Barbell Exercises I: The Big 5


Both beginning and advanced weight training programs alike utilize 5 basic barbell exercises.  All you need is a barbell with various amounts of plates, a bench and some kind of squat support.

The Big Five Lifts

The big five lifts are Squats, Deadlifts, Flat Bench Press, Overhead Press and Rows and are called such because:

  • Each exercise is a compound exercise that hits all the major muscle groups
  • More weight can be utilized with these lifts than with their variations or isolation exercises that work the same body parts.  For instance, more weight is used on the press than with lateral dumbbell raises.  More weight can be lifted with the flat bench press than with the incline press.  More weight can be lifted with the Back Squat than with the Front Squat.

Back Squats

The Back Squat (or called simply the Squat) is great for developing overall lower body and core strength such as the quadriceps, hamstrings, lowering back and abdomen to name only a few.  A set of heavy squats actually hits every muscle in the body.  It is sometimes called the king of lifts (sometimes, however, the Deadlift gets that title).  The Back Squat is called such because the location of the bar is on back of your body behind (in back of) your neck.   There are two different bar positions for the back squat.  The bar may be in the powerlifting (low bar) bar position in which the bar is against your shoulder blades or it may be in the Olympic bar (high bar) position resting on your trapezius muscles.  The back is arched.  The feet are placed fairly far apart when powerlifting but closer together when doing an Olympic style Back Squat.  The difference between low bar and high bar squats is that low bar squats utilize the posterior chain more and more weight can be lifted.  For both types, the thighs must be at least parallel or below parallel at the bottom of the lift.

Here is here Mark Rippetoe coaching the low bar squat.  Although the lifter’s thighs are not always parallel, you sure have to appreciate his effort :

 

Deadlifts

The Deadlift puts fear into beginning lifters when it really shouldn’t because it is quite safe when done correctly.  The Deadlift, like the Squat, is also sometimes called the king of lifts because a set of heavy Deads hits all the muscles of the body and usually (but not always), a lifter can pick up much more weight in a Deadlift than they can Squat.

The Deadlift is classified as a pulling exercise.  The barbell and plates rest on the floor.  In the Conventional Deadlift, your feet are about shoulder width apart.  You arch your back and with a combination crouching, bending over motion (remember to keep back arched), you grasp the bar with both hands a little more than shoulder width apart and pull upwards to a standing position.  The Deadlift will hit every muscle in your body.  Lifters usually feel it in their grip, traps and the posterior chain.  The posterior chain is every muscle grouping in the back of your body from including but limited to heels, calves, hamstrings, lower back, middle and upper back, traps and neck.  After you get quite strong doing them, you probably shouldn’t do them more often than once every week or two because they put a terrific strain on your central nervous system.

Here is Dave Tate demonstrating proper Deadlift technique:

 

Flat Bench Press

Some veteran lifters say that the barbell bench press is more or less just an egotistical exercise.  Most beginners don’t train correctly with it and so they injure their shoulders or worse, they tear a pectoral muscle.  Weight training beginners who are new to this lift don’t realize that without proper form, it is very possible to get badly injured.  Like all the major lifts, it also requires a bit more study of it than merely walking into a gym and “just doing it.”  It is arguably much safer to do variations of the lift such as Incline or Decline Presses.

A few key things to keep in mind when performing the Bench Press:

  • Exercises to toughen and beef up the shoulders and triceps should be done as assistance exercises to prevent injury.  Many inexperienced lifters think that the best assistant exercise for the Bench Press is dumbbell flys.  This is incorrect.  Forget the flys and focus on dumbbell lateral raises and tricep presses to help assist your Bench Press.
  • Warm up with at least 3-5  sets using lighter weights.
  • When lying down and pressing, keep your shoulder blades pinched together and flex your lats.  Arch your back use your triceps to press.  Your legs should be hooked backwards as far as possible with the balls of the feet pressing against the floor.

Bench Presses when done correctly using a very stiffly coiled bodily posture actually are a whole body exercise when done correctly but they primarily work the front deltoids, pectorals and triceps.

Here is a video in which champion powerlifter Dave Tate discusses and trains the Bench Press:

 

Overhead Press

Many debate as to the difference between the military press and the overhead press.  Veteran lifters refer to it as simply the Press.  An overhand grip is use with both hands to press the bar overhead from either a sitting or (usually) a standing position.  The Press used to be an event in the Olympics.  It was supposed to be a non-technical lift that exhibited pure strength as opposed to the Snatch which depended very much on timing and skill.  The Clean and Jerk lift was to show skill and strength by combining the Snatch and the Press along with the Snatch and Clean and Jerk.  The Press was discontinued after 1972 because the form of the lift was not enforced by the judges; many lifters were leaning back too much with back flexion when performing it making it resemble more of a bench press than an overhead press.

To do the Press, stand up straight and with an overhand grip either take the barbell off a rack or clean the weight.  Keep your feet close together, squeeze the buttocks and push the bar overhead locking the elbows.  The press is good for developing the front deltoids, triceps and core muscles.

Here is strength coach Mark Rippetoe training the Press:

 

Bent (over) Barbell Rows

Some coaches advise that if you do heavy Deadlifts, you don’t need to do any rowing.  This advice has some credence because many commonly discover that if they do Deadlifts, the reps and weight on their rowing will usually go up on a fairly regular basis.

If you don’t do any rowing at all, however, you will probably feel that something is missing so just go ahead and fit them into your workout.  Bent Rows work your lats, upper back (rhomboids), biceps, lower back and hamstrings.  These are many of the same muscles that are used in Deadlifting.  Doing rowing on a regular basis may keep you from being injured on the Deadlift.

You should not do the type of rows that bodybuilders do in which they are only partially bent over and lift the barbell with a narrow grip to their lower abdomen.  This is more or less just a “pulling barbell shrug.”

The best bent over rowing exercise is called the Pendlay Row and is done with the upper torso parallel to the ground and performing each rep in a sort of rest-pause fashion in which at the eccentric (down) part of the lift, you release the weight (very) briefly before picking it up again for the next rep.  The barbell is pulled up concentrically to the level of the upper abdomen/lower chest.

Here is a video in which Olympic coach Glenn Pendlay demonstrates his version of the bent row.

 

Final Words:  Using a Weight Lifting Belt

All lifting exercises are to be performed nice and smooth without any jerking or bouncing.  The loads you use should not be surprising but rather those you have spent time to work up to.  Some coaches, trainers and so on say that weight lifting safety dictates that you wear a weight lifting belt.  The consensus tends to be that with warm up sets you don’t need and shouldn’t use a belt.  It would be a good idea, however, to use a belt when lifting anything over 80% of your one rep maximum.  If you use one, then know how to use it, meaning, pull it as tight as possible and push your abdomen hard against it during the lift.

It’s your back so take special care when doing these barbell exercises.


There is one book that is a “must have” for barbell training and that is Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe. In this book you’ll learn why barbell training is the best way to get strong. The big five lifts are taught and illustrated. The second book, The Strongest Shall Survive by Bill Starr is a precursor and just as informative.

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