The 15 Best Barbell Exercises For Mass, Strength, and Power

Realize the power of the barbell, a common training tool, by mastering these 15 tried-and-true exercises.

Barbell training is a one-stop-shop for strength, more muscle mass, fat loss, and power. That’s because you can load up the barbell with more weight than kettlebells and dumbells can provide. The almighty barbell — which has a rich history in strength sports — can also be used in various ways — you can squat it, press it, load it on your back or your front, and even jump with it.

The thing is, there are so many exercises available today that knowing which to focus on if you’re new to using barbells can be overwhelming. Below, we outline the 15 best barbell exercises to add to your training, along with the benefits of barbell training and how to warm up before hoisting a barbell. 

Best Barbell Exercises

Barbell Back Squat

The back squat is called the “king of all exercises” for a reason. Squatting with a heavy barbell on your back allows you to overload your leg muscles with more weight than you could with other tools. Your core works overtime as you brace to ensure that your torso is rigid throughout the movement (which promotes a stable and safe spine). And your back, which is supporting the physical load, will also reap some strength gains. Back squats are also great for both heavy, low-rep training or lighter, high-rep training. Higher rep squats (and lower rep but not to the same extent) cause the body to produce more growth hormones that trigger the effect of increasing your overall size and strength. (1) 

Benefits of Barbell Back Squat

  • Improved leg strength and hypertrophy. The back squat builds serious leg and back strength.
  • A more powerful lower body. A study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found a strong correlation between squats and jump height. (2)

How to Do the Barbell Back Squat

Step under a barbell and set a good foundation by flexing your core to lift the barbell off the squat rack. Grip the barbell wherever allows you optimal shoulder mobility to get your elbows under the bar. Set it either high or low on your upper back, unrack it, and take a few steps back. Pull the bar down into your shoulders to create tension. Keep your chest up, take a deep breath in and squat down to a comfortable depth and pause for a beat. Drive your feet through the floor until lockout.

Barbell Front Squat

You may be thinking, “wait, do we really need two squats on this list?” Yes, and here’s why: Though they’re both squatting patterns, the front squat has you support the barbell in the front rack position, resting across your shoulders. This position takes the load off your back, reduces spinal compression, and forces you to contract your upper back muscles better to prevent the bar from falling forward mid-lift. Compared to the back squat, the front squat trains the body’s anterior muscles more heavily, engaging the quads and anterior core to a greater degree.

Benefits of the Barbell Front Squat

  • The front-loaded barbell position means that there’s less pressure on the spine compared to back squats. 
  • The front squat has more carryover to Olympic lifts since the clean & jerk essentially includes a front squat. 
  • This move reinforces upper back strength and posture as the lifter needs to actively squeeze their back to ensure the barbell stays put during the lift.

How to Do the Barbell Front Squat

Assume a proper front rack position by putting the barbell high up onto the shoulders, ensuring the bar is supported with the shoulders and upper chest. Keep your shoulders down and chest up and take three steps back from the rack. Descend into a squat keeping the back in neutral while minimizing forward lean of the torso. Once you have hit the bottom position, push through the whole foot and stand up, maintaining an upright torso, chest, and forward elbow position.

Barbell Rack Pull

The rack pull is a deadlift variation similar that trains all the same muscles in the standard deadlift but with a reduced range of motion (ROM). For rack pulls, you start with the barbell at or just below knee height. You can elevate the barbell on blocks, weight plates, or the safety arms of a power rack. Because of the reduced range of motion, it’s easier to maintain a neutral spine. Plus, you can use more weight with the rack pull, so it both acclimates your body to handle heavy loads and strengthens the top half — or lockout — of your deadlift. 

Benefits of the Barbell Rack Pull

How to Do the Barbell Rack Pull

Set the barbell up in the squat rack either above or below the knees. Assume your standard deadlift stance and grip. Hinge down and grip the barbell with an overhand shoulder-width grip and squeeze your armpits together, keep your chest up and shoulders back and pull up until lockout, finishing with your glutes. Hinge back to the starting position and repeat.

