The Best Barbell Exercise You're Not Doing

12 Unconventional Movements for Muscle & Strength

What’s the most effective barbell movement that most people never use? We asked our experts. You’ve gotta try these!

The Question

What’s your favorite unconventional barbell exercise?

Mark Dugdale – IFBB Pro Bodybuilder

My favorite is the Single-Arm Barbell Row

All you’ll need is a barbell and a Landmine or ground base attachment for one end (or just wedge the bar into a corner against a towel).

Load plates on one end of the bar and perform single-arm rows. The angle creates a slightly different movement than a traditional dumbbell row. The value is found in the stretch at the bottom, so use 10 or 25 pound plates to get the greatest range of motion.

Contraction is important too, so I like adding a band to the bar to facilitate a more intense peak contraction as you drive your elbow up and back.

Tom Morrison – Weightlifting Coach, Martial Artist, CrossFit Trainer

The Offset Barbell Press

When you’ve been training for a long time, it can be challenging to find exercises that get you excited. For me, if an exercise makes my core scream for mercy I immediately want to get better at it. Why? Because I’ve found a gap in my strength and I need to remedy that.

The offset barbell press is really unique in that the weight of the bar isn’t the issue: it’s the leverage. To do this press, you really don’t need a lot of weight. You stand at one end of the bar, with one hand almost touching the sleeve, and press straight up. That’s it.

Since the weight is so far from your center of mass and offset to one side, you actually have to pull with the furthest arm while pressing to prevent the barbell from tipping. It’s like a standing-side-plank-half-pull-up and press – a truly unique movement that gets your body thinking!

Start with an empty barbell. As you get more comfortable, add fractional plates to the offset end of the bar. A few sets of this and your abs and brain will be mush.

Offset presses are a quick warm-up for a pressing day or a core workout in their own right. Here’s how to do them:

  1. Set up in a rack with the barbell more out to one side, leaving space for your hand on the other side.
  2. Put a small amount of weight on the very end of the other side (or none if it’s your first go). I recommend double clipping it just in case you press at an angle.
  3. Grab the barbell at the opposite side to the weight and brace hard. Do not rush your walkout. Slowly step back into your standard strict press position.
  4. Press with control very slowly and keep the bar completely straight at all times. Push with the closest arm; pull with the furthest arm.
  5. Aim to do 5 sets for each side. Do however many reps you can keep braced for – minimum of 3 reps: this isn’t a one-rep max exercise.

Dr John Rusin – Strength Training Specialist and Performance Expert

One of the most brutally effective “unconventional” barbell movements I program for my athletes is the landmine RDL

By placing a barbell in a corner, or using the Landmine setup shown in the video, we can truly groove the hip hinge pattern under heavy loading while utilizing a powerful external mechanical cue due to the continuously altering angle of the bar relative to the ground.

Many struggle to hone their hip hinge because they’re not able to get their hips to “push back” during the eccentric descent of the pattern itself. The inability to push back at the hips places less muscular emphasis on the glutes and hamstrings, and more unwanted stress on the lower back.

By cupping the hands under the barbell and using the Landmine, the end of the bar pushes closer to the body the lower it gets to the ground, forcing the hips back mechanically. Simple, yet so effective.

The second thing the Landmine setup does for a poor hip hinge pattern is taking a good portion of motor control and balance out of the equation. The hands are placed on the barbell that comes into direct ground contact with the floor, stabilizing and widening the base of support. This bodes well for tentative hingers who present with poor mechanics and control, giving them literally a helping hand during the movement.

Lastly, as coaches and athletes, we aren’t in the business of placing increased load on shoddy movement patterns. So an athlete who can’t hinge worth a shit with a traditional barbell or even dumbbell setup loses the ability to load the posterior chain meaningfully until they “fix” their pattern enough to place loading on it without negative repercussions.

This Landmine RDL allows a more novice or dysfunctional mover to add weight in a safe environment, improving the pattern while getting a jacked ass and hamstrings in the process. That’s a win-win.

