Best Barbell Exercises

Best Barbell Exercises

Opinions in the fitness world are wide-ranging as to the most effective training programs, sets, reps, recovery methods, optimal nutrition, and many other variables. Surprisingly, a list of the best barbell exercises is an area of relative agreement among coaches.

If you ask 100 to come up with their top barbell exercises, I’m betting 80 or more would include a squatting variation, a hinging variation, a horizontal pressing variation, a vertical pressing variation, and a pulling variation. Limited to a barbell weight set, a weight bench, and a set of squat stands, any coach worth his salt should be able to design a training program to hit every major muscle group. 

Let’s take a close look at exactly how that’s possible.

Barbell Back Squat

The foundational Olympic barbell exercise—the one nearly every big, strong, and powerful athlete throughout history has become proficient at—is the barbell back squat.  Squatting is so critical to development because it enables trainees to work a large amount of muscle tissue with this one movement. Directly involved muscles include the quadriceps, hamstrings, adductors, and glutes. Indirectly involved in a supporting manner are the calves, abdominals, and spinal erectors.

You can also change the focus of the exercise to target the involved musculature differently. Squatting in a high bar style with a somewhat narrow stance and upright torso, while allowing the knees to track forward past the toes, emphasizes the quadriceps muscles. 

Powerlifting Squat

The classic powerlifting squat places the bar much lower on the shoulders. Powerlifting-style squats are performed with a wider stance and greater degree of outward toe flare as the lifter sits back and maintains relatively vertical shins. The resulting forward lean places more of the load on the powerful posterior chain muscles—hamstrings, glutes, and hips. 

Front Squats

Front squats, with the bar in front of the neck across the front deltoids, are an excellent variation to target the quadriceps. The more upright position also works the mid-back supporting muscles while sparing the lumbar spine the shearing forces associated with the greater degree of forward lean required for back squatting.


For the sheer amount of muscle tissue worked with a single movement, hinging is perhaps the only rival for squatting.  With a barbell weight set, you can load the hinging pattern with explosive lifts like high pulls and power cleans or with grinding lifts like deadlifts and Romanian deadlifts.

Glutes, adductors, hamstrings, erectors, lats, traps, and rhomboids all receive a significant muscular stimulus, either as prime movers or in a supporting role, from these excellent barbell exercises. Even the quadriceps are involved, though to a lesser degree than when squatting because of the higher hip position and more open knee angle.

Conventional Deadlift

The sumo or conventional deadlift will be the easiest to learn for most trainees. Generally, short-limbed lifters with stocky frames—the natural squatter/bencher build—are at a leverage disadvantage for conventional deadlifting and may be better off with sumo. Tall, lanky, narrow-hipped lifters, on the other hand, are often naturally proficient conventional deadlifters capable of hoisting poundages belying their less impressive frames. Either way, a hinging variation is a must-include movement in any well-designed barbell exercise program.

So far, we’ve talked a lot about esoteric muscles like the posterior chain that are key to athletic development, but what about a few exercises you can do with a simple barbell weight set to target the beach muscles? Pressing a barbell in the horizontal and vertical planes are your staple exercises for building a set of powerful pecs and cannonball delts.

Barbell Benching

Assuming you can do so without pain, barbell benching is the upper body lift you should be doing if you want strong and well-developed pecs, shoulders, and triceps. Your setup and hand placement on the bar will have a lot to do both with whether you’re able to bench pain-free and with what muscles the exercise emphasizes. 

Retract your scapulae by pinching them together and lower the bar with your elbows tucked in at about a 45° angle instead of flared out at a 90° angle in order to protect your shoulders. A medium grip hits all of the involved muscles relatively evenly, while narrowing or widening your grip by about a fist’s width on each side shifts the emphasis to the triceps or pectorals, respectively.

Barbell Overhead Press

Bodybuilders in the 1950s and 60s practiced pressing a barbell overhead far more than gym rats today, so it’s no coincidence they had such aesthetically pleasing physiques with boulder shoulders that filled shirts and created a sought-after v-taper. Though seated pressing allows you to focus solely on driving the bar upwards with your shoulders and triceps, you may opt to press in the truly old-school standing fashion to also engage the supporting muscles of your torso as they fight to prevent you from wobbling around. 

Pressing from the front places more of the load on the anterior and medial deltoids, while behind-the-neck pressing loads the posterior deltoids and trapezius. You need only lower the bar to about earlobe level to attain all the benefits of behind-the-neck pressing while minimizing injury risk.

Balance all of this pressing with barbell rows, a pulling variation that can be done with only a barbell weight set. Think of your hands simply as “hooks” to attach to the bar and concentrate on pulling with your lats and mid-back rather than with your biceps.

You can spare your lower back some stress by bending forward at no more than a 45° angle. Row by keeping the bar close to your body and pulling it into your lower abdomen. If you want to bend further forward to a 90° angle, try dead stop rows, pausing the barbell on the floor to reset your lower back before each rep.

Barbell Exercise Program

For an effective barbell exercise program that optimizes recovery, place your squatting and hinging variations at opposite ends of the training week and sandwich your pressing into the middle. Add a bit of abdominal work to your squat workout and you’ll be all set to achieve maximal results with this minimalist program.

Monday Wednesday Friday


Horizontal Press


Back squat
Front squat

Bench Press
Narrow-grip Bench Press
Wide-grip Bench Press

Conventional Deadlift
Sumo Deadlift


Vertical Press
(standing or seated)



Front Press
Behind-the-neck Press

Barbell Row
Dead-stop Row

Chuck Miller has been immersed in the pursuit of strength and the art and science of physical transformation as a coach, athlete, and writer for over thirty years. He is the author of Inside the Mind of an Iron Icon: on strength training and bodybuilding and is a monthly columnist for HARDGAINER 2.0 Visit CORE Strength and Conditioning to learn more about his background or to book a consultation.