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11 Best Barbell Exercises for Each Muscle Group

In my opinion, the barbell is the ultimate training tool.

It’s the combination of ultimate simplicity and outright versatility that I love. There are almost limitless barbell exercises you can do. You can train your entire body within a few minutes using a barbell, such is their effectiveness.

As a certified personal trainer for almost 20 years, this is a piece of equipment that I use the most with my clients… and for myself!

And from a home gym perspective, they’re perfect. 

  • Barbells are (relatively) cheap.
  • They require almost no maintenance.
  • They’re easy to store
  • They’re easy to use
  • And they are suitable for anyone of any ability.

They’re the perfect functional fitness tool, strength-building tool, muscle-building tool, and rehab tool.

I’m a gym owner, and in my facility, I have over 50 barbells (you can see a selection of these below). That tells you everything you need to know about how highly I regard them!

Best Barbell Exercises – here are some of the barbells in my gym!

After spending hours researching and testing over 100 barbells you can find our picks for the best Olympic barbells and best budget barbells here.

Rogue Ohio Cerakote Bar

Rogue Ohio Bar Cerakote
Read our best Olympic barbell guide here

This is the bar that we recommend for ‘most people’.

We have spent over 120 hours of research and tested over 100 barbells.

It is affordable but comes with some high specs. The Rogue Work Hardening and 190k PSI tensile strength mean the bar will last a lifetime in a home gym.

It is a multi-purpose bar with a 28.5mm diameter shaft and composite bushings in the sleeves. This means it’s balanced for heavy slow bench presses but you can also perform snatches and fast overhead lifts.


What are the 11 best barbell exercises for me?

The issue for beginners to barbell training is this – faced with literally thousands of potential exercises, what are the best barbell exercises?

Where should you start if you want to build life-long, real-world strength, power, and injury resistance?

How do you decide what version of an exercise is the best one?

There are so many questions and areas of confusion!

In this article, I’ve put together a list of what I believe are the barbell exercises that most people are able to do.

There are more advanced exercises than these (snatches for example), but these 11 barbell exercises are the ones that I believe are the best barbell exercises for most people. They cover all of the body, then can be progressed or regressed and offer the full set of human movement patterns (more on this later).

You could feasibly do these exercises for the rest of your life and build an amazing physique and athleticism. They require minimal equipment and could be varied simply by adjusting your weights, sets, and rep ranges. (For more information on what that means, take a look at this beginner weight lifting routine article.)


How I’ve decided on the BEST barbell exercises

In reality, there are no best or worst exercises, there’s just the appropriate exercise for the goal. Given there are literally thousands of available options, how do you go about deciding what are the best barbell exercises?

In this case, to make the selection process easier I’ve approached the article using this question…

If all I had was a barbell, what are the fewest exercises I’d do with it to improve strength, fitness, health, and overall athleticism?

This gives me a framework from which to decide on the best overall barbell exercises. I’m limited to the fewest exercises here, so I can’t be too indulgent with my choices. It’s not an encyclopedia of barbell exercises, it’s a tight list. From there, it’s a question of looking at overall workout quality. 

What are the essential movements I want to perform with the barbell?

There are 7 human movements

7 basic human movement patterns

Stripped back, the human body is capable of 7 basic movements. We can string these together to create more complex movement patterns, but the basic movements are set in stone. 

In order to make a workout program complete, we should ensure that we are performing each of these movements…

  • Push
  • Pull
  • Squat
  • Lunge
  • Hinge
  • Rotation
  • Gait (walking, running – not relevant in this list)

All of these are possible with a barbell, so then we have to make a further series of decisions around which ones we pick. We know that big, compound exercises elicit a significant growth hormone response, so we need to focus on exercises that use a lot of muscle.

Therefore, exercises such as bicep curls, tricep extensions, skull crushers, calf raises, etc were out of this list.

I’ve then looked to consider different approaches to human movements. For example, we can push and pull in two different directions – horizontally (a bench press for example) and vertically (a shoulder press). I’ve made sure in the list that I’ve included both horizontal and vertical pushes and pulls. 

This means we cover all of the movement bases and provide enough variation of stimulus to build both real fitness, and avoid injuries thanks to overuse.


The 11 best barbell exercises

Now you understand the thought process and decision-making that went into putting this list together, here’s my list of the best barbell exercises. You could feasibly just train these movements for the rest of your life and you’d look, feel and perform amazingly well.

You should play with a variety of rep ranges, weights, rest periods, and volume to keep challenging yourself and improving your fitness.