Tony Gentilcore – Strength Coach and Performance Expert

The Scrape The Rack Press

I tend to be judicious when it comes to overhead training. I’m not against it though. On the contrary, it’s an integral part to building a strong, resilient body that performs well, not to mention the bevy of aesthetic benefits.

That said, most lifters have to earn the right to overhead press. The ability to move the arms overhead requires a lot to happen in concert between the humerus (upper arm bone) and scapulae (shoulder blades) – ample upward and downward rotation, i.e., scapulohumeral rhythm – in addition to possessing the requisite stiffness in the anterior core to serve as the “anchor” to access and control that range of motion.

In short, many lifters are better off using more shoulder friendly overhead pressing variations, such as landmine presses, in the interim as they tend to keep people out of the “danger zone” – the last 30-50 degrees of shoulder flexion – yet still allow for a fair amount of deltoid activation.

One option I like, however, is the tall kneeling scrape the rack press.

  1. The tall kneeling position takes numerous joints out of the equation and makes it harder to crank through the lumbar spine.
  2. Pressing the barbell INTO the rack helps to recruit more anterior core, which in turn nudges a bit more posterior pelvic tilt, placing people in a better position (less rib flair) to press overhead. It also helps to recruit/engage more serratus anterior, an often under active muscle and a major player in scapular upward rotation.

These two points alone may make overhead pressing safer and more tolerable for many lifters.

Ryan Taylor – Strength and Performance Coach

I’m going with the Single-Arm Barbell Curl

The biceps have two functions, to supinate and flex the arm. This exercise provides a brutal stimulus to both. The longer lever length increases overall force required to move the bar (more muscle recruitment), reinforces strict form, and taxes the grip as well, making this is a well-rounded arm movement.

Start with 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps in place of your traditional barbell or dumbbell curls and be prepared to be humbled with how little weight is used!

Nick Tumminello – Strength Coach and Author

Angled, Unilateral Romanian Deadlift

Here’s a unique single-leg Romanian deadlift variation, using a barbell in a corner, that I developed using a body lean to hit the glutes in two ways. The unique aspect of this exercise is subtle, but it makes a big difference in the glute involvement.

Action and Coaching Tips

Keeping your back straight, drive your hips toward the barbell as you lift it and stand tall without overextending your lower back. As you lift the barbell up by pressing your left foot into the ground, simultaneously press yourself toward the anchor point of the bar by leaning toward your right side so your body is at a slight angle at the top of each rep.

Be sure to drive your hips toward the anchor point of the barbell; don’t just lean with your shoulders. Keep the bar close to you throughout.

Christian Thibaudeau – Strength Coach and Performance Expert

The Unilateral Reverse-Band Press with Asymmetrical Loading and Tripodal Instability

This is my favorite unconventional exercise. It sounds complex but it’s simply a bench press where the athlete is lying on a foam roller with his feet on a pair of BOSU balls. This is amazing at improving the magnification of the bilateral structural unitary function of the bodily apparatus.

I opted to use a foam roller to increase the bipolar optimization of the apex demagnetization. By doing so we decrease the contra-lateral compensatory winging. That latter portion is also why I use the unilateral (only on one side) reverse band method with asymmetrical loading.

On top of the effect on the contra-lateral compensatory winging we also improve the biserial automatization response of the parabulus cortex to desensitize the vacillating reflex.

Are you going to try it? Well, don’t! I’m KIDDING! Don’t kill yourself trying this crap!

See, I’m a big-basics kinda guy: squat, front squat, deadlift, bench, overhead press, rows, snatches, cleans, and pulls. That’s where I’m at. But I do believe in using less conventional variations of the big basics. I have one rule: The “new” lift must provide an additional and significant benefit over the basic drill without having a significant loss of effect versus the big basic. But if those benefits make me miss out on the benefits of the original drill, I won’t do it.

Another acceptable reason for coming up with an unconventional version of a lift is to allow someone who can’t do one of the big basics to still train the movement pattern heavy. For example, a friend of mine can’t do front squats because of an old clavicle injury from football, but he can do Zercher squats just fine.

Which brings me to my REAL exercise selection: the Zercher squat. This is a squat where you’re holding the bar in the crooks of your elbows. Does it fit the bill as far as my rule is concerned? Let’s check it out.