Barbell Romanian Deadlift 

This is our second deadlift variation on the list, and there’s a reason we chose both over the conventional version. Regarding the Romanian deadlift, it’s a bit more specific and beginner-friendly (similar to the rack pull.) The move is visually very similar to the standard deadlift, but the RDL has you lower the bar to about mid-shin level instead of back to the floor. This slight tweak keeps tension on the glute and hamstring muscles, making it a better option to isolate those areas and on the lower back. A stronger lower back will carry over to your deadlift and help prevent spinal rounding (or cat-back) during heavy pulls. The RDL is also generally safer as it doesn’t allow you to use much weight as your standard deadlift. You can try to lift the same amount of weight as your deadlift, but good luck. 

Benefits of the Barbell Romanian Deadlift

  • Improved muscle hypertrophy of the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings over regular deadlifts.
  • Like rack pulls, the Romanian deadlift will help improve the upper back and lockout strength for conventional deadlifts.

How to Do the Barbell Romanian Deadlift

Stand tall with your feet hip-distance apart and grip the barbell with an overhand grip in front of the thighs. With your chest up and shoulders down, take a deep breath in and hip hinge until the barbell is below your knees. Always keep the barbell close to your body. Pause for a second and exhale and use your hamstrings and glutes to pull you back to a standing position. Reset and repeat.

Barbell Bench Press

The bench press and all its variations (incline, decline, close-grip, with dumbbells, and the floor press) target the chest, triceps, and shoulders. Like most barbell exercises, it allows you to use a greater load (because of the relatively straight bar path and the stability of the bench) than you could muster with kettlebells or dumbbells. For powerlifters, this move is a must-do as it’s one of the three main competition lifts (the other two being the back squat and deadlift).

Benefits of the Barbell Bench Press

How to Do the Barbell Bench Press

Lie flat on your back on a bench and get your eyes directly underneath the barbell. Grip the bar with hands wider than shoulder-width apart with a neutral wrist. Bring your feet closer to your glutes, push your feet back and un-rack the bar in the lockout position. Then bring the bar slowly down to your chest as you breathe in and push your feet back. Arch your back slightly to push the barbell until lockout.

Barbell Bent Over Row

The bent over row is a fantastic exercise to strengthen and increase mass in the upper back and lats and reinforce good hip hinge mechanics. Because you’re in a hip hinge position, this trains the lower back isometrically, making it a great accessory exercise to improve your deadlift. The bent-over row (and the Pendley row) is a horizontal row variation that allows you to use the most weight. In most cases, more weight equals more muscle and strength.

Benefits of The Barbell Bent Over Row

  • Adds strength and mass to your upper back, lats, and erector spinae.
  • Reinforces good hip hinge mechanics and has direct carryover to your deadlift
  • Improves postural strength and control

How to Do the Barbell Bent Over Rows

Put a loaded barbell on the floor stand with your feet slightly more than hip-width apart. Hinge down to the barbell and grab the barbell with a shoulder-width grip. Then bring the barbell up to knee level with back straight and torso bent at 45 degrees. Pull the barbell to between your navel and sternum. Pause, then slowly lower the barbell back down and repeat.

Barbell Push Press

The overhead press is a fantastic shoulder exercise, no doubt. But how often do you find yourself not moving your lower body to get something overhead? The push press uses the triple extension of the ankles, knees, and hips, which closely mimics what most overhead athletes do on the field and you do at home or the gym. Plus, the lower body dip allows you to lift more weight overhead than the barbell overhead press. Lifting more weight overhead allows for more muscle and strength.

Benefits of the Barbell Push Press

  • You use triple extension to drive the weight overhead provides strength and muscle-building stimulus to your quadriceps and glutes.
  • It allows you to use more weight than the overhead press.
  • The push press has carryover to overhead athletes like Olympic lifts.

How to Do the Barbell Push Press

Stand in front of a loaded barbell, set to about chin-height in a power rack. Grab the bar with a grip that’s slightly wider than shoulder-width. Brace your abs, dip your knees a little bit, and then explosively push the bar overhead. Catch the bar gently on your chest and then repeat. 

Barbell Hip Thrust

Using the hip thrust will build both strength and mass in your glutes. Though the glutes are worked during the back squat and deadlift, the hip thrust is as close to an isolation movement as exists for the glutes. And honing in on the glutes will carry over to those movements and make you a more efficient runner, jumper, and sprinter.  Plus, you’ll look great in your favorite pair of pants.

