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What Are The Best Barbell Exercises?

What Are The Best Barbell Exercises?

Nicollette Guido |

What Are The Best Barbell Exercises?

There is nothing that you can do with weights that you can't do with just a barbell. Sure, adding weights to your barbell is the fastest, surest way to ensure that you are building muscle mass, and for most people, that is the primary goal of lifting weights. 

However, the barbell on its own can be a great training tool to help build and tone muscle, as well as the foundational piece of any good workout regimen. The exercises that involve a barbell offer athletes full-body engagement that most effectively targets specific muscle groups for maximum growth. If you are wondering, “What muscles do barbell rows work?” or “What muscles do barbell bench presses work?”, we’ve got your answers here at Tru Grit Fitness!

In this article, we will go through some of the frequently asked questions surrounding barbell exercises and end with what we believe are the top five barbell movements.

Before we get into our top five favorites, let's take a look at the barbell itself and why it can be a great training tool even without any iron or high-temp bumper plates.

Are There Any Advantages To Using Just A Barbell

There are two specific instances in which using just a barbell without any plates is an effective strength training tool.

If You Are New To Barbell Training

The first scenario where using just a barbell with no added plates is a good training tactic is when someone is just learning how to lift. When you are first learning how to perform barbell lifts, getting familiar with proper form is an absolute must whether you are using a standard women’s Olympic barbell or universal 45 lb bar.

Without proper form, you could wind up hurting your body. Quite often, adding weight right off the bat puts the emphasis on completing the exercise rather than completing the exercise properly. It is so much better for your body long-term to learn how to lift the right way.

The best way to do this is to spend a week or two running through your sets with just the barbell as a training method to ensure your body understands proper form. If you are asking, “What size barbell do I need as a beginner?”, taking the time to get acclimated to different barbell weights will also help you determine your limits as a novice. Doing this will help foster muscle memory so that as you begin to add more weight throughout your barbell routine, your body will remember the proper way to lift.  

Not only will this potentially save you injury in the future, but it will also serve as a good warning for when you have reached your limit. Those who use good form know pretty immediately when they are maxed out because their body won't let them lift the weight the way it's supposed to.  

Sure, you can attempt to complete the lift using some alternate method driven by terrible form, but it doesn't do anything positive for your body. As soon as you digress from the proper form, you might as well not even be lifting because your targeted muscle group is no longer engaged or reaping the benefits of the barbell workout.

Do yourself a favor and learn how to lift the right way by using only the barbell when you are first starting. Don't worry; you will soon be able to add the proper weight plate. In fact, if you learn how to lift the right way using just the barbell, you will be shocked at how fast and easily you can stack heavier weight onto the bar once you begin to push your limits.

If Your Muscles Are Fatigued

The second scenario where using just a barbell is a good training tactic is when you are fatigued. Overdoing it can be dangerous, and the best thing you can do when lifting is listen to your body and take off weight as you need to.

This is not to say don't push yourself to your limit. Lifting weights is supposed to be challenging, and there will definitely be moments where you need to push through what you think you are capable of. With that said, there is a difference between pushing past what your limits are for that day and pushing yourself to the point that it becomes dangerous.

Before we go any further on this topic, this feels like a good place to mention that you really shouldn't ever lift alone. When you are dealing with weights, no matter how heavy, you need a partner, a spotter, or someone who can help you if you can't help yourself.

Too many people get in their heads about the optics of using just a barbell. The idea that people are walking around a gym judging your workout is something that we have all feared at one point or another.

Please believe us when we tell you the people who are serious about lifting are either too focused on their own workout to care or too supportive of the grind to pass any judgment. As for anyone who does pass judgment, the grind of lifting consistently is too much trouble for people like that, and they won't be around long.

Don't be discouraged or ashamed to ever go back to the basics by using just the bar. Some days you're going to be more fatigued than others. Lifting is all about consistency, and it is so much better to make it to the gym and do all your reps with lighter weight (or just the bar) than it is to outright skip a barbell workout.

Can You Build Muscle With Just A Barbell?

The short answer to this question is yes, you can absolutely build muscle with just the barbell. However, the follow-up clarification is that you won't necessarily be building muscle mass. Rather you will be reshaping the muscle and building muscle by toning.

There is a big difference between building (i.e., toning) muscle and building muscle mass. Using the most rudimentary explanation, new muscle is built any time the muscles are forced to work harder than normal by pushing against resistance.

Daily burn reminds us that the barbell lends itself as a source of resistance, which means using a barbell to train your muscles forces them to work harder.1 Using the above definition about how new muscle is developed in conjunction with what training with a barbell does for muscles, we can extrapolate that yes, you can, in fact, build muscle with just a barbell.

The question then becomes, how much?  

