Barbells are a simple, proven tool for building strength, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a gym without a few available, says Melissa Boyd, CPT, head trainer for Tempo, an artificial intelligence-powered home fitness studio. Yet she finds people reluctant to use them.
"I've often heard from clients that they think barbells are for elite athletes or advanced gym goers, but that's just not true," Boyd says. "They are one of my favorite tools for teaching full-body efficiency and control that anyone can use to get strength and performance gains."
Even using only the bar with no weight plates can go a long way toward improving balance and coordination. Boyd suggests starting with a lighter bar or PVC pipe to get comfortable moving your body with the barbell before you begin adding weight.
And yes, it's perfect for leg day.
"Having a strong lower body is incredibly important to not only your athletic performance but also for day-to-day activities," Boyd says. "Strong, stable legs can help you get all the groceries up the hill in one trip, grab that jar off the top shelf and climb those stairs with ease."
Here are her favorite barbell exercises to build lower-body strength:
1. Back Squat
- Place the bar behind your head, sitting on your trapezius (muscle at the top of your shoulders). Brace your core.
- Grip the bar tightly, including with your thumbs, and bring your elbows down and in toward the body.
- Get into a squat stance, which for most people is with feet hip-width apart, toes slightly turned out.
- Press evenly through your feet and sit your hips back and down, allowing your knees to follow the midline of the foot.
- Aim to get your thighs parallel to the floor.
- Once you’ve reached your deepest range of motion, brace your core and drive through your feet to stand back up.
“Because of the posterior focus, a slight forward lean or lower bar placement also works for the back squat,” Boyd says.
2. Barbell Front Squat
- The alignment and cues are similar as the back squat, but the barbell will be placed in front of you.
- Your hands can stay under the bar shoulder-width apart or crossed over the bar. Your elbows will stay up to keep a stable shelf for the barbell.
- Brace your core and get into a squat stance, which for most people is feet hip-width apart, toes slightly turned out.
- Press evenly through your feet while pushing your hips back and down, allowing the knees to follow the midline of the foot.
- Aim to get your thighs parallel to the floor.
- Once you’ve reached your deepest range of motion, brace your core and drive through the feet to push back up to start.
“Because of the weight placement, the torso must stay more upright, making this squat variation act as a mobility move as well,” Boyd says. “Keeping the bar path centered and your core tight will keep the body balanced and movement strong.”
3. Single-Leg Romanian Barbell Deadlift
- Set up as you would for a stiff-leg deadlift: Feet are hip-width apart and the barbell is directly over the center of your feet.
- Plant the working leg and step the supporting leg back. You can leave it here (beginner variation) or lift it up behind you as you hinge forward (more advanced).
- Push your hips back and grab the bar with hands shoulder-width apart, bracing your core and pulling your shoulders down and back, like you’re holding something in your armpit.
- Keep the barbell path close to the front leg as you rise up. When you reach the knee, begin to push the hips forward, and at the top, lock in a slight posterior pelvic tilt.
- As you descend, push hips back until you reach the knee, and then drop straight down.
4. Sumo Barbell Deadlift
- Take a wide stance — feet wider than hip-width apart — with toes pointed out. Your stance can vary, but this position should allow your arms and elbows to be inside your legs and your shins to stay almost perpendicular to the floor.
- Grip the bar with straight arms so it’s lightly resting against your upper thighs and imagine you’re pulling it apart. Pull your shoulders down and back.
- Brace your core and drive with your legs as you lower the barbell down and push your hips back.
- As with other deadlifts, keep the barbell path as close to the legs as possible.
“You should be feeling this in your glutes, so if you’re not, then focus more driving down through the feet,” Boyd says.
5. Barbell Split Squat
- Place barbell across your back as you would with a back squat. Create tension in your upper body and brace your core, while drawing elbows down and in. Keep your gaze forward.
- Take a step back with one leg, keeping your shoulders and hips from tipping.
- Drop the back knee as close to the floor as possible.
- Press through your feet to return to standing.
- Do all your reps on one side before switching legs.
“This move is more taxing than a deadlift or squat,” Boyd says. “Because of that, definitely start light.”
It also helps to imagine two buckets of water, one on each side of the barbell. Try to get full range of motion without spilling the water.
6. Barbell Hip Thrust
- You’ll need a low bench, about 16 inches or shorter. Set up by sitting with your back to the bench and the area right under your shoulder blades against it.
- The barbell should rest across your hips. It helps to use a barbell pad or towel under the bar for comfort.
- Feet should be planted hip-width apart.
- Press into your fee and lift your hips. Your shoulders will be on the bench and your shins vertical, creating a tabletop position.
- At the top, your chin should stay tucked in.
- Control the descent as you lower your hips back to the floor.