4 full-body barbell exercises

1. Power Cleans

I think cleans are one of the most functional and useful barbell exercises of all. They tick every box for us in this list and therefore, have to find their way among the best barbell exercises… cleans use a huge amount of muscle, they can be adjusted in terms of weights, reps, and sets, and they build real athleticism and help you to pack on serious muscle.

A clean is one of the first exercises I teach new personal training clients. They’re a technical lift, but get this right and there are crossover benefits to almost all of the other lifts including deadlifts, front squats, and rows.

Equipment needed for power cleans:

Rogue Ohio Cerakote Bar

Rogue Ohio Bar Cerakote
Read our best Olympic barbell guide here

This is the bar that we recommend for ‘most people’.

We have spent over 120 hours of research and tested over 100 barbells.

It is affordable but comes with some high specs. The Rogue Work Hardening and 190k PSI tensile strength mean the bar will last a lifetime in a home gym.

It is a multi-purpose bar with a 28.5mm diameter shaft and composite bushings in the sleeves. This means it’s balanced for heavy slow bench presses but you can also perform snatches and fast overhead lifts.

How to do power cleans:

  • Load your bar and stand centrally. Assume an overhand (or even better – hook) grip
  • Bend your legs, keep your back straight and your chest up
  • Drive through your legs, keeping your arms straight – this will lift the bar to hip height
  • When the bar reaches hip height, pull the bar to chest height, driving your elbows underneath and ‘through’ the bar
  • As you’re doing this, ‘drop’ under the bar into a quarter squat position – you should ‘catch’ the bar with bent legs to absorb some of the weight
  • Stabilize the bar at chest height, with your upper arms parallel to the floor and your elbows pointing directly in front of you (this is known as the rack position)
  • Stand up to finish the movement
  • Drop the bar to the floor (only if you have bumper plates!)
  • Repeat as many times as required

Power cleans muscles worked:

  • Upper back
  • Lower back
  • Legs
  • Core
  • Glutes
  • Shoulders

2. Thrusters

Thrusters are synonymous with CrossFit, but they’ve made the transfer into the mainstream now because they’re so… damn… good! They combine two excellent exercises – the front squat and the shoulder press, but they include core stability too.

I like Thrusters more as a conditioning exercise (medium to low weight, higher rep ranges) than a strength exercise, but either way, they’re an integral part of my programming and an exercise I rate very highly.

Equipment needed for thrusters:

Rogue Fleck Bumper Plates

Rogue Fleck Bumper Plate
Read our best bumper plates guide here

Bumper plates are ideal for a home gym.

They can last a lifetime and allow you to do additional lifts which require you to drop the bar.

Our team has compared over 100 types and the Rogue Fleck plates came out on top.

They are great value, use color allowing you to quickly see how much you’re lifting and the pattern will give your home gym a unique look.

How to do thrusters:

  • Hold the bar on your chest, in the rack position
  • Keeping your chest up and back straight, squat down to a full front squat depth (thighs parallel to the floor)
  • Stand back up by driving hard through the feet
  • At the top of the squat, without pausing press the bar overhead with a full extension of the arms
  • When the arms have reached full extension, drop the bar back down to the chest
  • Repeat as many times as required

Thrusters muscles worked:

  • Legs
  • Core
  • Glutes
  • Shoulders
  • Arms

3. Deadlifts

Deadlifts are known by many as the king of exercises – they’re typically the exercise that people can lift the most on.

Thanks to a combination of relatively simple technique and a lot of muscle engagement, they’re an excellent exercise for improving strength, athleticism, and growth hormone production very quickly.

They’re the ultimate hinge movement.

Deadlifts are not suited for everyone due to a lack of range of motion at the hips. So check out our deadlift alternative exercises article to find variations to suit you.

Equipment needed for deadlifts:

How to do deadlifts:

  • Load your bar and stand centrally. Assume an overhand or alternating grip
  • Bend your legs, keep your back straight and your chest up
  • Drive through your legs, keeping your arms straight – this will lift the bar to hip height
  • At the top of the movement squeeze the glutes together and push the hips forward slightly
  • Reverse the movement on the way down – start by pushing the hips back and lowering the weight down by bending your legs, keeping your chest up and back straight throughout
  • Repeat as many times as required

Deadlifts muscles worked:

  • Lower back
  • Legs
  • Glutes
  • Erectors
  • Core

4. Stiff-legged deadlifts

Stiff-legged deadlifts are my go-to hamstring exercise. They combine the ability to load the hamstrings with a lot of heavy weight, with a functional hinge pattern.

This makes for a fantastic posterior chain exercise with relatively little technique to learn. It’s the only dedicated hamstring exercise on this list, but it’s a fantastic one. It also benefits the glutes and lower back too which is an additional bonus. 

