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Old-School Barbell Blast for New Muscle Growth

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Sometimes the simplest approach can be the most effective. Get growing again with this progressive eight-week, barbell-focused routine.

By Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS

Sometimes as bodybuilders we make our weekly training routine too complicated. Schemes, tactics, progressions and programs … you name it, we throw the kitchen sink into it, but we often forget to overload the target muscles. Simply put, we get so caught up in the process of lifting that we forget about the purpose of lifting. That’s why it’s always good to occasionally chuck the complicated approach and center your mind on one solitary objective: lift a ton of weight and just grow!

Every once in a while we should return to putting together plans that are as basic as they are effective. No funky moves, no hard sells, just an accurate and precise approach to muscle mass. Here we’ve assembled an eight-week plan, all centered on the all-important barbell. And truly, no elaborate piece of gym equipment is better equipped to get you to your goals than the traditional barbell.

Baptism by Barbell

Without question, you can overload your muscles better with a barbell than you can with dumbbells, cables or machines — even all put together. Oh sure, while they all have their place and unique characteristics, when size is at stake, we stake our claim to size with the barbell. Truth is, we can’t stress it enough that each bodypart will change only according to the level of stress we submit it to, and nothing puts a muscle under submission better.

If you need a little convincing to drag yourself away from the Bosu ball (that’s a conversation we’ll leave to later), remember that the barbell requires less stabilizer activity than dumbbells or cables and it forces you to work your entire body in concert to perform each move. The fact that it doesn’t require as much balance between sides of the body actually works in your favor because you’re able to push more weight and induce the most change, period. In just two months, whether you’re a beginner looking for foundational strength or a veteran seeking head-to-toe increases in size, this simple and effective plan is your agenda for the next two months.

Strong From the Start

Here we’ve assembled an eight-week barbell-predominant plan for old-fashioned mass. The first month of the program is all about lifting heavy with mass-building, compound exercises. Why? Simply because a stronger muscle has a greater potential for more size down the road. For everything but abs and calves, reps fall between the 6–8 range; for those accustomed to doing sets of 8–12, don’t worry because you’ll hit plenty of those sets in month two. But we first need to annihilate those muscle fibers with serious poundage. We’ve included very few isolation exercises (or non-barbell moves at that) during this phase for chest, shoulders, back and legs because the focus is all about moving as much weight as possible to add strength and size. We also keep the volume pretty low in month one because of the amount of weight you’re pressing on each set. You should also feel free to add additional rest periods as you see fit during month one.

The three-day split (done twice each week) pairs a large bodypart (chest, back, shoulders, legs) with a smaller muscle group (tri’s, bi’s, calves, abs) in each workout. This helps ensure that you’re fresh when doing your heaviest exercises. Speaking of, in the photos we’re going to isolate and focus on at least one barbell move for each bodypart and point out ways to ensure maximal muscular recruitment and utilization; basic ways and reminders of how to put the bar to the best use possible for each individual target muscle.

During month two we focus on higher reps with an emphasis on intensity. Rep ranges move up to 10–15 for most exercises (so therefore the poundages go down), which is ideal for promoting muscle hypertrophy. You’ll also be required to blast beyond initial failure with your choice of intensity-boosting techniques. It’s key that you select a weight that allows failure on the initial set so that you’re sure to induce muscle damage, repair and ultimately growth. The intensity techniques we’re asking you to incorporate are only valid and valuable if your weight selection is accurate at the start. Finally, we keep the split the same from one month to the next but each will feel worlds apart because of the extreme difference in weight selection and intensities. After eight full weeks, this baptism by barbell will offer the salvation of size your heart has been hoping for.

 Barbell-Focused Split
 Day  Bodypart(s) Trained
 1  Back, biceps, abs
 2  Thighs, shoulders, calves
 3  Chest, triceps
 4  Rest
 5  Back, biceps, abs
 6  Thighs, shoulders, calves
 7  Chest, triceps
 8  Rest
 9  Cycle repeats

 

Month 2 Intensity Boosters

Here’s a list of the advanced training techniques you’ll use during month two that enable you to push past muscle failure. Choose any technique and apply it for each particular exercise but use it on only the last two sets.

1) Forced Reps:
When you cannot complete another rep on your own, your training partner assists you by applying only the help necessary for you to keep the barbell moving for 2–3 more reps.

