Listen on Apple Podcasts | Listen on Spotify | Listen on YouTube

What’s so special about barbell exercises? Why are they the basis of all the best strength training programs? Why can they help you gain whole body muscle and strength faster than anything else? I’m going to answer those questions and many others in this podcast, while also covering my favorite barbell exercises that I’m regularly including in my routine. 

The reality is you can replace almost all of the machines and other contraptions and toys you see people using in the gym with a barbell and some plates. In other words, you can greatly simplify your training with just a handful of these exercises, and you can do so safely without ever outgrowing them.

So, listen to this podcast to learn the benefits of barbell training and my favorite barbell exercises for your whole body. 


0:00 – Want a free meal planning tool that figures out your calories, macros, and micros, and allows you to create custom meal plans for cutting, lean gaining, and maintaining in under 5 minutes? Go to and download the tool for free! 

3:00 – What are the benefits of barbell exercises? 

11:51 – What are some of your favorite barbell bench press exercises?

13:56 –  What are some of your favorite barbell back exercises?

16:26 – What are your favorite barbell shoulder exercises?

18:28 – What are your favorite barbell leg exercises? 

21:01 – What are your favorite barbell arm exercises? 

23:06 – What are some core barbell training exercises?

Mentioned on the Show:

Want a free meal planning tool that figures out your calories, macros, and micros, and allows you to create custom meal plans for cutting, lean gaining, and maintaining in under 5 minutes? Go to and download the tool for free! 

What did you think of this episode? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!


Hey, hey. Welcome to Muscle for Life. I am Mike Matthews. Thank you for joining me today to learn about some of my favorite exercises, specifically some of my favorite barbell exercises that I am regularly alternating in and out of my workout routines. Let’s start with talking about why barbell exercises at all.

Why are these the substance of the best strength training programs of all time? Really going back to the very beginning of strong man training, which eventually turned into more traditional strength training. Why can these exercises help you gain whole body muscle and strength faster than anything else?

Well, We’re gonna talk about that because you can replace most of the machines in a gym and most of the other contraptions and toys you see. With a barbell and some plates, you can greatly simplify your training with just a handful of the exercises I’m going to share in this episode. You can train just about every muscle group in your body, top to toe.

And you can do that safely, and you can do that more or less forever because you are never going to outgrow these exercises. You are going to be able to use these exercises throughout your entire fitness journey from complete newbie. To jacked advanced veteran weightlifter. But first, how would you like a free meal planning tool that figures out your calories, your macros, even your micros, and then allows you to create 100% custom meal plans for cutting, lean, gaining, or maintaining in under five.

Minutes. Well, all you gotta do is go to buy plan b u y plan and download the tool. And if I may say, this tool really is fantastic. My team and I spent over six months, I. On this thing, working with an Excel wizard and inferior versions of this are often sold for 50, 60, even a hundred dollars.

Or you have to download an app and pay every month or sign up for a weight loss service and pay every month. 10, 20, 40, 50, even $60 a month for what is essentially in this free tool. So if you are struggling to improve your body composition, if you are struggling to lose fat or gain muscle, the right.

Meal plan can change everything. Dieting can go from feeling like running in the sand in a sandstorm to riding a bike on a breezy day down a hill. So again, if you want my free meal planning tool, go to buy plan. Be by plan. Enter your email address and you will get instant access.

Okay, so before I share my list of my favorite barbell exercises, I wanna share with you the big benefits of these types of exercises. So the first one is barbell exercises are ideal for gaining strength, and there are three reasons for this. One, I. Is one of the best ways to get stronger is to use heavy weights.

Now when you use dumbbells, you can only progress up to the heaviest dumbbells that are available in your gym. That’s usually around a hundred pounds, and then that’s it. You can’t use heavier weights than that. And while that’s plenty to progress on many exercises, most exercises really, That will not be enough to achieve progressive overload on an exercise like the squat, the deadlift, the bench press, and the dumbbell row, after you have been training properly for at least a few years, if you’re a guy, if you’re a gal, then that statement wouldn’t apply to you.

