People tend to overcomplicate fitness. Tell your friends you want to get stronger, and you’ll quickly amass more advice than you’ll know what to do with. From bodyweight devotees to kettlebell aficionados, yogis to CrossFitters, it's easy to feel overwhelmed by the variety of strength training programs out there (and give up on the idea altogether).
Fortunately, we’re here to simplify strength. All you need to become stronger is one simple piece of equipment, found in practically every gym: the barbell.
Why the Barbell?
When it comes to strength training, a barbell is one heck of an effective tool. Sure, you could do bodyweight exercises from now until forever, but if you want to truly reach your strength potential—that is, your ability to move heavy sh*t—you’ll want to use free weights. We’re talking nothing but a steel bar and some plates. The barbell functionally challenges your muscles, joints, and balance all at once, which research has proven can lead to significant strength gains compared to traditional exercises.
Above all, it’s measurable: As you slap more weight on the bar, your improvement is undeniable. It just feels good. And if we know anything about fitness, it’s that being strong is good for you. Strength correlates with a longer lifespan and a reduced risk of diabetes. Midlife muscle strength and human longevity up to age 100 years: a 44-year prospective study among a decedent cohort. Taina Rantanen, Kamal Masaki, et al. Age, 2012 Jun; 34(3): 563–570.
The Big 5
Barbells are accessible for both men and women of any age. And the best part? All you need to get stronger are these five simple moves, according to Tony Bonvechio, a trainer at Cressey Sports Performance in Boston. These are compound movements, meaning they work multiple joints and muscle groups at once. Compared to isolation exercises, like bicep curls, compound exercises burn more calories and get more work done in less time. Plus, they're generally more functional: Learning how to safely pick a heavy object off the ground, as you do in the deadlift, is more likely to carry over into real world situations than a lateral raise.
1. Back Squat
A. Make sure the “J-cups” (the brackets that hold the barbell) are at shoulder-height, says Dell Polanco, head coach of Brick New York (pictured). With your feet shoulder-width apart or a tiny bit wider, rest the barbell on your traps (the wide, flat muscle that covers the top of your back and bottom of your neck) and grasp the bar with both hands facing forward and the elbows pointing down. Your arms should form a rough “W” shape.
B. Keeping your spine straight and core braced, first push your hips back, then bend your knees. Pause when your butt is just below parallel with the floor, push through your heels, and rise to starting position.
Muscles worked: Quads, hamstrings, hips, glutes
2. Bench Press
A. Place J-cups in position. Lie on the bench with the bar racked above your upper chest and place your hands shoulder-width apart or a little wider. Lift the bar and bring it down across your sternum so that your arms are at about a 45-degree angle from the chest (not flared out to the sides).
B. Keeping your wrists straight, push the bar up and very slightly back toward your head so it finishes over the shoulders. Keep your shoulder blades contracted, engage your glutes, and drive heels into the floor throughout the movement. (Position your feet so they’re not too far away to engage your glutes, Polanco explains.)
Muscles worked: Chest, triceps, shoulders
3. Barbell Row
A. Bend over until your torso is parallel with the floor.
B. Grab the bar at shoulder width, with both palms facing you. Brace your core and pull your elbows toward the ceiling, bringing the bar to your lower chest. Squeeze the shoulder blades together to emphasize scapular strength. Return the bar to the floor between sets.
Muscles worked: Back
A. With the bar on the floor, roll it so it’s practically against your shins. Stand with your feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Point your toes forward or at 11 and 1 o’clock. Bend your knees a little and your hips a lot as you grasp the bar slightly outside of your legs.
B. Brace your core and lift the bar by squeezing your glutes, thrusting your hips forward, and pulling your torso back and up. Be careful not to bend your knees or drop your hips too much, or keep your torso too upright, Bonvechio says. “It's a hinge, not a squat, so the hips should be above the knees and the torso should be at about a 45-degree angle to the ground.”
Muscles worked: Glutes, hips, hamstrings, lower back
5. Overhead Press
A. With feet shoulder-width apart, rest the barbell on your clavicle and grip it with your elbows pointed down and forearms perpendicular to the ground.
B. Taking care to pull your chin back a little (to avoid smacking it with the bar), drive the bar upward in a straight line, locking out the elbows. Once the bar clears your head, bring your chin back to its original position, so the barbell is right above your head or even a little further backward. Reverse the movement. Be careful not to arch your lower back too much throughout the movement.
Muscles worked: Shoulders, triceps
These four bodyweight exercises are also incorporated into the eight-week program.
Lie on the ground with your knees bent at about a 45-degree angle. Lift one foot straight up into the air, as high as possible, and thrust your hips to send it even higher. (For a better range of motion, perform the hip thrust with your upper back on a bench.)
