By Jeb Roberts, MA
Chances are you won’t be stranded on a desert island with nothing more than a barbell and a couple of plates anytime soon, but if you work full time like the rest of us schmucks, odds are you’ll be stuck in a busy gym during peak hours without a free machine in sight. In those all-too-common situations, you have three choices: 1) give up and take your unmotivated ass home, 2) linger around coveted equipment like a creep, or 3) get busy with a back-to-basics alternative that doesn’t require the cushy-seated machine every other meathead is eyeing from the fountain.
Naturally, the first two choices won’t cut it for any diehard MuscleMag reader, so we’ve come up with a hardcore barbell-based solution for every bodypart that’ll keep you growing while you wait for the pec deck. And if you have these simple pieces of equipment already in your home gym, you’re good to go.
While it’s easy to think of a back-to-basics approach as a suboptimal solution to a crowded gym, you’ll be passing up some serious benefits if basic barbell moves too often play second fiddle in your split. “When compared to dumbbells, barbells let you lift a greater total amount of weight,” says Brad Schoenfeld, MSc, CSCS, a former bodybuilding champion who serves as adjunct professor in the exercise science department at Lehman College in Bronx, NY, and who’s written numerous best-selling fitness books including Look Great Naked (Prentice Hall, 2001, www.lookgreatnaked.com). “In lower rep ranges, this translates into greater increases in strength. In moderate rep ranges, it maximizes muscle tension, leading to greater growth.” Simply put, bare-bones barbell lifting means moving more weight and gaining more strength, and increases in strength have been shown to have a direct correlation to increases in size.
But the benefits don’t end there. “When compared to machines, barbells allow for much greater development of secondary and stabilizing muscles,” Schoenfeld says. This has implications that go beyond developing a functional body, as it also increases the metabolic effects of training, which means you’re enhancing fat loss.” Simply put, forgoing your machine-based routine, whether by choice or necessity, could be just the shot in the arm that your muscles — and your metabolism — desperately need.
A Time for Isolation
None of this should suggest that compound barbell movements are the be-all and end-all of bodybuilding. In fact, even strength coaches like Schoenfeld readily admit that single-joint movements and machines have their place in a balanced program. “If you’re a bodybuilder, meaning your goal is to maximize hypertrophy and symmetry, it’s absolutely important to utilize a variety of training modalities,” Schoenfeld says. “The benefits of one are generally the downsides of the other, so when you combine them, they have a synergistic effect on muscle development.” Schoenfeld points out that, compared to compound movements — in which you’re activating multiple joints and typically moving a heavy weight through a large range of motion — machines make it easier to target specific muscles or even portions of a particular muscle. “This effect applies to many of the major muscles in the body, as muscles often have different attachment sites that provide greater leverage for different actions.”
So if single-joint machine- and dumbbell-based exercises as well as compound barbell-based movements both play a role in maximizing muscle growth, the question we’re left with is how to optimally combine them in a routine. “There’s no universal answer,” Schoenfeld says. “It all depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. If strength is your goal, you should situate compound, structural exercises first so that you can channel all of your energy into performance. On the other hand, pre-exhausting a muscle group with a single-joint move can also be a great strategy if you want to induce maximal fatigue for increased growth.” While pre-exhaust is an exceptional intensity technique for advanced lifters, the lifts described here should be performed first in a particular routine (and likely when your gym is busiest). Because most of these compound movements will be new to even some advanced lifters, you’ll need sufficient energy to focus on the correct form before you start dialing in with isolation (single-joint) work.
Master the Moves
Assuming basic compound movements are a neglected part of your routine, the exercises discussed here will require nothing more than a barbell and space — and, in a couple of instances, a squat rack or power cage. And if your gym is anything like most modern fitness facilities, you’ll be less likely to have to wait for these simple ingredients during peak hours. For most lifters, these moves will be a little unusual — we figure you already know how to do bench presses, squats and bent-over rows — so be sure to read the detailed exercise descriptions before piling on the plates. Each of the following exercises also includes barbell-based pairing movements — many of which will be single-joint variations — so you can get a full workout even if your favorite Hammer-Strength machine never frees up.
1. Floor Press (chest)
A favorite of powerlifters, the floor press mimics the bench press, focusing just on the top half of the movement to increase lockout strength for a bigger bench. “For lifters with shoulder issues, the limited range of motion can also be beneficial,” Schoenfeld says.
2. One-Arm Barbell Row (back)
This seldom-seen row variation allows the same full range of motion and stretch as the one-arm dumbbell row, but the corner pivot gives you more stability to pull more weight. It also offers an easier, slightly more horizontal angle of resistance, as you’ll be pulling the weight toward you rather than directly upward.