But what would apply to you is deadlifting with heavy dumbbells gets pretty awkward and deadlifting with a barbell. Is comparatively a lot stabler and you will perform better on a barbell deadlift. That is not to say that a dumbbell deadlift is not an effective exercise. It is, but again, as you get strong, it gets pretty awkward, and I would generally recommend strong women to move over from heavy dumbbell deadlifts to heavy barbell deadlifts, and then maybe do variations of.

Deadlifting various hip hinge exercises with dumbbells, but with lighter dumbbells in higher rep ranges, so maybe eight to 10 or even 10 to 12 reps, but trying to do heavy, let’s say, four to six rep deadlifts with dumbbells. Very awkward. Anyway, coming back to barbells, you can push, pull, and squat a lot more weight with a barbell than you ever could with a dumbbell.

And not only because barbells are physically stronger than dumbbells, some barbells can hold over 3000 pounds, but barbells also allow you to put your body into positions where you can lift heavier weights more efficiently, more effectively. So for example, think about the barbell squat and. How much force you can produce and how strong you can be on the barbell squat versus the goblet squat.

Another reason why barbell exercises are generally better for gaining strength than dumbbell exercises. With most barbell exercises, you’re able to use both of your hands to keep the bar stable and to keep the weight as evenly distributed over both the left and the right side of your body. As you can, and that makes it easier to push and pull heavy loads with dumbbells, you lose a bit of that stability and that makes it harder.

So for example, in the dumbbell bench press, you have to consciously fight to keep both of your hands about the same distance from your chest when you are lowering and when you’re pressing the weight up. And that mostly takes care of itself when you’re doing the barbell bench press. You don’t have to pay attention to it as much.

You also lose a bit of energy. You waste a bit of energy in the dumbbell bench press just getting into position, especially if the weights are heavy. Another reason why barbell exercises are ideal for gaining strength is with the exercises that allow you to handle the heaviest weights. So the squat, the deadlift, the bench press, the overhead press.

You are going to find them easier to perform with a barbell versus a dumbbell. You can do those types of exercises with dumbbells, of course, but once those dumbbells get heavy, so for most men, I would say anything over 75 pounds or so, it starts to get unwieldy. It starts to get a bit awkward sometimes unsafe.

As I mentioned with the dumbbell bench press, often getting the dumbbells into the right position. Think of a heavy dumbbell overhead press, like a shoulder press. Think of a seated shoulder press. It takes a little bit of energy just to kick those weights up into place. You probably lose one rep. Just doing that.

Whereas with a barbell overhead press, you can set the pins on the rack at the perfect height. You know, it can be right in line with your collarbone or so, and you’re able to just unrack the weight and not waste any energy getting into position to press. So let’s move on to another big benefit of barbell exercises, and that is they are very adaptable.

They can be used for many different types of exercise, many different types of. Goals, you can use them in bodybuilding, in power lifting, in strong man, CrossFit, Olympic weightlifting, or just everyday fitness. So no matter why you want to do some strength training, whether it is to get better at a sport, you know, to improve athleticism or to improve body composition, or just to improve health and mobility and longevity.

The barbell is going to help you. Moving on to big benefit number three of barbells, and that is they allow you to perform exercises safely because your hands are locked in position when you’re doing a barbell exercise. And that way you tend to have more control over the barbell than when you use dumbbells, and that typically makes exercises safer.

You also have to often nudge or flick or clean meaning lift dumbbells to get them into the proper position to perform an exercise. So I mentioned earlier a dumbbell shoulder press When the weights get heavy and you have to start the exercise on your thighs, then you have to kick them up to shoulder height to get them in the starting position.

It’s not so bad when the dumbbells are light, but as they get heavier, it starts to get a bit more unstable. It gets a little bit more fatiguing, and that impairs performance at least a little bit and makes the exercise at least a little bit less safe. I wouldn’t say it makes is dangerous, but there is a little bit more risk of maybe not an acute serious injury, but at least maybe a, a slight.

Tweak. Okay. My fourth and final big benefit of barbell exercises is they allow you to increase weight in small increments, and that’s important because increasing the amount of weight that you lift over time is the most important driver of strength and muscle gain. This is also known as progressive overload.

