Build Muscle with an Empty Barbell

No Plates, Solid Gains

Build Muscle: A Barbell-Only Bonus Strategy

It sounds easy, but a workout with an unloaded barbell can be deceptively challenging, and yes, it can help you build muscle. It can also be a good way to speed recovery, get a huge pump, improve mobility, and give your joints a break. Do it once per week in addition to your regular training. (It can be a great home workout.)

In Brother Iron, Sister Steel, bodybuilder Dave Draper talked about how he'd trick himself into training on days when he just didn't feel motivated. He'd put no pressure on himself and just start light with one of his favorite exercises to get some blood flowing. Being free of constraints allowed him to explore, experiment, and train for the enjoyment of it.

High-rep sets also have a positive impact on joint health and performance. They can improve blood flow to connective tissues and strengthen them. Stronger connective tissues allow your muscles to exert more force.

Since the load is low, select exercises that adequately stress the target muscle(s) while allowing you to hit reps in the 30-50-plus range for one to three sets.

You can do sets traditionally or work toward a certain rep goal, like hitting 100 in the fewest sets. You can do a full-body session with a single empty barbell. You could do a complex or series of supersets that targets a specific area, or you can challenge yourself with just one exercise.

Use a standard 45-pound bar where appropriate or use an EZ-curl bar if you need less than 45 pounds to hit your rep goal with good form.

Shoulders

  • Snatch-Grip Behind the Neck Press
  • Snatch-Grip Upright Row
  • Bradford Press
  • Overhead Squat

Back

Arms

  • Lying or Standing Triceps Extension
  • Standing Curl
  • Standing Reverse Curl
  • Seated Wrist Curl

Legs

  • Walking Lunge

This is also an opportunity to shamelessly work on aesthetics and the muscles that truly make a physique pop. If you've paid your dues with balanced training over the course of the week, there should be no guilt in doing that.

Think of the muscles that stand out most when you're wearing clothes: shoulders, upper back, biceps, triceps, and forearms. You can use an unloaded bar to target these groups. Yes, even on leg day.

Essentially, you want to feel better after a workout than how you felt before it. What better way to do that than by getting an awesome overall pump? Since the load is light, the exercises allow you to explore positions and ranges that you might not typically use in your regular training.

I'm at a stage in my career where a heavy snatch grip behind-the-neck press is simply not worth doing based on the cost-to-benefit of how my joints will feel afterward. But an empty bar, high-rep set feels amazing on my shoulders and creates a pump that's hard to compare. The stretch and pump have a positive impact on mobility as well.

  1. Draper D. Brother Iron, Sister Steel: A Bodybuilder's Book. On Target Publications. 2001.

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Bradford Cooke is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and exercise physiologist. He trains military forces and firefighters and has competed in bodybuilding and arm-wrestling competitions.