The barbell is the simplest looking piece of equipment in the gym, but it’s one of the most complex to learn how to use. The phrase “If it were easy, then everyone would do it” definitely applies to moving a bar, especially one loaded with weight, through space. Modern 45-pound barbells have been used for weightlifting since the early 1900s, but some fitness enthusiasts spend their lives without ever touching one. Or, alternatively, hopeful athletes attempt barbell training and injure themselves due to poor technique. Either way, the only downfall of barbell training is that most people don’t know how to use them. Find out the benefits of barbell training and how to properly execute it.
What is a barbell?
A barbell is a metal bar that is able to be loaded with weights. When barbell training, one thing to keep in mind though, is some barbells already come in a pre-made weight and aren’t adjustable. Different types of barbells are used in various settings. Here’s a breakdown of the different types.
- Olympic Barbell: This bar weighs 45 pounds and is able to be loaded with weight plates. It’s used to increase strength by squatting, deadlifting, bench pressing, and overhead pressing. Let’s call these exercises the “Big 4.”
- EZ Curl Bar: This bar already comes at a certain weight and is shorter than an Olympic barbell. It’s designed for doing biceps curls, triceps extensions, and other upper body moves. While some gyms have them up to 100 pounds, their best use is for building muscle size, not necessarily absolute strength.
- Smith Machine: This is technically not a barbell at all. The Smith Machine holds a light bar within it and slides up and down within a fixed axis. While it can be useful for toning up specific leg muscles like the glutes, it’s not for increasing strength.
- Cardio Bar: A light (five to 20 pounds) bar that is either already at a fixed weight or can be adjusted. These are portable and are able to used in a group fitness setting. The purpose of these are for interval training and endurance performance.
Find out how strong you are.
Unless you’re a competitive powerlifter or strongman/woman, there’s no need to lift heavy barbells during every workout. But, if you’ve ever asked yourself just how strong you are, a great way to find out is to do a repetition maximum test with an Olympic barbell. So, show up to the gym with the goal of doing one barbell exercise, for example, the squat, for as heavy as possible with good form for three reps. The squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press are the key exercises for measuring absolute strength. Whereas the lunge will increase muscular endurance and assist in the other lifts.
Here’s how to test how strong you are using an Olympic barbell.
- Do one set with a lightweight that allows for five to ten easy reps. Rest one minute. That’s set one.
- Add five to ten pounds or 2.5-5% of bodyweight for the bench press and overhead press. Add 15-20 pounds or 5-10% of bodyweight for the squat and deadlift. Do six to eight reps. That’s set two.
- Rest two minutes.
- Add five to ten pounds or 2.5-5% of bodyweight for the bench press and overhead press. Add 15-20 pounds or 5-10% of bodyweight for the squat and deadlift. Do four to six reps. Rest two to four minutes. That’s set three.
- Add five to ten pounds or 2.5-5% of bodyweight for the bench press and overhead press. Add 15-20 pounds or 5-10% of bodyweight for the squat and deadlift. Aim for three reps. That’s set four.
- If you were able to do three reps, rest two to four minutes and repeat step five. That’s set five. If you complete step five twice, you’ve found your three-repetition maximum. If you weren’t able to do three reps, but you do one or two, then you’ve just found your heaviest lift or your two-repetition maximum. Stop the test there.
As percentage, 1RM= 100% of your strongest, 2RM = 95% of your strongest and 3RM = 93% of your strongest. You should find your 3RM after doing four to five total sets during this time.
Barbells save time
When doing the “Big 4” barbell exercises (squat, bench press, overhead press, and deadlift), you use multiple muscle groups at once. For example, the deadlift uses the back, quadriceps, hamstrings, hips, shoulder and arms muscles in order for you to lift the bar off the ground. Instead of using machines to target each of these muscles, you can work your entire body with one move.
Barbell Training Workout
If you start your workout with a barbell exercise that uses multiple joints, you’ll only need to add three to five more accessory exercises to have a complete workout. See below for a sample legs workout.
Exercise: Barbell Squat
How to Do It: Only squat a barbell in a squat rack or cage. Grasp the bar about shoulder width apart, step under it and place it on your back so it’s on the meaty part of your upper back. Keeping your elbows high, raise the bar out of the rack. Now, take 3-4 steps back, stand with feet shoulder width apart and toes slightly turned outward. Take a deep breath, push your hips back then bend your knees to lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the ground. Push your knees outward on the way down. Drive your hips vertically to come back up. That’s one rep.