Now most dumbbells, they go up in five pound increments. And so that means that when you increase the weight on a dumbbell exercise, you typically have to lift at least 10 more pounds than you did previously because each dumbbell weighs five pounds. I. And some gyms have dumbbells that go up in 10 pound increments, especially over a certain number.

So maybe they go up in five pound increments to 80 or 85 or 90, and then from there, go in 10 pound increments. And that means that you have to be able to lift 20 pounds more on an exercise. Now when you’re new to lifting, 10 pound jumps is easy. You’ll do that week after week for the first couple of months, but after a few years after you start to approach your genetic limit for muscle and strength gain and progress has slowed down a lot, you will not be able to progress that quickly.

And being able to increase the weights more gradually helps. Most gyms, they have barbell plates as small as two and a half pounds, which means you can make smaller, more sustainable five pound increases on exercises, and that can help you keep getting stronger without becoming plateaued or getting hurt.

Alright, so that is a summary of why I include barbell exercises in all of my programs for men and women, why I do them myself, and why I’m recording this podcast. So now let’s get to my 18 favorite barbell exercises. This list isn’t exhaustive. There are many other effective barbell exercises, but I would say that these are the best ones.

These are the ones that are going to help you gain muscle and strength everywhere in your body. These are the exercises again, that I am always doing some of in my. Programming. Not doing all of them all of the time, of course, but I alternate between these. And let’s start with the first, which is of course, the barbell bench press.

This is one of the single best upper body barbell exercises you can do. It trains every major muscle group above your waist, particularly your pecs, triceps, and shoulders. Then there is the incline barbell bench press, and this is one of the best barbell exercises you can do for your chest, in particular for your pecs, because it emphasizes the often neglected, quote unquote upper chest, the musculature in the upper part of the chest.

And when you do a good job developing both the upper and the lower part of your pecs, that’s what gives them that full look. That’s what prevents the bottom heavy look. And if you are not sure what I’m talking about, go on social media and start looking at, uh, dudes who are showing their boobs online.

And inevitably you’ll find some guys who are pretty jacked. But if you look at their pecs, you’ll notice that the lower portion is very developed full round, but the upper portion is noticeably. Smaller, noticeably flatter. I used to have a chest like that, and I fixed it primarily by doing a lot of incline barbell and dumbbell pressing.

Next up is the decline barbell bench press, which is number three for a reason, because research shows that while it does train the lower chest and the triceps as well as the flat barbell bench press, it does not train the shoulders quite as well. So that means that it can be a, a good addition to your routine if you just wanna break from flat bench pressing, or if you want to use it as more of an accessory exercise for your pecs.

I have not used the decline barbell bench press or dumbbell bench press as a primary, you know, first in the workout exercise that I’m really trying to push for progress on, but I might do it as a second or third. Exercise in a chest or a push workout. Okay, let’s move on to some back exercises, barbell back exercises.

Number one is, yeah, you guessed it. The deadlift because it trains every muscle in your back. It’s particularly good for the lower back muscles. It also allows you to use some of the heaviest weights, probably the heaviest weights of any of your workouts. And that means that it is great for gaining strength, which means it is also great for building muscle.

And some people say that the risks of the deadlift outweigh the benefits. And I actually recorded a whole podcast on that. And if you wanna check out my full answer to the question about. Risk versus reward with the deadlift. Go check it out. But the long story short is I don’t agree for those of us who are not on steroids, who are not pushing our bodies to the brink, because we are competitive athletes and we are trying to deadlift as much weight as we possibly can.

For those of us who are willing to learn the exercise correctly, do it correctly, and progress in a sustainable way, the deadlift is a very safe and very effective exercise. So anyway, again, if you want to hear more about that topic in particular, just check out the episode that I recorded on it. I don’t remember the exact title.

It has deadlift and risk in it, I think. So that should make it easy to find. Exercise number two on the list for barbell exercises for the back is the barbell row because you can generally lift more weight with the barbell row than you can with other back exercises that use a barbell and other back exercises that use dumbbells.

