6 Expert Barbell Tips For Beginners

Emily Abbate
by Emily Abbate
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6 Expert Barbell Tips For Beginners

If you ever walk into a gym and feel like you’re on autopilot, destined for the cardio equipment, you’re certainly not alone. The weight room or weights section of the gym can be super intimidating and counterintuitive. Maybe you dabble in the freeweights or machines, but the benefits of picking up a barbell are worth pushing your comfort zone. Strength training as a whole has been shown to be an effective stress reducer, and research shows it can help bulletproof your body when it comes to keeping popular injuries at bay.

“Barbells are important to add into your training because they challenge your body in a really functional way,” says Alex Silver-Fagan, trainer at Performix House in New York City.  “They force you to move around a load while using your muscles, joints and balance all at once. In the process, they create a stimulus that no other piece of equipment does.”

These six expert barbell tips will help you overcome your fear of barbells and look forward to throwing on the weight plates:

1. DECIDE HOW HEAVY TO MAKE YOUR BARBELL

There are two different naked (or without weight plates) barbell weights. The traditional bar is 45 pounds for women and 55 pounds for men. Then, you have the opportunity to add weight from there. Plates come in a variety of weights, starting at 5 pounds and going all the way up to 55 pounds. There are also smaller-sized plates, often referred to as “incrementals,” that are great for slowly progressing your lifts. These are between 2.5 and pounds.

2. PROGRESS LOADS SLOWLY

The great thing about barbell training is it’s easy to measure progress as you add more plates to each side, says Fagan. At first, learn the movement patterns of popular moves including deadlifts, squats and overhead presses using a naked bar. Move forward from there — and be patient. You never want to overload the barbell with too much weight.

3. ENLIST A TRAINER TO HELP

“Anytime you use a new piece of equipment, it’s important to be shown the ropes to ensure you’re safe and your movement is effective,” says Fagan. While YouTube tutorials and magazine excerpts can be super helpful, there’s nothing that will replace one-on-one instruction.

4. GIVE EACH LIFT THE TIME IT DESERVES

The big-five movements of barbell training include squats, deadlifts, bench presses, overhead presses and bent-over rows. “Pick one to focus on during each session and keep the rep ranges low to start,” says Fagan. Her suggestion: Five reps at a time.

5. YOU MAY NEED TO CHALK UP

When you get sweaty, it’s easy for things to get a bit slippery. Chalk can help. Acting as a grip agent, chalk absorbs the sweat. You can find it in block or spray form.

6. THERE ARE TWO GRIPS AND TWO RACK POSITIONS

Don’t worry, they’re easy enough. The two grips: overhand and underhand. In overhand, your palm is on top — or over — the bar. Underhand, your palm is under the bar.

The front rack position is when you hold the barbell in front of the body, resting on the shoulders, using an underhand grip. Inversely, the back rack position is when the bar is behind your neck, also resting on your shoulders, hands in the overhand grip position.

Now that you have all the basics down, it’s time to get moving. Here, Fagan offers a great barbell workout for beginners that contains two separate circuits. Add as much weight to the barbell as you feel comfortable with for the deadlift, overhead press and front squat, but remember: It’s better to start small. The other movements should be performed without weight.

CIRCUIT ONE

Sets: 3–5

DEADLIFT
5 reps

Start standing with your feet at shoulder-width distance, barbell in front. Using an overhand grip, hinge at your hips and knees and grab the bar. Your hands should be at shoulder-width distance. Engaging your core and glutes while keeping the bar as close to the body as possible, thrust your hips forward as you stand up with the barbell. Slowly lower down to the floor for 1 rep.

OVERHEAD PRESS
8 reps

Stand with your feet at shoulder-width distance, barbell in front-rack position. Engage your core, press the barbell directly overhead until your arms lock out. Slowly lower back to the start for 1 rep.

BARBELL REVERSE LUNGE
10 alternating reps

Stand with your feet together and barbell in back-rack position. Step back with your right foot and lower into a reverse lunge. Both the front and back knee should be bent to 90 degrees. Press through your front heel to return to the start for 1 rep. Repeat on the opposite side.

CIRCUIT TWO

Sets: 3–5

FRONT SQUAT
5 reps

Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width distance, holding the barbell in a front rack position. With your weight in your heels, send your glutes back and sit down into a squat. Pause for 2 seconds, return to start for 1 rep.

BENT-OVER ROW
10 reps

Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width distance, holding a barbell with an overhand grip in a dead hang position. Hinge forward at the hips, slightly bending your knees, keeping your back straight. Your torso should be almost parallel to the floor (this is your starting position). Row the bar up toward your chest, then slowly return it to the dead hang. That’s 1 rep.

BURPEE
10 reps

From standing, drop your hands onto the ground, kick your feet back into a pushup position, then drop your chest and thighs on the floor. Push up, jump your feet toward your hands and press through palms to propel to stand. Jump at the top and clap your hands overhead for 1 rep.

About the Author

Emily Abbate
Emily Abbate

Emily has written for GQ, Self, Shape and Runner’s World (among others). As a certified personal trainer, run and spin coach, she’s often tackling long runs or lifting heavy things. In addition to that, she’s working on Hurdle, a podcast that talks to badass humans and entrepreneurs who got through a tough time —a hurdle of sorts— by leaning into wellness.

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