April 27, 2020 10 min read

The debate on how to gain strength and size in the fastest and most efficient manner has been raging since weightlifting became popular. The only thing everyone seems to agree on is that it takes a lot of hard work and dedication. That’s not to say that advances haven’t been made in how we view training and the equipment that goes along with it. Like with most things, there are more and less efficient ways of working out. And as always, this comes down to what the individual’s specific goals are—however, there are some tried and tested methods that can be utilized in reaching every goal. Whether that goal is weight loss, endurance, size, or strength, the usefulness of the barbell in compound exercises trumps almost everything else.

Whether you’ve been going to the gym for years, or are just starting, the barbell is a tool you’ve almost definitely used already. It’s such a mainstay in any gym that it’s hard to imagine a world without the barbell to train with. Especially when it comes to complex compound exercises that work the entire body, the barbell stands alongside the dumbbell as the most used and most effective free-weight in any gym. While this might come as no surprise, exploringwhy this is, will help us better understand the complex physiology behind the training—hopefully resulting in faster and more pronounced results.

Compound vs. Isolation Exercises

While you might’ve not even been aware of this while training, many of the movements you do in the gym fall under either isolation or compound exercises. While isolation exercises have their time and place, there are a number of benefits that come with compound movements which people tend to favor. Much like the name implies, compound movements are those which force you to activate many muscle groups at the same time. When looking at the squat, you can see that it trains the quadriceps, calves, and glutes.

On the other hand, isolation exercises tend to only work a single muscle group. For example, a bicep curl would be an isolation exercise meant to activate the biceps. These are useful in bodybuilding since it allows you to focus on a single muscle that needs some work. It also allows you to balance your body’s symmetry since you can focus on either side. Isolation exercises are also helpful for rehabilitation movements following an injury.

Probably the greatest benefit of compound exercises is that they hit several muscle groups and are therefore more efficient in developing muscle and strength. This is partially due to your body having to stabilize a free weight—something that’s not as big of an emphasis in isolation exercises. Using a large portion of your body like this burns more calories, so compound exercises are useful if you’re cutting or trying to lose weight. Furthermore, with the full-body workout comes a steady, higher heart rate. Training your heart like this provides cardiovascular benefits in the long run.

There’s also a lot of variety in compound movements. Not only do they train many different parts of your body, but you can also mash different exercises together to create larger compound ones. An example of this could be a bicep curl after a lunge. And as we already know, a variety in your workouts will prevent plateauing and boredom. Furthermore, compound movements translate into common movement patterns in everyday life. This means that you’ll garner a more functional fitness from compound exercises. Additionally, your risk of injury in sports will decrease as your performance increases. This isn’t to say that isolation exercises don’t have their place in the gym—they do. But generally, if you’re looking for good bang-for-your-buck, you’ll be looking at compounds.

Important to note is that compound movements are more complicated, so it’s essential to keep safety in mind. Because of the higher loads involved and complexity of the movements, it’s important to keep form at the front of your mind, or risk injury. It’s recommended to get a personal trainer to show you how to properly do a compound exercise before trying it out by yourself. A trainer can get you started working out with the proper form, so it doesn’t become an issue later when you’re picking up heavier weights.

A man working out in a gym with a barbell.

Barbells vs. Dumbbells

While the invention of dumbbell-like training tools is attributed to the ancient Greeks, barbells have had a significantly shorter time span. Most theorize that barbells came about sometime in the mid-1800s, as people were slowly becoming more interested in bodybuilding as a form of competition. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to imagine any gym these days not having access to at least a few barbells. Both the barbell and dumbbell can be used for compound and isolation exercises—and while they’re both the most popular free-weights, important differences do exist between them.

When it comes down to it, barbells allow you to move a heavier load. This is due to a number of qualities of the barbell and the dumbbell. With a dumbbell, since only one side of your body can hold it, you’re going to be using more energy to balance it or even get it up onto your lap. Barbells don’t have this problem since they’re much easier to load and unload, and both of your arms are there to stabilize it. This results in much less stabilizer strength being needed in order to keep from one side tipping over.

There is also a reduced range of motion with barbells. For example, if you lay down on a bench and begin to dumbbell press, you can take the dumbbells much lower than the bar, since the bar is limited by how far your chest pushes out. This can allow the dumbbells to activate more muscles during the stretch and deep portions of the movement. Nevertheless, for pure strength and hypertrophy, the barbells come out ahead because of these qualities. Without having to focus on stabilization as much, you’re able to place a heavier load on the barbell. And a heavier load is better if you’re training for mass gains.

The Ultimate Barbell Compound Exercises

Compound exercises using the barbell are some of the most classic workouts. This includes the big three—squat, deadlift, and bench—and hundreds of other exercises. Whether a gym-rat or not, everyone is familiar with the squat, bench, and deadlift. These three classics are the epitome of what makes a good compound exercise and what plays to the barbell’s strengths. We’ll go over each of these below, highlighting what makes them so special.

Squats 

Squats build the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and muscles, while also activating the core. They’re one of the very best compound lifts for hitting a number of muscle groups and improving your lower body mobility. While it works every major muscle in your lower body, adding a bit more weight to it will make sure that your core is braced and that your back muscles are activated to keep your torso in position. Included in the competitive sport of powerlifting, the squat is also a classic measurement of lower body strength.

Squatting significant loads also requires ankle stability in order to drive through the heels as you’re coming up. In order to balance the bar, you need core stability and also sufficient shoulder mobility and trap activation. Since this movement utilizes so many parts of your body, it will burn a lot of calories along with boosting your production of testosterone and growth hormones. While a number of different squat variations exist, including the front squat, the back squat is considered the classic squat.

