Last updated on July 3rd, 2023 at 10:05 am
One of the most difficult things about buying a barbell is finding the right knurl for you and your training style. There are almost no stores that stock the better barbells you should choose from, so trying them out in person is usually not an option.
This leaves you with descriptions and reviews online. To be honest, most of those aren’t helpful in explaining barbell knurl or in helping us pick something out that is best for us.
So let’s try to fix that! In this article, I’ll walk you through what barbell knurl is, why it’s important, and how to pick the right barbell knurl for you. Let’s start with a quick definition.
Barbell knurling is the part of an Olympic barbell that has been etched out in a diamond-shaped pattern designed to increase the amount of grip you can achieve on your barbell. Different types of barbell knurling are available for different types of bars and lifters.
Why does barbell knurling matter?
When you are training with a barbell regularly, you’ll find that there are two things that become very important very fast.
The first is the amount of grip you can get on your bar. The more you lift, the more important this will become. While mildly important on pressing exercises, it’s vitally important on pulling movements.
Deadlifts and rows can only be effectively performed if you can get a good grip on your bar. Trying to pick up hundreds of pounds of weight only to have the bar slip out of your hands is not only ineffective but also very dangerous!
The second important factor is how comfortable the bar is to use.
There is a fine line between a knurl that gives great grip and one that simply grates the skin off of your hands like a cheap cheese grater!
Finding the right balance of grip and comfort is key when selecting your Olympic barbell. This is especially important considering that most of you reading this article will only buy one bar.
While some lifters (myself included) have different bars for different applications, most home gym owners want to buy one great bar that they can use for everything. When this is the goal, I can think of few more important qualities than getting the appropriate barbell knurling.
Types of Barbell Knurling
This is where shopping online can get confusing. Most sites refer to their knurling as either “passive” or “aggressive”. And no, that doesn’t mean that your bar has some type of psychological issue!
Other sites may describe knurling as either “fine” or “coarse”. Now we’ve moved from psychological issues to types of grated cheese!
Still other sites will describe the actual shape of the knurl using terms like “mountain” or “volcano”. While these descriptions turn out to be the most useful, they still aren’t helpful to the uninitiated.
The best way to explain this would be to put each of these types of knurling in your hands so you can feel the difference. Since we can’t do that, let’s look at some pictures.
Passive Knurl vs Aggressive Knurl
Knurling is applied by cutting grooves into the bar in a crosshatched pattern. The depth of that results in little diamonds that are either flat on top or pointy. The more pointy, or sharp, those little diamonds are, the more aggressive the knurl is considered.
If a knurl is too passive, those flat-topped diamonds don’t provide any grip at all. The image below of a Titan multi-grip bar shows this taken to an extreme. The knurling here is basically useless as it provides almost no grip.
If a knurl is too aggressive, those little diamonds can literally cut into your hand. The image below is of the Rep Fitness Power Bar EX. It is an extremely aggressively knurled bar. Without a good level of callous on your hands, this bar would be painful to lift with.
Fine knurl vs coarse knurl
It’s not just how flat or sharp those little diamonds are that creates friction between your hand and the bar. Another factor that plays a huge role is how many of those diamonds there are and how they are spaced.
The more diamonds there are and the closer they are together, the more contact points the bar has with your hand. Some barbell manufacturers use this fact to create more grip without having to resort to overly aggressive and sharp knurling.
The bar shown below is a Grizzly Power bar by American Barbell. It’s one of my favorite bars and the knurl is a big reason for that. The knurling is not overly sharp or aggressive, but it is finely spaced. The grip on this bar is perfect for most home gym owners and it’s easy on their hands at the same time.
A coarse knurl pattern means there are fewer little diamonds and they are spaced further apart. This almost never works out well. Fewer contact points with your hand, regardless of how sharp they are, create less grip, not more.
Also, when you combine a coarse knurling pattern with an aggressive knurl the result is pain and possibly injury. This combination, in my opinion, is never a good choice.
Types of knurl by shape
The first person I ever heard using these descriptions was Coop of the Garage Gym Reviews YouTube channel. Combined with the images he has on his site, they are a good way to describe knurling you can’t actually lay your hands on before buying.