  1. Is there an added benefit over the back/front squat? Yes! The Zercher squat strengthens the upper back and traps more than the back or front squat. It also has a much greater core activation than any other form of squatting (sometimes my obliques cramp when I Zercher squat heavy).
  2. Is it less effective than a back or front squat at overloading the legs? Yes and no. Yes because you won’t be able to use as much weight as on the back squat because the holding position might be limiting. However, most of the people end up doing between 95 and 105% of their front squat.

Here’s a video of a bobsled athlete I’m working with doing a double with 180kg. He also did a 190kg x 2 in the same workout, which is about 95% of his best front squat double.

T Nation contributor Jason Brown did more on the Zercher squat (395 pounds) than on the front squat when I trained him. I personally Zercher the same as I can front squat, and I know a fellow coach who can Zercher 10% more than his best front squat. Most will fall in the 95-105% ratio.

So if we are to say the Zercher is inefficient at overloading the legs, then we must say the same thing about the front squat, which is obviously not the case.

Louie Simmons himself is a believer in the Zercher squat. He said, “It teaches you exactly how to squat. It teaches you to push your knees apart, push your chest up, and push your buttocks out.” He also uses it as his main lower-body exercise when he works with MMA fighters.

Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but once you get used to it, it’s a great tool to add to your arsenal.

TJ Kuster – Strength and Conditioning Specialist

The Forearm Barbell Roll

This is used for soft tissue work on the forearms.

If you’ve lifted for a while, you’ll undoubtedly experience some elbow pain. This is especially true if you’re a heavy or frequent bench presser. Using a barbell to break up adhesions in the forearm is a great way to mitigate overuse injuries.

Simply lay down on your side and rest your head on your bicep. Start by placing the bar just above your wrist bones. Slowly, use your other hand to roll the bar up towards the elbow. When you feel a tight spot, begin to open and close your palm a few times to help release tension.

This is painful at first, but it goes a long way towards getting rid of some chronic inflammation in the elbow. If the pain is too intense when you first start, you can cut a pool noodle in half and use it as a cushion for the bar. Stop rolling if your forearm feels numb.

Joel Seedman, PhD – Strength Coach and Performance Expert

The Planking Overhead Press

When it comes to barbell exercises, the overhead press is tough to beat. Unfortunately many lifters struggle to keep their core engaged, often leading to excessive lumbar extension. Besides minimizing tension to the targeted musculature, this also places undue strain on the low back and spine, leading to potential injuries down the road.

Although there are a number of cues and drills that can be used to address this, one simple but highly effective remedy is doing the planking overhead barbell press. Think of this as an overhead press and ab rollout combined into one seamless movement.

Anchor bands to a bar, hook your feet into the opposite end of the bands, then press and roll out. It’s that simple. The movement pattern is almost identical to an overhead military press only you’re holding a plank position throughout. As a result, this does wonders not only for crushing your entire upper body but also teaching you how to engage your core during vertical pressing exercises, which most people struggle with. In fact, it’s difficult to collapse into excessive lumbar extension due to the unique leverage of the movement.

The planking overhead press is also friendly on the glenohumeral joint and rotator cuff. That’s because the overhead lockout position is significantly easier for athletes to move into compared to the overhead lockout position of a standing overhead press.

Essentially, the lifter can anchor his body into the floor for additional support while gaining further stability from the grounded barbell. The effects are similar to doing an overhead press on a variable resistance machine or Smith machine, only with greater adaptability and instability, not to mention reduced axial loading. As a result, these are great for athletes who’ve had shoulder injuries, overhead mobility restrictions, or low back pain.

There are a number of variations from single band to double-band versions, push press variations, single-leg versions, trap bar presses, bear crawl overhead presses, and single-arm push presses. These are also good for adding accommodating resistance into overhead presses – the strength curve of the exercise more closely matches that of the muscles during the press (i.e. tension is greatest in the stronger overhead position and reduced in the weaker bottom position).

Additionally, the push press variations represent the epitome of full-body muscle recruitment because the legs receive significant stimulation as well.

