When you’re just dipping your toes into the world of fitness, one of the most puzzling questions is how you should train.
Look online for beginner workout plans, and you’ll get a quick case of analysis paralysis trying to choose between calisthenics, circuit training, kettlebell workouts, CrossFit, Starting Strength and the many, many other options.
If you have just one piece of weightlifting equipment, though, you can ignore just about everything else: the barbell.
Although there is a time and place for dumbbell, machine, and bodyweight exercises, the barbell should be the basis of your training, especially if you’re new to weightlifting.
In this article, you’ll learn the best beginner barbell workout plan, why the barbell is the perfect training tool for beginners, the best exercises you can do to train your whole body, and more.
Barbell exercises are better suited to training with heavy weights than dumbbell exercises because they allow you to use both hands to push, pull, and squat the weight. Studies also show they’re better than machine exercises because they train more “stabilizer” muscles and generally produce more muscle activation.
The exercises that allow you to handle the heaviest weights, such as the squat, deadlift, and bench and overhead press, are also easier to perform with a barbell. You can perform these exercises with dumbbells, but once the dumbbells get heavy (over 75 pounds), they become unwieldy and awkward.
Because your hands are “locked” in position during barbell exercises, you tend to have more control over a barbell than you do when you use dumbbells, which typically makes exercises safer.
What’s more, barbell exercises generally involve a rack. Using a rack allows you to get into a safe and efficient position before bearing any weight, which isn’t always possible when you use dumbbells.
Increasing the weight you lift over time—also known as progressive overload—is the most important driver of muscle and strength gain.
Most gyms have barbell plates as small as 2.5 pounds, which allow you to make smaller, more sustainable increases than you can with dumbbells, making it easier to consistently gain strength without becoming plateaued or injured.
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Here are 12 of the best beginner barbell exercises, categorized by whether they train muscles for pushing, pulling, or squatting.
Lie on a flat bench with your feet flat on the floor, directly under your knees. Pull your shoulder blades together and down, and without lifting your butt or shoulders off the bench, slightly arch your back. Grab the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, take a deep breath, brace your core, and unrack the barbell.
Bring the barbell to the middle of your chest, making sure to keep your elbows tucked at about a 45-degree angle relative to your body. When the bar touches your chest, explosively press the bar back to the starting position.
Set a barbell in a rack at the same height as your upper chest. Grip the bar with a shoulder-width grip and your palms facing away from you. Unrack the barbell and take a small step backwards with each foot, keeping your wrists stacked over your elbows, and your elbows tucked close to your sides.
Plant your feet just outside of shoulder width, brace your core, squeeze your glutes, and push the bar toward the ceiling. Once your arms are straight and your elbows are locked out, reverse the movement and return to the starting position.
Lie on a bench that’s angled at 30-to-45 degrees and place your feet flat on the floor. Pull your shoulder blades together and down, and without lifting your butt or shoulders off the bench, slightly arch your back. Grab the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, take a deep breath, brace your core, and unrack the barbell.
Bring the barbell to your upper chest, making sure to keep your elbows tucked at about a 45-degree angle relative to your body. When the bar touches your chest, explosively press the bar back to the starting position.
Lying Triceps Extension (“Skullcrusher”)
While lying on a flat bench, hold a barbell above your chest with a shoulder-width grip. Bend your elbows and lower the bar until it’s right above your forehead, and then reverse the movement to return to the starting position.
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Pulling exercises involve pulling things off the floor or toward your torso and primarily train your posterior chain (all the muscles on the back side of your body, including your back, glutes, and hamstrings) and your biceps.
Position your feet so they’re a bit less than shoulder-width apart with your toes pointed slightly out. Move a loaded barbell over your midfoot so it’s about an inch from your shins. Move down toward the bar by pushing your hips back and grip the bar just outside your shins.
Take a deep breath of air into your belly, flatten your back by pushing your hips up slightly, and then drive your body upward and slightly back by pushing through your heels until you’re standing up straight. Reverse the movement and return to the starting position.
Position your feet under a loaded barbell about shoulder-width apart with your toes pointed slightly outward. Bend over and grab the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip and with your palms facing toward you. Straighten your back and raise your hips until your back is roughly parallel to the floor.
Initiate the movement by driving through your legs, then, using the momentum generated by your lower body, pull the barbell to your upper body, touching it anywhere between your lower chest and belly button. Once the bar touches your body, reverse the movement and return to the starting position.
Stand up straight holding a loaded barbell with a shoulder-width grip and with your palms facing toward you. Flatten your back and lower the weights toward the floor in a straight line while keeping your legs mostly straight, allowing your butt to move backward as you descend.
Once you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, bend your knees slightly more, and continue lowering the weights until your lower back begins to round—just below the knees for most people, and about mid-shin for those who are particularly flexible. Reverse the movement and return to the starting position.
Barbell Rear Delt Row
Position your feet under a loaded barbell about shoulder-width apart with your toes pointed slightly outward. Bend over and grab the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip and with your palms facing toward you. Flatten your back so that it’s roughly parallel to the floor and let your arms hang straight down.
Pull the barbell to your mid chest, making sure to flair your elbows at about a 60-degree angle relative to your body. Once the bar touches your body, reverse the movement and return to the starting position.
While standing up straight, hold a barbell with your palms shoulder-width apart and facing away from you. Your arms should be straight and the bar should be resting against your thighs. Bring the bar up to shoulder height by bending at the elbow, then reverse the movement and return to the starting position.
Position a barbell in a squat rack at about the height of your nipples. Step under the bar, pinch your shoulder blades together, and rest the bar directly above the bony ridges on the bottom of your shoulder blades. Lift the bar out of the rack, take one or two steps backward, and place your feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart with your toes pointing slightly outward.