I will say that they don’t always relay how comfortable or grippy a knurl pattern is. They describe the shape of the knurl, but they don’t take into account how fine the knurl is, how sharp the remaining edges are, or several other factors.
Here’s a quick rundown of the 3 knurl types Coop describes along with images of them from my barbell collection.
This is the most passive knurl shape. The tops of the etched diamonds in this knurl pattern are flat and the grooves between them are typically smooth-edged and shallow. I’m not a fan of this type of knurling at all and don’t recommend it for a barbell.
This is the opposite of Hill. It’s when the knurl pattern leaves very sharp peaks. It’s the most aggressive knurl and what you saw in the Rep Power Bar EX I referenced above and is pictured here.
This is a very popular knurl type and probably one of the best for all-around bars. Basically, a mountain pattern is grooved into the bar and then the sharp tops of those mountains are taken off leaving a concave spot on top of each peak.
This takes the aggressive edge off of the knurl and significantly increases the number of contact points the knurl has with your hand. Volcano patterns can still be very passive or very aggressive depending on point spacing and how the tops are ground off those mountains.
The image above is of a Rogue bar. Rogue is known for using a semi-aggressive volcano knurl. I’m not personally a fan of their bar for a variety of reasons, but the aggressiveness of their knurl pattern is one of them.
What actually creates grip?
While it’s nice to know all that about knurling, what’s important in the end is that your barbell has a good grip without destroying your hands. There are a few things that go into that.
The knurling that tends to be the best for a multipurpose barbell is a volcano type knurl that is finely spaced and not overly sharp.
Having a finely spaced knurl provides more contact points with your hand. This allows the barbell manufacturer to be able to apply a slightly smoother finish to the top of the knurling and still get a great grip out of the bar.
That slightly smoother finish (and I hesitate to use the word smooth, as it will still be sharp, just not sharp enough to take your skin off easily) will be much easier on your hands.
The best example I know of this type of knurl is the knurling on the American Barbell bars. They’ve been making barbells longer than most other companies have been in business and those years of experience are apparent when you get one of their bars.
That doesn’t mean other people don’t do a good job because they do. I just think that for the average home gym owner, the American Barbell knurl is just about perfect.
Coming in a close second would be the bars from Rep Fitness. And for those of you that want something more aggressive and have some durable callouses on your hands to tolerate it, Rogue is known to have a solid knurl pattern.
Knurl placement and markings
Once you know the type of knurl you are after, you’ll want to decide where on the bar it is located and how it is marked. Most bars are relatively similar and for home gym owners it won’t matter much, but it does bear touching on.
Knurl rings are smooth rings that appear on the barbell knurling. They are placed there to aid hand placement for competitive lifting. These rings ensure that lifters are competing on an even playing field when it comes to where they are allowed to grip the bar.
They also come in handy in home gyms so that you can standardize your grip on the bar for various lifts. Here the actual spacing and type are much less important. What’s important is that you have at least one set.
There are two general placements for knurl rings. Olympic lifting ring spacing is standardized by the International Weightlifting Federation and is 36″ (910mm) apart. Powerlifting ring spacing is standardized by the International Powerlifting Federation and is 32″ (813mm) apart.
I recommend you get a bar with rings of some kind, but unless you are competing, it absolutely doesn’t matter which you get. Some bars even offer multiple rings on the same bar.
I wrote an extensive article on how to pick the right barbell for your home gym that you can read here. There I break down the differences that will matter to you when selecting a bar. For the purposes of this article, rings are good and we’ll leave it at that.
The big consideration here is whether or not you want a bar with a center knurl. All bars will have knurling where you naturally grip them. Most bars will then have a smooth area in the middle that allows for deadlifting without dragging the rough, knurled surface up the front of your legs.
This smooth area also comes into play for those doing certain Olympic style lifts (also popular in CrossFit). In the very center of the bar, some bars have another section of knurling and others don’t.
This center knurl is most helpful when doing back squats. That knurl grips your back where the bar rests and helps it to stay safely in place. I recommend that unless you are doing a ton of CrossFit or Olympic lifting at home, always go for a center knurl.
Squatting without a center knurl just doesn’t work all that well in my opinion. And since squatting will be a foundational movement pattern for anyone training with a barbell at home, a center knurl is a must.
