The 8 Best Barbell Exercises For Mass, Strength, and Power

Realize the power of the barbell, a common training tool, by mastering these eight 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 eight 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

Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of advice and/or supervision from a medical professional. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. Speak with your physician if you have any concerns.

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 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 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.

Programming Suggestions

  • For Strength: Use between 80-90% of your one-rep max for three to five sets of three to five reps. Rest two minutes between sets.
  • For More Muscle: Use between 60-70% of your 1RM for three to five sets of 10 to 15 reps. Rest for one to two minutes between sets.

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 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.

Programming Suggestions

Follow the same programming suggestions as the back squat. 

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 Rack Pull

How to Do the 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.

Programming Suggestions

  • For Strength: Use between 90-110% of your standard deadlift 1RM, and perform three to six sets of three to six reps.  
  • For More Muscle: Do three to four sets of between six to 12 reps using a slow eccentric portion works well here. If you want to take your grip out of the equation, use lifting straps

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 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 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.

Programming Suggestions

  • For Strength: Use 85% of your 1RM and do four to six sets of four to six reps.  
  • For More Muscle: Use 70-85% of your 1RMand do three to five sets of eight to 15 reps.

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.

Programming Suggestions

  • For Strength: Use 85-90% of your 1 RM and do one to three reps at the top of every minute — resting for the remainder of the minute after finishing your reps — for five to 10 minutes. 
  • For More Muscle: Use 70 -75% of your 1RM and aim to accumulate 25 total reps. You can do five sets of five or three sets of eight reps. 

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.

Programming Suggestions

  • For More Muscle: Do three to five sets of eight to 15 reps. 

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 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 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. 

Programming Suggestions

  • For Strength:  Progressively work up to your three-rep maximum for the day and then stay there for three to five additional working sets. 
  • For More Muscle: Do three to four sets of six to 12 reps.  

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 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 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.

Programming Suggestions

  • For More Muscle: Do three to five sets of eight to 15 reps. 
  • For Strength: Perform four to five sets of three to six reps. 

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 performancethe 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 Warm Up for the Barbell

Although it is important to warm up with mobility and core work to get the muscles and joints ready for a heavily loaded barbell, there is another way.  Performing ramp-up sets as an extended warm-up or as a warmup itself when time is an issue works well.

Man griping loaded barbell
Featured image: baranq/Shutterstock

Not only will it grease the groove and help you determine your working weight for the day by how easy or heard a certain weight feels, but the extra volume is also helpful for fat loss and hypertrophy goals.

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

  • 10 reps with an empty barbell
  • Eight reps with 135 pounds
  • Six reps with 155 pounds
  • Five reps with 165 pounds
  • Four rep with 175 pounds

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