And that means, of course, again, that it’s great for getting a stronger back, which means it’s great for getting a bigger back. Now exercise number three on this list is the pen lay row, which is similar to the barbell row, but you don’t use your lower body to help pop the bar off of the floor like you do with the barbell row.

And so this means that you are not gonna be able to lift as much weight on the pen lay row as you do with a barbell row or some other variation of the barbell row. But it does mean that with the penley row, your lats traps and rhomboids are doing more of the work. And you are not going to be limited by your lower body strength.

Alright, let’s talk about shoulder exercises now, barbell shoulder exercises, my number one favorite is the standing barbell overhead press, and this is great for improving upper body strength across the board. Chest, shoulders, triceps. And it helps you develop balance, coordination, great exercise. Then we have the seated barbell overhead press, which is an exercise you don’t see many people doing probably because it’s kind of a pain in the ass to set up.

You have to drag a bench over to a power rack and set it up that way. But I will do that now and then, and in fact, I might include this exercise in my next macrocycle because I have been doing standing pressing for at least three or four months now. And the reason I like this exercise is the seated barbell overhead press.

It doesn’t require as much full body coordination as the standing barbell overhead press. It also doesn’t require as much back strength, and that way you can lift heavier weights when you’re seated and you put more of the emphasis, more of the strain directly on your shoulders. That means that the seated barbell overhead press is probably a little bit better for developing your shoulders, whereas the standing barbell overhead press is more of a, a whole body exercise.

It’s not a whole body exercise in the same way as the barbell deadlift or the barbell squat, but it is more of a whole body exercise. And the seated variation. Okay, next up we have the barbell rear delt row. Now this one is great for training your rear delts, of course, which are small, stubborn muscles on the back of your shoulders that often need quite a bit of extra attention if you want them to develop appropriately, if you want them to develop at the same rate and in the right ratio as your anterior and your front and side deltoids.

Okay, so now let’s talk about leg exercises. You can guess the first one. Of course, it is the barbell back squat. This is hands down the most effective barbell exercise you can do for your quads, and it also allows you to use very heavy weights and that allows you to produce a large amount of tension in your muscles.

And that, of course, is great for gaining strength and gaining muscle. And the barbell back squat also requires back strength, particularly upper body back strength. And of course it does involve your hamstrings as well, but it is more of a quadriceps exercise than a hamstringing exercise. I. Next up we have the barbell front squat, which is similar to the barbell back squat in the muscles it trains, and which muscles it emphasizes.

But many people don’t know that. Studies show that the barbell front squat is one of the best exercise, one of the best barbell exercises you can do for your glutes. Aside from maybe something that targets the glutes specifically like a barbell hip thrust. But what’s great about the barbell front squat is you are training your glutes as well as basically everything in your lower body.

And research also shows that the barbell front squat places a lot less compressive forces on your knees and your lower back, and that makes it great. For people who have knee or back issues or for just giving your knees and back a little break after, let’s say several months of really pushing hard on the barbell back squat.

That’s what I do in my training. I’ll do three or four months of barbell back squatting. Then I’ll do three or four months of barbell front squatting because they’re both great exercises and it is nice to give my back a little bit of a break and my knees a little bit of a break because I’m also deadlifting and doing a lot of other stuff.

Next up we have the Romanian deadlift, the R D L, because it is a fantastic hamstringing exercise that you can use a lot of weight with. And again, that makes it great for gaining muscle and strength. It’s also a bit less fatiguing than other deadlift variations, so you can do R DLS more often with even conventional deadlifting and some sort of barbell squat without just wearing yourself to a frazzle.

And another benefit of the R D L is it’s great for training your traps because your upper back has to work hard to prevent your shoulders from rounding. Alright, now let’s talk about arm exercises. Let’s talk about the barbell curl because it’s a simple exercise, it’s an effective exercise. It allows you to use heavy weights.

It’s just a, a staple. It can’t go wrong. Getting strong on the barbell curl. Next we have the close grip barbell bench Press, one of my favorite triceps exercises. It allows you to safely and effectively train all three heads of the triceps. You can use heavy weights safely, effectively, and that can be difficult with other triceps exercises.

