Full body barbell workouts article by Chuck Miller

Full-Body Barbell Workouts

You’re not getting caught with your pants down again. Next time you’re told to shelter in place indefinitely, you’ll be ready to continue your training regimen with basic, full-body barbell workouts from home.

You went out and purchased a barbell and weight plates and stashed them in your apartment’s spare bedroom. You have the tools; you just need the know-how to be able to perform minimalist barbell workouts with limited training equipment.

Workouts with a barbell are no great mystery. Though the concept might seem strange today, that’s exactly how most people trained in 1938 when the original York Barbell System of Training was introduced. 

Courses 1-3 outline many excellent exercises that can be performed with just a barbell and barbell plates. Though we may have slightly different names for some of them today, lifts such as the two-arm clean, two-arm curl, two-arm press, press behind the neck, two-arm pullover, deadlift, stiff-legged deadlift, deep knee bend, barbell row, and floor press are just as relevant and effective for building strength and muscle mass now as they were then.

With quite a few barbell lifts to choose from, arriving at a training schedule in which to arrange them can be a bit confusing. A simple full-body barbell workout consisting of a compound lower-body movement, an upper-body push, and an upper-body pull is a great starting point.

Three lifts might not sound like a lot of work, but barbell workouts can be much more demanding and more efficient than machine-based commercial gym workouts. Three hard work sets for each of three different compound movements are all you need to provide the necessary training stimulus for muscle growth and to offer a challenging workout.

Lower Body

Beginning with a compound lower-body movement, you have several excellent choices for your barbell workout. The king of lower body lifts, the barbell back squat, is a great foundational choice. The only limitation is that even a very strong man may struggle to clean over 300 pounds from the floor, press it overhead, and lower it behind the neck to the proper starting position across the rear delts.

Switching to front squats provides an easy fix to this problem, eliminating the need to press the barbell and lower it behind the neck. Your front squat will only be limited by the amount of weight you can clean into position. 

When you can no longer clean the barbell, you still have excellent options for your compound lower-body movement in the conventional deadlift and sumo deadlift. Neither hits the legs quite as hard as squats and front squats, but both are superior for training the posterior chain — glutes, hamstrings, and spinal erectors.

Upper Body

Let’s move now to upper-body pushing movements in designing workouts with a barbell and Olympic weight plates as your only training implements. Every bro who goes to the gym wants to bench press, both because it’s a great exercise for developing the chest, shoulders, and triceps and because benching is the “bragging rights” lift. 

Even without a weight bench at your disposal, you can still obtain most of the benefits of bench pressing with a floor press. A floor press is just as it sounds — a press done while lying on your back on the floor. You’ll need someone to hand you the bar, but you should be doing any sort of prone press with a spotter as a safety precaution anyway.

The range of motion will be shorter than a bench press, as the back of most people’s upper arms contacts the floor a few inches before the bar touches their chest. This seeming disadvantage may actually be an advantage, since most shoulder and pec injuries incurred while bench pressing happen in those first two to three inches off the chest. The small amount of muscular stimulation that’s lost is a tradeoff many would make if it meant they could train consistently with much less chance of injury.

The bench press wasn’t always the most popular lift around. Until the standing press was eliminated from Olympic weightlifting competitions in 1972, most serious trainees were more concerned with how much they could standing press than with how much they could bench press. 

If you want a set of cannonball deltoids, paying your dues with the standing press and push press (just a press with a little leg drive to get the bar started) is one of the best ways to get them. For those with robust shoulders, the behind-the-neck press can also be an excellent choice, but you’ll be wise to start light and progress cautiously. 

Including a set of pulling for every set of pushing, is a recommendation many top coaches make, both for symmetrical development and to avoid muscular imbalances that can lead to injuries. Following this sound reasoning, your workouts with a barbell should include equal doses of pushing and pulling.

Various forms of barbell rows will be your bread and butter pulling movement. Rows are a great exercise to stimulate the entire upper back, including the lats, rhomboids, teres major and minor, posterior deltoids, middle and lower trapezius, and infraspinatus. 

You can row with a pronated or supinated grip for a slightly different training stimulus. You can also vary the angle of your torso, bending forward only slightly or bending forward until you’re nearly parallel with the floor. 

Spinal shearing forces increase as the torso angle increases, so you must brace hard and maintain a flat lower back if you’re going to perform rows with a significant amount of forward lean. Some lifters also prefer to pause the plates briefly on the floor between each rep and reset their backs as a precautionary measure.

Another excellent but not commonly practiced pulling movement is the high pull. High pulls, like power cleans, add an explosive component that athletes, in particular, may value. High pulls work all the muscles rows work while also doing a superb job of building hip and core strength. When the weight gets too heavy for a proper high pull, shrugs are an option for those who want to focus on developing the trapezius muscles.

You may not have endless variety with barbell workouts, but you have enough choices and won’t need more to build a strong and powerful physique. Next time you’re not able to get to the gym or you just want to get back to basics, the workout below is one that’s stood the test of time.

Full-body Barbell Workout Template 

(pick one of each movement type for 3-5 sets)

  1. Compound lower-body movement — squat, front squat, conventional deadlift, or sumo deadlift
  2. Upper-body push — floor press, standing press, push press, or behind-the-neck press
  3. Upper-body pull — barbell row, high pull, power clean, or shrug

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.