9 of the Best Barbell Exercises for Every Major Muscle

The barbell is the workout staple of CrossFitters, bodybuilders and Olympic lifters alike. But anyone can get a full-body workout using just a barbell and weight plates. You can target all your major muscles and lift more weight than with standard dumbbells or kettlebells.

For a good full-body workout, all you need is a barbell. (Image: rilueda/iStock/GettyImages)

Not sure where to start? Below are nine of the best exercises to start with. Just pick the ones that most align with your goals and the body parts you want to target. Or do all of them for a workout that builds strength from head to toe. Start with an unloaded (no weight) barbell to get the feel for these movements, then advance to adding weight once you've perfected your form.

Best Barbell Exercise for Your Glutes

Back Squat

  1. Start with a barbell on the rack just below shoulder height.
  2. Step under the bar so that it rests on the top of your back, right below your neck.
  3. Stand with the barbell, gripping the bar slightly wider than shoulder width.
  4. Sitting your butt back and keeping your back flat, bend at the knees and sit down until your thighs are parallel to the ground.
  5. Press through the heels and push through the hips to return to standing.

While the back squat does target your glutes, it really targets your entire lower body, adding quads and hamstrings into the mix too, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). Your core also plays a role in helping you stabilize the heavy weight.

Best Barbell Exercise for Your Quads

Front Squat

  1. Hold the bar in a clean position, resting on top of your shoulders, hands just outside shoulder width and elbows pointing to the ground.
  2. Lower the hips back and down into a squat, bending at the knees. Make sure to keep your back flat and chest out.
  3. Stop when your thighs are parallel to the floor.
  4. Pushing through the heels, reverse the motion and return to standing.

Like the back squat, the front squat targets your quads, glutes and hamstrings, according to NASM. But unlike the back squat, you're holding your arms in front of your body rather than out to the side. This makes it better suited for those with limited shoulder mobility. It also makes this exercise a little more quad dominant.

Tip

If you find the weight placement uncomfortable, place a towel on your shoulders for some extra padding.

Best Barbell Exercise for Your Hamstrings

Romanian Deadlift

  1. Stand with the bar held with hands shoulder-width apart at the height of your hips.
  2. While keeping your lower back flat and knees slightly bent, hinge at the hips and bend forward at the waist.
  3. Pushing your hips back, lower the barbell until it passes halfway down the shin.
  4. Press your hips forward and use your glutes and hamstrings to bring the weight back up as you stand.

Again, the deadlift strengthens your entire lower body, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). But doing the Romanian deadlift (keeping your legs straighter than in a traditional deadlift), zeroes in your hamstrings. And like the squat variations above, you also use to abdominals to control the weight.

Best Barbell Exercises for Your Shoulders

Standing Shoulder Press

  1. Hold the bar at chest height with a shoulder-width grip.
  2. Contract your glutes and core and press the bar overhead, extending at the elbows.
  3. Moving your head back slightly to avoid hitting the bar, lower the weight back to your chest.

Contracting your core and glutes can help prevent your back from overarching. However, if you feel the back arch more than natural, you may need to lower the weight.

High Pull

  1. Hold the barbell in front of you, hands slightly more narrow than shoulder-width apart.
  2. Raise the bar from the waist up to the chest, pulling the elbows up to ear height.
  3. Lower the bar back down to waist height.

On the way down, don't let gravity do all the work, recommends ACE. By slowing the bar on the descent, you can help improve your upper-body strength and power.

Best Barbell Exercise for Your Chest

Barbell Bench Press

  1. Lie on a flat bench with the barbell racked above your face.
  2. Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  3. Push the bar up and out of the rack.
  4. On an inhale, lower the bar to chest height, bending at the elbows.
  5. On the exhale, push the weight back up, extending the elbows.

For this exercise, you can either grip the barbell slightly wider or slightly more narrow than the barbell, according to ACE. While the wider grip will help emphasize the chest muscles, a more narrow grip will help trigger some of the smaller muscles of the arms, specifically the triceps and forearms.

Best Barbell Exercise for Your Back

Wide-Grip Bent-Over Row

  1. Hinging forward at the hips to a 45-degree angle, hold the bar with an overhand grip at knee height, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  2. Pull the elbows up and back, squeezing the shoulder blades together with the bar touching between your chest and stomach.
  3. Lower the barbell to the original position and repeat, keeping the slightly leaning, hip-hinge position.

Best Barbell Exercise for Your Arms

Barbell Biceps Curl

  1. With an underhand grip, hold the barbell at about hip height, standing tall.
  2. Keeping the elbows close to your sides, bend at the elbows and bring the barbell up to your chest.
  3. Keeping the weight controlled, lower the weight back to the starting position.

Avoid gripping the barbell too narrow or too wide, recommends NASM. In order to determine the grip best suited for you, extend your elbows and let your arms fall naturally at your sides. Where your hands land at your sides is where you should grip the barbell.

Best Barbell Exercise for Your Abs

Barbell Rollout

  1. Kneel on the ground (a pad or towel under your knees if you need extra cushioning) with the barbell in front of you, loaded with a plate on each side.
  2. Place your hands on the bar about shoulder-width apart.
  3. Keeping your core and glutes tight, roll the barbell out, keeping your body in a straight line between the head and hips.
  4. Roll out as far as you can without arching your back and pause for a moment.
  5. Keeping your arms straight, roll back up to kneeling without hiking or sinking your hips.

Though many of the exercises listed above require ab engagement to help you control the movement of the barbell, the rollout really challenges your core strength in the same way as an ab wheel.

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