Equipment needed for stiff-legged deadlifts:

How to do stiff-legged deadlifts:

  • Hold the barbell with the grip of your choice
  • Deadlift the bar into your starting position, which is where you’re holding the barbell with straight arms
  • Keeping your back and legs straight, tilt your hips back as your torso starts to point towards the floor
  • Keep pushing your hips back, with your legs straight as you lower the bar towards the floor
  • As you feel your hamstrings stretch fully, push the hips forward and lift the bar back to the starting position
  • At the top of the movement squeeze the glutes together
  • Repeat as many times as required

Stiff-legged deadlifts muscles worked:

  • Lower back
  • Legs
  • Glutes
  • Erectors
  • Core

2 barbell exercises for legs

5. Barbell Front Squats

I love the barbell front squat – I believe it’s the most functional of all squatting patterns because it has excellent athletic carryover and it engages the core very well. It’s also easier to do without additional equipment because you can clean a weight into position to front squat it, which is easier than lifting a heavy weight over and behind your head!

In time, your front squat will almost match your back squat in terms of weight.

Equipment needed for barbell front squats:

How to do a barbell front squat:

  • Hold the bar in the rack position – open hand grip, elbows up, chest up
  • Take a breath in and engage the core – this keeps the lower back stable 
  • Keeping the chest up throughout, push your hips back and bend your knees until your thighs are parallel to the floor
  • Drive feet into the floor and stand back to the start position
  • Repeat as many times as required.

Barbell front squat muscles worked:

  • All muscles of the legs
  • Core
  • Glutes

6. Walking lunges

The walking lunge is a top-tier exercise and one I program for all of my personal training clients. The isometric nature of the exercise coupled with their outright functionality makes them super effective.

They build knee stability, athleticism, single-leg strength, glute strength, and serious muscle. If your leg training is lacking lunges, it’s missing a hugely efficient and beneficial exercise. As one of the 7 human movements, we need to have it included. 

Equipment needed for barbell lunges:

How to do barbell lunges:

  • Position the barbell across your upper back
  • Keep your chest up, your core tight and take a long step forward 
  • Bend the front knee to 90 degrees
  • When the back knee almost touches the floor, stand the front leg straight and bring the back leg through to the front 
  • Repeat on the other side for the opposite leg lunge
  • Perform as many reps as many times as necessary

Barbell lunges muscles worked:

  • Quads
  • Glutes
  • Core

Best barbell exercises for chest

7. Bench Press

I couldn’t write a list of the best barbell exercises without including the barbell bench press. It’s the lift most people start their fitness journey with and the source of a lot of lifting chat!

Whilst it’s arguably the least effective of the bench press variations (the dumbbell bench press is probably more functional), it’s still a great exercise and one that would be a staple of all barbell workout programs. 

It’s also a great one to do to increase how much you can lift… which improves your chest strength and hence gains muscle mass.

Equipment needed for barbell bench press:

How to do a barbell bench press:

  • Position the hands with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip. The wider your hands, the more chest engagement there is. Closer hands = more tricep recruitment.
  • Set your position – keep your feet firmly pushed into the ground, keep your glutes, hips and back in contact the the bench
  • Lift the bar off the rack and directly over your chest
  • Slowly lower the barbell directly over your chest, keeping your upper arms at 90 degrees to your torso as you do
  • When the bar reaches your chest, drive it back directly back upwards
  • Repeat as many times as required.

Barbell bench press muscles worked:

  • Chest
  • Shoulders 
  • Triceps

Best barbell exercise for shoulders

8. Military Press

The military press is the go-to vertical press movement for the vast majority of lifters… and for good reason. It builds muscle and strength very effectively.

It’s also impossible to give you a false sense of your overhead strength (like the push press can) because there’s no involvement of the legs. Done correctly it’s an excellent core exercise – the core is fundamental to overhead stability, which is a useful athletic ability. 

Equipment needed for the military press:

How to do a military press:

  • Position the hands with a slightly-wider than shoulder-width grip. 
  • Set your position – keep your feet firmly pushed into the ground, squeeze your glutes tight to lock your lower back. Keep your chest up and upper back engaged
  • Smoothly press the barbell overhead until your arms reach full extension
  • Slowly lower the barbell down to your chest
  • When the bar reaches your chest, drive it back directly back upwards
  • Repeat as many times as required.

Military press muscles worked:

  • Chest
  • Shoulders 
  • Triceps
  • Core
  • Glutes

Best barbell exercise for your back

9. Bent over barbell rows

This is the classic horizontal row exercise and has been a staple of training programs for years. It’s a way to not only train the lats, but it also activates the glutes and lower back as it requires them to work in order to keep the torso stable whilst lifting a heavy weight.