Exercise: Bodyweight Forward Lunge
Reps: 10 on each leg
How to Do It: Stand with feet hip width apart. Take a big step forward with your right leg until left knee is 1-2 inches off the ground. Explode up and step right leg back to starting position. Switch legs by stepping forward with the left leg until the right knee is 1-2 inches off the ground. That’s one rep each leg. Increase difficulty by placing an Olympic bar or cardio bar on your back.
Exercise: Lying Hamstring Machine Curl
How to Do It: Lie face down on the pad of the machine with legs straight and the ankle pad touching the backs of your ankles. This is the starting position. Bring your feet towards your butt by bending at the knee and squeezing your hamstrings. Once the pad is close to your lower back, slowly return the pad back down to the starting position. That’s one rep.
Exercise: Box Jumps
How to Do It: Stand in front of a foam/wooden/metal box that you think you land on with both heels safely. A foam box is the safest option in case you miss the jump and hit your shins. Pump your arms back, do a quarter squat by bending your knees slightly and explosively jump onto the box. Stand all the way up once you land. Then, step back onto the ground one foot at a time. That’s one rep.
Exercise: Mini Band Lateral Walk
Reps: 5 steps each direction
How to Do It: Place a small resistance band just above each ankle, wrapped around both legs. Keep the band flat, not bunched. Position your feet shoulder-width apart so that the band is tight but not stretched. Bend your knees slightly and lower into a half-squat position. Keep your feet in line with your shoulders and keep your weight evenly distributed. Hold that half-squat position as you step sideways.
Exercise: Standing Dumbbell Calf Raise
How to Do It: Stand tall holding a dumbbell in each hand at your sides. Roll onto your tiptoes, standing as tall as possible. Return your heels back to the ground slowly. That’s one rep. Keep dumbbells at your sides the entire time.
This six-exercise workout builds strength during the squat, then increases muscle in the glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves. The box jumps add a power production element. Overall, there’s no need to use multiple machines for hours since the squat will wear you out.
Barbells improve athletic performance.
When a beginning trainee uses a barbell for the first time, the body’s response is mainly mental. Learning how to move a barbell teaches our mind how to use all of our muscles together to move an object efficiently. This is because the human body functions as a complete system and our nervous system control the muscles. Improving our neuromuscular connection is what’s initially responsible for any strength gains made in the gym, not getting bigger. In sports, the stronger athlete usually wins.
By getting stronger, athletes improve their ability to throw, kick, punch, swing, rotate their core, jump, and run faster. The “Big 4” barbell moves require balance and coordination, unlike machines, resulting in better performance during fitness competitions.
Barbells are cheap.
If you’re looking to set up a home gym, or you already have one without a barbell, adding a bar and some weights is cheaper than one of those do-it-all cable machines. An Olympic 45-pound barbell plus 135 pounds of weight costs anywhere from $100-$400 depending on the bar quality and type of weights that you buy. Rogue and Power Systems are high-quality brands, but a Craigslist search, Modell’s visit, or garage sale perusal may be the most cost-friendly option. Some of those at-home weight machines cost thousands of dollars and will improve muscular endurance and muscle size, but not necessarily overall strength.
Barbells are even cheaper than some at-home adjustable dumbbell sets, which can run you $300+ if you’re looking for weights that adjust past 20-30 pounds.
Barbells are for cardio, too.
Walk into your favorite pump, HIIT, or strength training group fitness class and they’ll likely have a type of barbell that we’ll call the cardio barbell. This super light bar weighs about five pounds, has a small diameter, is shorter than Olympic bars, and be loaded with light weights. In a group fitness setting, cardio bars are ideal for improving muscular endurance, meaning the ability to perform the same muscle action repeatedly. For example, instead of doing five sets of five reps of shoulder presses with a heavier barbell, you’ll probably do a total of 80 overhead presses in a 60-minute group fitness class with a light barbell.
Incorporating jumping with cardio bars turns the barbell into a cardio tool. Also, if you’re not strong enough to lift the Olympic barbell for any movements, start with a lighter cardio bar or light dumbbells to learn the movements before moving onto the real thing.