2) Peak Contraction Hold:
Squeeze and hold the peak contraction for up to five seconds on each rep of your last two sets. Squeeze the muscle as hard as you can before lowering the weight for your next rep.

3) Drop Sets:
After reaching failure on a heavy set, quickly strip an equal amount of weight from each side of the bar (the time it takes to strip the weight off is all the rest you get) so that the new weight is about 25% lighter than the previous load. Continue repping until you fail again, then strip off more weight to complete even more reps. Hint: Use smaller plates on the bar for easy changes.


The Barbell Workout – Back, Biceps, Abs

   Month 1
 Month 2
 Exercise  Sets  Reps  Sets  Reps*
 Back
 Bent-Over Barbell Row  3  6-8  4  10-15
 T-Bar Row  3  6-8  4  10-15
 Decline Barbell Pullover  3 6-8  4  10-15
 Pull-up  3  To failure  3  To failure
 Biceps
 Barbell Curl  3  6-8  4  10-15
 Smith-Machine Drag Curl  3  6-8  4  10-15
 Barbell Preacher Curl  3  6-8  4  10-15
 Incline-Bench Dumbbell Curl  3  6-8  4  10-15
 Abs
 Hanging Leg Raise  3  To failure  4  To failure
 Double Crunch  3  To failure  4  To failure
 *Use one of the intensity-boosting techniques for last two sets of all moves.

 
Bent-Over Barbell Row

>> Use alternate grips. By flipping your grip between a shoulder-width, underhand grip to a wide, overhand grip you can target slightly different areas of your entire back, including the upper and lower lats, rhomboids, middle traps and rear delts.
>> Don’t be too strict: Allow yourself a little “give” in your upper body as you pull and lower the bar, which allows you to go heavier.
>> Use a belt: Because you’re bent over, the belt can help you maintain intra-abdominal pressure to protect your spine.
>> Pull your elbows back: Bring your elbows up as high as you can when pulling the bar into your midsection for a stronger contraction.

T-Bar Row

>>Don’t forget to strap it on: There’s no use loading up the bar if you’re going to be at the mercy of your grip. Straps will not only help you keep tension in the target lats, but they’ll also allow you to do more reps on each set than you could without them.
>>Use small plates: Because you’re bent-kneed and bent over, the 45-pound plates will likely touch the floor with your chest limiting the range of motion on both ends. The key to fully engage your lats and allow for an optimal range of motion is to use 25–pound plates, especially near your hands.
>> Use a close-grip handle. With this version, loop the handle and secure it under the bar near its top. The close grip will also stimulate the back musculature in a different way than the wide-grip bent-over row.
>> Keep your elbows close to your sides. This engages the lower lat muscle fibers more strongly. Pull your elbows as far back behind the plane of your body as you can.

Barbell Curl

>> Get a good grip: We often suggest a narrow grip for long (outer) head focus and wide grip for short (inner) head focus, but for the next two months, a shoulder-width grip is the choice for the most power.
>> Cheat a little: Employ a slight cheating technique on your last set or two but only on your last few reps. Even though you’re leaning back, keep your abs and lower back tight throughout.
>> Get it Right. Curl the bar toward your chest but keep your elbows back by your sides. Dragging them forward in an effort to raise the bar higher means your front delts are working and reducing the workload on the bi’s.

 

The Barbell Workout – Thighs, Shoulders, Calves

   Month 1
 Month 2
 Exercise  Sets  Reps  Sets  Reps*
 Thighs
 Squat  3  6-8  4 10-15
 Front Squat  3  6-8  4  10-15
 Leg Press  3  6-8  4  10-15
 Hack Squat  3  6-8  4  10-15
 Romanian Deadlift  3  6-8  4  10-15
 Shoulders
 Overhead Press  3  6-8  4  10-15
 Upright Row  3  6-8  4  10-15
 Barbell Front Raise  3  6-8  4  10-15
 Bent-over Lateral Raise  3  6-8  4  10-15
 Calves
 Standing Calf Raise  3  8-12  4  20-25
 Seated Calf Raise  3  8-12  4  20-25
 *Use one of the intensity-boosting techniques for last two sets of all moves.

