The Best Barbell Exercises For Women
Page last updated: 11th April 2023
Used in weight training, bodybuilding and weightlifting, the barbell is a long bar with either fixed or removable plates at either end. While it can seem like an intimidating piece of gym kit at first, getting to grips with the barbell as part of your strength training routine is one of the best ways to stay strong and healthy. It has a range of different uses and can be used to train both your upper body, lower body, back and core.
If you’re a woman considering getting to grips with the barbell, then this guide from Jamie Thorpe, one of our PureGym Leeds based Personal Trainers, will run you through some of the excellent benefits of giving it a try, as well as the different styles of bar you can try and exercises you can work into your plans.
What are the benefits of barbell exercises for women?
Many women feel concerned about spending too much time on heavy weight training, for fear of changing their physique in the ‘wrong’ way. However, it’s worth noting that truly bulking up is incredibly challenging and takes a lot of dedication; it’s unlikely to happen if you’re not specifically making that your goal.
However, weight training is a great way to improve bone density (particularly helpful for women - as we get older our bones get weaker, particularly post-menopause), build strength and muscle (which can create a lean, toned appearance), control weight, and boost energy levels. We cover the benefits of weight training for women in more detail in this guide.
But what about the barbell specifically - why is it such a useful piece of kit?
The barbell is a very simple tool
It's easy to learn the basic lifts of a barbell quickly. With proper coaching, anyone without any pre-existing injuries can learn most barbell exercises in under an hour. Once you have the exercises with correct form under your belt, you can conduct a full workout with just the one piece of kit.
The weight is fixed and stable
Using a barbell for exercises is a lot more stable than using other free weights such as dumbbells. This is because it’s much easier to move one barbell with two hands than it is two separate weights, even if the total weight itself is the same. This stability means many people feel more confident performing exercises with a barbell once they get past any initial nerves. It also makes it easier to move more load with a barbell, which will lead to bigger strength and muscle gains.
It’s worth noting that any free weights should always be started on very light weights so you can master the movement before adding any kind of significant load. This will provide you with a great gateway to building out your resistance training programme.
Unlimited progression is possible!
One of the biggest benefits to training with a barbell is that you can always add more weight to the bar; it’s as easy as attaching more plates! Our gyms have bars weighing as little as 2kg, which means every lifter can start at a weight that works for them, and with Olympic weightlifting bars able to hold up to 680kg, progression with a barbell is virtually unlimited.
How much does a women’s barbell weigh?
Each gym is slightly different, but at PureGym we offer a range of different bars each weighing a different amount, giving you more flexibility for your training. There are no limitations on the size or weight of barbell women should be using - you can base your decisions solely on your abilities, strengths, and requirements.
Male Olympic Weightlifting Bar – 20kg
The standard Olympic weightlifting bar is just over 7ft and weighs in at 20kg. This is the barbell most commonly racked up in the squat rack and bench press.
Female Olympic Weightlifting Bar – 15kg
The female Olympic barbell is slightly smaller (6.6ft) and thinner than the male bar, and weights 15kg. It can be a great option for those who aren’t ready to lift loads above 20kg, but also for anyone who finds a smaller bar easy to grip.
EZ bar – 7.5kg
The EZ bar is W shaped which allows the bar to be gripped from multiple angles, and it’s a great alternative for anyone with wrist issues. The bar can be used for many exercises but is most commonly used for arm movements.
Pre-loaded barbells – 10kg – 45kg
Pre-loaded barbells start at 10kg and increase in 2.5kg increments until 20kg, where they increase in 5kg amounts. These bars are a great way to build confidence in your barbell skills and the strength to work up to the Olympic barbells, or even as an alternative to barbells for exercises where a squat rack isn’t needed.
Studio bar – 2kg
The bars in PureGym studios weigh just 2kg and have special sized plates starting from 1.25kg up to 5kg. These bars are a great way to practice movements and get the form perfected, as well as build your strength. We use these bars in many of our classes, but they can be used in your own workouts too.
Barbell workout for women
There are so many exercises that can be carried out with a barbell, but for this workout Jamie combines both lower and upper body exercises to create a full body workout.
