3 Strength-Building Barbell Moves

Gain strength and get the biggest bang for your buck by adding the Bench, Squat, and Deadlift to your training program

March 1, 2019

By Stephanie Smith

Gym_Floor_Original.jpeg

You might know that strength training is key to overall fitness, and that it helps target those mirror muscles, but did you know that it’s important for health and longevity? If you’re looking to strengthen your heart, build balance, and stave off the loss of bone density, turn to strength—or resistance—training. 

“We begin to lose strength, power, and different movement patterns through the joints as we start the aging process, so continuing to move your body against any type of resistance is great to help facilitate a strong, healthy body,” says Eric Temple, a performance coach at AMP Fitness in Boston. Strength training also does something much more basic, but essential: It helps people get up and move. “It’s good to get people to move their bodies and express themselves in different ways,” says Temple, who works with busy professionals and older adults. “A lot of people are stressed, and we know that exercising helps decrease anxiety and symptoms of depression. It also allows people to learn a new skill and becomes something fun and exciting.” 

While the American College of Sports Medicine defines strength training as exercising against external resistance—whether that be from free weights, machines, or even your own body weight—barbells have an extra, added benefit. 


The Benefit Of Barbells

In addition to being an easy tool to load, barbells have an added functional element.  “Dumbbells and kettlebells are great, but the barbell works well to give people some autonomy in the way they move their body through space,” Temple says.  “If you’re doing reps on a pec fly machine, there’s not much you have to do to stabilize the weight because you’re using a cable system for support. Adding a barbell to your workout forces you to keep both hands on the bar and stabilize. It’s a lot harder but beneficial for anyone to learn.” Nick Cerone, CPT, Fitbod ambassador and owner of Raise the Bar Fitness, agrees. “Machines are limited in results and only offer a small, fixed range of motion,” he says. “Barbells and free weights allow you to move freely and use stabilizer muscles. The more muscles you recruit, the better the workout you’re going to get.”

Being able to add weight easily by simply sliding more plates on the bar also makes barbells great for training tactics such as progressive overload, or the idea that to gain strength and improve performance, you have to do more than you’ve done before. This concept is core to Fitbod’s algorithm, which incorporates prior sets and rep counts and makes recommendations that gradually increase intensity and volume based on a user’s previous input. 

“Your muscles adapt really well to any kind of loading strategies or resistance that’s placed on the body, and barbell training is ideal for that,” Temple says. “If you want to get stronger each week, you’re going to have to add a little more resistance to the bar in order to facilitate any type of change. In order to get stronger with time, you have to move more weight, do more reps, or spend more time under tension.” 


Cadence

Mastering movement is great, but if you’re not spending enough time under tension, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Your body should move the weight, not the other way around. “Anytime I teach a new movement—whether it’s a push-up, squat, or lunge—I make sure that we’re doing a 3 second eccentric (the down portion of the movement),” Cerone says. “The slower people go, the more they can feel their body, gain body awareness, and successfully control the weight to build strength.”


The Three Big Lifts

If you’re looking to get the most bang for your buck, especially from a strength perspective, you can’t go wrong with the squat, deadlift, and bench press. 

Squat

Primary Targets: Quadriceps
Secondary Targets: Lower Back, Glutes, Hamstrings, Calves 

Movement Wins:
“The squat is one of the most fundamental movement patterns,” Temple says. “Whether you’re performing a front squat, back squat, or even a Zercher squat, you have to keep your torso rigid as you flex through the hip, knee, and ankle. It’s a good movement for anyone who wants to continue to squat for the duration of their life—whether bending down to pick up a child or carry groceries.” 

Front squats can help you find your positioning. “When putting a bar on their back, a lot of people have the tendency to automatically shift back to far or get up on the balls of their feet,” Temple adds. “Front squats are great for developing a good torso position and getting people to use their knees and ankles in a squat. Starting at a lower level front squat, where you’re feeling more of your thighs and abs doing the work, is beneficial for getting used to the movement pattern while gaining muscle in the process.” 

Common Mistakes:
Bar path can often be compromised in a squat. “In a squat, you want to see the middle of the bar stay directly over the middle of the foot for the entirety of the lift,” Temple says. Often, people keep the bar too close to the front of their foot. For most people, that means losing your heels and your ability to drive through the floor well when standing back up.” 

Knees can also become a trouble area. When squatting, make sure your knees are tracking out over your feet and not caving in. “The knees are allowed to come to neural, but anything inside of neutral isn’t good, especially if it’s happening over and over again,” he adds. “It can put some stress on ACLs and LCLs.” 

