The barbell is the single most important piece of equipment in any gym. There are lots of different barbells but they all share a lot of commonalities.
Barbells are available in a wide variety. Some parts they all share are; Shaft, sleeve, collars and knurling. Olympic barbells add spinning sleeves and bearings to this. Most barbells are 6′ to 7’2 long and 25 mm to 32 mm thick and can handle plenty of weight for most lifters.
I’ve done a ton of research into barbells so In this post you can find out what a barbell consists of, how they are the same but also how they can be different.
Anatomy of a barbell
Barbells come in a lot of varieties. Some are longer, some are shorter, some are straight, some aren’t. However, there are also a lot of things that are the same on every barbell, no matter what shape.
So first let’s take a look at what parts a barbell consists of. There are quite a few different pieces. No matter what barbell you have, the parts will be the same. They can have different dimensions and features but the basic parts stay the same.
Looking at the picture will help you understand the words used in the rest of this post.
As you can see above, there are quite a few parts to a barbell. Not all of the labels above are parts though. Some are dimensions.
There are four different parts in a barbell.
- Shaft: The rod that makes up most of the length of the barbell.
- Sleeves: At both ends of the shaft there are sleeves attached. This is used to load weight plates onto.
- Bearings: The bearings aren’t visible from the outside but they sit between the shaft and the sleeves. This allows the sleeves to spin independently from the shaft.
- Collar: The collar is not a separate part. its integrated into the sleeves. It’s a thicker part that prevents the weight plates from sliding onto the shaft.
- Knurling: The knurling is the cross hatch pattern in the shaft. It’s not a separate part but it’s important. It helps you keep a grip on the bar in all circumstances.
- Knurling marks: The knurling usually has rings in it. For home use they’re useful to grip the bar the same way on every exercise. Their real use is for competitions though.
- Fastener: Usually there is some kind of fastener that holds the sleeves attached to the shaft. Usually it’s a nut that sits on the end of the shaft
- End cap: The sleeve is capped off with an end cap. This can be a plastic cap or metal circle that’s kept in place with a snapring.
Although there are quite a few parts to a barbell, they don’t require any special knowledge to use and they come pre-assembled so they’re always ready to use.
Below i’ll go deeper into every part of a barbell.
Some of the most important features of any barbell are the dimensions. These are not the only features but they’re a good place to start. There are three dimensions you should be aware of with barbells.
- Sleeve length
- Sleeve diameter
More on sleeves later but we’re only talking about the sizing here.
Barbells come in many different lengths. Different length bars have different purposes and are suitable for different situations.
Barbells range from 4’ to 8’ in length. The most common size is 7’2 feet but others are commonly seen as well.
The official Olympic men’s barbell length is 86.75″. which is where the 7’2 standard comes form. Official women’s barbells are 79.13″ long. Those two are the most common in gyms around the world for general purposes. For home gyms those lengths are perfectly fine as well although you could also use a suitable 6′ long one.
FYI, Olympic barbell can mean that it’s built to Olympic standards but for most cheaper bars it just means that there are 2″ spinning sleeves at the ends. More on that later.
Specialty bars like a deadlift bar, EZ curl or pressing log have different lengths than mentioned above.
6′ barbells can be useful in a small home gym so let’s look at how they can be shorter than Olympic barbells. two ways you can make a bar shorter than the official length;
- Make the part between the sleeves shorter; limiting the width of grip you could take.
- Make the sleeves shorter. This leaves the space between the collars the same but limits the space for weight plates.
For some really short bars you’ll find they have done a little bit of both.
What’s important is if you have enough length on the bar so you can take all the hand positions you want while also being able to load up all the weight plates you need. If you’re a smaller person with shorter arms and a narrow frame, you can get away with using a shorter barbell since your reach isn’t as wide. If a barbell fits on a power rack, it’s going to be wide enough for all exercises.
The vast majority of the power racks have their hooks 48” apart. That means to use the bar on a power rack, you’ll need at least 50” of shaft length. That means that some 6′ bars fit and others don’t depending on the way they made them shorter. For bars that are used outside the rack you can use whatever works for you.
For general use in a home gym, a bar that’s 6′ to 7’2 long will work fine as long as it fits on the power rack.
The next important dimension is the diameter of the bar. Like the length, there are quite a few different diameters available. What are the different diameters and what are they used for?
