Minimal Equipment, Maximal Results—Barbell Training

Long before seas of plate-loaded and selectorized machinery and cable towers occupied commercial gyms and “functional training tools” rose in a never-ending wave, people got strong with barbells. Unnecessary equipment eats up space and burns holes in your wallet, and the ensuing methodologies waste precious time, time that can be better invested on movements that matter. Luckily, these movements only require a barbell and a few hundred pounds worth of plates.


There’s nothing more functional than training with barbells. Exercises with barbells alone, such as squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, and Olympic lifts and their variants deliver abundant neural benefits because they require a much higher degree of balance and proprioception compared to machines. They can also be appreciably loaded—and much more safely—than functional training tools. Did you ever try to squat or perform a push-up with significant load on a wobble board or Bosu ball? I bet that experience was more awkward than an ass out hug that usually concludes a bad date.

Compound movements with barbells provide the trainee a thorough proprioceptive stimulus, as the trainee has to control the bar relative to his body through decelerative (eccentric) and accelerative (concentric) movements, which take place in multiple movement planes. Unilaterally performed movements such as barbell lunges, barbell step-ups, and rows, presses, walks, and even curls performed unilaterally further challenge the neuromuscular system, forcing it to keep the proper muscles firing while maintaining proper alignment about the joints.

Barbell movements have greater carryover to sport and activities of daily living (ADL) than machines do because performing them requires a far greater degree of visual, vestibular, and somatosensory input. A program devoid of barbell movements will more than likely elicit subpar strength gains and a suboptimal hypertrophic response. Face it—if you want to get stronger, bigger, and unearth the bad ass behemoth that lies within, you’re gonna need a barbell.


Luckily, you won’t need that much money or space for one. Case in point, after I had graduated from college, I not only was awarded with a nice, framed swatch of sheepskin but also an Everest-like mountain of debt. My monthly earnings from the job I landed after graduation couldn’t even put a dent in what I owed, so I had to hunker down and develop a budget. One of the first things to go was my $60 per month gym membership. Having enough money for rent, utilities, food, and my car payment took priority over the flawed five day per week body part split I engaged in via big shiny equipment at an overpriced gym.

Money was so tight that I would have to glue myself to the rear corner wall of my apartment to siphon a WiFi signal from my neighbor. Even then, getting internet access was a crapshoot. Luckily, one day the signal was pretty strong, so I decided to peruse Craigslist for gym equipment. Though my apartment was cramped, it did offer a small second bedroom with high ceilings. Fortunately, I lived on the first floor, so I’d be able to make a little more noise, not that I cared what the neighbors thought anyways. I swear the guy in the unit next to me actually operated a Bose retailer out of his apartment, as his surround sound sent tremors throughout the entire apartment complex. The neighbors above me would have sex so loudly and violently that I was pretty sure their bed would come crashing through my ceiling. So the grunts, groans, and clanging of the weights emanating from my apartment paled in comparison to the IMAX next door and the hardcore overtures of those in the unit above me.

With a limited amount of space and barely two days worth of pay to my name at any given time, I was forced to stick to the basics. A barbell and plates it was.

For someone who was locked into a body part training split and heavily reliant upon machines, transitioning to a barbell only program was challenging. However, I knew that barbells would provide me a seemingly infinite number of training options, despite not being able to afford or house a bench or power rack. If you’re among the contingent of gym goers who uses machines or if you’re an athlete or a coach who depends on fangled functional training devices, I urge you to step outside your comfort zone and get back to the basics.


After brainstorming multiple programming options, I soon realized that I can get a shit ton stronger and more functional than I was previously while frittering away money and precious time training at commercial gyms. I began to appreciate the beautiful simplicity of barbell training. Being a former athlete and having worked as a personal trainer throughout college, I had a slight advantage in terms of designing programs for myself, having been exposed to a variety of training methodologies and exercise modalities. I invested my time in relearning the Olympic lifts, which would serve as the cornerstone movements in my program. I chose this because I could load them significantly, summate more force with them, and didn't need a rack. I would also prioritize the deadlift because again I didn't need a rack. If I wanted to summate more force, I simply stripped the bar down to fifty to sixty percent of my 1RM and did compensatory acceleration or speed work.

Though I missed bench pressing as much as I missed being fiscally irresponsible during college, I realized that I could no longer perform them, so I had to opt in favor of overhead pressing. Luckily, I had the ceiling clearance to do this. I also performed unilateral standing presses and a heavy dose of loaded push-ups. Years later, after I caught one of Bret Contreras' videos, I realized that I could do a floor press.

I front squatted. I didn't do anything max effort though because I had to clean the weight to get there. In lieu of not being able to squat with maximal loads, I did get more explosion through the hips in performing cleans and full squats. I could also push press and snatch and do good mornings, Romanian deadlifts, barbell windmills, and Turkish get-ups.

One-armed barbell rows, suitcase deadlifts, suitcase carries (unilateral walks), roll-outs, and jerks were also incorporated into my programming. I also performed Javorek complexes, varying the exercises used and usually patterning the movements I was to perform with greater loads in the workout.

Fortunately for you guys, I found a week’s worth of my training stored on my old computer. It will provide you some practical insight as to how you can program for yourselves or your clients with only a barbell and body weight. It also provided me with a pretty wicked nostalgic high.

Day one:

  • Quarter mile linear dynamic warm up and tempo runs
  • Loaded barbell hop (linear and lateral), 2 X 20 each movement
  • Barbell Javorek complex (auxiliary assistance focus), 2 of 5 exercises performed continuously for 3–6 reps a piece
  • Barbell snatch, 6 X 2
  • Barbell snatch grip deadlift, 5 X 2
  • Unilateral barbell hip thrust, 4 X 5
  • Core

Day two:

  • Quarter mile linear dynamic warm up and tempo runs
  • Loaded barbell hop (linear and lateral), 2 X 20 each movement
  • Barbell Javorek complex (auxiliary assistance focus), 2 of 5 exercises performed continuously for 3–6 reps a piece
  • Barbell overhead press, 4–5 X 3–8
  • Barbell bent-over row, 4–5 X 8
  • Push-ups with deficit (one leg raised), 3 X 15–25 (fewer reps if loaded)
  • One-armed barbell row, 3 X 10–12 each side
  • Shoulder prehabilitation

Day three:

  • Quarter mile linear dynamic warm up and tempo runs
  • Loaded barbell hop (linear and lateral), 2 X 20 each movement
  • Barbell Javorek complex (clean assistance focus), 2 of 5 exercises performed continuously for 3–6 reps a piece
  • Barbell overhead squat mobility, 3 X 10
  • Barbell clean to front squat, 5 X 2
  • Barbell overhead reverse lunge, 4 (stationary or walking, depending on weather)
  • Barbell Zercher walks (depending on weather), 3
  • Glute bridge with iso, 2
  • Core

With limited funds and equipment but a little imagination and dedication, you can develop a program that is economical, practical, and highly effectively. Oh, and by the way, if you decide on this option and plan on training at home, it’d be prudent to pick up a barbell from elitefts™. Check them out.