Barbell Care & Maintenance – A Complete Guide with Pictures

In Maintain Your Gym by Tim Steward

Last updated on July 7th, 2021 at 01:59 pm

If you buy right the first time (something I highly recommend when it comes to purchasing a barbell), you will end up with a barbell that could last you a lifetime (like this one from Rrp Fitness!). That is, of course, as long as you properly use, care for, and store it.

The basic tools of barbell care & maintenance

In short, 5 simple guidelines will keep your barbell working like new through a lifetime of use: 

  1. Wipe your barbell down after each use
  2. Clean your barbell regularly
  3. Perform regular maintenance that’s appropriate to your bar’s finish
  4. Don’t abuse or misuse your barbell
  5. Store your barbell properly

Buy nice or buy twice

Notice I started this article by stating “if you buy right the first time”. This is critical. There are a ton of barbells out there. The marketing copy on all of them makes them seem like great choices. In reality, a lot of them are crap. A lot of them won’t last you a year of regular use. A lot of them are a waste of your money.

That doesn’t mean you need to buy the most expensive bar. You don’t. But it does mean you shouldn’t go cheap.

For a complete guide to finding the perfect barbell for you, I’ve put together a great resource here. If you just want to know what bars I recommend at each budget level, check out my recommended bars page here.

And if you just want an amazing bar that doesn’t need a lot of maintenance in the first place, check out the bar I’ve been training with daily for quite some time now!

What happens when you buy a cheap barbell?

  • The finish wears off almost right away
  • If it’s a chrome-plated bar, the low-quality chrome plating will chip off and splinter into your hands
  • The bar will corrode quickly 
  • The sleeves won’t spin freely–if they spin at all
  • The sleeves will bind under load
  • The bar will bend over time or with significant use
  • The knurling will provide little to no grip

At some point, you will realize you wasted your money. You then end up buying a nicer bar to replace the one you thought had saved you money. You might as well just do this the first time.

This Rep Fitness stainless steel power bar is a great choice in a nicer bar!

Pro Tip… Buy a nicer barbell the first time. You aren’t saving any money if you have to buy another bar down the road!

How long can a barbell last?

The answer to this question totally depends on what you bought in the first place. It also depends on what you mean by “last”.

You will probably always be able to load a bar with weight. Whenever I address this subject, I always get some joker who wants to point out that their $79 bar still holds weight. And they are right, it does.

It’s also covered in rust, flaking metal chips into their hands, has no grip, is slightly bent, and poses a safety hazard because the sleeves don’t spin. But yeah, it still holds weight. So in that respect, most barbells will “last” forever.

If by “last” you mean work well, provide good grip, be safe, stay straight, and be enjoyable to use, we get a different answer.

If you buy a quality bar to start with, take care of it, clean and maintain it regularly, and store it properly, your bar will last as long as you’d like to keep it. 

In other words, you can buy a cheap bar and replace it every year or so. Or you can buy a reasonably priced well-built bar, maintain it, and never have to buy another bar again!

Why do barbells need maintenance and care?

Your barbell is one of the few things you touch while working out. It’s also one of only a few things in your home gym with moving parts. In addition, metal will corrode on its own without any help from you.

Add all that up and you get the need for proper care and maintenance of your barbell.

When we touch our bars, we inevitably leave a variety of substances behind. Chalk, skin, sweat, body oil, and even blood commonly remain on your bar after use.

Corrosion caused by blood and sweat… Yes, that’s a little bit of my blood – ew!

Those substances get stuck in the knurling of the barbell. Once there, they begin to quickly eat at the finish on your bar. They invite corrosion and rust.

Add to those substances humidity (and salt for you coastal residents) and you have a recipe for problems unless you stay on top of things. 

The beautiful finish your bar came with starts to deteriorate. The bare metal underneath starts to pit and rust. Before you know it, your bar is in disrepair and no longer enjoyable to use or even to look at!

The bearings and or bushings in your bar suffer similar issues. Improper storage can cause the lubricant to leak out. Humidity in the air wreaks havoc over time. Eventually, they stop spinning freely. When that happens, safety becomes a concern.

When your sleeves don’t spin freely (important for standard power lifts and critical for fast-moving Olympic lifts) the inertia of the moving weight plates will try to spin the bar in your hands. The last thing you want a heavy bar to do is to move in your hand or spin out of your grip. This isn’t a safe way to lift at all!

Check out what happened to my bar when I didn’t clean it for over two years!!!

Pro Tip… To avoid corrosion and keep our bars working safely and well, we must spend a few minutes here and there taking care of them. It’s not a huge or time-consuming job, but it’s a job that needs doing none the less.