Normal barbells have a shaft diameters that ranges from 25-32mm. The two most common diameters are 25 and 28. In official competitions, the 25 mm bars are used by women while the 28 mm ones are used by men. This is because women have smaller hands in general and the men’s bar is often too big to take a good grip. Especially the hook grip is more difficult on a thicker bar.
30mm and 32mm bars are most often used for powerlifting style squats. The extra thickness makes the bar stiffer and makes it have less whip and this helps at the bottom of a squat. It’s also a really easy way to make a bar stronger.
Besides that, there are really thick (2”) bars often called “axles” or “Fat bars”. These bars don’t have rotating sleeves and are often solid steel. These bars completely eliminate whip and many people notice strength benefits from training with fat bars. They are especially hard on your forearms since they’re harder to grip. This massively increases your grip strength.
Barbell Sleeve sizes
The sleeves are the pieces at both ends of the barbell you put the weights on. This is not the part you grab onto so it doesn’t really have any impact on how you handle the bar. The sleeve size is important for two things;
- Which weights you can use
- How many plates you can load up
Sleeves have a certain diameter. Olympic and powerlifting bars have sleeves with a 50mm diameter, but sometimes you can come across a bar with a 25mm diameter. This diameter decides which kind of weight plates you can use.
Weight plates come with inner holes that have a certain diameter just like the sleeves. You want this diameter to match the sleeve diameter of the barbell. Or the other way around, whatever you buy last should
Good bars actually have a slightly smaller than 50mm diameter sleeve since the official weight plates have a 50mm inner hole. If it was exactly the same diameter, the plates would be difficult to get on and off.
The length of the sleeve is important since it dictates how many plates you can load on the barbell. Most people won’t run into the limitations of regular sleeve lengths but some very strong people might.
The vast majority of barbells you’ll see in gyms weigh 20kg or 44lbs. Thicker bars can be heavier especially the so called “fat bars” these can be heavier although not all of them. Shorter and thinner often have a weight of 15kg. The lighter and thinner bars are often used by women. Some bars that are just for training technique or possibly children can be as light as 10kg.
Specialty bars often have different weights.
Women and children
Some brands offer different sized barbells for men and women and sometimes even children. For women the official diameter is 25mm at a weight of 15kg. Since women tend to have smaller hands than men, the smaller diameter helps with grip. Thinner bars have less metal and this causes them to be lighter.
For children there are even lighter barbells available. The diameter is the same at 25mm but these bars are shorter. Many of them are shorter because the sleeves are shorter. This means you can still take a wide grip but no load up as much weight. Since these bars are intended for younger athletes, they probably won’t be lifting a lot of weight anyways.
There’s more to a barbell than just the dimensions. For something that’s just a rod that holds weight, they’re pretty complicated. Here are some features of barbells you should be aware of;
- Sleeve spin
Barbells are built to have a little bit of flexibility. You can sometimes see it when people lift heavy weights. The part people have their hands on moves before the weights come off the floor. Here’s an example.
Bar whip helps lifters to incorporate extra momentum into their lifts. This helps especially in Olympic movements where you have to use this momentum well to lift more weight. To do this properly you have to practice technique a lot. For normal weightlifting, bar whip is not necessary or desirable.
The whip is related to tensile strength, more on that later. Basically, the higher the tensile strength, the stiffer a bar is and the less whip you have and vice versa. All barbells will bend a little under heavy load. If it was too stiff, the bar would break.
In general, power lifters want a bar with little whip while Olympic style lifters want more whip.
Most people in a home gym will do a mix of powerlifting and bodybuilding movements. If that’s you, a bar with normal or less whip is for you. The barbell you use every day should be something pretty stiff.
If you want to do Olympic lifts like the clean and jerk, you want a bar with more whip BUT, this should be a separate barbell. A ‘normal’ barbell is better for the majority of your lifts.
Knurling is the cross hatch pattern that’s etched into the bar. Knurling can vary in two different ways;
The aggressiveness of knurling is decided by the width and depth of the grooves and the sharpness of the edges of the cross hatch pattern. The barbell finish can have an impact on how sharp the edges of the knurling are.
The heavier the weights you’re lifting the more aggressive curling you need. Knurling helps you get a better grip on the bar. The heavier the weight, the better your grip has to be to keep the bar in your hands.