Benefits of the Barbell Hip Thrust

  • Builds more glute mass, strength, and power than just about any hip extension exercise.
  • It’s less technical and easier to perform than other heavily loaded movements.
  • Improved glute strength leads to better stabilization of the core, pelvis, and lower back.

How to Do the Barbell Hip Thrust

Sit with your back up against the edge of a bench that’s parallel to you. With padding across your pelvis, roll a loaded barbell into the crease of your hips. Once the barbell is secure, drive your feet and back towards the bench. You want your shoulder blades to be on the bench and upper body and hips in a straight line. Keep your upper body steady as you lower your hips toward the ground and when extending into lockout.

Barbell Floor Press

The barbell floor press is a great option for lifters looking to strengthen the top portion of their press. By pressing a barbell from the floor, you’re limiting your range of motion and focusing more on triceps and lockout strength.

This means you can typically press more weight than other dumbbell bench press variations. That can equate to a stronger bench press and bigger triceps. This is always a great option when all the benches are taken, or you need to work around shoulder issues.

Benefits of the Barbell Floor Press

  • The decreased range of motion focuses more on the triceps and chest and less on the shoulders. So, this is a great pressing option if your shoulders are sore.
  • With this move, you can overload your triceps for more strength and a heavier bench press.
  • If your shoulders or elbows tend to be sore, this option allows you to train your chest heavy while lowering your relative injury risk.

How to Do the Barbell Floor Press

Lie down in front of a power rack. Extend your arms. Adjust the hooks so that the barbell sits where your hands reach. Plant your feet firmly on the floor. Grab the bar with your typical bench press grip. Lift the bar out of the rack. Lower it to your sternum. Keep your elbows tucked in at 45 degrees. Press back up.

Barbell Biceps Curl

There are many biceps curl variations, but the barbell biceps curl is the granddaddy of them all. If your wrists and elbows are healthy, this variation will allow you to curl more weight and build more strength and mass.

Bicep strength plays an important role in pulling from the floor and row and pull-up variations. If your biceps are a weak link, then you will not get the best out of these exercises. Strengthening them allows you to build more strength and mass with these pulling exercises.

Benefits of the Barbell Biceps Curl

How to Do the Barbell Biceps Curl

Hold a barbell with an underhand grip. Your hands should be slightly wider than hip-width. Keep your shoulders back and down. Curl the barbell up towards your shoulders. Let your elbows drift forward while locking your shoulder in place. Pause and squeeze your biceps at lockout. Slowly lower, keeping a tall posture. Reset and repeat.

Barbell Hang Clean

The hang clean is similar to the power clean, which is a staple in most high school, college, and professional weight rooms. But the hang clean has a shorter learning curve. This is because you’ll generate power from a friendlier low back position. 

This exercise still requires a powerful hip drive, a strong pull, and dip and catch — just like the power clean. And the hang clean will still build slabs of upper back strength and mass. Plus, it is less stressful on the lower back, which is great if you tend toward low back pain.

Benefits of the Barbell Hang Clean

  • The hang clean builds strong upper trap muscles due to the pull and catch.
  • This move helps develop power, muscular coordination, and athleticism.
  • You’ll build upper back strength and mass with this variation.

How to Do the Barbell Hang Clean

Stand tall with the barbell at arm’s length with an overhand grip. Place your feet shoulder-width apart. Hinge at your hips until the bar is at knee height. Push your feet into the floor and explosively pull the barbell. Keep your chest up and the barbell close to your body. Pull until the bell is in your hip crease. 

Snap your hips forward and pull the bar up to your shoulders. As the bar continues up, drop into a squat. Catch the bar in the front rack position. Your elbows should be up and facing forward. The barbell should be at your collarbone. Squat up until lockout. Reset and repeat.

Barbell Good Morning

Barbell good mornings are a fantastic move that trains the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings as a unit. This exercise needs to be mastered with lighter loads before increasing intensity and range of motion. 

When you do it right, this exercise will strengthen and build posterior strength. In turn, this will help improve your squat and deadlift performance.

Benefits of the Barbell Good Morning

  • This is a fantastic exercise for spinal erector, glute strength, and hypertrophy. 
  • Because of its focus on lower back strength, this move can — when done correctly — help combat low back pain.
  • You’ll increase your coordination across your hips and torso, as well as your core strength.

