14 Best Barbell Exercises

The other day, a guy walked into the gym. Boy, was this dude skinny. The bulkiest thing on him was his wallet. I was resting between sets when he walked over to me.

“Excuse me,” he said. “I really want to pack on some size. How long do you think it’ll take?”

“This is a gym, not a place for miracles,” I told him.

“I’m really that skinny?”

“I’ve seen more muscle on a snake,” I said.

“What can I do?” he asked. “I’m tired of being thin.”

I assured him, “Listen, you’ve come to the right place. The most important thing you can do is heavy barbell training. That’s the way you can add mass.”

“What exercises should I do?” he asked.

“Do those that build the foundation. I call them bodybuilding’s greatest barbell exercises. They’re the ultimate for building strength and mass.”

With wide eyes and a big grin, he said, “I’m really into mass!”

“Hey, we’ll talk religion later,” I said. “For now, you need to learn the exercises.”

To Begin

Start off with an overall warm-up. For each exercise, do a specific warm-up of 1-2 light sets before using your training weight (one heavy enough to make you put forth a big effort to complete the higher number of reps). Always use excellent form in resistance movements.

1. Bench Press (Chest)

If your upper body resembles a bony frame covered with skin, start benching. Keep your body flat on the bench. Take a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip and inhale as you lower the bar to your lower chest. Keep your elbows close to your sides throughout the movement. Exhale as you press the weight up. Do three sets of 8-10 reps.

Mass Tip: The closer you bring the bar to the neck and your elbows back to shoulder level, the more you’ll feel it in your upper chest.

2. Incline Barbell Press (Chest)

Similar to the flat bench. Here you use an incline bench to target the upper chest. (Or is it the bony area just below your neck?) Do three sets of 8-12 reps.

Mass Tip: The closer you grip your hands to the center of the bar, the more you’ll feel the exercise hit the center (vertical separation) of your chest.

3. Close-Grip Bench Press (Chest, Triceps)

Start with the same body and elbow positioning as on the flat bench, but bring your hands in so they’re 6-8 inches apart. Lower the bar and press up to full lockout. Do three sets of 10-15 reps.

Mass Tip: For extra intensity, do 3-5 short-range lockout reps at the end of your set. Straighten your arms completely, then lower the weight only 1-2 inches and lock the arms and contract them forcefully. You’ll be amazed at how much this will burn!

4. Standing Curl (Biceps)

If you’re tired of your puny arms being bruised from your shirt sleeves slapping against them, this exercise is for you. Take a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip and keep your elbows locked to your sides. Curl until the biceps are peak-contracted. Do three sets of 5-9 reps.

Mass Tip: Use a close grip to hit the outer biceps and a wide grip to hit the inner biceps.

5. Reverse Curl (Biceps, Forearms)

If you think a brachialis is something found in your throat, do these. Instead of an underhand grip like you use on the barbell curl, take an overhand grip. Keep your elbows close to your sides. Do three sets of 7-11 reps.

Mass Tip: Do 21s to really feel the burn from the start, through the middle and finish. Begin with seven reps and only go to midpoint. The next seven reps, go from midpoint to finish. Do the final seven reps nonstop from start to finish.

6. Wrist Curl (Forearms)

If Popeye was your hero, you’re probably a good candidate for building big forearms. One of the best exercises to do so is the wrist curl. Rest your arms on a flat bench, firmly anchoring your wrists – with the palms up – just slightly over the edge of the bench. Don’t move them throughout the exercise. Relax your wrists, then bring your hands up as you curl the weight toward your forearms. Do three sets without counting reps – go for the burn, all the way to failure.

Mass Tip: For a burn that’s out of this world, curl the weight to full contraction, then uncurl it about 1 inch and curl to full contraction again. Keep this going until it becomes impossible to move the weight at all.

7. Overhead Press (Shoulders)

If the clothes hanger from the cleaners is wider than your shoulders, overhead presses will change that. Do these either standing or seated, in front of or behind your neck. Take a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip and, in a controlled manner, lower the bar behind your neck to the upper traps (or the upper-clavicle area if you prefer pressing from the front). Keep your elbows pointed down, not back. Do three sets of 8-12 reps.

Mass Tip: To make those deep fibers contract, take four seconds to lower the bar – tensing the delts the entire time – and with a quick explosive movement, press the weight up.

8. Shrug (Traps)

This isn’t what you do when you’re confused – it’s another great trap builder. Most bodybuilders do military shrugs with the bar in front of their body. Take a shoulder-width grip, keep your arms locked and shrug your shoulders straight up (don’t roll them) toward your ears.

Mass Tip: For variation, try this with the barbell behind you. Take an overhand grip with your palms facing to the rear. You won’t be able to use as much weight, but you’ll feel the movement differently. Do three sets and keep your reps in the 5-7 range.