 
Squat

>> Muscle recruiter. Even though it’s technically the gauge for lower body strength, it’s actually a whole-body move because more than 200 muscles are highly at work when performing a single rep.
>> Squat first. You’ll notice that on your leg day regardless of the month, you’re squatting first in your routine when your muscles are the strongest and freshest.
>>Don’t look up or down. The classic blunder is to over-extend your neck to look up to the ceiling. But you don’t correct it by looking down to the bottom of the mirror because that’ll draw your balance toward your toes. Look straight ahead for optimal strength and safety.
>> Go deep. Don’t short-change your results by doing shallow squats. Get your thighs to at least parallel (90-degree knee bend) to ensure your thighs and glutes are fully stimulated.

Front Squat

>> More quad emphasis. This move is harder to master than regular squats, so why bother doing it? It really targets the quads more effectively than back squats, which is better at dividing up the workload among the quads, glutes and hams.
>> Keep your elbows up. With the weight resting upon your front delts, you need your hands to help secure the bar and keep it in place. The bar may have a tendency to roll forward if you don’t keep your elbows high.
>> Just squat. While your center of gravity has shifted slightly forward during this squat variation, the basic movement remains the same: Bend at the knees and hips, descend to a thighs-parallel position and explosively blow up out of the hole.
>> Keep your back arched. As with squats, you want to ensure that your back remains flat throughout and doesn’t round, so consciously hold a slight arch in it throughout the move.

Overhead Press

>> Overall builder. Overhead presses hit all three delt heads, with emphasis on the front and middle ones. It also places a great deal of emphasis upon your triceps.
>> Go behind your head: If you don’t have pre-existing shoulder or neck issues, nothing should prevent you from occasionally taking the bar behind the head. Doing so helps recruit even more of the middle and rear heads.
>> Do it seated or standing. Both are good options; you’ll get slightly more momentum with the standing version so that you can go a bit heavier typically. Just make sure your lower back is protected at all times.
>> Grasp the bar out wide. Grasp the bar well outside of shoulder width with a palms-forward grip. When the bar is in the down position, your forearms should be roughly perpendicular to the floor.

 

The Barbell Workout – Chest, Triceps

   Month 1
 Month 2
 Exercise  Sets  Reps  Sets  Reps*
 Chest
 Bench Press  3  6-8  4  10-15
 Incline Bench Press  3  6-8  4  10-15
 Decline Bench Press  3  6-8  4  10-15
 Incline Dumbbell Flye  3  6-8  4  10-15
 Triceps
 Skullcrusher  3  6-8  4  10-15
 Seated Overhead EZ Extension  3  6-8  4  10-15
 Reverse-Grip Pressdown  3  6-8  4  10-15
 Triceps  3  To failure  4  To failure
 *Use one of the intensity-boosting techniques for last two sets of all moves.

 
Bench Press

>> Don’t press straight up. For maximal chest-fiber recruitment, use the arc technique: The bar starts at your lower chest and you press it to arms’ length directly above your shoulders and over your face.
>> Dig with your shoulders: As you lower the weight before pressing back upward, dig your shoulders into the bench and keep your butt down. This will stabilize the shoulder capsule and help you keep the bar moving.
>> Don’t forget leg power: You can actually transfer force to your upper body by driving through the floor with your feet on each rep.
>> Quick reversal. When the bar just touches your chest, press back up explosively without bouncing it off your chest, driving the weight away from you until you almost lock it out.

Decline Bench Press

>> Use your back: You may not realize that your lats are highly involved during the decline bench press, which is a major reason you’re so much stronger on this move than inclines or flat-bench presses.
>> Beware the range of motion: Get comfortable with the shortened range of motion doing declines. This is another reason you’re stronger here.
>> Go low. Avoid the tendency to try and lower the bar to the middle of your chest, but rather lower the bar to the top of your abs/lower pec region. You get better leverage from this position to lift directly against gravity.
>> Get help. This is probably one of the hardest moves to unrack/rack the barbell, especially if the rack is just out of arms’ reach. A spotter can also assist you with your forced reps during month two.

Skullcrusher

>> Big arm builder. The skull puts a great deal of emphasis on both the lateral and long heads of the triceps; the two most visible muscles on the back of the arm.
>> Bend at the elbows: Think of your arms as hinges, bending only at the elbows, to better isolate just the triceps.
>> Slow down the negative: Controlling the weight is always a good idea but especially when you’re lowering the weight to a point above your forehead. You can actually shoot for a point just above your head, even allowing the bar to tap the bench, which works the long head to an even greater degree.
>> Try the EZ-bar. A semi-close grip on the barbell might still cause some wrist discomfort, so consider an EZ-bar as an alternative.

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