How to Do the Barbell Good Morning

Step into a squat rack. Unrack the barbell on your traps. Walk out two or three steps. Hinge at your hips with a slight bend in your knees. Keep your chest up and shoulders down. Hinge until your torso is almost parallel to the floor. Contract your glutes and hamstrings to lift yourself to a standing position. Reset and repeat for reps.

Barbell Kirk Shrug

Kirk shrugs got their name from the guy who first used them, world champion powerlifter Kirk Karwoski. He started doing this shrug variation to increase his grip strength for the deadlift. Because this shrug variation uses a thumbless grip, the focus is on the upper back and grip strength. 

Yes, it improved his deadlift, but it built an impressive yoke, too. If you’re looking to build upper traps, kirk shrugs need to be your go-to.

Benefits of the Barbell Kirk Shrug

How to Do the Barbell Kirk Shrug

Place a barbell at thigh height in a squat rack. Grip the barbell with a thumbless overhand grip. Shrug the weight by using your only traps and lats. Keep your shoulders down and your chest up. Pause for a second at the navel. Slowly lower the barbell down to the starting position.

Barbell Overhead Carry

All carries are great, but the barbell overhead carry takes carries to a whole new level. Overhead carries puts your whole body under tension. Every step is a test of your single-leg balance.

Your upper back and traps get serious time under tension for improved muscle and strength. Plus, the barbell overhead carry improves overhead lockout strength, mental conditioning, and toughness.

Benefits of the Barbell Overhead Carry

  • This move builds muscle and strength on the upper back and traps.
  •  It also improves posture, shoulder stability, and mental toughness.
  • The overhead barbell carry will teach you to deal with discomfort as you walk with a load.

How to Do the Barbell Overhead Carry

Load the barbell with somewhere between 60 to 80 percent of your overhead press one-rep max. Place your hands slightly wider than shoulder width. Press the barbell overhead. With your biceps behind your ears put your chest up and shoulders down. Take slow, deliberate steps. Pay attention to your gait and balance. Walk for 20 to 40 yards. Re-rack the barbell in the squat rack or place it on the ground. Rest and repeat.

Barbell Skull Crusher

The barbell skull crusher has you lower a barbell to your forehead to stretch the triceps muscle before you contract it. Exercises like the barbell skull crusher put your muscle groups through a larger range of motion. This translates into better hypertrophy potential. 

The barbell skull crusher allows you to isolate the triceps — specifically the long head of the triceps, which is responsible for a lot of arm thickness. This exercise is also performed in a position that also allows you to move heavier weight than you could with other triceps variations.

Benefits of the Barbell Skull Crusher

  • You’re stronger in this position compared to most other triceps exercises — so, you’ll gain a lot of triceps strength.
  • Because this move targets the long head of the triceps, you’ll be setting yourself up for developing a lot of arm thickness.
  • This helps improve lockout strength, which directly transfers to other press variations like the bench press and the push press.

How to Do the Barbell Skull Crusher

Start by lying on a bench with a barbell in your hands. Set up your back and hips like you do for a bench press. Pull your elbows back slightly so that they are pointing behind you as you bend your elbows. Lower the bar handle toward your head. The bar should nearly contact your forehead. When you feel a stretch on your triceps, push the bar back up.

The Benefits of Barbell Training

The major advantage the barbell has over other weighted equipment is the ability to move weight in a straight line over your center of balance. For example, when performing the squat and deadlift, even a slight deviation from a straight bar path usually results in a missed lift due to poor technique.

The barbell loads fundamental human movements — like the squat, overhead reach, and hip hinge — with progressively heavier weights allowing the lifter to get bigger and stronger. Here are some other important benefits of using a barbell.

Versatility

No matter the goal — fat loss, strength, hypertrophy, or improving athletic performance — the barbell will help get you there faster. 

Progressive Overload

Barbells make it easy to add and weight to, and you can load up to your max. The same cannot be said for other free-weight equipment. Dumbbells, kettlebells, and machines only go so high, and their resistance is predetermined.

Better Stability

The barbell is fixed and stable, and so and it’s less likely to deviate from its range of motion, unlike dumbbells and kettlebells. When you’re lifting heavy, this lack of deviation of the path of the barbell makes it less likely you’ll get injured when lifting with good form. 