The size of your hands is also important. If you’ve got smaller hands, it’s harder to get a good grip on the bar. That means that people with smaller hands can benefit from more aggressive knurling.
The trade-off is that more aggressive knurling is tougher on your skin. In the beginning it might hurt a little or just be uncomfortable. Over time your skin will adapt and grow calluses.
Location and Markings
The location and markings of the knurling is one of the bigger differences between bars you might not be aware of as a beginner.
Knurling is to keep a good grip on the bar. Different styles of lifting require different grips and therefore the bars for different styles of lifting have knurling in different locations.
The differences to be aware of are between Olympic and powerlifting barbells. Both sports have different federations with different rules.
- You might have notices small rings around where your hands usually grip. Powerlifting bars have those rings at 32” apart. They’re used to check the maximum hand width on the bench press.
- Olympic bars have the rings at 36” apart. On Olympic bars it’s just used for reference so the lifters can take the same grip every time.
- Olympic bars for men have a center knurling, the ones for women don’t. Most non certified Olympic bars don’t have center knurling since there is no use for it.
- Powerlifting barbells have center knurling to help the bar grip on the back during the squat.
For general fitness use, the markings don’t really matter. For people that aren’t training for a specific competition, the markings don’t really mean anything. Just use them as a reference so you can take the same grip every time. This will help being consistent in your lifts.
We’ve already talked about the dimensions of bar sleeves but that’s not all that can be said about them. The most important aspect of bar sleeves is the rotation. There are a few bars that just consist of the shaft of the bar but have fixed sleeves. This might serve you for a little while but once you’re not a complete novice anymore, you want to use a bar that has spinning sleeves.
There are two main styles of spinning sleeves;
- Olympic bars
Olympic bars have very low friction sleeves. This is because a couple of Olympic lifts like the clean and jerk require the lifter to rotate the bar really quickly in some part of the lift. Some high level lifters rotate the bar for 180 degrees at around 7000 rpm. You can imagine that at those speeds any friction will feel like it’s too much. If the friction is too high the weights themselves have to spin to turn the bar. This puts a lot of torque on your joints and steals strength you could be using to lift the weight.
- Powerlifting bars
Power lifting bar sleeves generally have more friction than Olympic bars. That’s partly because the standard power lifting movements don’t require you to turn the bar far and quick. For the bench press it’s even beneficial if the bar doesn’t spin too much since this might cause it to feel insecure in your hands.
Bearings and bushings
Most sleeves on barbells rotate. Only the cheapest of bars come without rotating sleeves. How your bar rotates makes a difference.
If you’d just put the outer sleeve on the bar, it wouldn’t rotate very well and wear out quickly. You need something in between. There are two popular ways to create barbells that spin their sleeves; bearings and bushings. These are put between the bar and sleeve so they can rotate smoothly and last a long time. But what’s the difference?
Bushings are usually made of brass or bronze and just reduce friction between the two moving parts. Bronze is regarded as a better material for bushings.
Bearings come in different varieties as well. There are ball, thrust and needle bearings. Normal ball bearings are generally found in cheaper barbells. Thrust bearings are a kind of evolution of ball bearings that are better suited for axial loading like you find in a barbell. Needle bearings don’t have balls but thin bars (needles) inside the bearing. Thrust and needle bearings are often found in better quality bars.
Some manufacturers use a combination of bearings and bushings combined with low friction lubricant to provide the least resistance as possible. In general less friction requires more engineering and more expensive materials.
Do you need frictionless bar sleeves?
Do you have to spend money on the best spinning sleeves? That depends. First think about if you do any Olympic lifts like the clean and jerk. Those lifts require you to rotate the bar very quickly so any friction is going to have a bigger impact.
For power lifting and general fitness it’s less important. Those lifts don’t require you to rotate the bar very quickly so bar sleeves that have a bit more friction are not the end of the world.
One question that will pop up in everyone’s mind when shopping for a bar is: How strong is it?
That question is not as simple to answer as it seems. You would think there was a single number that tells you how much weight a bar can handle but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Let’s take a deeper look in what “barbell strength” means.
Yield vs. Tensile strength
To understand how strong a barbell is, it’s important to understand the difference between yield and tensile strength.
