Want to get seriously strong? It's time to get using a barbell

Benefits of using a barbell and 5 easy exercises to start with

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If there’s one piece of equipment that many women shy away from, it’s the barbell. But writer Alice Porter believes that it’s time we reclaimed the weightlifting staple as a brilliant, full-body piece of equipment that we can use both in the gym and at home. 

More women than ever are strength training, and that’s great, but there’s still a gym gap between the sexes. This is particularly the case when it comes to using barbells – a piece of equipment that we might associate with professional weightlifters and a whole load of grunting. 

The truth, however, is that a barbell is an accessible piece of equipment for women with various levels of fitness, including complete beginners. And if you don’t plan on going back to the gym any time soon, you’ll be glad to know that it is totally safe to train with a barbell at home. In fact, it’s the perfect piece of home equipment as you can plan umpteen weeks of workouts around it without ever repeating an exercise.

Hannah Ashby, a personal trainer who uses barbells more than any other piece of equipment to train her female clients, explains: “You can plan an entire workout around a barbell – even when I am in the gym and I have dumbbells and kettlebells and other various pieces of equipment at my disposal, I often choose to train only with a barbell.” And Olympic weightlifter, Evelyn Stevenson, agrees. She’s even built a weights room at home during lockdown, centred around barbell workouts. If you’re looking to upgrade your home workout routine, a barbell might be just the thing you need. 

Here’s everything you need to know about training with barbells and using them at home:

What is a barbell? 

If you have never trained with a barbell before, then you’ve still probably seen one either in the gym or on the TV – there’s even an iPhone emoji of a woman lifting a barbell! It looks like a long bar and the Olympic barbells that Hannah and Evelyn suggest using for training are usually made out of silver metal. Don’t be scared by the name “Olympic barbell,” though – many women lift 15kg bars, which is the equivalent of lifting two 7.5kg dumbbells. As with other weights, you can go super heavy or light.

The reason that Hannah and Evelyn suggest starting out with an Olympic barbell is that you can use it on its own – without adding any plates to it – and still get a very thorough workout. But when you do start to progress, you can buy weighted plates to add to it to increase the difficulty level. This is why barbells are a great investment; unlike when you outgrow a dumbbell or a kettlebell and have to replace them completely, you can keep adding to your barbell while also having the option to still use it on its own.

Ever worried about using a barbell? Well, now's the time to get over that fear because barbells are super simple to use and a great full-body workout!
Ever worried about using a barbell? Well, now's the time to get over that fear because barbells are super simple to use and a great full-body workout!

Can anyone use a barbell?

“I don’t see why you wouldn’t start out with a barbell,” says Evelyn. “In fact, I try to get my clients to start out with a barbell straight away.” She explains that many people are scared of using barbells and that even though they can goblet squat a 16kg kettlebell, for example, they believe a 15kg bar is out of their reach. Hannah also starts most of her clients out with a barbell. “It can feel strange balance-wise the first time you put a barbell on your shoulders, so sometimes I’ll start with a weightless bar just so they can get used to holding something on their back but then I’d move to a barbell.”

It’s essential that you have the correct form for each of your movements before you start adding weight to them – particularly with exercises like squats. Evelyn suggests filming yourself with the barbell to ensure your form is correct and if it’s possible, both Evelyn and Hannah suggest asking a trainer to look at your form. “I’ve had so many people do one session with me because they want to train by themselves, but they just want to learn a couple of things before doing so,” says Evelyn.

The two key points to be aware of is keeping a flat back and grounding your heels to the foor. However, form obviously varies from exercise to exercise so you’re best off doing a little research online before you start to lift.

Barbell benefits

Boosted metabolism

Barbells are so great because they put the whole body under tension – enabling you to  build muscle in more than one area at the same time through compound movements. By increasing your muscle mass in a really effective way, you’re boosting your metabolism and overall strength. Fareeha Jay, a qualified dietician, explains that “muscle mass requires more energy to maintain and burns more calories than fat – therefore, people with more muscle tend to have a faster metabolism.” 

She goes onto explain that having higher muscle mass is associated with a lower risk of diabetes and improved heart health. “There have also been studies to suggest that more muscle can improve mental health, increase bone density and strengthen our immune system.”

Increased confidence

Building muscle can also be great for your self-esteem. Lucy, 22, started training with barbells at the beginning of lockdown in January after her friend recommended it:“I’ve been going to the gym for over a year and never used a barbell because I was really worried about using one. Now, I can’t believe how easy they’ve been to incorporate in my workouts and I feel so good about how much strength I have gained from using them.”