There are only two grip options – overhand and underhand, but there is a lot of freedom of movement from the fact that a barbell isn’t attached to anything.

Equipment needed for bent over barbell rows:

How to do bent over barbell rows:

  • Hold the barbell with the grip of your choice – overhand or underhand
  • Set your body position – straight, stiff back. Chest pointing towards the floor, perhaps with a slight incline, slight knee bend
  • Pull the barbell up towards your chest, squeezing the shoulder blades together at the top
  • At the top of the movement pause then slowly lower the barbell, but don’t let it touch the floor
  • Repeat as many times as required

Bent over barbell rows muscles worked:

  • Upper back
  • Latissimus Dorsi
  • Biceps
  • Glutes
  • Lower back

2 barbell exercises for abs and glutes

10. Barbell hip thrusts

The hip thrust is an underrated exercise – it’s often dismissed because it has been associated with young girls obsessed with growing a ‘booty’, but it’s a legitimately good exercise that is both functional and effective.

It doesn’t require much technique and there are a lot of performance improvement and injury reduction benefits from it. The hip thrust is a go-to exercise for weightlifting and athletics coaches because it’s such a good way to train the hip hinge.

Equipment needed for hip thrusts:

How to do hip thrusts:

  • With your back and shoulders on the bench and feet flat on the floor, place the barbell on your lap (use a pad if necessary)
  • Start with your glutes on the floor – the bottom position is your starting position 
  • Drive your feet into the floor and ‘thrust’ the barbell up using your glutes until you’ve reached full hip extension.
  • Pause at the top, then slowly lower your hips down.
  • Repeat

Hip thrusts muscles worked:

  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings
  • Calves
  • Quads
  • Core

11. Landmine barbell rotations

A lot of people will overlook the barbell when it comes to abdominal training, but they shouldn’t – it’s an excellent tool for adding weight to various exercises. The reason the barbell rotations have been added to this list is that it’s a chance to perform a rotation exercise.

Barbell rotations are an excellent, functional exercise and provide plenty of athletic benefits – especially for sports like golf, baseball, combat sports, swimming, and tennis where rotation is paramount to good performance. 

Equipment needed for landmine barbell rotations:

How to do landmine barbell rotations:

  • Stand with the loaded barbell directly in front of you at arms length – the arms should be fully outstretched
  • Keeping the core engaged and the arms fully extended, rotate to one side, controlling the barbell throughout
  • Once you reach full rotation (or as far as you can go before form breaks down), pause and return to the start position using the same technique
  • From the centre, perform the same movement to the other side – that’s a single rep
  • Repeat as many times as required

Landmine barbell rotations muscles worked:

  • Abdominals
  • Obliques
  • Glutes

Best barbell exercises – the bottom line

The way I approached this article was by asking the question “if I had to stick to a limited number of barbell exercises, what would they be?” That led me down a path of considering movements, fitness goals, and limited additional equipment.

I settled on these 11 exercises because I believe they cover all of the human movements, they train all of the muscles in the body, they can be easily adjusted depending on training goal and desired fitness outcome.

That’s not to say the other (thousands) of barbell exercises aren’t very good, it’s just these are the exercises that would form the basis of almost any training program.

If you’re hitting a training plateau and are looking to refresh things, why not go back to basics? 

Put together a training program consisting of these exercises alone, mixing up rep ranges, loads, rest periods, etc. I can guarantee you excellent results! We can easily forget the basics, but we shouldn’t. Simple well-executed movements will help you hit any training goal you may have.

If you’re in the market looking for a barbell, take a look at our in-depth guide to the best barbells. We’ve selected 7 winners out of over a hundred barbells.

Rogue Ohio Cerakote Bar

Rogue Ohio Bar Cerakote
Read our best Olympic barbell guide here

This is the bar that we recommend for ‘most people’.

We have spent over 120 hours of research and tested over 100 barbells.

It is affordable but comes with some high specs. The Rogue Work Hardening and 190k PSI tensile strength mean the bar will last a lifetime in a home gym.

It is a multi-purpose bar with a 28.5mm diameter shaft and composite bushings in the sleeves. This means it’s balanced for heavy slow bench presses but you can also perform snatches and fast overhead lifts.

Photo of author
Hi! My name is Steve Hoyles. I’m a personal trainer, gym owner and fitness copywriter. Since graduating with my Sports Science degree in 2004 I’ve worked in the fitness industry, helping thousands of people reach their health and fitness goals. My writing has been read by millions of people in over 200 countries.

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