Sit down and remember to keep your back straight and push your knees out in the same direction as your toes throughout each rep. Stand up and return to the starting position.
Position a barbell in a squat rack at about the height of your breast bone (usually an inch or two higher than you would for the barbell squat). Grab the bar with a shoulder-width grip and your palms facing away from you. Step closer to the bar so that it presses against the top of your breast bone and push your elbows up and out in front of the bar.
With the bar resting on the front of your shoulders and held in place by your hands, lift it out of the rack, take one or two steps backward, and place your feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart with your toes pointing slightly outward.
Sit down and remember to keep your back straight, elbows up, and push your knees out in the same direction as your toes throughout each rep. Stand up and return to the starting position.
Position a barbell in a squat rack at about the height of your nipples. Step under the bar, pinch your shoulder blades together, and rest the bar directly across your upper traps. Lift the bar out of the rack, take two or three steps backward, and place your feet shoulder-width apart.
Take a long step forward with your right foot—about two-to-three feet—and, with most of your weight on your front foot, lower your body by bending both knees at the same time until your left knee touches the floor. Reverse the motion by pushing off the floor with your front foot and leaning slightly back, allowing your legs to straighten. Once you’re standing, bring your right foot back to the starting position, and then repeat the pattern with your left foot (to complete one full rep).
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Below is a 3-day full-body barbell workout that’s perfect for beginners.
The reason it works so well is that it has you doing all the best barbell exercises and it uses the right number of weekly sets to promote muscle growth without wearing you to a frazzle.
To ensure you give your muscles enough time to recover, leave at least one day between each workout. For example, you could do Workout 1 on Monday, Workout 2 on Wednesday, and Workout 3 on Friday, then rest on the other days of the week.
And if you like the look of this training program, but you’d like even more options, such as a 4- and 5-day plan that also incorporates dumbbell and machine exercises, check out my fitness plans for men and women Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger.
(Or if you’d like advice about what strength training program is right for your circumstances and goals, take the Legion Strength Training Quiz, and in less than a minute, you’ll know the perfect strength training program for you. Click here to check it out.)
In order to maximize muscle and strength gains, you need to take most of your sets close (but not all the way) to muscle failure, which is the point at which you can’t complete a rep despite giving maximum effort.
To ensure you’re taking your sets close enough to failure, ask yourself this question at the end of each set, just before re-racking the weight: “If I absolutely had to, how many more reps could I get with good form?”
If the answer is more than two, then you should increase the weight or reps to make your next set more challenging. This ensures you’re including the right balance of volume and intensity in your workouts.
For instance, let’s say your workout calls for 4-to-6 reps of deadlift (as this one does). If you get 6 reps for a set, add 5 pounds to each side of the bar (10 pounds total) for your next set and work with that weight until you can (eventually) pull it for 6 reps, and so forth.
If you get 3 or fewer reps with your new (higher) weight on your next sets, reduce the weight by 5 pounds to ensure you can stay within your target rep range (4-to-6) for all sets.
Follow this same pattern of trying to add reps or weight to every exercise in every workout. This method is known as double progression, and it’s a highly effective way to get fitter and stronger.
You don’t need to take any supplements to gain muscle and strength, but the right ones can help.
The best supplements for building muscle and boosting your performance in your barbell workouts are:
- 0.8-to-1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. This provides your body with the “building blocks” it needs to build and repair muscle tissue and help you recover from your workouts. If you want a clean, convenient, and delicious source of protein, try Whey+ or Casein+.
- 3-to-5 grams of creatine per day. This will boost muscle and strength gain, improve anaerobic endurance, and reduce muscle damage and soreness from your pull workouts. If you want a 100% natural source of creatine that also includes two other ingredients that will help boost muscle growth and improve recovery, try Recharge.
- One serving of Pulse per day. Pulse is a 100% natural pre-workout drink that enhances energy, mood, and focus; increases strength and endurance; and reduces fatigue. You can also get Pulse with caffeine or without.
(And if you’d like even more specific advice about which supplements you should take to reach your health and fitness goals, take the Legion Supplement Finder Quiz, and in less than a minute, you’ll know exactly what supplements are right for you. Click here to check it out.)
+ Scientific References
- Schoenfeld, B. J., Peterson, M. D., Ogborn, D., Contreras, B., & Sonmez, G. T. (2015). Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29(10), 2954–2963. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000000958
- Schoenfeld, B. J., Grgic, J., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. W. (2017). Strength and hypertrophy adaptations between low- vs. High-load resistance training: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 31(12), 3508–3523. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000002200
- Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857–2872. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0B013E3181E840F3
- Stokes, T., Hector, A. J., Morton, R. W., McGlory, C., & Phillips, S. M. (2018). Recent Perspectives Regarding the Role of Dietary Protein for the Promotion of Muscle Hypertrophy with Resistance Exercise Training. Nutrients, 10(2). https://doi.org/10.3390/NU10020180
- Branch, J. D. (2003). Effect of creatine supplementation on body composition and performance: a meta-analysis. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 13(2), 198–226. https://doi.org/10.1123/IJSNEM.13.2.198
- Eckerson, J. M., Stout, J. R., Moore, G. A., Stone, N. J., Iwan, K. A., Gebauer, A. N., & Ginsberg, R. (2005). Effect of creatine phosphate supplementation on anaerobic working capacity and body weight after two and six days of loading in men and women. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19(4), 756–763. https://doi.org/10.1519/R-16924.1
- Bassit, R. A., Pinheiro, C. H. D. J., Vitzel, K. F., Sproesser, A. J., Silveira, L. R., & Curi, R. (2010). Effect of short-term creatine supplementation on markers of skeletal muscle damage after strenuous contractile activity. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 108(5), 945–955. https://doi.org/10.1007/S00421-009-1305-1