Better body image

Evelyn explains that training with a barbell can also help you develop healthier fitness habits, focussing less on body image and more on progress, “It’s very easy to get stuck on the scales. If you’re training and you’ve got a progressive overload programme of weight, you can look at the number on the bar and how you’ve got stronger, or you can watch your reps increase.”

Functional fitness

She continues to discuss the practical benefits of weightlifting, “Postpartum, I’ve had my child and all of a sudden I’m lifting this baby, I’m having to hold her all the time. In everyday life, you will notice a difference when you pick things up and carry things yourself from weightlifting.”

Setting up

Before doing anything, it’s important to have a few safety pointers in place. Filming yourself and watching videos back is a great way to check form and Evelyn also stresses the importance of not pushing through uncomfortable pain, “If it’s hurting uncomfortably – and the pain isn’t muscular – stop.”

Form aside, it might be worth using bumper weights (rubber plates that absorb the shock if/when dropped) instead of metal plates and ensuring that you always use clips to secure plates to your bar.

If you start out using an Olympic barbell with no weight, aim to work up to 12 reps of whatever exercises you choose to do (or the moves below) before adding on plates. From there, Hannah suggests working with the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) scale. “Ask yourself how difficult that movement was on a scale between one and 10. The sweet spot is around seven. If you do 12 reps and the difficulty level is a four or five, you’re ready to add some weight, like two 5KG plates. If you’re working towards the top end of that scale then you can keep working with the current weight before you start to increase it.” 

Evelyn suggests beginning with an Olympic barbell
Start with just a bare bar and once you can do 12 reps of any exercise, gradually start to increase the weights at both ends.

5 exercises for barbell beginners

Here are Hannah’s top five exercises for barbell beginners. Obviously, they’re really classic strength training moves so they’re great whatever your level. Don’t have a barbell yet? Try them out with dumbbells or whatever you can get your hands on so that you get used to the movement pattern and then try them out with a barbell when you get the opportunity.

1. Romanian deadlift

“The RDL is a hinge movement,” Hannah says. “It’s great because it works all the muscles down the back of the body – your posterior chain of hamstrings, glutes and lower back. It’s good for anyone who is working from home and it introduces you to deadlifts without overextending your back.”

  • Stand with feet hip-width apart.
  • Hold the bar close to your body with extended arms.
  • Start to hinge from the hips to roll the bar down the front of your legs.
  • Once you reach your ankles (or calves if living in a slightly tighter body), reverse that action by rolling back up slowly.

2. Back squat

“Any kind of squat is so good for when you’re first starting out with lifting,” says Hannah. “It works so many muscles and it’s a massive fundamental compound movement that you always need.”

  • Lift the bar over your head (in the gym you can use a squat rack to balance the bar and lift it from there) and place it on the back of your shoulders, holding it in place with both hands. 
  • Start to sit back into a squat down, keeping your shoulders back and your heels on the ground.
  • Engage the glutes to help you come back up.

3. Overhead press

“Starting to introduce any kind of overhead movements is really important,” Hannah stresses, explaining that it can help to engage lots of core and upper body muscles.

  • Take a shoulder-width grip of the bar, palms facing away from you.
  • Hold the bar in front of your chest. 
  • Press the bar above your head, adjusting your head position backward as you do.
  • Bend the elbows to return the weight to chest height.
    Hannah often gets her clients using barbells straight away, even if they have no lifting experience.
    A hang clean is one of the fundamental barbell moves – read how to do one below.

    4. Bent-over row

    Hannah explains that the bent-over row is a great exercise for people with desk jobs as it helps to realign your posture.

    • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
    • Bend your knees and lean forward from the waist.
    • Bend your knees but ensure your back is straight.
    • Hold the bar with your hands palms-down, just wider than shoulder-width apart and straighten your arms.
    • Squeeze your shoulders together to row the weight up to your chest.
    • Release and slowly extend the arms to bring the weight back down.
    • Repeat.

    5. Hang clean (picture above)

    “This is a good one if you want to start introducing yourself to CrossFit,” says Hannah.

Start from a shoulder-width standing position.
    • Hold the bar with your hands (palms-down), slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
    • Hold the bar against your thighs, bend slightly at the hips to push your hips back then push them forward in order to clean the barbell up to a front rack position.
    • Bring the weight back down to the thighs slowly and go again.

    Why not nail the bent-over row action using a dumbbell to get used to what muscles you should be feeling? Remember to really squeeze your back muscles when you bring those weights up and to slow down when you bring them back down.

    Ready to work up a sweat? Hop on over to the SWTC video library where you’ll find a range of 30-50 minute workouts, led by our very own trainers. 

    Images: Evelyn Stevenson; Hannah Ashby.

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