There’s a saying that goes “legs feed the wolf.” If you want to be strong, like really strong, or if you want to be fast, like really fast, you must train legs. There is no way around it.
Legs are your biggest, strongest, sexiest muscles. That said, if you want big, strong, sexy muscles, it helps to use some heavy machinery. And there is no better weapon to use in the war on chicken legs than the barbell.
A barbell’s strength over other pieces of exercise equipment comes from its ability to progressively overload, i.e. add weight while still being able to move freely through space.
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If you could only do one exercise for the rest of your life it should be some version of a deadlift. There is no exercise that is as good at building strength and adding muscle than the deadlift. As far as functional training goes, it doesn’t get more functional than being able to pick something heavy off the ground.
What’s great about the deadlift is that it takes the basic concept of lifting something heavy off the ground, and complicates it. Variables such as grip width, foot position, bar placement, shoulder rotation, intra-abdominal pressure, etc. all play a vital role in how good your deadlift is.
Not only that, but for something as simple as picking something off the ground, deadlift variations are nearly endless: conventional (keeping your hands outside your feet), sumo (hands inside feet), Romanian deadlifts (not allowing your knees to travel forward), single leg, and Jefferson (barbell between your feet). For the purpose of this article, we’ll focus on the principles all good deadlifts should have in common.
How to do a Barbell Deadlift
Before you ever pick up the weight, make sure you’re set up properly.
Begin by making a firm connection between your feet and the ground. Weight should be balanced on your big toe, little toe, and heel.
Engage your body from the ground up, starting at your feet, then going to your legs, butt, lower back, abdominals, mid-back, and shoulders.
Drop your shoulders and arms down so they are directly on top of the weight.
Press the ground down and pull the bar up at equal intensities to drive the bar up in a straight line.
Think of standing tall. Be patient and make sure to accelerate gradually and not just yank the bar up from the ground.
If you could only do two exercises for the rest of your life, you should deadlifts and squats. While the deadlift primarily trains the backside of your legs, the squat primarily trains the front half of your legs. Being able to squat properly is also important for daily functional strength, as well as adding the most mass to your legs.
As children we know how to squat instinctually; it’s only as we get older that we forget. Although the idea that some of us are born knowing how to barbell squat is still up for debate.
Just as in deadlifts, there are many different ways to barbell squat. There are front squats, Zercher squats, high bar squats, low bar squats, and overhead squats to name a few. And just like deadlifts, there are certain principles that all barbell squatters should follow.
How to do a Barbell Squat
Before you ever un-rack the barbell, make sure your body is in the right set up position:
Shoulders packed and ribs lifted with a strong circumferential brace in your core.
As you un-rack and get into your squatting position, make sure your feet are screwed into the ground and you are pushing out laterally.
Like in deadlifts, you should feel balance over your big toe, little toe, and heel.
Balance the bar over your mid-foot, regardless of whether or not it is a front or back squat. Always keep the weight centered and balanced.
Begin the squat by unlocking the knee and hip joint. Your knees must move forward and your hips must move backward at approximately the same rate in order to keep the bar centered over the mid-foot.
Squat to your fullest range of motion while keeping the bar centered before coming back up.
The path of the bar throughout the squat should be a straight line perpendicular to the ground.
Barbell Hip Thrusts
If you could only do three exercises for the rest of your life, they should be deadlifts, squats, and then probably some upper body exercises, but hips thrusts/glute bridges are good, too. Perhaps the most awkward yet effective exercise to do in a crowded gym is the barbell hip thrust.
Despite popular belief, squats are not the best exercise for building a big butt. This is partially to due to the fact that your hip extension is neutralized by your knee extension, and also that one ever actually squats to depth, which is where the glute is activated the most.
Deadlifts are a little better for growing the glutes, but the king of glute stimulation, other than Sir-Mix-A-Lot, is the barbell hip thrust. This exercise targets your glutes most directly and is the easiest to overload on, which stimulates maximal growth.
To do a barbell hip thrust, you’ll need something to rest your back on like a bench. I also recommend some sort of padding to put around the bar (like a squat sponge) to avoid giving yourself an awkward bruise around your bathing suit area.
While sitting on the ground with the widest part of your shoulders laying against a bench, roll the loaded, padded barbell over your lap.
Walk your feet back while keeping them flat on the ground.
Slightly angle your toes out to wherever you feel you can generate the most force. This will differ from person to person.
Drive your hips up in the air as far as they can go, squeezing your butt like you’ve got a $100 bill between your cheeks.
Put the weight down and repeat until you look like Kim Kardashian.
Lunges are one of those exercises that you know are good for you but never do. You can’t do as much on a barbell lunge as you can on a deadlift or squat, but somehow they are about 10 times as hard and take forever to do.
However, they will strengthen your legs, increase your stability, and help fix asymmetries in your body, so you should suck it up and do them every now and then.
Just like most other exercises, barbell lunges have a lot of different variations like walking, reverse and curtsy. Let’s focus on what makes a good lunge, so whichever variation you’re doing, you’re doing it correctly.
Similar to the squat, make sure your upper body is stable enough to support the weight.
Shoulders should be packed, and core should be braced like Chuck Norris is about to roundhouse kick you in the gut.
Step backward or forwards (depending on what kind of lunge you’re doing) and bend your knees to a kneeling position, with one knee hovering above the ground.
All of your weight needs to balance off your stable foot (the one that isn’t moving) so be sure to keep equal pressure in your big toe, little toe and heel.
As you return to the starting position, imagine walking up a flight of stairs and pushing the ground down.
Try to make a foot-sized crater in the ground.