Directions and Video Tutorial:
Back Squat:
1. Set the barbell on rear deltoids (just below shoulder height) and grab ahold the barbell outside shoulder-width. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and brace your core by breathing into your stomach and flexing your abdominal muscles. Quarter squat underneath the barbell to place it on the base of your neck before lifting and stepping back and planting your feet shoulder-wide apart.
2. Keeping your heels planted firmly on the ground, descend by hinging at your hips while keeping your chest up. Your knees should track outward and slightly forward as you descend and keep your spine neutral throughout the exercise.
3. Once your thighs have reached parallel with the floor, return back to the starting position. 

Front Squat:
1. Rack the barbell to shoulder height. Bring your chest to the bar to rest the bar on the uppermost part of your shoulders and secure the bar in a front rack hold. If you are unable to comfortably hold this position, cross your arms instead to hold the barbell in place and keep your elbows high.
2. Lift the barbell and step back placing your feet just outside shoulder-width apart and slightly angled outward.
3. Keep your weight evenly distributed through your feet. Begin to descend by reaching your hips slightly back. Your knees should track outward over your second toe and slightly forward as you descend while keeping your core braced to maintain an upright torso.
4.  You should continue to descend to a deep enough depth that allows you spine to remain neutral before extending back to the starting position.


Bench Press

Primary Targets: Chest
Secondary Targets: Triceps, Shoulders 

Movement Wins:
The bench press is a great way to target your chest with heavy loads, building strength and muscle mass. Because it targets the chest, shoulders, and triceps, the compound movement allows you to work on your upper body with every rep. “Pushing weight under load is definitely going to make you feel stronger in the gym, and ideally translate to when your performing daily activities, like lifting your kids overhead,” Cerone says. 

Common Mistakes:
The bench is more than just an upper-body movement. If done correctly, it can work to engage your entire body. “People often don’t think about utilizing the floor to get ground force,” Temple says. “I like to use the cue of imagining there’s a rug under your feet and you’re trying to push it down and forward as you press the weight off your chest. On a bench press, you want the weight to start over the shoulder, come down to the chest, and then have vertical tracking as you press weight overhead, moving it back over the shoulder to maximize leverage.” 

Directions:
1. Lie your back onto a bench while squeezing your shoulder blades together and place your heels firmly on the ground underneath your knees. The bench should be in contact with your head, shoulders, and butt at all times. Grab ahold of the barbell just outside shoulder-width apart before unracking the barbell so that your arms are extended over your shoulders.
2. Keeping your core braced by breathing into your stomach and flexing the abdominal muscles, descend the barbell to your chest by flexing your elbows keeping them at a 45 degree angle from your torso.
3. Gently touch the middle of your chest with the barbell before exhaling the barbell back to the starting position.


Deadlift

Primary Targets: Hamstrings
Secondary Targets: Forearms, Trapezius, Quads, Calves, Back, Glutes 

Movement Wins:
The deadlift targets all  major muscle groups and is a great way to engage both your upper and lower body in one movement. It’s a great way to build total body strength and mass while burning calories. The payoff of this movement also translates into daily life. The core strength built helps with balance while the emphasis deadlifts place on maintaining a straight, flat back, can help improve posture. 

Common Mistakes:
The deadlift is more than ripping a bar off of the ground—it’s all about knowing how to hinge properly. “One of the biggest issues I see is people rounding their lower back,” Temple says. “Creating a bit of an arch from the beginning is beneficial when lifting heavy weight.” So what should you do to fix this all-too-common error? “It’s ideal to have a neutral head position, but when someone is just learning, I’m OK with them looking up. When people look up, it creates a bit of an arch in their lower back.” Another good cue: Pressing your shoulders back and down (or “putting them in your back pocket”). 

Pay attention to bar placement, too. The bar should also be centered right over the middle of your foot and your shins should be an inch and a half to two inches away from the bar. 

Directions:
1. Stand in an upright posture with your feet at shoulder-width apart and angled out slightly positioning a loaded barbell an inch away from the front of your lower legs. Hinge at the hips and flex your knees to drop down allowing your shins to drop forward to touch the barbell.
2. With your arms extended, grip the barbell with either double overhand grip or alternate grip next to your lower legs while keeping your chest up. Maintain this rigid spinal posture throughout the exercise. 
3. Pull the barbell in a vertical path next to your body by extending your hips and knees until you are back to a standing upright posture. Lower the barbell in a duplicate path it came up with.