Bar finishes

There are several possible finishes that a barbell might have. Knowing what finish is on your bar will let you know how often it needs maintenance. It will also cue what type of tools and products to use when performing that maintenance and cleaning.

Finish TypePrice PointCorrosion ResistanceDurability
Bare Steel2010
Black Oxide444
Zinc666
Budget Chrome232
Hard Chrome877
Cerakote999
Stainless Steel101010
Ratings on a scale of 1-10, 1 being the lowest

Bare steel

Bare Steel is just what it sounds like. The benefit of bare steel is the feel. It’s one of only 2 bar types that allow the lifter to directly contact the metal of the bar.

This gives the knurl a cleaner feel that many lifters prefer. The downside is that it corrodes impossibly fast. You will always be cleaning this type of bar.

Black Oxide

A black oxide bar

Black oxide is a very minimal finish that gives the bar a cool black look. Of all the finishes, it interferes with bar feel the least. It does provide some corrosion protection, but not much. You will find yourself needing to maintenance this finish fairly often.

Zinc

A black zinc bar

Zinc comes in several flavors. Standard zinc, bright zinc, and black zinc are all variations of this finish. Zinc coatings can definitely be felt by the lifter.

Zinc coating slightly dulls the knurl of most bars and has a “powdery” feel in many cases. The benefit of zinc is that it adds a good deal of durability over and above bare steel or black oxide.

Budget chrome

A cheap chrome bar sleeve

“Budget” chrome is a term I made up for this article. It refers to the bright silver coating you’ll find on many of the $99 and under bars you can buy on Amazon.

It looks pretty at first but will crack and chip off almost immediately. I do not recommend buying a bar of this type. How do you know if it’s “budget” chrome? The price point of the barbell is the biggest indicator.

You simply can’t get a decent chrome finish for less than $150 and in many cases less than $200.

Hard chrome

A hard chrome bar

Hard chrome is where the really enjoyable barbell finishes start. Hard chrome is a coating, so it does slightly dull the knurling of a bar, coming between the lifter and the bare metal of their barbell.

That said, good manufacturers can compensate for this by the type of knurl they cut into the bar. Hard chrome also provides a high level of corrosion resistance.

For those that don’t want to pay the higher prices found on cerakote or stainless bars, hard chrome is an ideal choice.

cerakote

Cerakote is a finish originally designed for firearms. Like hard chrome, it is still a finish applied to the bar and thus will change the feel of a barbell.

The cool thing about cerakote is that it can be applied in a huge variety of colors and patterns. This results in some really awesome looking bars. It is also highly corrosion-resistant.

You can see one of the best Cerakote bars on the market, the American Barbell Mammoth bar, here on their site.

stainless steel

A stainless steel bar, my favorite!

Stainless Steel is the holy grail of barbell materials. It’s a raw bar that provides amazing color and feel without the need for a coating or finish.

It’s also the most corrosion-resistant bar type. It’s a myth that stainless bars can’t corrode, but it’s highly unlikely that they will unless completely neglected for years while living in a harsh (coastal with high humidity and salt) climate.

Make no mistake, though. Cheap, low grade stainless steel can and does rust. Beware of offshore manufacturers selling cheap stainless steel bars. Stick to the major barbel manufacturers here and you’ll be happy you did.

A quick tour of your barbell

I wrote a full guide to all parts of the barbell that you can read here. When it comes to caring for, maintaining, and storing your bar, you’ll need to be familiar with a few of these things. Here’s a quick primer.

Knurling

Knurling

This is the crosshatched pattern cut into your bar. Its purpose is to give you a better grip when lifting. Knurling on cheap bars is almost useless. Other knurling patterns can be so aggressive that they can literally grate the skin off of even the most well-callused hands.

One thing that most knurling does well is capture debris. Skin, oil, blood, sweat, dirt, dust, and chalk will all get trapped in your knurling. All of it needs to be removed. Ideally fairly regularly.

Sleeves

The bar sleeve

These are the parts on the end of your bar that hold the weight. The larger diameter portion on the inner side of the sleeve is often called a shoulder. The finish on the sleeves of a bar is sometimes different than the finish on the bar.

The sleeves tend to see less wear and corrosion than the bar itself. Typically, your bar will corrode where you grip it before the sleeves will corrode.

Bearings and Bushings

A bushing

Inside the sleeve, between the sleeve and the bar, are one of two things that allow the sleeve to spin. It’s critical that the sleeves spin in order to avoid injury and to aid in performing key lifts. There are 3 primary types of bushings or bearings that can be made from a variety of materials.

