Beginning Barbells

Learn the most effective strength-building exercises with confidence.

The biggest challenge of barbell-based strength training is the lifts themselves, and far too many people give up before giving them a try. It’s true that the barbell exercises take patience and practice to master, but they are surprisingly easy to learn. And once you learn them, you can train optimally for strength absolutely anywhere there is a barbell.

Learn the 4 Main Lifts

Sometimes called the king of the barbell exercises. The squat uses big movements around your hips and legs, teaches and improves balance, and trains one of the most fundamental movements for athletics and mobility. Few things you can do in the gym require as much practice, coordination, and coaching or give you as much practical benefit as a well-executed squat.

This guide adheres to the low bar squat mechanics. The low bar squat is more technically challenging than a high-bar or “Olympic” squat, but it also allows you to lift more weight when you do it correctly. More weight (lifted well) = better strength gains.

Grip

Find the correct bar position: Reach around the outside of your shoulder and find the bony protrusion that is the spine of your scapula. Press hard.

Take your grip: Start with your hands about shoulder-width apart, your thumbs on top of the bar, and your wrists straight.

Duck under the bar, positioning it just below the place that you pressed on your shoulder blade. (You may need to widen your grip to get the bar in the correct position.)

Squat the Bar Out of the Rack

  1. With the bar in the correct position, lift your chest and pinch your shoulder blades together to create a “shelf” for the bar to sit on.
  2. Take a big breath and squat the bar out of the rack as if it is a full rep. This will help you stay tight and keep the bar in place for the entire set.
  3. Take two steps back to clear the rack.

Eyes Down and “Brace!”

Keep your focus on the floor a few feet in front of you.

Before you squat, squeeze your abs like are bracing for a punch to the stomach. Take a big breath and hold it. Squeeze everything tight, but do not try to overextend your back. Now you are ready to squat.

The bar wants to travel in a straight vertical line, down then up. Your goal is to arrange your body segments to allow it to do so, while maintaining your balance on the middle of y0ur foot. This is easier said than done.

Hips and Knees at the Same Time

Start every rep with by smoothly bending your hips and knees at the same time. Many lifters get out of position by either sending the hips back without bending their knees or vice versa. Think “Smooth and Controlled” to start.

Knees forward and Set

Reach your knees forward to track in the same direction that your toes are pointing.

At about the halfway mark: Hold your knees in place. From here, nothing moves forward for the rest of the squat.

Hips Back and Bend Over

Reach your hips back continuously during the descent. This will force you to bend over like you are pointing your chest at the floor.

Depth by Feel

Since you can’t watch yourself squat, learn what depth feels like: if your knees are in place, depth will be the point at which you cannot reach back farther and cannot go deeper without “unsqueezing” something.

Video your lift and confirm your depth visually between sets: Hip crease below the top of your knee.

To Bounce or Not To Bounce

For now, do not try to “bounce” out of the bottom. Instead, focus on a quick turnaround from down to up, with absolutely no pause at the bottom. Thinking about going “UP!” on your way down can help.

Hips to the Ceiling

Drive your hips to the ceiling while maintaining a constant back angle on the way up.

Finish Tall

Stand with your hips and knees fully extended. Breathe. And Repeat!

The Balance Framework

Every cue and every element of the squat has to conform to a single principle. You must stay “in balance” during the entire movement. This means that your weight is centered on the middle of your foot. It can help to think of being “heavy on your whole foot” and to practice finding your balance by sitting at the bottom of the squat (with a lighter weight) and paying specific attention to how your weight is distributed on your foot.

Learning to feel and control your balance is key to a great squat.

Slow Everything Down

Most people try to squat too quickly while working on form issues. Slow down. Mastering the squat means going from conscious control to unconscious action. Going slow, especially on the descent, allows you to think while you squat. Take a count of “3” to get to the bottom of the lift. As the weight on the bar goes up and you get better at squatting, the speed of your squat will naturally increase.

Warm-up Reps are Practice Reps

From your first rep with an empty bar, on every workout, practice your squat. Start slow, feel your balance, and make adjustments. If you don’t have a coach, video yourself so that you can see the effect of different changes to how the squat feels.