9. Bent-Over Row (Back)

If a banana has wider lats than you, you need rows! If you choose an overhand grip, keep your legs slightly bent and lean forward at the waist. Take a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip and bring the weight up into your midsection and your arms back.

With an underhand grip, keep your legs slightly bent and the upper body leaning forward. Pull your arms back and the weight into your waist. You should feel a big difference between the two movements. Do three sets of 5-9 reps.

Mass Tip: 1) Lower the weight until the arms reach full extension. 2) When you pull the weight back, focus on making the back contract. Because they can’t see their backs contracting, most bodybuilders neglect this important growth and strength component.

10. Upright Row (Traps)

So you think traps are something you set for mice? Oh, no. Uprights will build a thick wall of muscle above your shoulders.

Take a shoulder-width overhand grip. Keep the bar close to your body and raise it up to about chin level, making sure to elevate your shoulders. This will make the traps do the lion’s share of the work. Lower the bar under control until your arms are fully extended. Do three sets of 9-15 reps.

Mass Tip: The closer the grip, the more directly the traps seem to be worked. Conversely, the wider the grip, the more you’ll feel it in the deltoids.

11. Deadlift (Back, Legs)

No, it isn’t what you’d do at a funeral, it’s something you do for your lower back, traps, glutes and legs. Proper form is crucial. Try a shoulder-width over/underhand grip (one hand over, the other under) or double overhand grip to see which one you prefer. Place your feet about shoulder-width apart. Keep your arms locked and fully extended.

Squat down until your thighs are about parallel to the floor. Keep your back tight and your head up and looking forward. Your chest should be slightly forward and over the bar. Straighten your legs and raise the weight off the floor. Keep the barbell close to your legs throughout the movement. As your legs get closer to full extension, straighten your back to the upright position. Do three sets of 4-6 reps.

Mass Tip: Take an extra minute or two of rest between sets so you keep excellent, injury-preventing, and mass- and strength-producing form while using heavy weight. For a different type of intensive workout, use lighter weight and keep your rest periods to no longer than 45-60 seconds between sets.

12. Stiff-Legged Deadlift (Hamstrings)

Same as the deadlift, except you should do these on a platform for a greater stretch, and your legs remain in a nearly locked-out position (knees slightly bent) from start to finish. The key to feeling this in your hamstrings and glutes is to not round your back. Keep the back tight and slightly arched. Do three sets of 6-9 reps.

Mass Tip: Be sure to lower the bar as far as you’re comfortably able. For some, the bar touches the tops of their shoes. For others, this may be slightly below knee level. The important thing is to feel the stretch and keep the bar close to the body throughout the movement.

13. Squat (Quads, Glutes)
You say your legs are so thin they could double as letter openers? Say no more – you need squats. Forget all those fancy machines; if you want serious jeans-busting quads, squats are king!

Here’s how to do back squats (though front squats also work well). Stand under a squat rack and rest the bar at a comfortable spot on your traps. Keep your feet about shoulder-width apart, turned slightly out. With a slight arch in your lower back and your head up and looking straight ahead, squat down until your thighs are about parallel to the floor. Always make sure your knees travel in a direct line over your big toes. For more stability, you may want to slightly elevate your heels. Do three sets of 6-10 reps.

Mass Tip: Keep your legs and feet together if you want to add more outer-thigh sweep. Keep your sqat legs about 3 feet apart and turn the feet outward (always making sure the knees travel in line over the big toes) if you want to hit more of the inner thigh.

14. Hack Squat (Quads, Glutes)

This is a real quad burner if you do it right. Most bodybuilders don’t; they keep the bar away from their glutes instead of holding it right up against them throughout the movement. Elevate your heels slightly and keep your upper body erect. Position the bar against your lower glutes where they join the upper hamstrings. Squat down until your thighs are about parallel to the floor. Come back up but don’t lock out; keep constant tension on your quads. One more thing: Do nonstop reps. If you want burn, this will do it! Do three sets of 10-15 reps.

Mass Tip: For more power and less knee stress, keep your legs about 8-10 inches apart and your feet pointed straight.

A Few Words About Reps… Some training guides give a standardized number of reps for a particular exercise and mode of training. For example, 3-5 reps for power, 6-12 for mass and 15-20 or more for greater pump, definition and endurance. For the majority of bodybuilders, this system works fairly well.

However, I present a different set of rep ranges for two reasons:

  1. Through trial and error and talking with other experienced bodybuilders, I found these rep schemes to be superior for the given movement.
  2. You will better remember a specific exercise when you’re given an unusual rep scheme like 5-9, 7-11 or 9-15, as opposed to the usual 8-10 reps per exercise. It’s one thing to read about an exercise and quite another to remember all the nuances. I want you to get the best results; if it takes a weird rep scheme (that works!) to make it happen, then consider it done.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *