Everyone's strength training journey is at different points. Some are more advanced and can train with barbells and other heavy weights, while others are barely starting out and not able to handle that much resistance quite yet. Lifting heavy is important for making progress, but heavy is relative for everyone - it's all based on your fitness level!
Barbell exercises are among the most popular in weight lifting workout plans because they add a ton of resistance which works your entire body, not only the muscle groups you're targeting. However, beginners should never start training with barbells, nor someone recovering from an injury or suffering from joint pain. Luckily they can still reap the benefits of barbell exercises by practicing different regressions, or easier variations that will help you work your way up to training with a barbell! On the other hand, advanced lifters can gain more progress by implementing advanced exercise modifications. There's an alternative for everyone!
To help you develop a good workout routine that fits your current fitness level, keep reading to find the best weight lifting exercise modifications for beginners and advanced lifters!
Best alternative exercises
No matter what your fitness goals are, be it toning up, increasing strength, or weight loss, your exercise program should include the big five.
What are the big five?
The best full-body compound exercises - squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press, and rows. Typically a barbell is the best type of equipment to use for these exercises. But you can still reap just as great results by doing an alternative exercise. Advanced lifters will find these exercises easier to do and can benefit from a challenging alternative exercise that works the same muscle groups.
No matter where you're at on your fitness journey, you'll find a good exercise alternative for the best compound exercises below...
Barbell back squats
Bodyweight squats are already a great exercise as is, targeting the glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, and hip flexors, but add a barbell to your back and those benefits expand! Mastering a barbell back squat with proper form will not only strengthen your lower body, but also improve your knee and ankle mobility, strengthen your core, and keep your bones and joints healthy.
But, what if you don't have access to the gym and can only do home workouts? Or barely starting out and not ready for a barbell?
Here are regressions you can try:
- TRX assisted squats: If you have a TRX suspension system, anchor it above you and somewhere strong enough to support your weight, like a squat rack. Grasp the TRX in front of your body with palms together. Lean your body back slightly and begin to squat down as deep as you can. Engage your glutes while going back up to the starting position. Try to maintain proper form by engaging your core and lower body, don't pull yourself up using your upper body.
- Bodyweight squats with a resistance band: Add some intensity to your bodyweight squats before adding free weights by placing a short resistance band around your legs and above your knees. Perform a squat as usual, but move through it slowly, feeling the tension in your legs, specifically the glutes.
- Kettlebell or dumbbell goblet squats: The goblet squat should be your first weighted squat to master. To do it, grab a weight (a dumbbell or kettlebell works) and hold it in front of your chest keeping your elbows directly under your wrist and tucked at your sides. This will actually help keep the weight on your heels and drop down into your squat because the weight acts as a counterbalance in front of your body.
- Barbell box squats: As the squat gets easier, you'll be able to go through the full range of motion and go deep, but as the weight gets heavier the harder it will be to do so. Once you're able to squat with a heavy barbell, consider doing box or bench squats. This means placing the barbell on your back, performing a squat with good form, but sitting down on a box or bench before powering back up to the starting position. This is a great exercise to develop better power and strength before adding heavier weights to the bar.
For those who have masted the barbell back squat and want to make progress, here are progressions you can work on:
- Front squats: When you're ready for more of a challenge, try a front squat! This variation requires the placement of the bar to be in front of the shoulders, instead of behind. Thus changing the focus of the exercise to the squads, while challenging shoulder and wrist mobility.
- Paused barbell back squat: This variation requires you to pause at the bottom range of motion for two seconds. You'll want to use a lighter weight for this exercise, but regardless, it helps seriously strengthen the muscles in your lower and upper body. As you perform your regular squat, pause at the bottom for two seconds, keeping your hips motionless in the paused position without sinking any lower before powering back up. The key is to drive straight up with as much power as possible.
- Pistol squats: This advanced variation is also known as the one-legged squat. It requires you to isolate one side of the lower body to add an extra challenge to your balance and stability while adding intensity. Focus on nailing the bodyweight pistol squat before adding any weight. You can also work your way up to it by squatting down on a bench or box. Simply have one leg lifted in front of you and squat down onto the bench or box before powering back up.
Barbell back squats are great, and all the above exercises should be a part of your routine, but don't forget to include other alternative exercises like Bulgarian split squats, lunges, hack squats, and lateral lunges, to challenge your legs even further.
Deadlifts are known as the king of lifts because it's a full-body exercise. This compound move works various muscles in the lower body, along with the shoulders, core, and back muscles. The issue with this exercise is that it can be quite difficult for those who suffer from shoulder or back pain, and for those who just don't have enough strength yet. In fact, neglecting proper form can lead to serious injuries, so this exercise is one you definitely want to be careful with.
Work your way up and practice these regressions before attempting a barbell deadlift:
- Banded deadlifts: Although you can practice the hip hinge motion using only your body weight, to really mimic the movement consider using a long resistance band! You can start with a light band and work your way up to a heavier band to add some resistance before using a free weight. You can do this exercise by wrapping a long band around your feet and standing with feet shoulder-width apart. Hold onto the top of the band with both hands using an overhand grip (knuckles facing away), and stand straight. To do a deadlift, bend knees slightly and move your hips backward, keeping your chest up and maintaining balance and good posture. Lift by contracting your glutes and pushing them forward with full force. Pause at the top of the movement before doing another rep.
- Kettlebell deadlift: Once you have the deadlift form down, move up to a kettlebell (or dumbbell) deadlift! Kettlebells are just more efficient because you can easily grasp them. All you have to do is place it between your feet and follow the movement as you would with the banded deadlift. You are adding a heavier weight, so, remember to keep your spine in a neutral position, core and glutes tightened, and power through your heels to raise the kettlebell naturally.
- Dumbbell or kettlebell Romanian deadlifts: Along with mastering the deadlift, you should practice its other variations like the Romanian deadlift. This exercise places the workload on the hamstrings. You can do it by using two dumbbells or a kettlebell. Instead of pushing your hips back, you'll be hinging at the hips until your chest is close to parallel to the floor. Feeling the stretch mostly on the hamstrings. Keep your spine and head in a neutral position, and attain power by pushing through your heels, thus raising the weight up naturally.
- Rack pulls: This exercise is a good variation to practice before doing a traditional deadlift. You'll be using a barbell, but shortening the range of motion by placing it on a rack just below or above the knee. You'll be able to lift heavier which will help you build stronger back muscles along with helping improve your form and power before trying a traditional deadlift. You can do this exercise by setting up the height of your rack either below or above the knee. A lower height will target the glutes and hamstrings, and a higher height will place the focus on your back. Once you have the bar in your favored position, do a deadlift as you would with proper form.
For those who have mastered the deadlift and want something more intense and challenging, try one of these progressions:
- Deficit deadlift: This is an advanced deadlift variation that requires performing a deadlift on an elevated surface (low box or 45lb plate) to increase the range of motion. Your setup will be the same as a traditional deadlift, except you're working on a limited space, so your feet will be placed about hip-width apart instead of a wider stance. Your hips will also be slightly lower than they normally would be. Other than that perform the deadlift as you would!
- Paused deadlift: Similar to a paused squat, this exercise requires you to pause for two seconds somewhere between the floor and your knees. Meaning the bar needs to be motionless throughout the pause without dropping again before driving up to the starting position.
If deadlift regressions and progressions are too much for you because of an injury or back pain, consider doing these alternatives:
- Single leg deadlifts with a dumbbell
- Good mornings
- Cable pull-throughs
- Banded hip hinges
Barbell bench press
Although the bench press is a fundamental lift that should be a part of everyone's workout routines, it's one that women often shy away from. Either due to not being strong enough, shoulder injury, or their main focus is on other muscle groups. It's okay, the bench press isn't for everyone, but luckily, there are plenty of regression and alternative exercises you can do to keep your chest muscles strong and balanced with your entire upper body.
Here are a few alternative exercises you can try:
- Standing cable or band press: For those completely new to pressing exercises like the bench press, consider starting by using the cable machine at the gym or a long resistance band. Make sure the long resistance band, or cable pulley, is overhead. Grab the two handles facing away from the machine or band and step forward a couple of feet and place one leg in front of the other to form a staggered stance. With your head up and core engaged, move the handles forward extending via your elbows until your hands meet in the center. Briefly squeeze before slowing moving back to the starting position.
- Push-ups: This is not so much a regression, but it is the best alternative to the bench press. If you're not bench pressing, practice push-ups! You can start by doing kneeling push-ups then moving to wall push-ups and finally, nailing the traditional push-up. The key to doing a proper push-up is to keep your hands an equal distance apart and right under your shoulders. Make sure your hips are in line with your shoulder, keep your core engaged, and squeeze your glutes too! Once you got your position ready, lower your body down to the floor, but make sure your back is straight and your lower body doesn't sag on the floor. Then push back up.
- Dumbbell bench press: Not having enough wrist or shoulder stability can make a barbell bench press too difficult. If that's the case consider doing a dumbbell bench press, it's much easier on your joints and it even helps develop better muscles in your pectoral muscles. To do it, grab two dumbbells with an overhand grip and lie flat on a bench. Keep your feet planted firmly on the floor, and back firmly on the bench. Keep your elbows close to your sides, not locked out at a 90-degree angle, this takes the pressure off your shoulders. The dumbbells should be close to your sides, near your chest, once you're ready, brace your core and exhale while extending the dumbbells toward the ceiling. Pause the movement and retract back to starting position. You can also do this movement with a neutral grip or inclined!
Barbell overhead press
This should be your main shoulder exercise. Whether you use a barbell or not, the overhead press works your shoulder muscles incredibly hard. It works on the two deltoids (your shoulders), trapezius (upper back), triceps, and rotator cuff muscles. The thing is the shoulders can get injured very easily if not trained correctly, so you must be very careful with training them.
Before diving to a barbell shoulder press, consider doing these regressions:
- Banded shoulder press: To get adjusted to the pressing overhead movement consider using a long resistance band, but if you don't have one do lat stretches up against a wall. To use a long band, stand on the center of the band hip-width apart. Grab the end of the bands using an overhand grip and bring the handles above the shoulders so that elbows are bent close to 90 degrees. Maintain your back straight (not arched) by engaging your core. Once you're ready, begin to press arms straight up. Then slowly lower back the arms into the starting position.
- Seated dumbbell shoulder press: You can do a seated or standing dumbbell shoulder press once you're ready to add some weight! The seated position just helps give you better support for the movement. So, sitting upright on a bench grab a pair of dumbbells and hold them at your sides at shoulder height. Press the weight up overhead, making sure the elbows aren't locked. Hold for a moment, then slowly lower the weight back to the starting position.
- Single-arm landmine press: Before moving on to a barbell shoulder press, consider trying a single-arm landmine press. This variation recruits the shoulders, shoulder blades, triceps, and chest. It places less of a strain on your shoulders than a traditional pressing movement. To do it, adopt a staggered position for stability and hold the free end of the landmine over your right shoulder with your right hand. Begin by pushing the landmine away from you in front of your body, keeping a slight bend on your elbow, and feeling that stretch on your shoulder. Hold for a second, lower the landmine back to your shoulder in a controlled position, and repeat, then switch to the other side.
Once you master those three moves you can move on using a barbell. But if the barbell move isn't for you just continue doing the above moves, along with other alternative exercises like the single-arm dumbbell press, the Arnold press, kettlebell press, and other isolated shoulder exercises to help strengthen the entire joint.