Grab a bar you can hang from with palms facing toward you. Pull your elbows down and lift your chin to the bar. (If you're not quite at that level, don’t sweat it—just try an inverted row or one of our favorite pull-up substitutions.)
Take a big step forward, lower your body to the ground until your thigh is parallel with the floor, and return to stand. Switch sides.
Start in push-up position. Hold, keeping your body rigid, your core tight, and your glutes squeezed. (The side plank is also used in this program: Turn sideways, balancing your weight on one hand and the side of the same foot. Be sure hips are lifted so your body forms a straight line from ankles to shoulders.)
The 10-Minute Warm-Up
In the spirit of simplicity, perform the same warm-up before every workout.
Foam Rolling: 2 Minutes
To speed recovery and help prevent injury and soreness, grab a foam roller. (This is more important for advanced lifters than beginners, but it’s a great habit to get into.) Bonvechio suggests rolling the following body parts for 30 seconds each:
- Upper back
- Lats (sides of your upper back)
Mobility: 8 Minutes
These exercises will activate your muscles and prepare your body for the work that’s to come.
Sit in a very deep squat with arms stretched in front, holding on to something like a bar, rail, or TRX that you can lightly pull back on. Hold for 5 deep breaths.
2. Dead Bug
Lie on your back with arms and thighs pointed up in the air, keeping your knees bent. Without bending elbows, bring your right arm to the ground above your head and your left leg down and out straight. Return to starting position and repeat with opposite limbs. Do 5 reps per side.
Start on all fours. Put the ankle of one foot into the inner knee of the other leg and sit all the way back, keeping your arms straight. This will stretch your glutes and should feel a little like yoga pigeon pose. Do 8 reps per side.
Facing a wall, place your forearms on a wall, with hands pointing upward and your arms in the shape of a “W.” Slide your arms up the wall until they’re straight, bring them down, and pull them off the wall with your shoulders. Do 8 reps.
Lunge forward and bring both hands to the ground in front of you, inside your front leg. Keeping your hands where they are, straighten both legs for a nice stretch. Then bend your knees back to the lunge and twist your torso so one hand is high in the air and the other is still by your front foot, forming a letter “T.” Return to standing. Do 5 reps total per side.
We know you might be thinking, “I thought they were keeping this simple!” but listen up: The entire eight-week training program has just two workouts.
Back squat: 3 sets of 5 reps
Bench press: 3 sets of 5 reps
Barbell row: 3 sets of 5 reps
Single-leg hip thrust: 3 sets of 10 reps per side
Plank: 3 20- to 30-second holds
Deadlift: 3 sets of 5 reps
Overhead press: 3 sets of 5 reps
Chin-up: 3 sets of 8 reps
Bodyweight lunge: 3 sets of 10 reps per side
Side plank: 3 15- to 20-second holds per side
Each week, follow these workout schedules.
Weeks 1, 3, 5, and 7
Monday: Workout A
Wednesday: Workout B
Friday: Workout A
Weeks 2, 4, 6, and 8
Monday: Workout B
Wednesday: Workout A
Friday: Workout B
1. How long should I rest between sets?
“When you’re starting out, rest isn’t terribly important,” Bonvechio says. “You’re really trying to learn the skill and coordination of the lift rather than trying to lift a lot of weight.” A good rule of thumb: Rest three to five minutes between sets of barbell lifts and about one minute between bodyweight exercises, he suggests.
2. How heavy should I lift?
“Start with lifting just the bar, then add increments of five or 10 pounds each time you do the workout,” Bonvechio suggests, adding to pick a weight that allows you to have three reps left in the tank when you finish. That’s heavy enough to get you stronger but light enough that you won’t miss reps or deteriorate your form.
3. What about cardio?
”Cardio on off days is a good idea for most people,” Bonvechio says. He suggests two days of cardio on non-lifting days, with one day being low intensity—say, 20 to 30 minutes of walking or biking at an easy pace—and one day being high-intensity intervals, like sprints on a hill, a bike, or flat ground for 10 to 15 minutes.
Bonvechio says that beginners can pretty much continue this workout schedule indefinitely. Add weight with each workout, and once you can’t slap any more pounds on the bar, well, you’re not a beginner anymore! Looking for more? You can train with Bonvechio online or check out more online training programs from Eric Cressey.
One final note: “The No. 1 most important thing for beginners is to just master the technique,“ Bonvechio says. “It’s like throwing a baseball or shooting a basketball—it takes a lot of practice. That’s why frequency is so important.” In the end, focus on form over ego, and you’ll become stronger than you ever thought possible. The power is yours!
Photos by Sarah Haile. Shot on location at Brick New York.