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Can you build muscle with a barbell?

Following the announcement from No 10 giving the green light for gyms to re-open, it will be obvious that there have been some significant changes that could impact your preferred training style.

Many gyms are limiting their capacity, access to equipment and providing designated zones for individuals — to encourage social distancing. Limited access to equipment means getting your hands on a barbell could be your one-way ticket to making those post-lockdown gains. Here’s some advice on how you can build muscle using only a barbell.

Select the right weight. How heavy should your barbell be?

For now, it’s probably best to avoid attempting your old one-rep-max since gyms have re-opened – not only because social distancing rules may mean you can’t have a spotter, but because it’s unlikely you’ll be able to move the same weights that you were safely using pre-lockdown.

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that your strength will have stuck around over the past 4-months, and if lost, it will return quickly with re-training, but it’s best to take it slow to stimulate your nervous system to return your muscular coordination and confidence with heavier weights.

Whether you’re new to the gym or returning, now may be the time to concentrate on training for hypertrophy (increase muscle size), as this type of training presents a low risk of injury (when proper technique is accounted for!) whilst also developing muscular size with considerable strength gains. Hypertrophy training involves using a rep range of between 8-12 repetitions whilst using loads around 60-80% of your one-rep-max. If you’re not familiar with your one-rep-max, then the weight should feel moderately heavy and you should feel fatigued (the burn!) once you reach your targeted number of repetitions, while feeling that you have around 3 more reps in the tank before failing.

Since hypertrophy is driven primarily by pushing yourself to (or close to) failure and the accumulation of overall training volume, it is appropriate to push yourself close to failure frequently – however, you should still regularly take rest days or de-load weeks to avoid overtraining syndrome.

Building muscle with a barbell

The barbell often seems like an advanced and intimidating tool, reserved for only the most experienced. Whether you are a newbie or a seasoned gym-veteran, the barbell should be your best friend. Once equipped with the right knowledge, the barbell can form the basis of any resistance-based workout, as it is the most versatile piece of equipment that is found universally in almost any gym.

The barbell provides access to an arsenal of compound exercises. Although each exercise has a specific target muscle group, compound lifts invariably work for other major muscle groups throughout the body, including synergists (smaller assistance muscles) that provide an essential role in stabilising joints.

Effective barbell-based workouts consist of around five to eight exercises, one or two of which would be the ‘main-lifts’ for that session, targeting desired muscle groups using compound lifts. Remaining exercises are considered ‘accessory-exercises’, consisting of low-load bodyweight and isolation (single-joint) exercises. These exercises facilitate the accumulation of more training load, and thus more stimulus promoting the need for new muscle tissue to grow. With only a barbell and plates available, consider using the barbell, individual plates or your bodyweight for the accessory exercises.

To optimise training, compound lifts should be included for 3-5 sets with around 90-seconds rest between sets and 8-12 reps of the moderately heavy load that causes noticeable muscular fatigue). With gyms promoting social distancing, it’s best to keep two or three reps in the tank so that you can avoid the need for a spotter and any risky gym-fails!

So, now you know whether you can really build muscle with just a barbell, now all you need is the correct clothing for the job. Check out our collection here.


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