According to numerous fitness experts and influencers, building muscle and strength requires a state-of-the-art gym, a complex program, and expensive supplements. However, lifters have been successfully building muscle for centuries using simple programs and basic training tools. Effort and consistency, rather than fancy equipment, are the key factors in muscle growth. As a personal trainer with over 30 years of experience, I have worked in various gyms, some well-equipped and others less so. Regardless of the training environment, I always prioritize barbell exercises, as I believe they are the most reliable training tools available. Barbells can be found in all good gyms and are also a great option for home lifters when paired with a bench and a squat rack. With just these three items, you have everything you need for a lifetime of productive training.
Now, the question arises: which barbell exercises are the best for building muscle? In this article, I will share the only seven exercises you need to build muscle. By incorporating these movements into your training programs, you can expect to see significant gains in muscle mass and strength. Let’s dive in!
Muscles worked: Gluteus maximus, hamstrings, quadriceps, erector spinae, latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids, deltoids, forearms.
If you only do one barbell exercise, it should be the deadlift. This exercise targets every muscle on the back of your body and has the potential to transform your physique and build incredible strength. While squats are often referred to as the king of exercises, in my opinion, the deadlift holds that title. Push yourself, lift heavy, and watch your muscles grow with deadlifts!
Here’s how to perform the deadlift:
– Place the barbell on the floor, ideally around mid-shin height.
– Stand behind the bar with your toes underneath and feet about hip-width apart.
– Bend down and hold the bar with a mixed or double overhand grip.
– Straighten your arms, drop your hips, arch your lower back, brace your core, and squeeze your shoulders back and down.
– Drive your feet into the floor, pull the bar up the front of your legs, and stand upright.
– Push your hips backward, bend your knees, and lower the weight to the floor.
– Reset your core and grip, and repeat.
Tips: Use gym chalk or wrist straps to prevent your hands from slipping. Avoid lifting with a rounded back to reduce the risk of injury. Let the weight settle on the floor between reps instead of bouncing the bar back up.
Muscles worked: Quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus maximus, abductors, adductors, core.
Squats are arguably the best barbell exercise for sculpting bigger, more muscular legs. Many workout routines revolve around this classic exercise, such as the famous 20-rep squat routine. Forget leg presses, hack squats, and leg extensions; squats are the only exercise you really need for powerful legs.
Here’s how to perform the squat:
– Rack and hold a barbell across your upper back.
– Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart, brace your core, and keep your chest up.
– Bend your knees and hips, descending until your thighs are roughly parallel to the floor.
– Drive your feet into the floor and stand back up.
– Reset your core and repeat.
Tips: Squat below parallel if your mobility and joint health allow. Ensure the bar rests on your upper back/trapezius and not across your neck. If necessary, raise your heels on blocks or plates to improve ankle mobility and squat depth.
3. Bench Press
Muscles worked: Pectoralis major, deltoids, triceps.
The barbell bench press is arguably the most popular strength training exercise worldwide. It’s a common topic of conversation among lifters, with one often asking the other, “Hey, how much can you bench?” Whether your goal is to build a bigger chest or improve your throwing or punching power, the bench press is an exercise that can help you achieve it.
Here’s how to perform the bench press:
– Lie on your bench with your eyes directly beneath the bar.
– Plant your feet firmly on the floor.
– Hold the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip.
– Press your butt and upper back into the bench, pull your shoulders down and back, and brace your core.
– Unrack the bar and hold it over your chest.
– Bend your arms and lower the bar to lightly touch your sternum.
– Tuck your elbows into your sides as you descend.
– Press the bar back up to arm’s length and repeat.
Tips: Squeeze the bar tightly to increase stability and pressing strength. Pause with the bar lightly touching your chest to increase difficulty and engage your pectoralis muscles. Consider wearing wrist wraps for joint support if needed.
4. Bent-Over Row
Muscles worked: Latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids, deltoids, core, biceps, forearms.
A telltale sign of an experienced lifter is the size and thickness of their back. While less knowledgeable individuals tend to focus on the muscles they can see in the mirror, like the pecs, biceps, abs, and quads, the barbell row is a classic exercise that targets the back muscles effectively. It is one of the best moves for building a powerful and dense back.
Here’s how to perform the bent-over row:
– Hold the barbell with an overhand grip, slightly wider than hip-width.
– Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and knees slightly bent.
– Hinge forward from the hips until your upper body is inclined at around a 45-degree angle.
– Let your arms hang straight down from your shoulders.
– Without using your legs for assistance, lead with your elbows and bend your arms to pull the bar up into your abdomen.
– Extend your arms and repeat.
Tips: Avoid using your legs to assist in the movement. Focus on leading with your elbows and engaging your back muscles. Maintain proper form throughout the exercise.
These are just four of the seven barbell exercises you need to build muscle. Stay tuned for the next article, where I will cover the remaining three exercises in detail. Incorporate these movements into your training routine, and you’ll be on your way to packing on mass and getting stronger!