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.
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.
You could do bodyweight exercises from now until forever, but to truly reach your strength potential, you’ll want to use free weights. And when it comes to strength training, a barbell is one heck of an effective tool.
We’re talking nothing but a steel bar and some plates. The barbell functionally challenges your muscles, joints, and balance all at once, and studies have shown it can lead to significant strength gains in as little as 4 weeks.
Recent research has also found that barbell training, particularly deadlifts, can improve your jump performance.
Plus, barbell training is 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 — it can reduce your risk of chronic disease, relieve stress, and more.
In the spirit of simplicity, do the same warmup before every barbell 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.
Tony Bonvechio, co-owner of The Strength House in Worcester, Massachusetts, 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.
Deep squat lat stretch
Sit in a deep squat with arms stretched in front of you, holding on to something like a bar, rail, or TRX that you can lightly pull back on. Hold for 5 deep breaths.
Lie on your back with arms and thighs pointed up in the air, keeping your knees bent. Without bending elbows, bring right arm to the floor above your head and left leg down and out straight.
Return to starting position and repeat with opposite limbs. Do 5 reps per side.
Kneeling glute mobilization
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 a Pigeon Pose in yoga. Do 8 reps per side.
Forearm wall slide
Face a wall. Place your forearms on the wall and point your hands upward, with 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.
Walking Spiderman with overhead reach
Lunge forward and bring both hands to the floor in front of you, inside your front leg. Keeping your hands where they are, straighten both legs for a nice stretch.
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 per side.
Barbells are accessible for men and women of any age. And the best part? All you need to get stronger are these five simple moves, according to Bonvechio.
These are compound movements, meaning they work multiple joints and muscle groups at once. Compared to isolation exercises, like biceps 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 up a heavy object off the ground, as you do in the deadlift, is likely to carry over into real-world situations (like moving furniture into your dream apartment).
Here are the big 5 exercises you need to know:
1. Back squat
Muscles worked: Quads, hamstrings, hips, glutes
A. Make sure the “J-cups” — the brackets that hold the barbell — are at shoulder-height, says personal trainer Dell Polanco (pictured).
With your feet shoulder-width apart or a tiny bit wider, rest the barbell on your traps. Those are the wide, flat muscles that cover the top of your back and bottom of your neck.
Grasp the bar with both hands facing forward and elbows pointing down. Your arms should form a rough W shape.
B. Keeping 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.
2. Bench press
Muscles worked: Chest, triceps, shoulders
A. Place J-cups in position. Lie faceup on the bench with the bar racked above your upper chest. Place hands shoulder-width apart or a little wider.
Lift the bar and bring it down across your sternum so your arms are at about a 45-degree angle from your chest (not flared out to the sides).
B. Keeping wrists straight, push the bar up and very slightly back toward your head so it finishes over your shoulders.
Keep shoulder blades contracted, engage glutes, and drive heels into the floor throughout the movement. Position feet so they’re not too far away to engage your glutes, Polanco says.
3. Barbell row
Muscles worked: Back
A. Hinge forward at hips until your torso is parallel with the floor.
B. Grab the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart, both palms facing you. Brace core and pull elbows toward the ceiling, bringing the bar to your lower chest. Squeeze shoulder blades together to emphasize scapular strength. Return the bar to the floor between sets.
Muscles worked: Glutes, hips, hamstrings, lower back
A. With the bar on the floor, roll it so it’s practically against your shins. Stand with feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Point 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 your legs.
B. Brace core and lift the bar by squeezing glutes, thrusting hips forward, and pulling 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.”
5. Overhead press
Muscles worked: Shoulders, triceps
A. With feet shoulder-width apart, rest the barbell on your clavicle. Grip it with elbows pointed down and forearms perpendicular to the floor.
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 your 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 farther backward. Reverse the movement. Be careful not to arch your lower back too much throughout the movement.
These four bodyweight exercises are also incorporated into the 8-week program.
Single-leg hip thrust
Lie faceup on the floor with your knees bent at about a 45-degree angle. Lift one foot straight up, as high as possible, and thrust your hips to send it even higher. For a better range of motion, do 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. Try an inverted row or one of our favorite pull-up substitutions.
Take a big step forward, lower your body until your thigh is parallel with the floor, and return to standing. Switch sides.
Start in a perfect plank position. Hold, keeping your body rigid, core tight, and 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 your hips are lifted so your body forms a straight line from ankles to shoulders.
We know you might be thinking, “I thought they were keeping this simple!” Well, this is the simple part: The entire 8-week training program has just 2 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 rounds of 20–30 seconds
- 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 rounds of 15–20 seconds per side
Each week, follow these workout schedules:
Weeks 1, 3, 5, and 7
- Monday: Workout A
- Tuesday: Rest
- Wednesday: Workout B
- Thursday: Rest
- Friday: Workout A
- Saturday: Rest
- Sunday: Rest
Weeks 2, 4, 6, and 8
- Monday: Workout B
- Tuesday: Rest
- Wednesday: Workout A
- Thursday: Rest
- Friday: Workout B
- Saturday: Rest
- Sunday: Rest
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 for 3–5 minutes between sets of barbell lifts and about 1 minute between bodyweight exercises, he suggests.
How heavy should I lift?
“Start with lifting just the bar, then add increments of 5 or 10 pounds each time you do the workout,” Bonvechio suggests, adding that you should pick a weight that allows you to have 3 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.
What about cardio?
“Cardio on off days is a good idea for most people,” Bonvechio says. He suggests doing cardio on 2 non-lifting days per week, with one of those days being low-intensity — say, 20–30 minutes of walking or biking at an easy pace.
Also, take one of those days to do high-intensity intervals, like sprints on a hill, a bike, or flat ground for 10–15 minutes.
Bonvechio says 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!
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.
Photos by Sarah Haile. Shot on location at Brick New York.