There are two ways you can do this workout:
- Strength based: Perform 3 sets of 8-12 reps for each exercise, choosing a weight where you are close to failure within those reps
- Circuit based: Perform each exercise for 45 seconds followed by a 15 second rest before moving on to the next exercise, for 4-5 rounds. Choose a weight that allows you to work fast with correct form for 45 seconds
Barbell bench press
The bench press is a compound movement that targets the chest, triceps, and shoulders. If you can bench press over 20kg, set up in a bench rack. Otherwise, select or build a barbell at the right weight and lie back on the bench and bring the barbell above your chest.
Lie flat on the bench and grip the bar, keeping hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Squeeze your shoulder blades back and down to create a slight arch in your back and brace your core before lifting the barbell off the rack and extending your arms towards the ceiling. Pause before slowly bending at the elbow to bring the bar down until it is just above your lower sternum.
Barbell bent over row
Bent over rows work several of the muscles in the back including the lats, traps, rhomboids, as well as the posterior delts (shoulders) and biceps. This exercise is great for increasing your overall pulling strength and creating a toned, defined back.
Stand in front of the bar with your feet hip width apart. Squat down to grab the bar with a pronated (palms down) grip slightly wider than shoulder width apart, and then deadlift the bar up to standing. Hinge forward at the hips until your torso is halfway between parallel from the floor and standing. Keeping your core engaged, drive your elbows back and squeeze your shoulder blades together to bring the bar into your sternum. Pause then slowly lower the barbell back to the starting position.
Barbell squat & press
This is a full body exercise that combines two movements: the squat, and the overhead press. It’s an advanced movement so keep the weight low until you’ve mastered the form.
Set up the squat rack so the bar rests just below shoulder height, grip the bar at shoulder width height and rest on the front of your shoulders before unracking. You can also deadlift and press the bar up and onto the front of your shoulders. Take a few steps away from the squat rack and place your feet slightly wider than hip width apart, toes slightly externally rotated. Brace your core and then squat down by pushing your hips back while bending at the knee until you reach parallel. Drive up through the feet to standing, while at the same time pressing the bar overhead by extending your arms up. Return the bar to your shoulders before starting the next rep.
Barbell upright row
Barbell upright rows are another pulling exercise that recruit the muscles in the upper back including delts, rhomboids, traps, and biceps.
Stand with your feet around hip width apart holding a barbell with an overhand grip, hands hip-width apart. Brace your core and pull back your shoulders. Pull your elbows out to the sides, stopping once they are in line with your shoulders. Hold for a second before slowly returning back to the starting position.
Barbell step ups
Step ups will strengthen your lower body muscles and help to improve core strength, balance and stability. Barbells are a great way to introduce progressive overload as the weight can be gradually increased each week.
Set up the squat rack so that the barbell sits just under shoulder height, with the box or step slightly behind. Step under the barbell so it rests on your shoulders and unrack the bar, then move so that you’re standing in front of the box. Standing tall and engaging your core, place your left foot onto the box and push up through the foot to drive your body upwards, before bringing your right foot on to the box. Focus on squeezing your glutes to help the drive movement.
Barbell hip thruster
Hip thrusters are the ultimate glute booster, and the perfect way to increase the challenge from regular glute bridges. Start with these or with regular bodyweight hip thrusts to perfect the exercise before adding in the barbell.
Sit with your shoulders and back against a workout bench. With your legs stretched in front of you, roll the barbell up over your legs until it’s in line with your hips. Bend the knees towards the ceiling with your feet firmly planted on the floor. Your feet are at a distance that when you extend your hips up, your upper back stays in contact with the bench and your knees are at a 90 degree angle. Place your hands over the barbell about shoulder-width apart. Brace your core and lift your hips up to the ceiling by squeezing your glutes. Pause as you hit the top and then slowly lower back to starting position.
Discover more exercise inspiration on our workouts for women section, including this guide to some of the best arm exercises for women and our easy to follow leg day workout for women. You can also download the free PureGym app, where you can create a customised training plan for your weight loss goal or get involved with our on-demand classes and workouts. Also, consider booking a session with a dedicated Personal Trainer at PureGym- they’re able to offer a wealth of advice for both fitness and nutrition.