3. Power Snatch (shoulders)
Typically used as a full-body movement to increase explosive strength, the power snatch, whether performed from the floor or the hang (at hip height) is a sure-fire shoulder developer. Even better, it hits the typically undertrained rear delts more effectively than any other exercise, meaning it helps eliminate muscle imbalances that can lead to injury.
4. Zercher Squat (legs)
Unless you can clean as much as you can front squat (which is highly unlikely), the Zercher squat stands alone as the only squat variation that lets you lift heavy without a rack. It also targets the muscles of the posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes and spinal erectors) better than any other type of squat, so it’s the ideal stand-in when you can’t get to a cage.
5. Close-Grip Barbell Curl (biceps)
Barbells aren’t just for heavy compound movements — they’re also a curl junky’s best friend. And while the basic standing barbell curl has been the go-to biceps builder for some of bodybuilding’s greatest physiques (including Arnold’s), the close-grip barbell curl offers the added advantage of targeting the biceps peak better than any other variation by emphasizing the long (outer) head.
6. Floor Skullcrusher (triceps)
The standard skullcrusher, performed supine on a flat bench with an EZ-curl bar, has two problematic features: It allows the triceps’ stored elasticity to carry over from the eccentric to the concentric motion, meaning your tri’s are doing less work, and it wreaks havoc on the elbows of many lifters — especially if it’s a main part of your program. For a little relief, take it to the floor, where you can start each rep from a dead stop to minimize muscle elasticity to make the lift safer on your elbows. You’ll also be able to lift much heavier without a spotter. Keep the cambered bar if elbow pain is still an issue.
7. Reverse Body-Drag Curl (forearms)
The reverse curl targets the brachioradialis in the forearm (as well as the biceps), and adding the body-drag component increases grip and forearm strength by ensuring that the barbell never rests in the palm at the top of the ROM. Using a fat bar or Fat Gripz (or a towel wrapped around the bar) drastically increases the stress on your forearms, ensuring an unreal pump in both your upper and lower arms. Make sure you do it last in your workout.
8. Barbell Rollout (abs)
The ab wheel might seem like just another poorly conceived infomercial six-pack gimmick, but along with the hanging leg raise (the full version, where you raise your feet all the way to the bar), the rollout is the choice core-strengthening move of powerlifters. It’s deceptively difficult, but it’s easy to scale with a kneeling or negative-only version, and it torches the upper and lower abs through an extreme range of motion while enforcing spinal stability. Even better, you can skip the wheel and perform it with a barbell loaded with smaller (circular) plates.
Here's an in-depth look at the 8 steps above:
Start: If you can’t get to a power cage, you’ll need to find a squat rack with adjustable safety arms or J-hooks set just below the barbell when your arms are locked out. Lie supine beneath the bar so that it’s directly above your eyes, just as if you’re setting up for a bench press. Spread your legs slightly and extend them flat on the floor to remove any assistance from leg drive and increase the stress on your upper body.
Execution: Using the same grip width as you bench press — you want your forearms to be about perpendicular to the floor when your elbows touch down — unrack the bar and lock it out directly above your sternum. From there, slowly lower it until your elbows contact the floor and press explosively back to lockout for each consecutive rep.
Pair It With: One-arm barbell flye, barbell pullover from floor.
MMI Power Pointer: Really slow down the negative to keep from jolting your elbows; the range of motion is fairly short.
One-Arm Barbell Row
Start: Place the unloaded end of a barbell in a corner and load the opposite end. Facing away from the corner, take a staggered stance with the leg of your non-working side forward, and grasp the loaded end just beneath the sleeve (so that you’re your thumb is closest to the plates). To limit stress on your lower back, support yourself by resting your non-working forearm on your slightly bent front leg.
Execution: Maintaining a flat back, contract your working lat to pull the loaded end of the bar toward your shoulder, bringing your elbow as high as you can. Lower the weight in a controlled motion until lockout for a full stretch in the bottom position and repeat.
Pair It With: Pull-up, bent-over barbell row.
MMI Power Pointer: Because your back is supported, do some heavy “cheat” reps at the end of your set.
Start: Hold a barbell with an extremely wide pronated grip such that the bar rests at or slightly below the crease of your hips when your arms are straight. If your grip gives out, use an Olympic-style “hook” grip by wrapping your fingers over your thumbs. Start extremely light until you’ve mastered the lift.
Execution: Maintaining a flat back, dip at your knees and bend slightly forward at your waist to lower the bar a few inches down the front of your thighs. Quickly reverse the motion, returning the bar to the crease of your hips. Once it reaches that point, explosively drive from your hips to propel the bar upward, leading with your elbows. As it approaches shoulder height, rotate your elbows downward and continue to explosively extend the bar upward until it’s locked out overhead.
