If you’re starting to get into weightlifting and shopping for your first barbell online (or walking into the gym for the first time), you’re probably seeing lots of unfamiliar terms, like IWF certified Olympic barbell and powerlifting competition bar.
Barbells are grouped into different categories like Olympic and powerlifting based on which lifts they’re designed to perform best.
Olympic barbells are usually used for lifts like the clean and jerk and snatch, while powerlifting bars are geared toward deadlifts, squats, and bench presses.
However, you can still use powerlifting barbells for Olympic lifts and vice versa. So if you’re not sure what style of weightlifting you prefer yet, don’t let that stop you from buying a barbell or getting started at the gym.
Some barbells are also certified to be used in competitions by regulatory bodies like the International Weightlifting Federation, which oversees Olympic lifting events.
These barbells are usually more expensive because it costs the manufacturer money to meet the IWF’s standards and get certified. If you aren’t training for a competition, it’s usually not worth it to splurge for these types of weights.
Manufacturers also describe their barbells using metrics that you may not have heard of before, like tensile strength and yield strength.
They measure the quality and durability of the barbell, so it’s important to understand what they mean.
If that all sounds overwhelming, don’t worry. The main parts of a barbell you really need to know and understand are:
- The shaft
- The sleeve
- The knurling
- The finish
To help you navigate this tough product category, here’s a guide to the main parts and features of barbells you need to know about before you invest in one or pick one up at the gym.
I’ve also highlighted some of the key differences between powerlifting and Olympic barbells so you can get a better idea of which one might be right for you.
The shaft is the main body of the barbell.
Depending on what type of barbell you purchase, the diameter of the shaft will vary.
Olympic barbells have different diameters for men and women. Bars designed for men usually have a diameter of 28mm, while ones for women are 25mm.
Powerlifting bars are usually 29mm across the board.
The diameter of the shaft matters because it affects the whip, which is how much the bar will bend or flex under heavy loads. Barbells with smaller diameters usually have less whip.
If your bar has a little bit of whip, it may help you perform certain lifts better. Olympic lifters, for example, can benefit from having a barbell with some bend and give.
But bars with a high whip can be harder to control during deadlifts and bench presses, so powerlifters often prefer stiffer bars with larger diameters.
Barbell shafts can also be different lengths.
When I talked to Alex Shaw, founder of Body Transformation Solutions, he gave me some tips for picking the best length:
“Typical barbells are seven feet long. Choosing this length affords you the biggest selection to choose from. If you are short on space, you can buy six-foot barbells—but this narrows your selection.”
Another thing to consider when you’re shopping for a barbell is how much weight the shaft can hold.
Going back to Shaw:
“If you’re a beginner, you may not need an expensive, high-quality barbell. However, if you plan to be lifting heavy loads (about 400lbs+ on your squats, deadlifts, and bench presses), you’re likely to benefit from a barbell that is rated to hold high weight.”
You can figure out if the barbell you want to purchase will support high weight by looking at metrics like:
- the test
- yield strength
- and tensile strength.
Manufacturers test their barbells to see how much weight they can handle. Some will tell you how much weight the barbell was able to support without bending or breaking, which is called the test strength.
This information isn’t always available. But you can still get a pretty good idea of how strong a barbell is by looking at the tensile strength and yield strength.
Tensile strength is the point at which the barbell breaks or fractures. It’s measured in pounds per square inch, or PSI for short.
Barbells with a high PSI are more durable, can support bigger loads, and will last longer.
Generally, you should look for a bar with a PSI of 150,000 or higher.
Yield strength is similar to tensile strength, but indicates how much weight a barbell can hold before it becomes deformed. It’s also measured in PSI, and the higher the number is, the better.
The sleeves are where you load the plates on both ends of the barbell.
Olympic barbells have sleeves that are 2 inches in diameter, but some powerlifting barbells may have 1 inch sleeves.
The diameter of the sleeves affects what type of plates you’ll be able to load on them.
You can’t use 1 inch plates on a 2 inch Olympic barbell. But you can get an adapter that allows you to put 2 inch plates on a 1 inch sleeve.
When I spoke to Shaw, he offered this tip for choosing between 1 and 2 inch sleeves:
“Do they fit 1″ or 2″ plates? 1″ is a lot less expensive and almost exclusively for home gyms. They are also almost never worth it for someone who is at all serious about lifting. 2″ barbells are considered Olympic barbells and are by far the better choice.”
Depending on what type of barbell you have, the sleeves may also spin.
Olympic barbells have spinning sleeves to reduce the risk of injury during rapid hand transitions like the ones you perform during a clean and jerk.