Outside of the standard knurl placement seen on most power bars, you will find a lot of specialty bars with a variety of different knurl patterns and placements. I wouldn’t bother with these unless you are truly buying a specialty bar.
For your primary bar (and for most of you, your only bar), go with standard knurl placement and a center knurl.
I hesitated to put this in, but it’s something I look at almost immediately on every bar I ever try or buy. It’s also one of the fastest ways to tell if you bought a quality barbell or not.
Knurl termination is the part of the knurl where the knurl pattern meets the unknurled section of the bar. The better the manufacturer, the cleaner this is.
This is a fit and finish thing only and has no bearing on the function of a barbell. Having clean terminations typically costs more, so it’s often something that less expensive bars will forgo.
Again, this has nothing to do with how well your bar works. But it’s something that bugs me when I see it and I will for sure pay more for a bar with a cleaner look.
Which knurl is right for you?
For the majority of the people reading this, you will only ever have one barbell. That means that your bar has to be relatively good at most things, including grip.
In any single barbell home gym, I recommend a barbell knurl that is neither passive nor aggressive. Somewhere in the middle is perfect. A volcano style knurl that is finely spaced is ideal.
A center knurl and at least one set of knurl marks/rings will also be important.
I also recommend buying a nicer barbell if your budget allows. All of the bars on my recommended barbell page have really great knurling that’s appropriate for most home gym owners.
If you have heavily calloused hands, have trouble with the bar slipping out of your hands, or want a second bar for select lifts, a more aggressive knurl would be appropriate for this type of lifting.
Other ways to improve grip
The purpose of barbell knurl is to improve your grip on the bar. Here’s a quick rundown of other ways you can do this.
- Barbell finish matters. Raw steel or stainless steel will have a better grip than other finishes when the knurl pattern is the same.
- Gloves. I’m not a fan (but if I was to buy them, I like these you can see over on Amazon), but many people are. In addition to keeping your hands callous free, a good set of lifting gloves can help with grip too.
- Chalk. Sweat is the enemy of grip. Chalk soaks up sweat and improves grip. It’s also messy, so maybe try the next one instead.
- Liquid chalk. All the benefits of chalk without the mess. Interesting stuff and will for sure aid in gripping the barbell.
- A towel. Wipe your hands and the bar dry between sets. Common sense? Yes. So why do so few people do this?
- Lifting straps (no need for anything fancy, I’ve used these I bought on Amazon for years and love them). Regardless of whether or not you think these should be used, they do give you a better grip on the bar.
- Improved grip strength. There’s just no substitute for this one. Getting stronger is a great solution for lots of problems and a lack of grip on a barbell is one of them.
In the end, while all of those things may help, there is not substitute for buying a nice bar with good grip to start with. Of all of the things you could go cheap on in your home gym, your bar and bench are the two you really don’t want to do that with.
Cheap bars will have lots of issues you’ll be unhappy with and knurling is one of them. Spend a few extra bucks and go for a nice bar. It will have knurl that works really well for you and it will last you a lifetime!
Yes! Make sure to wipe it down after each day of training. If you use chalk, it’s a good idea to use a stiff-bristled brush to clean it all off when you are done training for the day.
Chalk and other debris, when left in the knurling, will absorb moisture and cause corrosion on your bar.
Yes! The best grip for any knurl pattern is found on bare steel or stainless steel bars. That’s because neither of these finishes uses a coating or applied finish of any kind. Your hand touches the bare bar material.
When a finish is applied (chrome, zinc, Cerakote, etc), that material fills in the small gaps cut into the knurl pattern. This, in turn, reduces the grip of the knurl.
I hear this from a lot of home gym owners that buy a bar from Rogue. Rogue knurling is great if you are an experienced lifter and have built up a good level of callouses on your hands.
If you haven’t, the semi-aggressive knurl found on bars like those from Rogue can cause some pain while lifting.
The solution for most will be to suffer through until you get used to it. You will adapt. It just might take some time. Go slower at first and build up your tolerance.
You could also sell your bar or keep it for use as a specialty bar. Then get a primary bar for everyday use that has a more passive knurl. Almost anything on my recommended barbell page will fit this bill.