Bushings are softer metal rings that go between the sleeve and the bar. They allow the sleeve to spin, but have a modest amount of friction too.

This means that while the sleeves will freely spin to allow for safety, they won’t spin fast like a bike wheel or a bar with bearings. Bushings are usually found in lower-priced bars as well as being the ideal choice for powerlifting bars.

Ball bearings are similar to what you’d find in a bicycle or even a car wheel. If you’ve ever had a fidget spinner, you’ve played with ball bearings. These spin faster than bushings. You’ll sometimes find standard bearings in multi-purpose bars, CrossFit bars, and general training bars.

Another type of bearing you’ll find in barbells is the needle bearing. This type of bearing is slightly less durable than standard bearings (and the most susceptible to problems if your bar is improperly stored), but they spin faster and more freely than any other options.

You’ll most often find needle bearings on mid to higher end Olympic lifting bars.

Lastly, there are a number of bars that combine the above. The goal is to give the right type of spin for the type of lifting being performed. Low spin for powerlifting, medium for multi-purpose, and high spin for Olympic lifting.

All 3 options, bushings, standard bearings, and needle bearings come from the factory pre-lubricated with ASAE-20 type oil. This will be important to know when lubricating your bar.

How often should you clean your bar?

The answer to this question is directly related to two things. Your bar’s finish and the climate you live in. 

Regardless of the above two items, it’s always a good idea to wipe your bar down after every use. Professional gyms clean their bars nightly to keep them looking new for years. We should follow suit. 

This is especially important because your sweat is both acidic and contains salt. That’s a detrimental one-two punch for your barbell and a post-workout wipe down can add years to the life of your bar!

Pro-Tip… Don’t hang your towel over your bar while you are training. And certainly don’t leave it there for long periods. The salt in your sweat will transfer easily from your towel to your bar and is a great way to give corrosion a jump start.

Wiping down your bar is different from performing regular maintenance & cleaning. Those activities are a more involved process that should be done on the following schedule.

Finish TypeMaintenance Frequency
Bare SteelEvery 1-3 weeks*
Black OxideEvery 2-4 weeks*
ZincEvery 2-4 weeks*
Budget ChromeMonthly and then more often as the chrome flakes off.
Hard ChromeEvery 1-3 months*
CerakoteEvery 1-3 months*
Stainless SteelEvery 1-3 months*
*This depends on how much chalk, skin, and other debris you leave on your bar after each use

While you can prolong regular maintenance and more thorough cleaning by wiping your bar down daily, you can’t prevent it entirely. Over time you’ll get to know your bar and how it reacts to your training schedule and your climate.

Tools

There are a handful of basic tools used when caring for your bar. Here they are along with specific recommendations based on what I’ve found to work well for me over time.

Daily wipes

Some people will just use their gym towel. That may or may not be a good idea based on how much sweat and skin oil is on the towel. It’s better than nothing, but not ideal.

A better idea is a microfiber cloth reserved only for this purpose. Microfiber will not leave any material behind in the knurling and will do a nice job of daily maintenance.

My preferred method is to use dedicated fitness wipes. They are a low ph wipe that will both clean and disinfect and are always a great choice. You can see the wipes that I use every day here on Amazon.

*Please note that I wouldn’t use these wipes on bars with a black oxide or zinc finish. They contain vinegar and that may strip the finish from your bar.

A solid alternative to this an ammonia mixture that’s 1 cup ammonia and 1 gallon of water (again, be careful with black oxide and zinc-coated bars, those finishes come off rather easily when hit with ammonia). Mix this in a spray bottle for an inexpensive way to clean and disinfect your bars on a daily basis.

When it comes to black oxide and zinc bars, it’s also best to avoid bleach. I’m not a huge fan of either coating, but you do find them on a lot of bars. Many people want to have cool, black bars and these are the two least expensive ways to achieve that color.

If you have a black oxide or zinc-coated bar, it’s best to use a dry microfiber cloth for your daily wipe downs.

Cleaning Brush

Pro Tip… The key here is to use the softest brush that will get the job done. If you keep up with your bar, you will probably never need a metal bristle brush. The exception is those of you that have a bare steel bar.

For most, a nylon bristle brush is an ideal tool. You can get one of these at your local hardware store, but I prefer the brush included in the Bar Shield bar care kit. Another solid option is this set that you can pick up really cheap over on Amazon.

Whenever possible, stick with a nylon brush, it will work great and won’t damage your bar. For budget chrome, black zinc, and black oxide, this is the only brush type I would recommend.

If you need a step up in stiffness and cleaning ability, a brass bristle brush is the best choice. Brass is soft enough that it won’t scratch most bars or remove the finish (not true for black oxide, black zinc, or budget chrome). It’s also the preferred brush type for a bare steel bar.