Knee Slide

If your knees slide forward at the bottom of the squat, you will lose tightness and often will be out of position for the correct use of your hips on the way up.

Possible Causes:

You are too vertical on the way down: Point your chest at the floor and bend over. Make sure your hips do not drop toward your calves at the bottom, keep them back.

Squatting too Deep: Try slowing down as you approach the bottom. Stay tight. Don’t try to go deeper if you have to “bounce” or lose tightness to do so.

Make sure your knees are reaching forward and getting set in place early in the movement.

Depth

Squatting too high? Check the following

Stance: A too narrow or too wide stance can cause depth issues. Make sure your stance is about shoulder width and your toes are pointed out slightly.

Knees out: your knees must be out so that your hips can drop between your thighs. This will often be accompanied by knee slide.

Commitment: Stay consistent and committed to the correct depth as you add weight to the bar.

On your toes on the way up

Sometimes lifters will lift their chest early and “dive forward” onto their toes on the way up. If you are on your toes, you aren’t using your hips correctly. Drive your HIPS UP while keeping your CHEST POINTED AT THE FLOOR. This will help you use your hips and maintain a constant back angle on the way up.

Arm Pain

Elbow and shoulder pain often accompany a weak bar position. Get your chest up and shoulder blades pinched. Then work to maintain that chest-up position throughout the movement while keeping your elbows down.

Continued arm pain will require that you have someone check your bar position and grip.

The bench press is the main lift for building raw upper body strength. The bench press can be surprisingly technical. Focus on a good setup and consistent bar path for success with this popular lift.

Eyes lower than the bar

Lie down so that your eyes are lower than the bar (toward your feet), ensuring you won’t hit the rack or hooks.

Compression Grip

Grip the bar as close to your wrist as possible. Rotate your hands inward and Squeeze. Try to leave fingerprints on the bar.

Unrack with straight arms

Point your elbows out to help you unrack heavy weights. 

Straight elbows when the bar travels over your face and neck.

Set your arch

Retract your shoulder blades and rotate your chest up. Think about bringing your shoulders as close to your butt as possible.

Feet flat. Knees at 90 degrees.

Foot position is not set in stone, but flat feet give you better contact with the floor. Place plates or blocks under your feet if you have short legs.

Eyes on the ceiling (note the bar’s starting position)

Focus on the ceiling for the entire set, noting where the bar starts and ends each rep. Be consistent and throw the bar to the ceiling the way you throw a dart or ball at a target.

Big held breath, before each rep.

Touch your chest

“Pull down with your elbows” and touch your mid-sternum to achieve a consistent and safe touchpoint on your chest.

Leg Drive

Use your legs to push your body upward along the bench and throw the bar back to the starting position against the ceiling. Make sure your butt stays down and in contact with the bench.

Keep your shoulders retracted

“Shoulders pinched” decreases the range of motion without decreasing the efficacy of the lift, and this position helps you keep your chest up, making your bench press more efficient. If you lose your shoulders-back position, reset at the top.

Forearm points the way

Your elbows should be slightly in front of the bar at the bottom. The correct bar path is a diagonal line from your touch-point to the lockout. Your forearms should be angled along that same line.

Elbows Down

The most common bench press mistake is to flare your elbows on the way up. Imagine you are trying to “bend the bar” in half toward your feet on the way down and keep “tight armpits” on the way up.

Leg Drive Troubles

If you are having trouble using leg drive. Use your legs to hold your body motionless on the bench instead. Less dynamic, holding your body still will require similar use of your legs and translates well to leg drive later on.

Shoulder Pain

Shoulder pain caused by the bench press is often due to your grip width or your elbow position during the movement. Try narrowing your grip a finger-width at a time, and note whether this alleviates the pain. Also, have a coach check your elbow position. If your elbows are too high and far away from your body, you may be at risk of injury.

Sticking Point 4 – 6 inches off from your chest

Usually a bar path issue. You may be pressing the bar too vertically off your chest, pressing farther away from your shoulder joint. “Press back” toward your spotter or “float the bar back” toward your shoulder joint on the way up.

Butt Lifting Off the Bench

If your butt comes off the bench, this is indicative of an ineffectual setup or use of leg drive. Review your “chest up” and “shoulders tucked” position. Then, have a friend block your shoulders so you can practice leg drive.

