No doubt, classic barbell exercises like the squat, shoulder press and deadlift are an excellent way to increase full-body strength. But they aren't the only barbell exercises that can help you reach your fitness goals — far from it.
"There are a whole slew of muscle-building barbell exercises that go wildly under-appreciated," says Connecticut-based personal trainer Nika Shelby, CPT.
Beyond leading to a boring barbell routine, the exclusion of some of these exercises results in a workout regimen that isn't as well-rounded as it could be. "The problem is many people don't have access to a fitness professional who can teach them how to do these movements," she says.
To your rescue is Shelby and two other fitness professionals here to demonstrate and explain the benefits of these underrated barbell movements. Adding the following five exercises into your barbell routine will give your workouts some much needed oomph.
1. Barbell Romanian Deadlift
- From standing, grab the barbell with an overhead grip (palms facing your body), hands shoulder-width apart. Hold with straight arms at thigh height.
- Think about screwing pinky fingers into the bar to activate lats (upper back muscles). Then, draw your rib cage together and down to activate your core. This is the starting position.
- Keeping your spine straight, push your butt back and slowly lower the bar down your legs.
- Don’t lower the bar all the way down to the ground. Stop when you feel a stretch in your hamstrings.
- Squeeze your glutes to return to standing and repeat.
“The key to a well executed Romanian Deadlift is a sound hip hinge,” says strength and conditioning coach Jake Harcoff, CSCS. As you practice getting into position, think about keeping a minimal bend in your knees, while maximizing the flexion (bend) of your hips.
“If you struggle with this portion of the lift, pretend you're closing a door with your butt or reaching it toward the wall behind you,” he says.
Odds are, if you have access to a barbell, you've loaded it up with plates, pulled it from the ground, then lowered it back down — a.k.a. traditional deadlift. The Romanian deadlift is similar and to, the untrained eye, looks identical.
Rather than each rep starting and ending on the ground, the Romanian deadlift requires that the barbell begins and ends at thigh height. You also don't go all the way to the ground, Harcoff says. Instead, only go as far down as you can without losing tension.
"This allows people to maintain muscle activation in their posterior chain muscles throughout the entire rep," he says. There are a few benefits to maintaining tension. First, the greater the muscle tension, the greater the muscle breakdown, which translates to greater gains following recovery.
"The Romanian deadlift strengthens all the muscles in your body head to heel, with greater emphasis on the hamstrings and glutes," Harcoff says. The increased muscular tension also means your spine is in a safe and protected position, start to finish, he says.
2. Barbell Single-Leg Deadlift
- Begin standing with feet hip-width, holding a barbell with both hands.
- Shift your weight into one leg and begin extending the other leg back behind you.
- Keeping a straight spine, bend at waist and slowly lower the barbell down along your front leg until your body forms a T-bone shape.
- Bring your back leg down to the starting position while lifting your torso and standing up.
- Squeeze your glutes and hamstrings at the top of the rep.
Start lighter than you think you need to. Many people expect to be able to pull half the amount they can pull during the two-legged version of the movement, but that’s an aggressive expectation.
Physical therapist Grayson Wickham, CSCS, founder of movement platform Movement Vault explains: "Because you’re on one leg, your glutes have to work harder to keep you from toppling over."
This makes the movement great at building your booty. But it also means it’s far more demanding on the muscles of the planted leg. Start with an empty barbell, adding no more than 5 to 10 pounds at a time.
“If you start rounding your spine while you lower, you’ve gone too heavy,” Wickham says. Video yourself to check form or ask a trainer to eye your positioning.
Yep, another deadlift variation is getting air (er, screen) time on this list. For good reason — deadlifts excel at strengthening the strongest muscles in the body: the hamstrings, glutes, and midsection.
As the movement's name suggests, the single-leg deadlift is a unilateral (single-limb) movement. Rather than planting your feet directly under your hips while you pull — as you would during traditional and Romanian deadlifts — you stand on one leg.
This allows you to train your hamstrings and glutes individually, Harcoff says. "All human locomotion [walking] takes place on one leg at a time, so the single-leg variation of the traditional deadlift more closely mimics running or walking."
Standing on one leg is much less stable than standing on both legs, adds Harcoff. To keep from toppling over, your body has to activate your core, adductors, and gluteus medius to a greater extent, he says.
