In this post, we’ll take a look at the four best barbell exercises of all time. These barbell movements have stood the test of time and should be part of every serious lifter’s toolbox.
A Word on Barbells
In addition to machines, treadmills, and dumbbells, virtually every gym nowadays also houses the revolutionary fitness invention referred to as the barbell. Okay, okay, there is one exception – we won’t give any guarantees for Planet Fitness as they recently gave up their appetite for barbells and squat racks altogether.
In any case, if your gym does not have barbells, and you consider yourself a serious lifter/strength trainee, you really need to hop on a different gym’s train immediately.
The barbell is the most basic, versatile, and efficacious equipment in the gym. There’s just a natural intrinsic satisfaction that comes from picking up a barbell and maneuvering it to perform various barbell exercises. It’s not only a big boy’s toy, it’s also extremely intuitive and just makes sense to use for weightlifting. If you want to get serious about lifting, you need to start loving barbells. No two ways around that.
What makes barbell exercises so effective is the fact that these movements are compound and multi-joint in nature. Meaning, they are able to recruit more muscle mass at once by engaging multiple muscle groups. This enables you to put heavier loads/stresses on your body which in turn makes you bigger and stronger.
While the barbell has given birth to numerous different barbell exercises since its inception, there are some barbell movements that are just miles ahead and way better than others – just like anything in life. So we’ll cut the clutter and talk about the four (4) best supreme barbell movements that have stood the test of time and deserve to be the core lifts in every serious lifter’s arsenal.
Oh, and if you could only do four exercises your entire life due to whatever damn reason, choosing these four barbell exercises should be a no-brainer.
1. The Parallel Barbell Squat
The squat is the ultimate strength training exercise. It’s the undefeated king of all exercises. No other barbell movement comes close to it in terms of the muscle recruitment, nervous system activation, and mental willpower required. For this reason, popular strength training programs like Stronglifts 5×5, Starting Strength or the Texas method, revolve around the squat as the primary exercise to build raw strength.
A correctly performed parallel depth squat will work your glutes, quadriceps, and hamstrings – these major muscles comprise the leg muscle group which is the largest muscle group in your body. Unsurprisingly, this high level of muscle activation means the exercise releases more testosterone – which is a natural muscle builder.
Secondarily, the squat also works the muscles of the core as well as the lower and middle back since there is spinal loading taking place especially as you increase weights on the bar. These trunk muscles need to support the bar in the right position, so they also get activated in the process.
While the benefits are plentiful, the Parallel Squat is a considerably hard exercise to perform. This explains why you rarely see a parallel squat being done in the common gym. If you want to increase your squat and get better at it, make sure to check out these tips to boost your Squat.
2. The Press
No, not the bench press, but the press. While there are several types of presses, The Press, specifically, is a prestigious title, and it can’t just be tossed around to any press. So yes, we’re referring to none other than the original press, more popularly known as the Overhead Press.
Commonly dismissed as being too old school and dangerous, The Overhead Press is probably the most forgotten barbell exercise. But make no mistake, it’s brutally effective. And everyone who says it’s dangerous for your back is either doing the lift wrong, is just outright weak, or is too scared to engage in a challenging movement.
The Overhead press used to be a staple shoulder building exercise in the past, and rightly so because it’s intuitively satisfying to pick up a barbell and shove it over your head. But these days, only powerlifters, Crossfit athletes, and strength training enthusiasts happen to have a clue about it. Similar to the Squat, the Press is also a compound multi-joint movement.
The muscles worked in the OHP include all three shoulder heads, abs, triceps, and traps.
Overhead presses require your entire kinetic chain to stabilize your body so you can move the bar in vertical motion efficiently. Meaning, it is way more than a shoulder exercise. It builds the stabilizing muscles of the core and upper back as well. To fully utilize the OHP, you need to really squeeze your butt and abs during the lift. This helps distribute the weight throughout your body giving you more leverage and muscular resources to press the bar.
All that said, Overhead presses are also really hard to progress on. Anyone who can do a 1x body-weight overhead press is easily stronger than most lifters. Additionally, if you think overhead presses are hard, you might want to check out the Z press – which is a harder variation that focuses more on the core.
3. The Deadlift
While the Squat comfortably sits on the king’s throne, the Deadlift sits right beside it – on the Queen’s throne. Some argue that the deadlift is the ultimate strength exercise, but in reality, it is second, only, to the Squat. Arguably, it is the queen of all exercises.
The deadlift is the most simple, obvious, and painfully satisfying barbell exercise. You pick up a heavy loaded barbell, stand with it, and then put it back down. Moreover, the deadlift is the only exercise that works almost all the muscles in the body. In fact, the exercise where most lifters can lift the heaviest weights is none other than the deadlift. Because of this, deadlifts are extremely taxing on your body and the nervous system, which is why you should not deadlift more than twice a week.
Primarily, deadlifts work your glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, traps, and back muscles. Secondarily, the core and lats come into play to help stabilize your spine in lifting the heavy load. That’s a lot of muscles for just one exercise. That’s why, big time coaches will tell you that if you can only do one exercise, do the deadlift.
A weak deadlift is a sign of a weak body.
Deadlifts are also one of the most functional exercises with significant carryover to the real world. If you have a strong deadlift, you will be strong enough to pick up awkward objects with proper form, avoiding potential injuries. Moreover, deadlifts will build you a vice grip, and we all know how important a strong grip is. If you struggle with grip strength in deadlifts, you can use lifting straps or increase grip strength specifically for deadlifts.
You can’t go wrong with the deadlift. All you really need to make sure is that your back is neutral and not rounded throughout the lift. Remember also to use deadlift cues to help you master the form.
4. The (Bench) Press
Finally, the fourth essential barbell exercise is the bench press. The bench press is a very good test of upper body strength and pushing power, as it works the chest, shoulder, and triceps muscles. Among the four best barbell movements mentioned, the bench press is easily the most popular, and that’s a good thing.
Anyone who can bench press more than his body-weight with correct form will clearly have a strong, well-defined chest. By correct form, we mean bar touching the chest every single rep.
These four core barbell lifts are the fundamental pillars of strength training. As a serious lifter looking to get big and strong, these 4 lifts are a must. If you’re not doing these lifts already, God knows what you’re doing. So the next time you hit the gym, set your eyes on the barbells and focus the big four lifts!
Tip: if you want to learn how to correctly perform each of these four lifts, Mark Rippetoe’s tutorial videos are one of the best in the business.