Of all barbell exercises, the deadlift may be the ultimate test of raw strength. That’s because it is simple: pick the bar up and put it down. If you are going to make a mistake on the deadlift it is usually in the setup. Focus on a perfect setup and an efficient deadlift will follow.

What makes the deadlift effective is that it is HEAVY. There is no momentum, no stretch reflex, nothing that you can do to make the lift easier or more efficient. All this means that YOU need to get out of the way of the bar. Your setup allows the bar to travel in a straight vertical line while arranging your body and levers to most efficiently impart force to the barbell, moving it in a straight vertical line from the floor to the lockout position.

Put your body in the right place: Don’t move the bar!

Stance: 1” from your shins, 4-6” between your heels, 15° toe angle

Place your feet under the bar with the bar is directly over the middle of your whole foot or about 1 inch from your vertical shins. Take a narrow stance, with your feet directly under your hips (about 4-6 inches between your heels), and point your toes out slightly (15-20 degrees).

Grip: Outside your legs

Grip the bar on the knurling just wider than your legs. The narrow stance facilitates a narrow grip, which is better for the deadlift.

Position: Bend your knees until your shins touch the bar

Remember: Don’t move the bar!

Set your back

Squeeze your back flat by trying to point your chest at the wall in front of you and your butt at the wall behind you. Do not lower your hips and do not move the barbell. This will be uncomfortable.

Don’t forget to breathe

Take a big breath and hold it until the bar is back on the floor.

If you did the above steps correctly, your body and the bar are now in the correct position relative to each other. Most deadlift errors are prevented with a good setup, but you still have to finish the lift.

Bar on your legs

Maintain contact between the bar and your legs all the way up. Imagine you are trying to grab the hem of your shorts with the barbell.

Stand up tall

Finish with your chest up and shoulders down, like you are standing at attention.

Set it Down Simple

Don’t overthink how you put the bar down. Stay tight, keep your breath held, and slide the bar back down your legs.

Push to Start

Start each rep by pushing with your feet, as if you are trying to leg press the earth away from the bar. This is in contrast to lifting your chest (opening your hips) or pulling with your arms.

Squeeze the Bar off the Floor

As you set your back, make the weight heavy in your hands and your feet heavy on the floor. This will help you take on some of the weight of the lift before the bar breaks contact with the ground, helping you maintain your balance and hold your back flat. Remember the deadlift does not need to be fast; it needs to be correct.

Find your Balance

Stay heavy on your whole foot throughout the lift. A heavy barbell changes your center of mass, pay attention to how your weight is distributed on your foot so that the bar does not pull you forward and so that you stay over the bar for an efficient lift.

The bar swings away from your legs

It is the job of your latissimus dorsi muscles (your armpit muscles) to keep the bar on your legs. First, check your setup: hips high and pushing to start.

If you are still having trouble, squeeze your chest up more to improve the angle of pull for your lats to keep the bar on your legs and actively sweep the bar back into your legs.

Hitching to Finish

If you find that you have to re-bend your knees to finish the lockout, likely your back is not fully extended when you start the lift. If you have trouble setting your back, you may need to improve your conscious control over your back extensor muscles. (See the video on setting your back below.)

If you still have trouble setting your back, try adjusting your stance. Take a slightly more toes-out position and push your knees out to touch your elbows during your setup. This both creates room for your torso and allows you to bend your knees a little bit more, both of which can help you set your back.

Grip is Failing

It may be time to switch your grip. You can use a hook grip, mixed grip (one hand supinated), or lifting straps. Each has pros and cons, but we like the hook grip for most lifters most of the time. See the tutorial below.

The press connects a heavy weight in our hands to our feet on the floor, forcing us to use our entire bodies for stability, balance, and coordination. This makes the overhead press the most functional upper body barbell exercise. A strong press makes a strong, capable body.

This guide is for the commonly known “Press 2.0,” a version that uses some hip movement to initiate the drive off your shoulders. Take your breath and start every repetition at the bottom of the movement.

