This is the best barbell workout we've tried. Can it help you achieve Peak Big Arms?

A basic rod of metal and some weight plates can tone, strengthen and build a powerful upper AND lower body

Beast of the best barbell workout
(Image credit: Leon Martinez/Pexels)

If you're want to know how to get strong and achieve peak BIG ARMS, there are plenty of cutting-edge gadgets and training aids available to you. However, in the primal search for strength and tone, you should not ignore more seemingly old-fashioned home gym equipment (or non-home gym equipment, if you've ventured back).

A good barbell and a small selection of the best weight plates (or discs/bumper plates, depending on who you are talking to) can be all you need to perform this punishing workout for both the upper and lower body.

Throw into the mix a good weights bench, squat rack or wall-mounted rig and you essentially have the perfect station to squat, press and curl your way to serious strength (and achieve a rippling physique in the process).

After all, the humble barbell is one of the oldest pieces of fitness equipment in the books, with its history tracing back to the mid-19th Century, where imagery of moustachioed strongmen in striped undergarments come to mind – or is that just us?

Anyway, fast forward to today and the barbell is now packed with innovative engineering tweaks, such as knurled handles for improved grip, reinforced steel construction for coping with heavy loads and fancy ball bearings that allow the bar to be rotated at speed during complex compound lifting manoeuvres.

Prices range from less than £50 for a very basic barbell to in excess of £800 for those that might be used in professional competitions, so it pays to read our barbell guide to the best barbell to buy. That way, you'll have an idea of what’s out there and what levels these differing products are suitable for.

On top of this, there are a number of variations of barbell, all of which are designed to assist in certain areas. An EZ-Curl, for example, is there to assist namely in strengthening the bicep and, as a result, isn’t very good for deadlifts and squats. With that in mind, we’ve focussed on a straight barbell for this workout.

A beast of a barbell workout

(Image credit: Unsplash)

What you’ll need for this barbell workout

You can get away simply owning a basic bar for this workout and if you are just starting out, we advise you steer clear of adding too much weight in the first instance anyway. To begin with, get used to handling a naked bar and perfecting your form, rather than overloading it with mucho macho bumper plates.

With this in mind, it should be easy to place the bar across your upper back (for squats) and get get underneath it for a floor press or bench press. As you progress and start adding weights or bumper plates, it is a good idea to invest in a bench and some kind of rack or rig, which acts as a guardian to hold the bar when not in use and allows you to safely get underneath it between sets.

Attempting to balance a heavily weighted bar on your chest as you get into a floor press position (or any position for that matter) is not advised, because at best, you’ll get embarrassingly stuck underneath it and at worse, injure yourself quite badly.

You can find our suggestions for some tip top barbells to get you started here.

How to perform this barbell workout

Seeing as most barbell workouts involve some pretty complex compound movements, it’s wise to sprinkle this punishing session in with some lighter cardio or body part specialisation (biceps or shoulders, for example) later in the week. Attempting to hit this every day is going to give the major muscle groups zero time to recover. And nobody wants that.

This sessions will be split up into common sets, where a finite number of reps for each set are recommended. This should be performed with a weight that makes it tricky but not impossible to hit that last rep. Remember to rest between sets, as the heavy nature of barbell will be taxing on the muscles.

Take it easy, ensure every rep is slow and controlled and focus on form, honing in on the muscle group you are working. During a squat, for example, ensure you squeeze the glutes tight and shift your weight so the emphasis is on the quads, rather than incorporating your lower back. This will speed up results and improve size, strength and mass in the right areas.

Oh, and performing heavy weights work naturally means you are going to want to increase your protein intake, as this is essential for effective muscle repair and growth. Check out some of the links below for great protein sources. 

The beastly barbell workout

1. Barbell Squats

1 set of 12 reps, 1 set of 10 reps, 2 sets of 8 reps

It’s an ancient exercise but very little comes close when it’s time to work the lower body and cardiovascular system. Correct form here is important and start off with a manageable weight, before piling on the pounds.

