Try these core 5 barbell exercises for beginners to develop muscle mass, strength, and power

Woman performing a barbell back squat in a squat hold, view is head side on
(Image credit: Getty)

Barbell workouts aren’t just suitable for the gym — you could also build muscle, strength, and power using one barbell at home. These five exercises are the best at building muscle all over and are suitable for beginners and practiced exercisers. 

Barbell allows you to add more weight than holding a pair of the best adjustable dumbbells, which could help develop more strength and muscle mass than free weights. As with dumbbells, learning to hold a heavy barbell will also help improve grip strength while working hard on various muscle groups. 

I swear by these five barbell exercises if you want to develop a full-body workout in the gym without moving between equipment or spending hours exercising. Try to include some mobility exercises using one of the best resistance bands before working out.

If you need to check proper form, consult a medical professional or qualified personal trainer to assist, especially if you’re a beginner to new to barbells. If you experience any lower back pain, stop immediately and consult your doctor.

Dumbbells vs barbells: which is better at building muscle, strength, and power? 

The barbell vs dumbbell debate is a big one in the fitness community. Dumbbells are more accessible and suitable for beginners, allowing you to work unilaterally (single-sided) and target muscular imbalances or weaknesses. However, barbells are better for lifting heavier weights and are best for muscle growth, although both develop functional movement patterns.

I call these the ‘big five’ lifts because they’re the best exercises to build strength, muscle mass, and power and improve bone density to protect you from injury. If you’ve checked out these core 5 dumbbell exercises to build muscle mass, strength, and power, these moves will already be familiar, but a barbell requires different techniques. 

I recommend performing all of the five barbell exercises in one exercise session for a full-body functional workout that targets your back, chest, shoulders, arms, core, glutes, and leg muscles. This barbell strength program comprises only five compound lifts so it should take 45 minutes to one hour to complete. 

If you plan to lift heavier and work on strength or mass, aim for five sets of 3-5 reps and keep rest at a few minutes. Increase to 10-15 reps if you want to work on metabolic conditioning and decrease rest to 30-60 seconds, performing the exercises as a circuit. Keep an eye on your execution and engage your core as you move. 

5 best barbell exercises to build muscle mass, strength, and power 

It’s time to build a leaner, stronger, more muscular, powerful body. Here’s how. 

1. Barbell back squat

Woman performing a barbell back squat in the gym in a squat position

(Image credit: Getty images)

The barbell back squat positions the weight across your upper back and targets the posterior chain, including your back, glutes, and hamstrings, along with the muscles worked in a squat — your core muscles, hip flexors, and quads. 

  • Rack your barbell on the squat rack
  • Step under the bar and grip the barbell slightly wider than your shoulders, the bar resting on your upper traps 
  • Unrack the barbell and take a big step forward 
  • Engage your core and send your elbows down. Lock your body tight 
  • Perform a squat, pause for one second at the bottom, then drive upward through your heels to stand. 

2. Barbell deadlift

Woman performing a barbell deadlift in the gym with the bar over her feet

(Image credit: Getty)

The barbell deadlift targets your posterior chain, including your spine-supporting muscles — the erector spinae — glutes, hamstrings, and core. It also works your quads and helps develop grip strength. You can learn how to deadlift with proper form here, but remember to squeeze your glutes as you extend your hips and avoid overextending your lower back as you stand. Brace your core and lats, setting your shoulders down your back before you lift.  

3. Barbell bench press

Man performing a barbell bench press with the bar racked on the squat rack and arms extended, hands gripping the bar

(Image credit: Getty images)

We cover how to do a bench press with variations and plenty of techniques here. The bench press works the pectoral muscles and anterior deltoids, and triceps support. Try to keep the barbell tracking over your chest and avoid bouncing the bar off your body. Drive the bar upward with power on the exhale and re-rack the bar over eye level. 

4. Barbell bent-over row

Man performing a barbell bent-over row in the gym with the bar raised in a row position against his stomach

(Image credit: Getty images)

The barbell bent-over row works the back muscles and improves posture and core strength. You’ll primarily target the lats, rhomboids, lower back, and rear deltoids (backs of the shoulders) while switching on your hamstrings and hip flexor muscles as you adopt the bent-over stance. A wider grip will send focus to back muscles further from the spine, and a narrower grip will send focus to ones closer. 

Keep your chest flat and maintain a neutral spine, rowing towards your belly button rather than your chest. Depending on grip, you could also target your biceps and forearms. Find out how with barbell rows vs Good Mornings here.  

5. Standing barbell overhead press

Man performing a barbell overhead press with the bar extended over his head in the gym

(Image credit: Getty images)

Like the bench press, this exercise works the pectoral muscles, triceps, trapezius (upper back), and anterior deltoids. Overhead press variations include Arnold presses and the Z press (you’ll need dumbbells for Arnie’s move).  

  • Rack your barbell ready to lift at the chosen weight at chest height 
  • Grip the barbell underhand slightly wider than your shoulders 
  • Rest the barbell across the tops of your shoulders and send your elbows forwards  
  • Unrack the barbell and take a big step forward, engage your core, and adopt a soft knee bend
  • As you exhale, press the bar overhead and lock the arms at the top
  • Gently push your head through your arms to create a solid shelf, then lower the bar with control back to your chest. 

Looking for other ways to build strength? 

Here's how.

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Sam Hopes
Senior Staff Writer - Fitness

Sam Hopes is a level III qualified fitness trainer, level II reiki practitioner, and senior fitness writer at Future PLC, the publisher of Tom's Guide. She is also about to undertake her Yoga For Athletes training course. Having trained to work with mind and body, Sam is a big advocate of using mindfulness techniques in sport and fitness, and their impact on performance. She’s also passionate about the fundamentals of training and building sustainable training methods.  When she's not writing up her experiences with the latest fitness tech and workouts, you’ll find her writing about nutrition, sleep, recovery, and wellness.