When it comes to building muscle, keeping your barbell routine fresh is key. Whether you are keeping it fresh by continuously adding heavier weight or keeping it fresh by adding new barbell movements to your routine, you need to keep your muscles surprised.

In order to build muscle mass (what people tend to think of when they use the phrase "build muscle"), you need to be continuously adding more weight week over week. Unless you keep forcing your muscles to work harder with each new lift, the muscles will begin to get used to the weight and begin building by shaping the muscle (i.e., tone) rather than building new tissue (i.e., mass).

To summarize, using just the barbell helps build muscle by toning the current muscle you have. While you may not be building muscle mass using just the bar, you are pushing against resistance which helps to tone and reshape the muscle, a form of strength training. To gain new muscle mass, you have to add more weight.

What Exercises Can I Do With A Barbell At Home?

Provided you have the space and proper equipment, you can do any Olympic barbell vs standard barbell exercise that you would normally do at the gym at your home. 

Here are some situations where barbell exercises at home may not be the best choice:

  1. If you live in an apartment - slamming the bar down after a successful clean is a great way to develop a searing hatred from the neighbors that live below you. Maybe find a spot in the parking lot!
  2. If you don't have someone to safely spot you - stay away from anything where the bar could potentially cause you harm. Presses of all kinds should only be done with a spotter, whether at the gym or at home.

Can I Do Barbell Complexes Every Day?

Before we give you a straight yes or no answer about whether you can (or should) do barbell complexes every day, let's first define what a barbell complex is.

According to Coach Magazine, a barbell complex is a series of exercises done in repetition where the barbell never leaves your hands.2 Typically complexes contain somewhere between five and seven different exercises with rep counts ranging anywhere from eight to twelve reps.

Typically it is best to give your body a little bit of rest in between lift days. Usually targeting complementary muscle groups like back and biceps one day and then targeting chest and triceps the next is a good way to keep your body moving without overexerting yourself.  

The trouble with doing barbell complexes every day is that complexes are designed to work the full body. A barbell complex is a great way to start or end your week because it forces the entire body to work together in one rigorous series of exercises.

Doing this type of compound exercise every day can be dangerous to your body as the muscles don't have enough time to recover. And as anyone who lifts a lot can tell you, lifting before your muscles have a chance to recover is a good way to get yourself hurt.

We're not saying you can't do barbell complexes every day; we're just saying that there is likely a better way to get the kind of results you're seeking.

Our Top Five Favorite Barbell Exercises

Without any further delay, here are the top five best barbell exercises and a quick glance at what they do for your body!

Back Squats

This is one of the most popular exercises to do with a barbell. While it typically is performed in a squat rack, this barbell exercise can be performed out of a rack with supervision and is great for strengthening your butt, back and core. Barbend affectionately calls this exercise “king of all exercises” due to its ability to incorporate so many muscle groups simultaneously.3 If you are interested in learning the answer to the frequently asked question, “What muscles do barbell squats work?”, we’ve got you covered!


This exercise is a barbell classic that works your glutes, hamstrings, calves, lats, and shoulders. During this exercise, athletes grip the bar while bent over at a 90-degree angle and then lift the bar as they raise themselves to a straight standing position. This is a great barbell exercise to warm up with as it engages a lot of core muscles.

Bench Press

Perhaps the most popular of all barbell exercises, the bench press works the chest muscles. Bench press should be done with a spotter as it is one of the more dangerous barbell exercises, but as far as being a great workout that maximizes results, the bench press can't be beat!

The Clean And Jerk

This is a popular exercise amongst those who lift competitively. The clean and jerk requires lifting the weight off the floor like a deadlift, getting underneath the weight like a squat, and then getting the weight over your head like a press. This barbell exercise works too many muscle groups to count and is an absolute must for anyone who is serious about their lifting routine.

Hip Thrust

This exercise is performed with the athlete in a semi-seated position and the barbell laid across the hips. This forces the athlete to lift the weight as they press their hips up and out, engaging deep core muscles, glutes, and hamstrings for a deep mid-body workout.

The Versatility Of The Barbell

There is not much else that you will find in a gym with as much versatility as a barbell. This unique piece of workout equipment can truly be tailored to the needs of any individual athlete, making it a perfect choice for anyone in need of a complete body workout.

Lifting doesn't have to feel like a chore, and those who tend to stick with it are those who find new ways to keep it fun and fresh. Incorporating a barbell into your lifting regimen will certainly help you to keep things interesting while still allowing you to get every last gain you could hope to achieve. Happy lifting!


Daily Burn. 5 Powerful Barbell Exercises to Get Stronger.

Coach Mag. 5 Barbell Workouts To Burn Fat Fast.

Barbend. The 8 Best Barbell Exercises For Mass, Strength, And Power.