- Yield strength: The amount of stress a bar can take before permanently bending.
- Tensile strength: The amount of stress a bar can take before breaking or fracturing.
How much weight a bar can handle is actually quite complicated. Read this article from Ivanko barbell for more information.
As you can read there, how much weight a bar can handle is more related to how you treat it than the absolute weight. Dropping it on a bench with heavy weights on both sides is much more likely to cause damage than lowering it in a way where the weights hit the floor first.
For barbells that will be used for a variety of different lifts (home gym), a bar with a tensile strength between 190k PSI and 215k PSI is great.
The load capacity of a barbell is simply the combined weight of the plates you could put on the sleeves. Sleeves have a certain length and weight plates have a certain width. The load capacity is how much weight you could load on a bar if you’d use 45 pound plates.
What if you can’t find any of these numbers?
Sometimes, especially when shopping on Amazon, you can’t find all of these numbers or any for that matter. What can you do then?
- If it’s made by a reputable company, you could always contact them.
- If there is no information you can take a risk. Usually these are cheap bars so you won’t lose that much money. It’s probably still better to buy a good one from the beginning.
- Test it and share the results with others. You might find a hidden gem.
- If you want to be sure of what a bar can do, don’t get the one that doesn’t list any strength numbers. It might bend easily.
There are different finishes for barbells. The finish is whatever is on the outside of the shaft and sleeves. The shaft and sleeves don’t necessarily have the same finish. Here are the most popular types of finish;
- Black/bright zinc. One of the most common finishes for barbells is zinc plating. It’s a bit more expensive than bare steel or black oxide and provides more corrosion resistance. It’s not the most resistant to corrosion of all the finishes and will wear off over time. Black vs. bright zinc is just an aesthetic difference. Both have the same properties.
- Black oxide. To create this finish, the bar will be submerged into a bath that corrodes the outside and creates a black surface. Many people like the feel of this type of finish but it only protects the bar against corrosion a little bit better than bare steel. It also wears off pretty quickly. On the plus side it’s cheap, allows aggressive knurling and works well with chalk.
- Chrome. Chrome is more durable and corrosion resistant than black oxide. It’s a bit less corrosion resistant than zinc but more durable. The drawback is that the plating is a bit thicker so it fills up the knurling a bit more, giving a smoother feel. Chrome plating is often used on the sleeves since it’s so durable. All certified Eleiko Olympic bars are hard chrome plated so the feel shouldn’t be a big problem.
- Stainless. Stainless steel is the most corrosion resistant out of any of the barbells. It’s also the most expensive. You don’t need a coating on top of stainless so you’ll have the feel of a bare steel bar without the drawback of corrosion.
- Ceramic. Some manufacturers have started offering this ceramic based coating. The claims are that it is more wear resistant and lasts much longer than zinc based coatings. This coating can also be done in different colors as opposed to the normal silver and black. It’s not invincible but will last longer than the other options without maintenance.
- Bare steel. The simplest since there is technically no finish. Many people like the feel and aggressiveness of the knurling with the bare steel bar. The big downside is that it will rust quickly so it needs a lot of maintenance.
What’s the best barbell finish?
So what should you choose? Most of that decision depends on your budget. You get what you pay for. For Olympic lifters that want to train with the equipment they’ll use during competitions, go for a chrome shaft.
Otherwise I would go for a stainless shaft bar. It is very corrosion resistant and doesn’t need a lot of maintenance while still having a good feel. If you want a fancy color you can get a Cerakote barbell.
For the sleeves chrome is the best finish since all others will wear off pretty quickly or get damaged. Most decent bars have chrome sleeves.
Different bars are made for different purposes. The differences might seem small but they are important. A small difference can make a bar be used for one but completely useless for another purpose. This is mainly a concern for official competitions and events but there are a few practical differences that make a difference for personal use.
Competition bars are simply barbells that comply with all the rules and are certified by the federation that runs a certain competition. The two biggest federations are the IWF (International Weightlifting Federation) and the IPF (International Powerlifting Federation). To be able to use a bar during an official competition, every piece of equipment has to be certified. Those certifications cost money. That means officially certified bars often cost more than exactly the same bar without the certification.
For general fitness and home use, it’s a bit less critical what kind of bar you get. If you’re practicing for an official competition you might want to have an exact same bar you’ll be using. Otherwise, you don’t have to worry too much about it.
