For someone new to fitness, walking into a gym may be an intimidating experience. With all of the different pieces of equipment at a person's fingertips, there are likely questions like "which is best?" and "how many of these things should I be using!?" While (almost) all equipment and exercises can serve a useful purpose in one way or another, there are a few that are vastly superior to the rest. Training with these exercises, or movements, should take up almost all of a person's training time. These movements fit almost all ability levels and goals. What are they? Compound barbell exercises. Let's spend some time discussing why they are so important.
Before we continue, let's define this group of movements. A barbell is a long, cylindrical bar that can be loaded with plates of varying weight on either side. A compound exercise is a movement that causes at least 2 joints to move at once. The major joints of the body are the hip, knee, shoulder, and elbow. Just about all of the muscles we are concerned with improving work to move these joints. The most common (and most effective) barbell compound movements are the squat, deadlift, overhead press, and bench press.
The next question is this: "What makes these movements with a barbell so great?" In the simplest terms, it is because they are the hardest when done right. "Hardest" means that they challenge the most muscles at once through natural movements of the body. This is important because the harder an exercise is for our body to perform, the more physiological benefit we will get from doing it. Like anything else in life, the harder and smarter you work, the more payoff you receive. In fact, training big movements with barbells can help us achieve a variety of goals, provided we program correctly.
Someone who would like to become stronger will do so quickest using these movements. Strength is the ability of the body as a whole to produce force. When these movements are performed with heavy weight, the force producing capabilities of the whole body are demanded. Someone focused on gaining muscular size is best served using these movements in the gym. The systemic stress produces a huge anabolic hormone response (signals for muscles to grow) when done with moderately heavy weights and a good amount of reps (8-12). This same stress keeps the body's metabolism elevated for long periods of time after the workout is over, meaning more calories burned. Trainees looking to burn fat and show off a more lean physique will clearly benefit from this side effect.
Regardless of the trainee, squats, deadlifts, and presses should be a major part of the training protocol. The key in tailoring these movements to a particular goal comes in the programming (reps, sets, rest time, etc.). There are some other useful barbell movements to mention. They are the clean, snatch, rows, and alternate versions of the 4 exercises listed above (rack pulls, front squats, etc.). For anyone who is serious about improving fitness, these exercises should make up the foundation of programming throughout their entire training career.