Barbell Sets for Resistance Training article by Chuck Miller

Barbell Sets for Resistance Training

Barbell Sets for Resistance Training - The Gold Standard For Maximizing Muscle Size and Strength Gains!

Bob Hoffman, through his York Barbell empire, is probably more responsible for the growth in sales of barbell sets in the United States than any other person. Having purchased his own set in 1923 from the Milo Barbell Company and increasing his physique from under 180 pounds to a muscular 240, Hoffman was hooked on the miracle of weight training.

Already successful in the oil burner business, he used his shrewd business acumen to begin manufacturing his own barbell sets for resistance training in the late 1920s. Though growth was temporarily interrupted during World War II as resources were diverted in an all-hands-on-deck campaign against Nazi Germany, the post-war 1950s and 1960s saw a meteoric rise in sales of barbell sets that coincided with America’s dominance of international Olympic weightlifting via the Hoffman-led York Barbell Club.

Although America’s glory days of Olympic weightlifting had ended by the early 1970s and York Barbell had begun its slow decline as well, the barbell set endured as the primary tool for building muscle and strength. In fact, pandemic-mandated gym closures in 2020 saw a renaissance in barbell-only workouts as gym rats around the world had to learn to make do with limited gym equipment in garages and basements.

In a throwaway world of fads and trends with ever-shrinking shelf lives, how has a tool as simple as the barbell managed to stick around for so long? In a word, effectiveness

Perhaps the barbell set’s greatest attribute is its versatility to perform exercises for every major muscle group. Even more importantly, all the fancy exercise machines that have ever been developed have simply never managed to exceed the simple and primitive barbell set’s capacity for building lean and muscular physiques. 

Unlike the fixed bar path of machines, barbell resistance training also allows you to make subtle adjustments to fit movements to your particular structure. Squatting on a Smith Machine, for example, mandates a vertical bar path for everyone, regardless of whether that actually matches an individual trainee’s particular squatting style, in order to fit within the confines of the machine’s guide rods. Conversely, no two barbell squats will look identical. Depending on individual anthropometry, some people will squat with a very upright torso, while others will lean forward substantially. 

In designing a barbell workout with no machines or even dumbbells, you’ll be a bit limited in the number of movements at your disposal. Since you won’t have a plethora of exercises from which to choose, forgetting about common body part splits and performing a full-body routine probably makes the most sense.

Begin each workout by focusing on a compound lower body movement, either with a squatting focus to emphasize the quadriceps or with a hinging focus to emphasize the hamstrings and glutes. Obvious choices are the barbell back squat or conventional barbell deadlift, but your squat will be limited by the amount of weight you can clean (assuming you don’t have a set of squat stands).

Front squats, lunges, and Zercher squats are three solid choices where reduced poundages will provide an excellent training stimulus. Alternatives to the conventional deadlift include Romanian deadlifts and sumo deadlifts.

From here, move to a pressing movement in either the horizontal or vertical plane. Floor presses and close-grip floor presses are excellent substitutes for the bench press if you don’t have a bench, though you will need to recruit a spotter to help you get the bar into position.

Your go-to exercise for pressing in the vertical plane will be the barbell clean and press, a staple lift of serious weight trainers the world over until the press was eliminated from Olympic weightlifting competition in 1972. Athletes might also enjoy incorporating some hip drive to push press the bar overhead, and those with robust shoulder joints may judiciously include the behind-the-neck-press.

Finally, many strength coaches recommend balancing pressing with an approximately equal amount of pulling to create a well-rounded routine. Unfortunately, without a chinning bar, you won’t be able to pull in the vertical plane and will be limited only to movements you can do in the horizontal plane (i.e. rowing). 

For traditional barbell rows, bend forward at the waist to approximately a 45-degree angle (or about to the bottom of a Romanian deadlift) and hold this position while rowing into the lower abdomen. As you might imagine, holding this static bent-over position places quite a bit of stress on the lumbar spine. Dead stop rows, in which you briefly rest the barbell on the ground between each rep and “reset” your lower back into a solid pulling position, are a modification that may alleviate some of this static hold stress. Upright rows and high pulls are other pulling movements worthy of inclusion for occasional variety.

The meat and potatoes of your workout with a barbell set will be these three: compound lower body movement, pressing, and pulling. You may also want to include a few sets of shirt-sleeve-stretching barbell curls and triceps extensions (done lying on the floor if a bench isn’t available) if time and energy allow.

Here’s your complete resistance training program to be done 2-3 times per week:

  1. Compound lower body movement (3 work sets)
    1. Squat focus — barbell back squat, barbell front squat, Zercher squat, lunge
    2. Hinge focus — conventional deadlift, sumo deadlift, Romanian deadlift
  2. Pressing (3 work sets)
    1. Horizontal plane — floor press, close-grip floor press
    2. Vertical plane — clean and press, push press, behind-the-neck press

  3. Pulling (3 work sets) — barbell row, dead stop row, upright row, high pull

  4. Optional arm work (2 supersets) — barbell curl and floor extension

You might think of barbell training as primitive, but for the dedicated, the results will be anything but.

*Photo credit Keri Brice KB Fitness Personal Training Charlotte, NC

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.