If you want something more challenging to build shoulders like boulders, try one of these two advanced moves:
- Military press: This challenging exercise alternative is very similar to the original overhead press. Except it requires you to perform the movement with your feet together, like in a soldier stance, which adds a challenge to your stability. So, instead of placing your feet shoulder-width apart, place them together on the floor. Pick up the bar with an overhand grip and place it over your shoulders. Keeping your core and glutes tight, press the bar upward until your arms are fully extended over your head. The movement should be controlled so that the bar doesn’t tilt to one side since your feet will be close together, challenging your stability. Squeeze at the top of the movement, then lower the weight back down.
- Clean and press: This is an advanced bodybuilding exercise that works your entire body, not only your shoulders. The clean part of the movement will target your lower body, while the pressing part targets your shoulders and other upper body muscles. To do it, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart with a barbell on the floor directly in front of you. Center your body with the bar, bend your knees, and hinge at the hips so you can place your hands on the weight, just outside of your legs with an overhand grip. Begin by explosively lifting the bar (maintain control) from the floor, driving the weight up through your legs until it’s over your shoulders. From this middle position, start pressing the bar upward with your upper body until it’s over your head with your arms fully extended, as you would with a standard barbell overhead press. Hold for a moment, then lower the weight down to the floor without letting it drop and repeat for the desired amount of repetitions.
If you want stronger back muscles, barbell rows, or any type of rowing exercises, are a must! The barbell bent-over row is challenging, but effective at building back strength if done properly. The problem is, those suffering from back pain are not able to work with a barbell. In this case, regressions and alternative exercises can help!
To master the barbell row or to strengthen your back, practice these regressions and alternative exercises:
- Bent-over row with a long band: A good starting place for nailing the rowing movement is by using a long band. Do it by looping the band under your feet, and standing with both feet on the resistance band hip-width apart. Bend your knees slightly and hinge forward at the hips. Make sure to keep your back flat and your hands under your shoulders. Grab the band, palms facing in toward each other. Pull the band toward your chest, keeping elbows close to your body. Hold for a few seconds to feel the contraction on your back. Slowly straighten your arms and lower your hands back to the starting position.
- Bent-over row with dumbbells: Although barbell rows are more effective, dumbbell rows are great for building back muscles and allow those with a lower back injury to train around it. It places an emphasis on the upper back as machine rows do. You can either do it by raising both arms into the chest like using a long band or doing a single-arm row.
- Inverted rows: This exercise is an excellent exercise to try before attempting pull-ups and barbell rows. Like pull-ups, it forces you to lift your body weight to the bar, but it's much easier since the torso is inclined. You'll need a Power Rack for this exercise. To do it, lie with your back on the floor in the power rack. Grab the bar, and raise your glutes and straighten your torso. Hang from your arms only allowing your heels to touch the floor. Begin to pull yourself up until your chest touches the bar, or is close to. Make sure to pull with your elbows so you use your upper back and not other supporting muscles.
Alternative barbell row exercises to swap out when you need something more challenging:
- Pull-ups (or assisted pull-ups): If you mastered the barbell row, but haven't mastered the pull-up then nows your time. You can challenge your back muscles by doing pull-ups or assisted pull-ups while taking a break from barbell rows! This move, like other rowing movements, works your entire back, arms, and shoulders. You can train to do pull-ups by using an assisted pull-up machine at the gym or a long resistance band.
- Reverse grip row: Swap the classic barbell row that uses an overhand grip and challenges your lower lats by changing up to a reverse grip row. This variation helps engage the lower lats better, and your biceps as well! You can perform this exercise as you would a barbell row, but change your grip so that it's an underhand grip, not overhand.
Barbell training is beneficial, it can help you build serious muscle, and burn fat effectively. If you are able to, work your way up to key barbell exercises by practicing the regressions we've mentioned. Continue building and making progress by either adding more weight or trying more difficult variations like the ones we've mentioned! Just remember, as you make progress, maintain good form and technique. If your form is lacking, then you need to lower the weight or try another easier variation.
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