You can buy a brass bristle brush at any local hardware store, or you can pick up this little gem on Amazon.

Oil

Oil will not only help remove rust, chalk, skin, and other debris, but it will leave behind a protective coating that helps prevent future problems. A lot of people out there have their opinions on what you can or should use. Here’s mine.

I don’t recommend
using this

WD40 is a no go for me. Yes, it will technically work. But it stinks and leaves behind an unpleasant residue (even when wiped off). It will also react poorly with the SAE20 oil that manufacturers used to lubricate your bushings and bearings. 

Part of regular maintenance is to lubricate your sleeves. You can’t do this with WD40… Well, you could, but you will create a thick sludge inside your barbell sleeves that will need to be cleaned out eventually and may damage your bearings. The moral of the story? Don’t use WD40!

3in1 oil is the most popular option when it comes to cleaning and maintaining your barbell. It’s cheap, easy to find, and will play nicely with the lubrication already in place in your bushings or bearings.

3in1 will do a nice job of removing corrosion and debris as well as protecting your bar against future rust and decay. You can get it at your local hardware store, or you can order it right here on Amazon.

What I recommend and use to clean my barbells in 2021

This is an update to the original article. I used to use and love a product called Bar Shield. Unfortunately, Bar Shield went out of business and that led me to search high and low for another solution. And wow did I find one!!!

I tried 6 different alternatives that met my initial requirements of non-caustic, green, and effective. The winner was SIM Extreme Duty Lubricant (see the kit I bought and use here on Amazon). This stuff is amazing.

It’s a green product. It’s safe to handle. It’s not harmful to pets. And it works great! Not only does it remove corrosion and rust more effectively than anything else I’ve tried (including 3 in 1 oil), but it repels water and debris so is amazing at lubricating your sleeves.

I talk more about it in the YouTube video I made on exactly how to clean and maintenance your bar.

Step by step maintenance guide – with pictures!

Daily Maintenance

It’s a good idea, as previously noted, to wipe down your bar after every use. Use a microfibre towel that won’t leave lint or fuzzies behind on your bar.

Pro Tip… Use a cloth dedicated to daily bar care. Don’t use something that may have remnants of other things on it.

Regular Maintenance

See the table above for the frequency of care for your particular bar type, but in the end, you’ll know when you need to clean your bar!

Here’s a step by step guide of what to do when it’s time…

Step one – Find a clear area. Over a drop cloth or old towels is best.

Step twoDon’t clean your bar in your rack, you will drip oil below and it will cause a mess that’s very hard to clean up!

Step three – If you have some, use squeeze collars to support the bar, get it up off the floor, and hold it still for cleaning. This is the only thing I ever use squeeze collars for, see why here.

Squeeze collars work great to prop up your bar for cleaning! And that’s about all that they’re good for.

Step four – Starting with a nylon brush, scrub off all chalk, skin, blood, and other dry debris.

Step five – Give the bar a good wipe with a microfibre cloth.

Step six – If needed, and your bar is bare or stainless steel, you can move to a metal bristle brush. Use this as a last resort and make sure to use a brass brush as brass is a soft metal that is less likely to mark up or scratch your bar.

Step seven – Apply a coat of AIM Lubricant. I like to apply this coat with a separate, dedicated microfibre cloth. Apply liberally.

Apply liberally along the entire bar, rubbing it in with a cloth.

Step eight – Let the bar sit for 5-10 minutes. Allow the oil time to go to work on any existing rust or corrosion.

Step nine – Go back in with your brush (again, nylon is preferred for all but the most highly corroded bars) and scrub off any rust that has developed.

Step ten – If needed address the sleeves the same way you did the bar itself. I find that my sleeves need attention very rarely compared to the bar itself. If you live in high humidity or coastal environment, you may have a different experience.

Get the sleeves too

Step eleven – Wipe the bar down again with your cloth. The goal here is to leave the bar as clean as possible.

Step twelveWith a fresh, clean cloth, apply another thin layer of oil. Cover the entire bar as well as the sleeves.

Pro Tip… If you’ve used 3in1 oil, let the bar sit overnight. If using Aim Lubricant you can go straight to the next step.

Step thirteen – Take a cloth and wipe all the oil you can off of the bar. There will be an almost invisible layer left behind that will help protect your bar, but nothing that you should feel. The bar should not end up feeling slick or oily.

Step fourteen – Now it’s time to address your bushings/bearings. This may not be needed as often as you maintain the bar itself, but do this based on your current level of bar spin as compared to how well the bar spun when it was new.

