Last updated on February 28th, 2021 at 06:33 pm
Here, I’ll be covering the Olympic straight bar (also sometimes known as a power lifting barbell). This traditional straight barbell is usually the very first bar people add to their gym. It’s the king of the weight training barbells. You’ll most likely use it more than any other bar you own. It’s what you will use to squat, deadlift, and press your way through your weight training work outs.
In fact, if your set up only has one barbell, this will be the one you have.
For a full detail on several bars I think are important, check out my article “The 3 Barbells You Will Find in the Best Home Gyms” in which I outlined the three bars I use regularly, what they are, and why you would want to add them to your arsenal. For those of you that don’t want to read about all three, I have broken out that article into three separate articles. Each of these details just one of those bars. Here we look at the traditional straight bar.
Anatomy of the barbell:
It might seem strange at first, but there are actually several key parts of a barbell that you should be familiar with. There are a surprising number of options to pick from and knowing your way around a traditional barbell will help you decide on the right one for you. Let’s begin with the shaft.
The shaft is the central part of the bar. It typically comes in 28-29mm diameter for men’s bars and 25mm diameter for women’s. This is to accommodate the generally different hand sizes of men and women. But let’s reassign this definition. One is for larger handed folks, the other is for smaller handed lifters. Get what works for you regardless of your gender.
Gripping the bar…
One side note on bar diameter. For pressing exercises, one of my all time favorite lifting accessories is a set of fat gripz. These attach to the bar and you grip them instead of directly gripping the bar. They provide a few benefits.
First, I am 6’6” and have giant hands. Lifting with these is simply more comfortable. I love them for this reason.
Their second benefit is that they work to improve your grip while you are lifting. Instead of having to train grip separately, these will help you do that without adding additional exercises.
Finally, they help protect your elbows when pressing. By making the bar fatter, they reduce stress on your elbows. At 47 years old, I can use all the joint protection I can get! I highly recommend a set of these for anyone working with a traditional barbell. They will quickly become one of your favorite low cost additions you’ve made to your training. (For 55 other low cost ways to make your gym amazing, check out my article here!)
Another thing that will vary from bar to bar, aside from size, is the knurling. That’s the rough textured area that provides grip. Some bars have a lot, some only a little. I recommend getting a bar that has a good amount of the shaft covered with knurling. This allows a variety of grip widths and will provide you with a more versatile bar. Some bars are made with a very small area of knurling designed to put your hands in the “correct” position for lifting. This isn’t a great idea as what is “correct” for one person may cause injury in another. The more flexibility you have, the better.
Speaking of “correct” hand positioning, most bars will also have rings inside the knurling that indicate preferred hand position. There are typically two indicated positions. One for Olympic lifting (snatches, cleans, etc.) and one for power lifting (deadlifts, squats, etc.).
For me, I like to have a bar that has at least one set of rings. I use them as guides so that I can be consistent in my lifts.
A last note on the shaft is the coarseness of the knurling itself. I prefer a medium textured bar, but you can also find options for light and heavy. I’ve found that medium gives great grip while not tearing up my hands.
The next stop on our anatomical tour of the barbell is the sleeves. These are the wider areas attached over the ends of the shaft. On most bars they spin independent from the shaft itself. This spinning action is facilitated by either bushings or bearings.
The diameter of most sleeves is consistent at 50mm. That’s because weight plates have a standard opening of 50mm. One slides easily over the other without binding, but with a tight enough tolerance that they don’t shift or wobble.
The sleeves spin for a very specific reason. When lifting a barbell loaded with weight, the bar will rotate with your hand as it moves through space. You don’t want the weights to rotate along with the shaft. If the sleeves were fixed, the weights would spin with the bar and create inertia that would literally rip the bar out of your hand. Not a very desirable thing to happen. Especially with a lot of weight on a bar that you might have over your head or chest!
You’ll read about some bars that tout high end bearings which allow the sleeves to spin with ease. Those same marketing blurbs will disparage bars that use nylon bushings. If you are training to be a competitive lifter, you may want to look at higher end bearing models. For the rest of us, a barbell that uses bushings will work great and be more affordable at the same time. Bushings will allow the collars to spin freely under weight and will work great in almost all applications.
When you add the sleeves to the shaft, you get an overall bar length. Men’s bars are usually 2.2 meters (7.2 feet) long while women’t bars are 2.01 meters (6.6 feet). If you look, you can also find shorter bars made with the larger men’s diameter. This is great in garage or basement gym applications as it saves some space. A power/squat rack takes up a good amount of room to start with. Having a shorter bar can sometimes make the difference between being able to have a traditional barbell in the first place, or not.
One last thing to note when shopping for a barbell is that you’ll often see two general types for sale. One is made for Olympic lifting and the other for power lifting. The basic difference is in how much flex there is in the bar. A power lifting bar will be very stiff with almost no give. An Olympic lifting bar will have much more flexibility.
Which one is right for you will depend on the type of lifting you do. If you are a hard core Olympic lifter or CrossFit athlete, an Olympic bar will probably be the right choice. For everyone else, I recommend a power lifting bar. I find them to be more versatile and safer for the average lifter.
A third option, which is what I personally prefer over the first two for multi use home gyms, is a “hybrid” bar. That’s a bar with a little flex, but not too much. For recreational lifters like myself, it works great for both power and Olympic lifting.
After looking at countless bars and trying quite a few of them, I have a couple of favorites.
I really like this bar by Body Solid. It has all the features I want in a bar and is available at a reasonable price. You can check current pricing here on Amazon. It has everything I describe above, is tested to 600 lbs, and will serve you well for years.
I also really love this bar that’s sold by Onnit. I have yet to buy anything from them that I haven’t absolutely loved and this bar will be no exception for you. It is tested up to 1200 lbs. and will work great for both Olympic lifting and power lifting. If you think you’ll be surpassing the 600 lb capacity of the Body Solid, it’s worth the extra money to go with this option.
There are a lot of bars out there to pick from. I believe in making things easy and simple. First, don’t get woo’d by fancy aesthetics, exotic plating/coating, laser engraving, and a host of other things that companies do to try to make their bar stand out.
There’s no reason to spend extra money on a specific name either. There are quite a few companies out there that simply charge more because their name is on the product.
If you stick with one of the two bars I recommend above, you’ll be thrilled. I’ve used both and they are both excellent. Let your use and potential weight be your guide as to which you go with.
Did I miss anything? Is there something you would add to the description above for a traditional barbell? Is there a bar you love and would like to share with the world? Let me know in the comments below, I always love to hear from folks out there working in their own home gyms.