How to Program Barbell Exercises

A barbell is a tool that allows you to load and move the most weight, compared to other strength training implements. The barbell loads fundamental movement patterns like the squat, press, and various pulls with progressively heavier weights allowing you to get bigger and stronger.

But the barbell can be unforgiving because it locks you in certain ranges of motion and doesn’t have as much freedom of movement as dumbbells. This means certain joints can get angry with too much barbell lifting. Keeping barbell movements between 25 to 50 percent of your programming can help ensure that you’re performing exercises that are easier on your joints — and less likely to develop strength and muscle asymmetries.

Exercise Order

To program barbell lifts successfully while keeping your training balanced, you need to consider how you prioritize your exercises. Compound barbell exercises — those that work the most muscles — should pretty much always come first in your programming. This is when you have the most energy from your warm-up and your muscles are yet not fatigued. Exercise like barbell squats, barbell presses, or power moves like the hang clean and push press need total body engagement.

A person prepares to deadlift in the gym.
Credit: MDV Edwards / Shutterstock

When training two strength movements in the same session, use your best judgment on what comes first. Try to avoid putting two exercises on the same day that put a compressive load on the spine.

Program barbell accessory movements to work on weakness like skull crushers, biceps curls, or Romanian deadlifts will come after your main lifts. Then, program more isolated, lighter-weight accessory movements such as those performed with dumbbells or cables.

Strength Sets & Reps

Muscle and strength is built in a variety of set and rep ranges. When you’re focused on building max strength, you’ll generally want to work with a load of 85 percent of your 1-RM. Keep the total reps performed between 10 and 25 reps. This can be broken up into various set and rep schemes: think three sets of five reps, five sets of five reps, four sets of six reps, or five sets of two reps.

Muscle Sets & Reps

Most of your barbell accessory work falls under hypertrophy and endurance training. The focus here is on volume and increasing time under tension to provide the right stimulus to build muscle. As with strength, muscle is built within a variety of load sets and reps. For maximum hypertrophy, try working in the six to 12 rep range with a weight that makes you approach failure at the end of your set. A good rule of thumb is that if you’re performing less reps, use a heavier load and more sets. If you’re doing more reps, use a lighter load and fewer sets.

How to Warm Up for the Barbell

It is always important to warm up to get the muscles and joints ready for a heavily loaded barbell. There are two ways to go about this. First, you’ll start with a mobility routine. This will get your muscles and joints ready for the ranges of motion expected with barbell exercises. 

Especially when working with a barbell, try to prioritize exercises that train shoulder, thoracic spine, hip, and ankle mobility. Here is a quick mobility routine that can get your body ready for the barbell in a hurry. Cycle through these movements more than once (or twice) if you can.

  • Bodyweight Side Lunge: 10 reps per side
  • 3-Way Ankle Mobilization: 8 – 10 reps
  • Back to The Wall Shoulder Flexion: 8 reps
  • Walking Spiderman with Hip Lift and Overhead Reach: 5 reps per slide
  • Floor Slide: 10 reps

After your mobility routine, you’ll want to perform ramp-up sets as an extended warm-up. These sets grease the groove and help you determine your working weight for the day by how easy or hard a certain weight feels. The extra volume is also helpful for fat loss and hypertrophy goals.

Even though you’ll be working at times with very light weight — always start with an empty barbell — respect the barbell and act as if it were loaded heavily. This will ingrain proper movement patterns so that your body will be truly ready to handle heavy loads.

Here’s an example of a ramp-up sets for barbell deadlifts:

  • 45 (empty barbell) x 10 reps
  • 135 x 8
  • 155 x 6
  • 165 x 5
  • 175 x 4

More Barbell Training Tips

Now that you have a handle on the best barbell exercises to strengthen and add mass to your body, you can also check out these other helpful barbell training articles for strength, power, and fitness athletes.

 References 

  1. Michal Wilk et al. Endocrine response to high-intensity barbell squats performed with constant movement tempo and variable training volume. Neuro Endocrinol Lett 2018 Oct;39(4):342-348.
  2. U Wisløff et al. Strong correlation of maximal squat strength with sprint performance and vertical jump height in elite soccer players. Br J Sports Med. 2004 Jun;38(3):285-8

Featured image: baranq/Shutterstock