No Barbell, No Problem

It’s no secret that barbell movements have a host of benefits. From increasing strength to hypertrophy, they are a staple in many programs. But what if you don’t have access to a barbell? What if you don’t feel comfortable quite yet with it? Or what if you simply want to mix it up?

Can you make strength gains with other modalities? YES! Similar increases in strength and hypertrophy have been found with a variety of other exercises, for both the upper and lower body. Read on to learn four staples that I use in my programming and for my clients.

Racked Dumbbell Squats

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Start seated on the bench and use your knees to kick the dumbbells to your shoulders. Then step forward to complete your set of squats.

Many times, goblet squats are the go-to dumbbell squat variation. However, this is limited by the amount of weight we’re able to hold with our arms. By moving the dumbbells and “racking” them on our shoulders, we’re able to support more weight and simulate a front squat movement even without the use of the barbell. This variation requires more core stability and upper back strength while providing similar strength and hypertrophy gains in the lower body, compared to the traditional front squat.

The Set Up

I like to set up for these sitting on the end of a bench. This allows me to use my knee to “kick up” the dumbbell to rest on my shoulder and therefore use a heavier weight. Sit on the end of the bench with the heavy dumbbells resting on your knees. Kick them up so the end of the dumbbell is resting on your shoulder and you’re not only supporting it with your arms. Use your comfortable squat stance and, keeping your torso upright and core braced, descend into the squat. Push through the middle of your foot and return to the standing position. Perform 3-4 sets of 10-12 repetitions.


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Make sure you sit back toward the bench as you perform to protect the hips and lower back.

Bulgarian Split Squat

Research has shown that the Bulgarian Split Squat, when weighted appropriately, has a greater quadriceps recruitment than that of the traditional barbell back squat. This can lead to greater hypertrophy and strength over time. In addition, they require greater core stability, making them more difficult

The Set Up

Hold the dumbbells at your sides, step one leg forward and the second is elevated on a step or bench behind you. The distance should be great enough that the front knee does not travel much further than your toe. When you begin the movement, think about sitting back into the bench, not straight down. If we move straight down, we’ll force a stretch in the hip and lower back. Perform 3-4 sets of 10-12 repetitions per leg.


Single-Arm Dumbbell Bench Press

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Keep the non-working arm up toward the ceiling to maintain good position of the shoulder blades throughout.

Did you know that the dumbbell bench press is technically a progression from the traditional barbell bench press? Yes, it’s actually more difficult due to the necessary recruitment of the shoulder stabilizers that isn’t as prominent during the traditional barbell bench press. This leads to increased strength progress over time. By moving this to single arm, it increases the core stability required and allows you to focus your attention solely on that arm.

The Set Up

Sit on the end of the bench with a single dumbbell in one hand. Using your knee, hoist the dumbbell to your chest as you lay back on the bench. Use both hands to move the dumbbell over your chest and leave the hand without the dumbbell in the air. This will keep your shoulder blade in the correct position during the lift. Lower the dumbbell to your chest so that your elbow is at a 45-degree angle with your body. Return to the top of the lift. Perform 3-4 sets of 8-10 repetitions.


Eccentric Pull-Ups

Perhaps one of the biggest bang for your buck movements, pull-ups are an amazing way to build total back, core, and upper body strength without a barbell for bent rows or heavy deadlifts. By slowing down the lowering phase, you increase the time under tension and, as a result, the amount of time the muscle has to work.

The Set Up

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The key is a slow lowering phase during the eccentric pull-up.

For a traditional pull-up, set up with your hands just wider than shoulder width and palms facing away from you. Perform a pull-up. Making sure your core is braced and you lead the movement beginning with tucking your shoulder blades down and back. On the down, or eccentric portion of the lift, control your descent as slow as possible. The key is to NOT just let your body drop to the bottom. Perform 3-4 sets of AMRAP (as many reps as possible).

Do you have questions regarding these exercises? Looking for some assistance in your workouts? Reach out to me via email, Twitter, or Instagram! I’m happy to help!


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