See below what to look for in a barbell for your home gym.
Besides simple straight bars there are quite a few specialty bars. Where straight bars are used for almost every exercise you can imagine, specialty bars are more focused. They are often just used for a single or few exercises. They are often used to provide some variety in training and provide a slightly different impulse for your muscles. Some common specialty bars are;
Most people that have ever done a bicep curl will be familiar with this type of bar. It’s bent back and forth in different places. This allows you to put your hands in a more neutral position. This can help take some strain on your wrist and provide a different training impulse.
This type of bar isn’t very common but more serious powerlifting gyms will often have one. This bar is split up in the middle so you can stand ‘in’ the bar. This allows for a type of deadlift that’s a little easier on your lower back and it’s also good for shrugs.
Safety squat bar
The safety squat bar is hard to explain in words, just check out the picture to see what it is.
The biggest difference with a normal bar is the weight distribution. The bar sits a bit higher making you bend over further at the bottom of a squat. It also saves your shoulders so you have more recovery time for your overhead presses.
Because you have to bend over further, it puts more pressure on your upper back. To keep it straight, you’ll have to have stronger lats and traps. The safety bar also puts a lot less stress on your shoulder, elbow and wrist joints than a straight bar. That’s where the “safety” part of this specialty bar’s name comes from.
The technique bar is a light bar that is used to teach lifts to beginners, perfect your form or even rehab. There are different varieties. Some are just like barbells except lighter. Generally they are cheaper and not built as well since they’re not supposed to be used for heavy weights.
Some technique bars are just a simple piece of plastic that acts as a kind of placeholder. This way you can practice the lifts without any weight but can feel where the bar is supposed to go. I personally wouldn’t spend money for a branded one however. Just go to the hardware store and buy a long broom stick.
If you’ve watched any strongman competition, you’ve seen this type of bar. It’s supposed to simulate lifting a log. The difference from a normal bar is that your hands are in a neutral position instead of taking an overhand/underhand grip. Log bars often have a metal shroud around the bar. This makes it look more like a real log but otherwise doesn’t really add any functionality.
Famous barbell brands
What are some barbell brands to keep an eye out for? There are quite a few different brands that produce barbells. Most of them have their own little niche and things they do differently. Here are a few of the brands you really can’t go wrong with.
- American barbell
There are tons of barbell manufacturers that aren’t listed there. That doesn’t mean they don’t produce any good products. The brands above are just some of the most famous ones that consistently produce awesome barbells.
What to look for in a home gym barbell?
What are the features you’re looking for when selecting a barbell for your home gym? The basic barbell everyone needs is just a simple straight one so that’s what this is about. Not the specialty bars although some points will apply to those as well.
Most people will perform a mix of lifts in their home gym. They are just looking to get into shape by lifting weights and are not interested in entering any competitions. If that’s you, look at the points below to see what is good for your purpose.
What to look for in a home gym barbell:
- At least 50” of shaft length between the collars.
- Tensile strength of 190K PSI to 215K PSI
- 28-29mm diameter shaft for men
- 25-28mm diameter shaft for women
- 50mm diameter sleeve
- Spinning sleeves. Bushings for powerlifting/general weightlifting. High quality ball/needle bearings for Olympic lifting
- Medium to aggressive knurling
- Stainless or Ceramic coated shaft. Zinc plating is OK but not as durable.
- Stainless or chrome sleeves.
What kind of barbells to avoid
Most barbells have their purpose, no matter how cheap or crappy. You can always find a use for something. Is there anything you should avoid when buying a barbell? A few things;
- Solid sleeves that don’t spin at all
- Officially certified bars. Most often they’ll be more expensive than you need to spend for a good home gym bar.
- Bare steel bars. Unless you like a lot of maintenance and/or rust.
What is an axle bar? Axle bars or “fat bars” are called that because they look like a car axle. These barbells are very thick (around 2”) and don’t have spinning sleeves. There are benefits to grip strength and forearm development from using fat bars.
Are cheap barbells good for home gyms? Cheap barbells often cut corners with metal quality and construction and finish. They might damage and corrode easily. The sleeves are fixed and if they spin, the bearings need a lot of maintenance. For use with low to medium weights at a home gym it can be OK if properly maintained.
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