises. Overhead barbell presses work your shoulders, upper back, and triceps and, when done in the standing position, it’s an effective way to strengthen your core too. There is nothing to stop you doing this exercise seated or with dumbbells but, for building pure pressing power, the standing barbell version should be your go-to exercise.
- Power cleans
Power cleans are not strictly a strength exercise. As the name suggests, they develop explosive power rather than slow-grinding maximum strength. That being said, power and strength are hard to separate, and the definition of power is force generated quickly.
Power cleans are a very technical exercise and, if you want to get the most from them, you should limit yourself to 3-8 reps per set. Stop your set the moment your rep speed starts to decrease. High-rep power cleans with light weights are an effective conditioning exercise, but for real power and strength, low reps are best.
Combine power cleans with the overhead press for a total body exercise that is really hard to beat.
Squats are the king of lower body exercises so you might be wondering why they are only down at number four on our list. The main reason is that, to do squats, you need squat stands or a power rack. All the other exercises can be done with nothing but a barbell. Deadlifts give your legs a good workout without needing a rack, and they also involve a great deal of upper body musculature. Squats work the upper body too but to a much lesser degree.
Squats are a great way to build leg strength. Choose from front squats, back squats, Zercher squats, paused squats, or overhead squats. Each one of them will get the job done.
- Bent over rows
Barbell bent over rows used to be commonplace in gyms. But, more recently, they have become somewhat controversial because they can cause injury. While it’s true that bent over rows could hurt you if you use too much weight or rely on sloppy form to get your reps done, that’s a performance issue and not a problem with the exercise itself.
Done properly, bent over barbell rows are safe and very effective for building back, posterior shoulder, biceps, and core strength. You also have to use your legs to stabilize your body and the weight. If you find this exercise difficult, that suggests you need to work on your lower back and core strength and your hamstring flexibility. Fix those issues, and you'll be good to go!
What, no bench press?
The bench press is a fine exercise that works your chest, shoulders, and triceps. It's also very popular. In most gyms Monday is national bench press day after all! However, because the bench press is performed lying on your back, it has minimal impact on real-world strength. It's what a lot of fitness experts call non-functional.
That doesn’t make the bench press a bad exercise but, if your training time is limited, you’ll get better upper body strength-building results from the overhead barbell press. If this list went up to ten, the bench press would probably be number six or seven!