Powerlifting bars usually spin more slowly and some don’t rotate at all. This is because too much spin could make the bar feel unstable during lifts like bench or overhead presses.
Sleeves are attached to the barbell using either bushings or bearings, which enable the sleeves to spin separately from the rest of the barbell.
Bushings are lubricated metal rings that are made of brass or bronze. Lifters usually prefer bronze bushings because they’re higher quality.
But if you’re an Olympic lifter, you may want to splurge on a bar with thrust or needle bearings.
They’re more expensive than bushings, but have less friction and provide a smoother spin, which will make movements like the snatch much easier on your hands and arms.
All barbells have crosshatching on the shaft that’s called knurling.
It’s there to make the barbell easier to grip by increasing the friction between your hands and the metal.
Knurling is made by cutting grooves directly into the shaft. Those grooves can either be sharp and pointy, relatively flat and smooth, or somewhere in between.
If knurling is on the pointier side, it’s referred to as aggressive.
If it’s on the smoother side, it’s called passive.
Knurling is also classified by what kind of shape it is:
- or volcano.
Mountain-shaped knurling is very aggressive. It has pointy diamond-shaped peaks that press into the skin during lifts and can even tear it up.
Because this type of knurling makes so much contact with the skin, it’s easy to grip. That’s why it’s often used by powerlifters who need to get a good handle on the bar to deadlift heavy.
Hill-style knurling has rounded tops instead of sharp peaks. This makes it much more passive and hard to grip, so it’s most useful if you’re doing exercises to increase your grip strength.
Volcano-shaped knurling is preferred by many lifters, including John Fawkes, fitness coach and self-improvement expert:
“For the knurling, I like volcano-type knurling, where each individual knurl has a rounded rim like a volcano—it gives you an excellent grip, but it’s more comfortable than the more common pointed or ‘mountain’ knurl.”
Another thing that can differ between barbells is the position of the knurling.
Powerlifting barbells have knurling in the center to provide some extra grip when you’re doing squats and the bar is resting on your back.
Olympic barbells, on the other hand, don’t usually have center knurling. This helps prevent your neck from getting scratched when performing cleans.
The knurling may also extend further on an Olympic bar toward the edges of the sleeve, allowing you to take a wide grip on lifts like snatches.
The location of the knurl marks will also vary depending on what type of barbell you have. Knurl marks are smooth rings that indicate where lifters should place their hands during competitions.
On Olympic barbells, they’re spaced 36 inches apart. But on powerlifting bars, they’re only 32 inches from each other.
Some multipurpose barbells even have both types of knurl marks to help you with hand placement during a variety of lifts.
If you’re new to weightlifting, it doesn’t really matter where the knurl marks are located as long as your barbell has at least one set.
Most barbells have a finish, which is a protective coating that’s applied to the shaft and sleeves.
It helps prevent moisture from sitting on the surface of the metal and rusting it over time.
There are several different finishes you can choose from, including:
- Black oxide
- Hard chrome
Cerakote and e-coat are generally the most resistant to corrosion.
Black oxide coatings tend to rub off, so they don’t offer the best protection from rust and require a lot of maintenance if you want to keep them looking nice.
Because all of these finishes are applied on top of the knurling, they can also affect your grip on the barbell.
Zinc and chrome coatings are known to dull the knurling, which can make it difficult to grip the shaft when your hands start to sweat during a challenging lift.
Chrome is still a good finish for the sleeves, though, because it’s abrasion-resistant and won’t get scratched off when you load the plates.
But for the shaft, many lifters prefer a thin layer of cerakote or no finish at all so they can really feel the knurling.
One of the best options if you don’t want a coating is stainless steel.
It’s naturally corrosion-resistant, so it doesn’t require a finish. It’s also super durable and doesn’t need much upkeep.
Stainless steel is mainly used in higher-end barbells, so you’ll have to shell out a bit to get one. But if you’re serious about lifting, it’s worth the investment.
If you’re looking to save a little money, you can also get regular steel barbells that have no coating.
They offer the same great grip as stainless steel, but you’ll have to clean them often to prevent them from rusting.
There are tons of different barbells on the market from powerlifting to Olympic to specialty bars designed for specific lifts.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, just remember that you can use any barbell when you’re starting out as long as it’s decent quality and rated for the amount of weight you want to lift.
Once you find out what style of weightlifting you prefer, you’ll be able to get more specialized equipment if you need it.
If you go to most commercial, big box gyms, you won’t have much choice in barbells. Typically, they’ll use solid and decent quality Olympic barbells but they likely won’t be competition grade.
It’s still helpful and important to know what you’re looking at, and knowing the names of each part of the barbell will make you feel a lot more confident during your first couple of lifts!
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Hope this helps!