Step 1: Take the bar out from the rack and rack it on your rear shoulder muscles. Find a foot stance that feels right for you, although it will help to have your feet about shoulder-width apart and pointed slightly outwards.

Step 2: Looking straight towards the front, keep your spine in alignment without rounding your back anywhere. Then, “sit” backward and down, as if there’s a chair behind you, using your hips and knees as a hinge. You should descend until your upper leg is at least parallel with the floor, but the lower you go the better.

Step 3: Pause at the bottom, and exhale as you come back up, squeezing the glutes and driving up through your heels. Don’t lock out your knees completely at the top, but instead keep them slightly bent. Then repeat for the number of reps and sets.

Since this is a more complex maneuver, it’s important to keep in mind some tips that will make it safer to perform. Remember to look straight ahead. This will prevent your chin from dipping down, which in turn can prevent your upper back from hunching forwards. Keeping your chest up throughout the movement will also help in preventing your spine from flexing. Remember to drive through the heels as you’re coming up. This also means that your heels should be flat on the floor. Some people struggle with this since their hamstrings are too tight, but loosen these up and your form and posture will improve greatly.

A man doing the bench press in a gym.

The Bench Press

You can probably walk into any gym in the world and see a bench with a barbell secured above— ready for the next person to lie down and begin bench pressing. Much like the squat, this is a classic compound exercise that utilizes the barbell. Unlike the squat, this is an upper-body builder. Train your bench enough and reap the rewards of bigger pecs, shoulders, and triceps. The bench press is a major part of the reason why chest day is so loved, and its position as the crowning jewel of measuring upper body strength doesn’t look to be shaken any time soon.

There are probably hundreds of variations of the bench press, all activating specific muscles to lesser or greater degrees. But very few exercises in the gym will come close to not only the power that a good bench will bestow on you, but also the addicting feeling of pushing up something heavier than you ever have before.

If you’ve never benched before, or haven’t in a while, it’s a good idea to start with just the bar. A standard Olympic bar that most gyms have weighs 44lbs. If you’re not confident in benching this much, it’s a good idea to start with some push-ups and really get those under your belt. Even if you’re moving from training on machines to training on a bench with a barbell, it will take you some time for your stabilizing muscles to get used to balancing the weight. As your body gets used to it, you’ll see major improvement and muscular development in a short while after starting to bench.

Step 1: Set up the bench and the bar, so that when you lie down, the barbell is about in line with your shoulders.

Step 2: After you’ve lied down on the bench, grip the bar with hands that are just slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. This means that when you’re at the bottom of the movement, your hands should be directly above your elbows, allowing for a greater amount of force.

Step 3: After you un-rack, bring the barbell down slowly towards your chest as you breathe in. Pause for a second at the bottom of the movement, then reverse the direction and breath out as you push up. It’s helpful to watch a spot on the ceiling instead of the bar since this will ensure that the bar goes straight up in the same path every time.

There’s a ton of variety with the possible positioning of hands and angling of the bench. Every combination will give you different results in muscle development—but all of them will focus on the upper body. When bench pressing, it’s important to remember not to go too heavy, keeping stability on the bench (this means keeping your feet on the floor and your head on the bench), and not changing the width of your grip every time you lift. And perhaps most importantly, go low enough. Don’t do half-reps—you should be touching your chest at the dip every time. If you can’t, lower the weight.

The Deadlift

One of the most primal compound exercises, the deadlift is known as the king of lifts. Quite literally just picking something heavy up, and then putting it back down, it doesn’t get much more basic than that. Nevertheless, there’s a reason this lift is so revered other than for the fact that it makes you feel like a beast after training. It’s hands-down one of the best muscle-developing and strength-building compound exercises around. Every muscle across your posterior chain will be challenged, including your lower back, glutes, legs, forearms, shoulders, and core. Maybe you think you’re a beast in the gym, and maybe you are. But deadlifting a heavy load will reveal the chinks in your armor.

As we’ve mentioned before, the deadlift is also essential if you need some explosive energy in the sports you play. Anything from your football game, soccer, swimming, running, and more, will benefit from a good deadlift regime. Furthermore, the deadlift causes your body to release testosterone and growth hormones which build your bone density and lead to greater hypertrophy. 

Step 1: How wide you plant your feet will differ based on your body, but you should be standing in the position where you can generate the most power. Use your hips as a hinge to lower yourself and grip the bar, with your hands just outside of your knees. You should be aiming for your shins to be at a 90-degree angle to the ground and your shoulders directly over the bar.

Step 2: Lift the bar with your legs, driving the hips forward. Your back should be straight and head facing forward and activating your core and lats.

Step 3: Keep your chest up through the move and retract your shoulder blades once you get to the top for a strong torso. Once at the top of the movement, pause, and then slowly lower the barbell back down, reversing the movements.

As with a squat, keep your gaze forwards so you don’t dip your chin forward. In order to maintain a strong spine throughout the lift, make sure to keep your chest up to prevent yourself from hunching over. Furthermore, your core should be braced in order to move with stability—especially since you should be moving explosively to get the most out of this exercise.

The Three Great Classics

Much like the barbell, you really can’t get more classic than these three compound exercises. All these elements are the bread-and-butter of the gym, and it should be the aim of every gym-goer to include these lifts in their workout routine and gain a good aptitude for them. The benefits of compound lifts extend much further than just gaining mass and strength training. They’re also the key to healthy joints, ligaments, and a well functioning body. Paired with proper sleep and nutrition, barbell compound exercises can propel your rate of progress to new heights. So go out, and lift some iron.