Step fifteen – Stand the bar on end and apply a few drops to the bushing/bearing visible on the sleeve closest to the ground. Stand the bar on end and leave it for a few hours to overnight.

Pro Tip… A good way to do this is to stack 2-4 plates on the ground and insert the end of the bar into them vertically. This will securely hold your bar upright.

Step sixteen – Flip the bar over and repeat with the other sleeve. 

Pro Tip…We do it this way so the lubricant has time to seep down into the bearings/bushings. Adding oil to the bearings/bushings while the bar is horizontal ensures no lubricant will reach the inner parts of the sleeve.

Step seventeen – Now you are ready to set yet another PR, get in your gym and start training!!!

Restoring an old bare steel bar

If your budget only allowed a bare steel bar, or if you’ve found a gem hidden under years of rust at a local garage sale, you may find yourself needing to bring out the big guns when it comes to bar maintenance. Sometimes the above steps just won’t be enough.

If you find yourself in this situation, follow these steps and you’ll (in most cases) be able to turn that old rusty bar into something you can enjoyably use.

  1. Using a brass or even steel bristle brush, scrub as much debris and rust as possible from the bar.
  2. DIY a long trough to soak the bar in, or you can soak towels/paper towels in vinegar and wrap the bar with them.
  3. Soak the bar in vinegar overnight. This will remove many finishes, so it’s best to only do this with bare or stainless steel bars. It’s best to work with rubber gloves here as vinegar is acidic.
  4. Brush the bar again, cleaning the remaining rust off.
  5. Rinse the bar thoroughly with water.
  6. Rinse the bar again with a mixture of water and baking soda. This will neutralize any remaining acidity from the vinegar.
  7. Now maintenance the bar as outlined above in the section on regular maintenance.
  8. Make sure to well lubricate the bushing/bearing before use as directed above.
  9. Don’t ever let the bar get that bad again!

It may take a couple of tries. You may not get every speck of rust off. But you can bring back even the ugliest of bars to a finish that is great to look at and to fun to train with.

If you find yourself in possession of an old barbell (or have found a possible hidden gem buying used) that you’d like to restore, you may want to check out this Garage Gym Reviews video.

Coop does an amazing job of walking you through the process and in the spirit of full disclosure, I stole all of the above steps from this video!

Proper barbell use and storage

Daily cleaning and regular maintenance are just the beginning when it comes to making sure your barbell lasts a lifetime. How you use it and how you store it will also have a huge impact on its lifespan.

Pro Tip… Even the best barbells will deteriorate if not used or stored properly

It’s important to follow a few guidelines to keep your barbell in great shape. I’ve included a short version here, but see my complete guide to barbell storage here for everything you’ll need to know!

Smart barbell use tips

  1. Avoid metal on metal contact.
    1. Use J hooks that are completely protected with UHMW plastic
    2. When doing rack pulls use safety straps or UHMW safety arms
    3. Opt for safety straps instead of pins
    4. Cover your safety pins
    5. Avoid all metal gun racks (horizontal bar storage racks)
    6. Avoid vertical bar storage solutions if possible
  2. Don’t use spring collars, instead use LockJaws or OSO collars
  3. Use the landmine attachment carefully
    1. Protect the inserted end
    2. Never drop the empty end
    3. Don’t leave the bar in the attachment
  4. Never drop an empty bar
  5. Use a bar jack for deadlifts from the floor
  6. Don’t drop your bar onto safety pins, straps, or arms.

Smart barbell storage tips

tornado hooks
My bar storage solution
  1. Store your bars horizontally
    1. Avoid vertical storage solutions whenever possible
    2. If using vertical storage, pad the bottom or each tube
    3. Never drop the bar into a vertical storage device, be gentle!
    4. High-end needle bearing bars should always be stored horizontally
  2. Store bars higher not lower
    1. There is more humidity near the floor
    2. There is more dust and dirt near the floor
    3. It’s easier for kids to get to things when they are down low
  3. Never store a bar with weight on it
  4. Avoid all metal gun rack type storage
  5. Don’t prop bars up in a corner or against a wall, use something meant for barbell storage.

Summary

And there you have it! It might seem like a lot at first glance, but really it’s not. Just remember the 5 simple steps to barbell care:

  1. Wipe your barbell down after each use
  2. Clean your barbell regularly
  3. Perform regular maintenance that’s appropriate to your bar’s finish
  4. Don’t abuse or misuse your barbell
  5. Store your barbell properly

If you buy a nice barbell (and you should!), it only makes sense to take care of it. Do this and the first quality barbell you own could also easily be the last one you ever need to buy!

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