So while you won't be able to load up the bar quite as much during the single leg deadlift as you would during two-legged deadlifts, you will be strengthening your supporting muscles to a greater extent.
3. Narrow Grip Bench Press
- Lie on the bench with your feet pressed into the floor. The barbell should be directly above eye level.
- Grip barbell with hands shoulder-width apart.
- Create stability throughout your body by pressing your feet into the floor, activating your core, and drawing your shoulder blades together.
- Then, un-rack the barbell so that it's directly over your chest.
- Tuck your elbows in toward your ribcage, then bend your elbows as you lower the bar right below your nipple line.
- When the bar is just above your sternum, exhale and press the bar back up.
While you want your hands to be close, you don’t want them to be too close. If your thumbs would be able to touch if you untucked them, your hands are too close. If your hands are too narrow, you force your shoulders into an internally rotated position while you press — no good!
The fix: When you grip the barbell, make sure your hands are directly above your shoulder joint. This helps protect the health of your shoulders, while giving you the greatest band (gains) for your buck (rep).
If you have the barbell's partner in crime, the workout bench, try this upper-body exercise. Named for the fact that your hands are closer together on the bar than they are during a standard bench, this variation targets the smaller supporting arm and chest muscles, Harcoff says.
"It primarily targets the medial and lateral heads of the triceps and secondarily targets the pectoral muscles of the chest," he says. There are other exercises that strengthen the triceps and chest (ex. diamond push-ups and triceps extensions), but Harcoff says that for many people, the narrow grip bench press feels more comfortable and intuitive.
4. Barbell Cossack Squat
- Unrack a barbell in the back rack position (bar behind your neck and along the tops of your shoulders).
- Position your feet so that they're somewhere between hip-width and shoulder-width. Angle your toes to a 45-degree angle outward.
- Brace your core. Then, keeping a tall chest, sit your hips back into a squat on one side. As you squat down, lift the toes on the other side a few inches while keeping your heel on ground.
- Continue lowering, allowing your knee to track over your toes as you do, as low as you can while maintaining a neutral spine and tall chest.
- Press into the ground with your flat foot to return to standing, squeezing your glutes at the top.
- Repeat on the other side.
Spend some time getting comfortable doing the body-weight version of this movement before adding the barbell — especially if you wouldn’t describe yourself as mobility expert. Even unweighted, the cossack squat improves mobility and strength, Wickham says.
The best way to describe the barbell cossack squat is as the lovechild of a side lunge and a back squat. Like these popular lower-body movements, the cossack squat strengthens your quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, and core, Wickham says.
But what it really excels at is improving your mobility, which is your ability to move your joints through their full range of motion. "Cossack squats work your hips through maximal external rotation as well as your ankles through maximal dorsiflexion," Wickham says. "You will also be stretching your hip adductor (your inner thigh/hip muscles)."
Like the single-leg deadlift, the cossack is a unilateral exercise. "Cossack squats effectively improve your leg strength one leg at a time, which helps you improve any strength imbalances from one leg to the other leg," Wickham says.
5. Barbell Hip Thrust
- Sit on the ground with weight bench horizontally behind you, touching your mid-back.
- Hold a barbell across your lap, stabilizing it with your hands.
- Bend your knees and plant your feet hip-width apart, directly under your knee.
- Brace your core and press your feet into the ground. This is the starting position.
- Thrust your hips up toward the ceiling until they're in line with your shoulders.
- Squeeze your glutes at the top.
- Slowly lower back down until your butt is hovering above the ground before repeating.
Experiment with your foot placement during this movement. “The closer your feet are to your glutes, the better the exercise works your hamstrings,” Shelby says. The further your feet are from your body, the better the exercise works your quads. “Decide which muscle group you want to target, then adjust accordingly."
"The hip thrust primarily works your glutes and midline," Shelby says. "Actually, it's one of the best exercises for growing your butt," she says. Yep, it works as well — if not better than — squats!
Aesthetics aside, because the glutes are such a large muscle group, strengthening them offers perks such as increased metabolism and greater calorie burn even while at rest, making it optimal for people with weight-loss and body-composition goals.
"Plus, by simultaneously strengthening the glutes and core, you can help reduce lower back pain, which can be exacerbated when these muscles are weak," she says.