Squeeze the bar “Low” in your hands

Position your hands for a narrow grip. Before you grasp the bar, rotate your fingers inward, thumbs pointing down. Then squeeze the bar with the pads of your fingers rather than grasping it like a pull-up bar. This will help put the bar in the correct place in your hand. Take care not to flex or extend your wrists or let the bar roll back over your knuckles.

The correct grip will produce a neutral or mostly straight wrist (about 15 degrees of extension).

Unrack with “UMPH!”

With your grip in place, rotate your elbows under and “squat” the bar out of the rack. (Don’t change your grip!)

Elbows in front of the bar

Squeeze your elbows in front of the bar like you are trying to touch them together.

Turn Your Body into A Column

Take two steps back. Set your feet at about shoulder width. Then squeeze: Chest up, Quads tight, and abs engaged like you are bracing for a punch to the stomach.

Eyes Straight ahead

Lock your eyes on a target straight in front of you.

Don’t forget to breathe

Take a big breath and hold it until the bar is back to the starting position.

“Hips then press.” Execution of the press 2.0 is all about timing and bar path.

Hips first

Punch your hips forward without unsqueezing any part of your body, like you are shoving your body under the bar. This should bring your hips forward & shoulders down. Imagine that there is a wall 1” behind your shoulders—don’t hit the wall.

…Then Press

If you are aggressive and tight with the hip movement, your hips will rebound from their forward position, and the bar will bounce in your hands. Press at the top of the bounce.

Aim for your nose

Your nose is a proxy for the correct bar path. The closer the better.

Shrug to finish

Finish by pressing to the highest point possible and shrugging your shoulders to your ears.

Aim for your nose, again.

Aim for your nose on the way back down, keeping your elbows in front of the bar and returning to the exact same starting position. Breathe. Hips. Repeat.

A “1—2 Punch!”

The dynamic hip movement should be like a “1—2 punch.” When you throw a punch you don’t leave your fist hanging out in the air. It snaps back! So should your hips, followed immediately by the press. “Hips Then Press” —> “1—2 punch!”

Let the Bar Float

With the correct grip and elbow Position the bar will mostly likely float above your collarbone and below your chin. If the bar is resting on your body, likely your elbows are too low or your wrists are too bent.

Grip Fixes

Grip too wide or too narrow: your forearms should be vertical, looking from directly in front or behind you. Take a narrower or wide grip to make this happen.

Wrists keep bending: Check your grip setup, but then try wrist wraps. They help you feel and adjust your wrists position.

Use your belt

Belts aren’t just for squats. The increased stability from using your belt can do wonders for your press.

A Looping bar path

If you find you are pressing with a looping bar path, There are two most likely reasons:

Check your wrists: If your wrists are over-extended (like you are revving a motorcycle), then the bar will be too far under your chin and you will have to press around your face. Squeeze the bar hard and think “Straight Wrists.”

Check your timing: The hip movement pulls your face out of the way of the bar. When you press late, you will have returned to your original starting position and will have to press out and away to reach the lockout.

Pushing yourself away from the bar

Pressing too early or failing to stay tight can cause you to push your body away from the bar. Check your press timing; be patient! And, Keep your abs tight while shoving your body under the bar.

Heels leaving the floor

Most commonly, the heels come up because you are rocking back before the hip movement. From the bottom position your HIPS ONLY GO FORWARD. Then, rebound back to your mid-foot.

A Life of Strength

Learn the most effective strength-building exercises with confidence.

The biggest challenge of barbell-based strength training is the lifts themselves, and far too many people give up before giving them a try. It’s true that the lifts take patience and practice to master, but they are surprisingly easy to learn. And once you learn them, you can train optimally for strength absolutely anywhere there is a barbell.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Moving Beyond Cardio:
A Strength-Based Guide to Conditioning

Too often, conditioning is either overlooked or overdone. For a complete, strength-based approach to fitness, conditioning has to fit into the big picture of health, longevity, and quality of life. Download this free ebook as a guide to energy systems training, accessory circuits, and high-intensity intervals that will help you add conditioning into your strength training routine.

Take Charge of Your Nutrition

The Take Charge with 10 Nutrition Challenge is a simple, effective, and 100% FREE challenge designed to help you pay attention to how you fuel your body through nutrition choices and equip you to make lasting changes for your health.

 

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