Barbells: A Beginner's Guide
Barbells are similarly constructed as dumbbells, consisting of a bar and two sets of symmetrically positioned weight plates on either side. The difference is that barbells are longer and designed to be held with both hands at the same time during workouts. The most common barbells are customizable, meaning you can add or remove weights according to your fitness level and goals. Some gyms do carry fixed barbells, meaning the weight plates can’t be switched out.
Benefits Of Barbells
Barbells, while not as versatile as dumbbells, can be used for plenty of workouts that target all the major muscle groups, including the arms, shoulders, traps, back, quads, hamstrings, and calves. For heavier lifting such as squats, dead lifts, and bench presses, barbells are ideal since they enable you to engage more muscle groups into lifting the same object. Since both arms are typically needed to hold a barbell, it also restricts your natural range of motion, which in theory, can limit your risk of injury.
Common Barbell Exercises
- Bicep curl. One of the most basic dumbbell exercises is the bicep curl. To start, lift the barbell with a straight back, bent knees, and your hands facing away from you. Then lift up the barbell until it’s resting at your thighs. A rep consists of curling the barbell up from your thighs to your chest and back down again. When done correctly, you should feel the burn in your biceps.
- Bench Press. A bench press requires a bench that holds a barbell in an elevated position at about eye level. To start out, lie down on the bench and lift the barbell above your chest with your arms extended straight out. To perform a rep, bring the barbell down so it’s a few inches above your chest and then extend your arms back to the original position. The bench press targets your pectoral muscles and your triceps.
- Military Press. To perform a military press, start out with your back straight, and pick up the barbell with your hands facing down. Bring the barbell up to about your chest and neck level. Your arms should be bent. To perform a rep, extend your arms up straight above your head and back down again. Military presses can be performed sitting down on a bench or standing. A popular variation involves bringing the barbell from top position to behind your neck for the resting position (as opposed to bringing it down in front of you).
- Tricep Extension. Tricep extensions start out similarly to the military press. Lift the barbell with a straight back and palms facing down, but keep your hands closer together than you would for a military press. Bring the barbell up so that your arms are extended above your head. Then, keep your lower arm straight up, but bend your elbow backwards behind your head so that your arms make a 90 degree angle. Then lift it back up above your head. Posture and form is very important in a tricep extension. When performed correctly, you should feel the burn directly in your triceps.
- Upright Row. Upright rows are excellent for working out your shoulders. To perform an upright row, start from a standing position and lift up the barbell with your hands about a foot apart and palms facing down. Bring up the barbell so it’s resting at thigh level. To perform a rep, lift up the barbell so it’s between your chest and your chin. Your elbows should be high and level with your shoulders. Then bring the barbell back down to resting position.
- Bent-Over Row. The bent-over row is very similar to the upright row in its motion, but its target muscle group is the back. Start from a bent over position with the barbell on the floor directly below your chest. To perform a rep, lift the barbell with your hands wide apart and palms facing down. While still bent-over, lift the bar up just below your chest, so that your elbows should be level or even behind your back. Then bring the barbell back down.
- Squat. Squats target your upper legs, particularly your thighs. Start out from a standing position and bring up the barbell high above your head and then behind your neck and resting on your shoulders. To perform the squat, keep your back straight, bend your knees slowly, and lower your body towards the floor. When you can’t get any lower without falling to the floor, raise back up to a standing position.
- Calf Raise. Calf raises are another barbell workout that targets the lower body—specifically your calves. Start out in the same position described above for squats. To perform the calf raise, instead of lowering your body, simply raise up onto your tip-toes, hold for a moment, and come back down again. After a few sets of these with adequate weights and you should feel the burn in your calves.
Tips For Maximum Results
- Ensure that weights are symmetrical and a stopper is used. Having uneven weights can be a major safety issue, and can lead to inadvertently dropping the barbell on the floor or on yourself. Remembering to use weight stoppers is equally important. Barbells with adjustable weights must have some type of stopper to keep the weights on the barbell. Without a stopper, the weights can slide off very easily, which can lead to major injuries.
- Use your legs to first lift the barbell. When lifting the barbell from a resting state, remember to bend your knees low and keep your back straight up and down. Lift slowly, so as to not throw out your back. Engaging your leg muscles to first lift the barbell helps to limit injury. Use the same principles when placing the barbell back down at the end of a set.
- Don’t cheat. Swaying and using momentum to complete reps means you’re not isolating your intended muscle groups for that particular workout. If you find yourself doing this on a regular basis, lessen the weights you're using to maintain proper form. Keeping good posture and a solid stance enables you to maximize your workout and minimize the risk of injury to your back and other vulnerable areas.
- Use a spotter. Especially when you’re first starting out or progressing to heavier weights, it’s important to have someone there that can spot you. A good spotter will help manage the weights in case they turn out to be too heavy or you get too tired to complete a rep. They can also serve as a good source of motivation to keep you progressing in your fitness levels.