The tension and difficulty are easily adaptable to a number of fitness levels simply by changing the band tension or using a double band vs. single-band setup. You can also load more weight to the barbell which creates greater friction on the floor thereby producing additional tension to the targeted muscles.

Dr Chad Waterbury – Physical Therapist and Neurophysiologist

The Deadlift Side Step

The traditional deadlift should be a staple strength exercise in any program, but sometimes you want to mix things up to promote variability in your training. One of my favorite non-traditional barbell exercises is the deadlift side step (DSS).

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Start with a load that’s approximately your 10-rep max for a traditional deadlift.
  2. Place a strong resistance band directly above your knees.
  3. Pull the barbell from the floor, or any resting position that suits your mobility, and then take one step to your right with each foot while keeping your feet wider than shoulder width.
  4. Next, take one step with each foot to your left, and lower the barbell back to the floor to give your grip a quick break.
  5. Pull the barbell from the floor again, take one step with each foot to your left, and then one step with each foot to your right. Finally, lower the barbell back to the floor.

That sequence is one “rep.” Perform 3-5 sets of 1-3 reps.

There are four benefits of the DSS compared to a traditional deadlift:

  • Greater activation of the glutes. The band activates gluteal fibers that resist hip internal rotation and abduction during the deadlift and Romanian deadlift, and it provides strong resistance during the side step portion of the exercise to increase strength in the frontal plane.
  • Greater activation of the quadratus lumborum (QL). The QL is one of the most important muscles to strengthen since it’s a key stabilizer of the pelvis. The side step requires intense activation of the QL muscles to keep your pelvis stable.
  • Greater metabolic cost. The DSS requires significantly more muscle activation than a traditional deadlift, which greatly increases the metabolic cost. You might be surprised how quickly you’ll gas during this exercise.
  • Less stress to the lumbar spine. I actually came up with the DSS as a way to help athletes overcome low back pain during the deadlift. The side step with a resistance band activates key stabilizers throughout the trunk, pelvis, and hips that spare the lumbar spine during the deadlift portion of the exercise.

Tom MacCormick – Personal Trainer, Online Coach

The Snatch-Grip 45-Degree Back Extension with a Bar

The 45-degree back extension is a fantastic exercise for your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back. The position of your body during this movement means that you can challenge the posterior chain through a greater portion of the entire range of motion (ROM) than on horizontal back extensions or RDLs. As such, it should be considered a staple movement for developing a strong, muscular, injury-proof backside.

Most people just grab a weight plate, dumbbell, or kettlebell. That’s fine at first, but your hamstrings and glutes should be able to handle way more than a 45-pound plate. Holding multiple plates is tricky to set up.

The most popular alternative is to try and load a barbell on your back. This allows for more weight, but requires a spotter to pass you the bar (assuming you’re using a decent weight). But I find this back-squat rack position has other problems. Most people find their ROM suffers. Also, the bar risks rolling forwards onto your neck. Many also find it uncomfortable and stressful on their necks.

The solution? Hold the barbell with a snatch grip and load it with small plates. This allows you to get a full ROM and also challenges the upper back musculature isometrically. This makes the exercise phenomenal for the entire posterior chain.

If you have particularly long arms you can elevate the 45-degree back extension on a couple of bumper plates to allow you to get a full ROM.

Ben Bruno – Strength Coach

Full, Well-Executed Squats

Seeing a nice squat may be the rarest, most unconventional exercise you’ll ever see performed in the gym. Everyone on the internet squats with great form through a full range of motion and with a ton of weight… at least 20 pounds more than whoever they’re talking to.

Walk into any gym though and it’s a totally different story. A “conventional” squat can be characterized by some combination of the following: partial range of motion, knees caving, heels coming off the floor, and torso folding forward. And all these things get exponentially worse as the weight increases.

Front squat, back squat, goblet squat, whatever the hell kind of squat, it doesn’t matter to me. When I walk into a new gym and see someone squatting with good technique through a full range of motion and challenging themselves with the load, I make it point to introduce myself and give them kudos. It’s rare to see and should be applauded.