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10 Best Barbell Exercises to Build Muscle

When it comes to building strength and size, a barbell is one of the most vital bits of training equipment imaginable. Every gym should have them and every home gym should make them a priority.

Whether loaded up in the squat rack, sitting ready on the floor or being thrust over your head, barbell training offers a full range of workouts that will build your physique and punch up your power.

Here are 10 of the best barbell exercises for building some serious size and strength. Combining 3-4 of these can create a single day of workout programming. Mix and match and build a routine that works for you.

Deadlifts

The king of all lifting exercises, deadlifts train virtually every muscle in your body and make you feel like a beast whenever you do them.

A simple, functional movement with a high skill ceiling, the deadlift is easy to start with but difficult to master. It’s also not to be trifled with, as poorly executed lifts can damage your back.

Approach with caution, but be ready to feel the strongest you ever have. 

How to do them: Stand with your feet roughly shoulder width apart with a loaded barbell (weights on each side) resting on the ground.

Bend at the knees and keep your back straight, looking forwards as your hands come down to grasp the bar. Use an overhand grip so that your palms are facing towards you.

Bring the bar up by lifting with your legs and hips. Keep your back straight throughout the movement. Bring the barbell to your waist so that you’re standing upright. From here, keep your arms straight and lower the bar back down by pushing your hips back, bending at your legs and keeping your lower back straight.

Muscles worked: Back, glutes, legs, forearms and shoulders.

Recommended workout: 1 set of 10-12 warm up deadlifts + 3 x 6-8 deadlifts at a heavy weight

Squats

Another famed compound lift, the barbell squat is a mass-builder that sees you build some immense lower body strength and power.

As a compound movement that uses lots of different muscles in your legs, they also promote a greater hormone response which helps increase muscle gain. 

Stepping up to the squat rack can be intimidating, but once you’ve got the hang of it you’ll be pushing more weight than ever and packing on size. 

How to do them: Approach a loaded barbell on a squat rack. Position yourself so the bar is resting on your shoulders, held in place with your hands.

Lift the bar off the rack. You’ll immediately tell whether you’ve got the balance right. If correct, take a few steps away from the rack. 

Squat downwards, keeping your back straight at all times. Bend at the knees to around 90 degrees. Don’t go deeper until you get the technique right. 

Your back should be straight enough that someone could draw a line down from your shoulder to your feet at all times. 

To complete the squat, power back up to standing. 

Muscles workedGlutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, abductors and calves. 

Recommended workout: 1 set of 10-12 warm up squats + 3 x 6-8 squats at a heavier weight

Bench Press

Probably the most famous of all lifts, the bench press is a great mass builder for gaining size in your upper body. A fairly simple movement, the bench recruits lots of muscles in your arms and chest to help pack on mass.

How to do them: Either from a bench or from the floor, lie under a barbell and grasp it with both hands, approximately shoulder width apart.

Lower the bar by dropping your arms, flexing your chest as you do so. Let the bar lightly touch your chest or hover just above it and then press the barbell back up so that your arms are fully extended.

Muscles worked: Pectoral muscles, deltoids and triceps.

Recommended workout: 3 x 10 bench press (60-70% of max, increasing weight every set)

Bent Over Rows

Bent over rows are a terrific lift which you can perform with a barbell, helping build a huge back and great pulling strength. While they can be done with dumbbells, you’ll see the best gains from heavier barbell rows. 

How to do them: Grip a barbell like you would the top part of a deadlift. Bend over at the knees and keep your back straight while angling it slightly forward.

Keep your head up and your spine straight. Pull the weight up and into your lower chest. Lower it back to just over your knees.

Muscles worked: Back – specifically your traps, lats and deltoids.

Recommended workout: 3 x 12 bent over rows (50% max)

Overhead Press

Want to build some fearsome shoulders? Stop shrugging and get ready for the overhead press. This is another lift that seems very basic but can help you build awesome power. It’s also a great raw test of strength as you heft the barbell overhead. 

How to do them: Grab a barbell from a rack or the floor. From here, bring it to your chest with your arms holding the bar and also being bent, along with your palms facing outwards. From here, thrust your arms up straight so that the barbell is overhead. Try not to round your back. Lower the bar back under your chin and repeat. Don’t thrust with your knees unless you’re struggling. 

Muscles worked: Shoulders (traps, deltoids) and lats.

Recommended workout: 3 x 10 overhead press

Clean and Press

Combining the pulling force of the deadlift with the shoulder-strengthening push of the overhead press, the clean and press is an Olympic-style lift that you should master to help build mass all over the body. Look at the physique on any Olympic lifter and you’ll understand the value of this lift.

How to do them: Grab a barbell with an overhand grip. Quickly pull it as you would a deadlift, then press your hips forward and throw the weight up into an overhead press style grip.

Muscles worked: Traps, quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, triceps and deltoids.

Recommended workout: 3 x 8 clean and press (60-70% max)

Reverse Barbell Bicep Curls

An underutilized but awesome exercise that blasts your biceps and forearms, reverse curls are great for building thick, muscular arms. With little explanation needed, they’re a must-have for those doing barbell exercises who want to put on mass.

How to do them: Grab a barbell with an overhand grip. Pull it up as you would a standard bicep curl, keeping your elbows at your sides and avoiding ‘cheating’ with your back.

Squeeze the lift tight by pulling your hands as close to your shoulders as you can during the curling motion, then lower it back down and repeat.

Muscles worked: Traps, biceps, deltoid, triceps and forearms extensors.

Recommended workout: 3 x 10 reverse barbell curls

Front Squats

Front squats shift the focus of a standard squat to better target your quads and also your core. They’re a great way to switch up a routine and to build some power in your abs whilst you’re working a leg routine.

How to do them: Front squats can be tricky if you lack flexibility in your elbows and shoulders – but persevere. They’re the same as a back squat but this time the bar will be in front of you, resting on your deltoids. Your arms should support the bar to stop it rolling forwards.

Muscles worked: Quads, glutes and abs

Recommended workout: 3 x 8 front squats at the start of any squat workout

Zercher Squats

A somewhat underrated and rare squat, the Zercher is a great way to blast your traps, abs and it even trains the biceps. They’re tough, bordering on brutal, but totally worth it. They also avoid putting pressure on the spine, which can be useful for people with back problems.

How to do them: Hold the barbell in the crook of your arms and cross your arms upwards over the bar. From here, squat as you would in a front squat. These will be difficult, so take your time and nail the technique.

Muscles worked: Traps, quads and abs

Recommended workout: 3 x 10 Zercher squats (Use a relatively light weight and get the reps in)

Snatch

An Olympic weightlifting move you’ve probably seen elite lifters do in the Games, the snatch is a tricky move but one that’s worth mastering. A compound lift that works virtually all of your body, the snatch is a great way to build explosive power and size.

How to do them: Grab the bar from the floor with a wide grip and begin with your hips lowered. Explode upwards as you pull up and keep your arms straight, throwing the bar overhead. You’ll end up squatted down with the weight overhead. From here, thrust upwards and keep your arms straight.

A difficult move, this is one best practiced with a trainer.

Muscles worked: Virtually all of them except for biceps and pecs.

Recommended workout: 3 x 6 snatches