Think of the skull crusher. There’s a point where it just gets awkward. It puts a lot of stress on your elbows. Even press downs get a bit awkward when the weights start getting heavy. Like if you’re trying to do sets of four to six on press downs, that is a lot more difficult and obnoxious than sets of four to six on the close grip bench press.

And of course, The close grip bench press also allows you to get in some extra volume for your pecs and your shoulders. Next we have the skull crusher, the lying barbell triceps extension. And although I mentioned when the weights start to get heavy, this exercise can give you some trouble. Some people find it really irritates their elbows and others though find that they have no such problem.

I am one of those people. I’ve maybe experienced a little bit of elbow discomfort in my, oh, 20 years of weightlifting now on skull crushers. But generally it’s not an issue. I’m able to go fairly heavy, and I’ve been able to get pretty strong in this exercise without any significant elbow pain. And this is a great barbell exercise for your arms because it trains the slightly smaller medial and lateral heads of the triceps.

That helps ensure that you have a defined and proportional upper arm. And just as a note, make sure you do this exercise with an easy bar, the slanted bar, not a straight barbell. Alright, lastly, let’s talk about some core training using the barbell. Aside from many of the exercises I’ve already given you, which are very effective at training your core, like.

Any type of barbell squat, any type of barbell deadlift, any type of barbell overhead press. But we have here the barbell landmine rainbow, and that’s a great core exercise because it forces you to stabilize your core muscles under load, and that builds the type of core strength and stability you need.

If you say play sports that require you to twist and to turn at speed, and then we have the barbell rollout. Very simple exercise Studies show that it is very effective for training all parts of the abs and the core, especially the rectus abdominis, the big blocky muscles that most people think of as abs, as well as the obliques.

And then we have the barbell sit up. One of the biggest benefits of this exercise is it’s easy to add weight to, and being able to add weight to a sit up exercise increases its effectiveness and allows you to take advantage of progressive overload, which again is the most important driver of muscle growth.

Now if you’re wondering if you should be including core specific training in your programming, you don’t necessarily have to. Most people will find that if they just get strong on many of the other exercises that I’ve shared in this podcast, their core will develop quite nicely. And if they just get to a body fat level that allows them to see their core muscles, they don’t need to do much more than that.

But some people, Do start out with very underdeveloped core muscles and they do exactly what I just said, and then they are underwhelmed by what they see in the mirror. Some people just want to have bigger blockier abs kind of a guy thing. I know. Usually it’s guys want to have bigger obliques because it can look pretty cool when you’re really lean, although if you’re not really lean, it just makes you look fatter.

Some people just want to develop their core muscles faster. Some people just don’t wanna wait. Maybe the year or two, it’ll take for them to go from where they are currently at in their core development to where they want to be. So those are all reasons to include core exercises in your. Programming. And as far as how much direct core training you should do, if you are regularly doing barbell squats and deadlifts and overhead presses, you don’t need to do more than probably six or nine sets of core exercises per week, and you can just do them at the end of.

A workout, you could do three, three times a week at the end of three different workouts, or you could do six at the end of one workout if you wanted to do it that way, and then three at the end of another, or I suppose you could do all nine at the end of one workout, but I would not do that at the end of a workout.

That also heavily engaged your core. I would not do that at the end of a workout that. Involved barbell squatting, for example, or barbell deadlifting or overhead pressing. I would do that maybe after an upper body push type of workout, because while something like the barbell bench press does involve tensing your core muscles, it does not, uh, place them under load and train them in the same way as a barbell squat or deadlift.

Well, I hope you liked this episode. I hope you found it helpful, and if you did subscribe to the show because it makes sure that you don’t miss new episodes. And it also helps me because it increases the rankings of the show a little bit, which of course then makes it a little bit more easily found by other people.

Who may like it just as much as you. And if you didn’t like something about this episode or about the show in general, or if you have, uh, ideas or suggestions or just feedback to share, shoot me an email, [email protected], muscle f o r and let me know what I could do better or just, uh, what your thoughts are about.

Maybe what you’d like to see me do in the future. I read everything myself. I’m always looking for new ideas and constructive feedback. So thanks again for listening to this episode, and I hope to hear from you soon.

View Complete Transcript