Place a bar in a rack or rig and get underneath it so the bar is across your shoulders. Engage the shoulder muscles to create a strong platform and stand tall. Now, flex at the hips, moving your butt backwards, and lower the bar in a controller manner with your legs. Pause at the bottom when your things are parallel with the ground, loading up the quads, before driving up through the heels and squeezing your glutes. Pause at the top and repeat the required reps. Feel free to add weight as you progress through the sets.

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2. Romanian deadlift 

4 set of 12 reps 

Sticking with the legs, this move is a phenomenal exercise for strengthening the hamstrings and teaching the body to engage the glutes, rather than rely on the weaker lower back. Start with a naked bar and get used to the movement before very gradually adding weight. The smaller the plate increments, the better.

Stand with feet hip-width apart and tuck your feet under the barbell. Grab the bar with an overhand grip, hingeing at the hips and keep the eyes focussed on the floor. Pull the bar for the floor like a traditional deadlift, driving through the heels and engaging the butt muscles on the way up until the back is straight and you are standing tall.

From here, hinge at the hips by pushing the butt backwards. Now, slowly lower the bar just in front of your shins by continuing to push the butt backwards. This should start loading up the hamstrings. Pause at the point where you feel a stretch in the hamstrings, pause at the bottom and drive back up by squeezing the glutes and thrusting the hips forward. You should feel no pressure on the lower back. If you do, check the form and adjust accordingly until it is just the hamstrings being worked.

3. Bench Press or Floor Press

1 set of 12 reps, 1 set of 10 reps, 2 sets of 8 reps

If you’ve got a bench and a rack, great, but don’t panic if you haven’t. So long as the bar is light enough, you can lay on your back and have someone hand you the barbell to perform a floor press. This variation is also great for protecting the shoulders and helping to isolate the chest muscles.

Lay on a bench (or the floor) and place your hands on the bar so the grip is just wider than your shoulders. From an arms fully extended position, slowly lower the bar towards your chest, keeping the descent controlled. Ensure the shoulder blades are drawn back and engaged throughout.

Pause briefly when the bar touches the chest and push the bar back up explosively, ensuring the chest muscles are the ones doing the work, not the front of the shoulders. To make things harder, avoid locking out fully at the top and keep the muscles under tension by slowing the lowering portion as much as you can.

4. Bent-Over Row

1 set of 12 reps, 1 set of 10 reps, 2 sets of 8 reps

This monster of a move hits the lats hard, but also engages the core and biceps. However, it’s easy to negatively shift this focus by using momentum and moving your upper body to move the weight. If this is the case, reduce the weight and improve form before moving on.

Set up as you would for the Romanian Deadlift and hinge at the hips until your torso is almost parallel to the ground. Engage your shoulder muscles and draw the bar up towards your chest by bringing the shoulders blades back and squeezing them together. Pause at the top of the move and lower back to the start. Keep the eyes focussed on the floor to avoid placing strain on the neck.

5. Overhead Press

1 set of 12 reps, 1 set of 10 reps, 2 sets of 8 reps

The final exercise of this workout hits the shoulders but also promotes a strong core and flute strength to keep perfect form and balance. If you’ve got a rig or rack, set it up so the barbell is around chest high. This way you can get under the bar and set up the move from here.

No rack? No worries. Ensure the bar is light and pull it up to waist height as you would with a bent over row or Romanian deadlift. No draw it upwards and drop your chest underneath the bar, so you are holding it with an overhand grip, wrists strong and straight, shoulder blades pulled back, braced to push.

Now, push the bar upwards, being careful not to hit your chin on the way up, by flexing the shoulder muscles. Keep the abs and glutes squeezed as tightly as you can throughout, as this will ensure the weight is moving in a straight line up and down, rather than outwards (not good for your shoulders).

Ensure the forearms and wrists remain horizontal throughout, creating a nice straight line underneath the bar. Remember, your form will suffer if you go too heavy on this one, so start light and gradually progress. 

Leon Poultney

Leon has been writing about automotive and consumer tech for longer than he cares to divulge. When he’s not testing the latest fitness wearable and action camera, he’s out in a shed fawning over his motorcycles or trying not to kill himself on a mountain bike/surfboard/other extreme thing. He's also a man who knows his tools, and he's provided much of T3's drills coverage over the years, all without injuring himself.