9 Barbell Movements to Master

by Genevieve Singer, Owner and Founder of The Athletes Physical Therapist

Can you get a good workout in without a full gym’s worth of equipment? By now, you probably know that the answer is a resounding absolutely. Whether you’re at the gym and want to get in and out without bouncing between equipment or if you’re squeezing in a workout at home with a minimalist setup, there’s no reason to slack off. Today, we’re focusing on a selection of barbell movements that can tax your muscles even if you don’t have any plates at your disposal.

If you checked out our last post in this series that featured moves with only a medicine ball, you may notice some similarities within these movements. While many of these exercises have carryover between different pieces of equipment, the stimulus with a barbell will be much different than with a medicine ball.

If you have a barbell, utilize these movements with or without plates. If you’re going for muscular endurance, focus on high reps at low weight (or the empty bar). If your goal is hypertrophy or progressive overload, consider adding weight (if you have it) to these workouts over the course of a 6-8 week training cycle.

9 Essential Barbell Exercises

1. Deadlift

Begin by setting up with your feet under your hips and your shoelaces under the barbell. Grab onto the bar just outside of the knurling (the grippy sections) with a full hand grip. Point your knuckles down to the ground to create some tension in the bar and bring it in close to your body — this will also engage your lats.

Make sure your spine is neutral and that your hips are slightly below your shoulders. Press through your feet as you lift the bar off the ground, keeping it as close as possible to your body. Make sure your hips and chest are rising at the same time. Fully lock out your hips at the top while your arms remain straight. Reverse this movement down to the ground.

2. RDL

The Romanian deadlift is a close cousin of the conventional deadlift but places more emphasis on the posterior chain, loading the glutes and hamstrings. The RDL begins as you stand up straight with the barbell at the top of your hips. Then, slowly lower the bar down, keeping it close to your body and keeping knees locked out until they reach their end range of motion within the movement (hamstring length is usually the limiting factor here). This may look like just a soft knee at the bottom as opposed to a fully flexed knee in the deadlift. Once your knees bend slightly, slowly return to the top of the movement — again, keeping the bar close to your body.

Keep the same performance points in mind as the deadlift with the bar close to your body, but moving above and below your hips. Think about pushing your butt back while maintaining a neutral spine.

3. Strict Press

The strict press is a fantastic movement for building shoulder strength. Begin by stacking your wrists over your elbows, engaging your core, squeezing your glutes, pressing the bar overhead and fully extending your elbows at the top. Think about getting your head “through the window” to create a stacked shoulder position to protect your joints.

4. Barbell Row

This movement is great with or without loading to engage your middle traps, rhomboids, and triceps. Begin by picking the bar up the same way you would for a deadlift. Once the barbell is at your hips, hinge forward to send your butt and hips back until your chest is parallel to the ground. Make sure your spine is in a neutral position (totally flat back).

Begin to row by sending your elbows toward the ceiling and bringing the bar toward your belly button. Depending on your hamstring flexibility, you may or may not be able to touch the bar all the way to the ground during this movement.

5. The Snatch

The snatch is an Olympic weightlifting floor to overhead movement. It requires good technique to execute effectively. High level Olympic lifters spend years perfecting this movement, as it requires coordination and technique beyond that of a deadlift or a strict press.

Doing this movement at a light weight is a great way to build strength and flexibility in an overhead position. The feature of the snatch that is most unique compared to the other lifts we have discussed is hand position. Your hands begin wide, while your feet and hips are in the same starting position as the deadlift. If you have never performed this movement before, find a coach or gym near you that can help you get into a good position and train the best movement patterns as you begin adding load.

6. The Power Clean

This is another Olympic Weightlifting movement that I could write an entire post on just by itself. Again, a phenomenal movement with tons of carryover that utilizes the entire body.

This lift begins with the same set up as a deadlift. You’ll then explosively push through your legs until you reach full extension (also known as triple extension: fully extended at your ankles, hips, and knees) through the middle of the movement. The trick of the power clean is to pull yourself under the bar into a quarter squat (or power position). The movement finishes with the bar on your shoulders and standing up with your knees fully locked out. Your elbows should remain high in the “catch” position as if you were performing a front squat.

Check out our Power Clean Master Class for the nitty gritty on this complex movement.

7. Sumo Deadlift

Begins in the same way as the conventional deadlift with your chest up and hips and butt back. The exception to this set up it your hand and foot position. Your hands will be inside your thighs and your feet will be in a wide stance outside of your shoulders. In addition to lower body strength, this movement also builds stability in your abs.

8. Back Squat

This barbell movement places the barbell weight posteriorly (behind you). Ensure that you are keeping your chest upright and your eyes forward, driving evenly through both of your feet. Here, the bar can be taken from the floor (by cleaning it) or from a rack depending on the intent of your workout.

9. Front Squat

This barbell movement places the weight anteriorly (in front of you). The same performance points that apply to the back squat also apply here. Because the weight is in front of you, pay special attention to make sure you’re not dropping your chest as you drive up from the bottom of the squat.

The front squat also requires a considerable amount of shoulder and thoracic (mid back) mobility in order to achieve the front rack position. Without this prerequisite mobility, you will notice your elbows will begin to drop and holding these positions will be difficult.

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