Pair It With: Standing barbell military press, barbell front raise.
MMI Power Pointer: Keep the bar close to your body throughout; it should travel in an almost straight line throughout the motion.
Start: If you’re training without a squat rack, start with a loaded barbell on the floor and set up for a narrow-grip deadlift, placing your feet approximately shoulder-width apart with your toes pointed slightly out and your shins touching the bar. Using a pronated grip that’s inside the width of your knees, lift the bar to your thighs. From there, squat down until your thighs are parallel to the floor, rest the bar on them close to the crease of your hips, and tuck both arms under the bar to secure it in the crooks of your elbows.
Execution: Maintaining a flat back and an upright torso, contract the muscles of your posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes and spinal erectors) to squat the weight up until your knees and hips are fully extended. Fight against the bar’s tendency to pull you forward as you descend back into a deep squat, letting your elbows sink between your legs until the bar touches your thighs, and immediately reverse direction. At the end of each set, rest the bar back on your thighs, quickly switch back to the narrow pronated deadlift grip, and hinge at your hips to set the bar back on the floor.
Pair It With: Barbell front squat, romanian deadlift.
MMI Power Pointer: You might feel some pain in your elbows, but it’s not serious. Wrap the bar with a pad, towel or even a pair of Fat Gripz.
Close-Grip Barbell Curl
Start: Hold a barbell with a supinated (palms-up) grip that’s approximately 6–12 inches wide — any closer and you’ll put strain on your wrists without increasing the benefits of the close grip. Let the barbell rest against your thighs in the start position for a full stretch in your pecs. Stand with your chest out and shoulders back.
Execution: Keeping your elbows pinned to your sides and your upper arms fixed in place, contract your biceps to curl the bar toward your shoulders. To keep constant tension on the working muscles, stop when your forearms reach a 45-degree angle with your upper arms.
Pair It With: Wide-grip barbell curl, close-grip chin-up.
MMI Power Pointer: If the close grip hurts your wrists, the outward angle of an EZ-bar will be easier on your joints.
Start: Lie on the floor with a loaded barbell resting a few inches from the top of your head. Point your elbows toward the ceiling, and take an overhand (your palms should face up) grip on the bar just inside shoulder width. If you feel discomfort in your wrists, opt for a cambered bar.
Execution: Starting from a dead stop and keeping both elbows pointed straight up, contract your triceps to extend your elbows and lift the weight to a locked-out position directly above your shoulders. Squeeze your tri’s at the peak contraction before returning to the start position. Instead of letting the bar descend toward your forehead (giving the standard skullcrusher its ominous name), let your upper arms track back slightly so that the bar comes to rest on the floor just beyond your head before you start your next rep. Try to keep your elbows in tight to keep the stress on the tri’s.
Pair It With: Weighted bench dip, close-grip push-up.
MMI Power Pointer: If elbow pain is a problem, try a thicker bar or Fat Gripz to reduce the strain.
Reverse Body Drag Curl
Start: Hold a barbell with a shoulder-width pronated (palms facing down) grip, letting it rest against your thighs. If you’ve never done reverse-grip curls, start with a lighter weight than you’d expect, especially if you have access to a thick bar or Fat Gripz, which will increase the stress on your forearms.
Execution: Rather than curling the barbell toward your shoulders in the typical arched motion, “drag” the bar up along your torso by contracting your biceps and brachioradialis (a forearm muscle that aids in elbow flexion) and pulling your elbows directly back. Squeeze the barbell as tightly as possible and maintain a firm wrist, never letting the weight of the bar pull your fist downward.
Pair It With: Supinated and pronated wrist curls.
MMI Power Pointer: Bring the bar as high as possible, which you typically don’t want to do during standard curls because your elbows pull forward.
Start: If you’re new to the rollout, start with the kneeling version. Load a barbell on the floor with small (usually 10 pound) plates, and kneel on a padded surface in front of it. Take a pronated shoulder-width grip on the bar and lock out your arms. The bar should be directly beneath your elbows, with your knees directly beneath your hips.
Execution: Maintaining a hollow (slightly rounded) back while looking straight down at the floor, roll the bar slowly out in front of you. Keep tension in your abs to control the eccentric motion as your arms and thighs simultaneously extend. In the fully stretched position, you’ll be almost completely prone on the floor, with your weight still supported by your hands and knees. Hold this extremely strenuous position for a full second before contracting your core to slowly return the barbell to the start position.
Pair It With: Floor crunch (rectus abdominis), suitcase deadlift (internal and external obliques)
MMI Power Pointer: If the kneeling version is too tough, focus on low-rep sets of negatives, walking your hands back to the starting position each rep.