The barbell has been around since at least the 1800’s, and the modern plate-loaded version has been around since strength training pioneer George Barker Windship invented the “practical graduating dumbbell” in 1865. Despite this long history, the majority of people still have no idea how to use them correctly, and most of the people who claim to be experts in their use give advice that is relatively inefficient at best, and dangerous at worst.
A comprehensive explanation of the correct performance of various specific barbell exercises is beyond the scope of an article, but the following are general guidelines for the correct use of a barbell if your goal is to stimulate improvements in muscular strength and size and general functional ability without wrecking your body in the process.
The purpose of a barbell is to increase the resistance your muscles work against during the performance of an exercise. This resistance should be high enough to require significant effort to contract against, but not so high you are not able to perform the movement correctly or for an adequate duration.
Select a weight that is just heavy enough for you to be able to achieve momentary muscular failure within a reasonable time frame with strict form. If you can’t maintain strict form, the weight is too heavy.
A broad range of repetitions or time can be effective for stimulating muscular strength and size increases, but I recommend a conservative minimum of four or five slow repetitions or around thirty seconds time under load. When learning a new exercise err even lighter, since doing it right is more important than doing it hard at first.
Unless you are a competitive weightlifter or powerlifter, the purpose of a barbell is not to show off. The presence of others should not factor into your weight selection and if it does you need to re-examine your priorities when you are in the gym.
The weight of the barbell is only one of many factors which combine to produce the resistance your muscles contract against during an exercise, along with things like leverage and acceleration. Use correct body positioning and path of movement to modulate the leverage to match the resistance to your changing strength over the range of the exercise, and minimize acceleration when reversing direction to maintain more consistent tension and avoid the potentially harmful peak forces and subsequent deloading caused by rapid acceleration.
In addition to providing relatively consistent, balanced resistance to the target muscle groups over the full range of the exercise, your positioning and path of movement should allow for the joints involved to move in a safe and comfortable manner.
If you can’t instantly stop and hold the barbell motionless at any time and point over the range of motion of the exercise without changing body position you are accelerating too rapidly and moving too fast.
If you can hold the barbell motionless at any point over the range of motion and feel little resistance against the target muscles in that position or if you feel the resistance more in muscle groups other than the ones targeted you are positioned or moving incorrectly.
If an exercise can’t be performed in a slow and controlled manner it is a poor exercise and has no place in a proper exercise program. Accelerating rapidly and moving fast during exercise does not provide any general physical benefit over slow, controlled movement, but reduces the efficiency of muscular loading and increases the stress on the joints and connective tissues and the risk of injury.
If you use a barbell to perform an isometric exercise, hold it in the position where the lever and resistance the target muscles work against is the greatest (but a safe distance from the end of your range of motion), not the position where you can hold the most weight.
Exercising correctly with barbells is one of the safest things a person can do, however incorrect use or misuse of a barbell can be extremely dangerous.
Injuries occur when a tissue is subject to a force that exceeds its structural strength. During exercise, the forces acting on your body can increase significantly if you accelerate rapidly or if you move into position where there is a significant increase in the lever causing tension or compression of some tissue.
Move slowly, minimize acceleration when reversing direction, and don’t throw or drop a barbell onto any part of your body or someone else’s. You’d think the last part would be common sense, but apparently it is not and needs to be mentioned here.
Be conservative with your range of motion. During some exercises a slight to moderate stretch is permissible, but avoid moving into more than a moderate stretch during exercises where the lever and resistance increase towards the start of the range of motion (eg. barbell pullovers, stiff-leg deadlifts on an elevated platform).
When using plate-loaded barbells use collars and check that they are securely fastened.
When performing an exercise where the barbell is over your body and you are unable to safely dump the barbell without dropping it on yourself or being trapped underneath it use a rack with safety pins or spotters. Make sure the rack or spotters are capable of supporting or lifting the weight you are using.
Use the correct equipment for the exercise. If the correct equipment isn’t available wait, or do a different exercise.
Pay as much attention to how you pick up and set down a barbell or how you take it from or hand it to someone as you do how you perform the exercise.
If you see someone else doing something stupid or dangerous with a barbell stay a safe distance away from them. Like any of the things in the following section:
Stupid Things You Should NOT Do With A Barbell
Most of the following is simply good sense and should go without saying, but since many people appear to exhibit a complete lack of sense when using a barbell it is necessary to point these things out.
Do not lift more weight than you are capable of completing an exercise with in strict form. It is just as important to do it right as it is to do it hard.
Do not yank, jerk, heave, or swing a barbell. Lift it slowly and under control. The goal is to stimulate your body to increase muscular strength and size without wrecking it in the process.
Do not drop a barbell unless you are required to dump it to avoid being trapped or injured. If you can’t set it down properly it’s too heavy for you.
Do not bounce a barbell off of your chest, stomach, pelvis, thighs, face, neck, or any other part of your body. If you can’t hold it motionless for a few seconds at the start point and lift it slowly from a dead stop, it’s too heavy for you.
Do not throw a barbell. The only time it should leave your hands is when you have finished the exercise and it is set on the floor or placed on the bench or rack hooks or pins, unless you are required to dump it to avoid being trapped or injured.
Never, ever throw a barbell to or at someone, or drop it over them. Eventually they will catch it with some body part other than their hands, like their face or throat. This is battery, and if you do this to someone you deserve to be punched in the face.
Do not perform a barbell exercise on an unstable or highly deformable surface such as a ball, balanced board, trampoline, while balancing or stepping onto or off of something with one leg, or while sitting or standing on another person. Doing so reduces the effectiveness of the exercise for the target muscles, is relatively ineffective for strengthening the muscles involved in maintaining balance, and increases the risk of injury.
Do not use a barbell for one-handed exercises. This is what dumbbells are for. You are not a nineteenth century strongman performer.
Do not mimic non-exercise movements like sport or vocational skills with a barbell. There is no positive skill transfer from these movements to the movements you are mimicking, and they do not work the target muscles as effectively as conventional barbell exercises.
The only good reason to put a barbell on your back is to perform back squats. Do not perform standing trunk twists with a barbell on your back. Do not jump up and down with a barbell on your back. Do not run with a barbell on your back.
Do not try to combine multiple exercises. Doing so reduces the efficiency of loading for all the muscle groups involved, requires you to use the same weight for each exercise rather than the most appropriate for each, requires quick position changes between reps for different exercises, and provides no benefit over performing each of the exercises separately if rest between sets is kept short.
Do not grunt, yell, shout, scream, curse, or make stupid faces at the barbell. It can’t hear you and wouldn’t care or be impressed if it could, nor would anyone else.