I thought buying a barbell was going to be easy. It’s a metal rod that holds weight, how hard could it be? Apparently a lot harder than I thought. Did I want a 28mm or 28.5mm shaft? Did I want bearings or bushings? What kind of knurling and knurl marks did I want? Which of the seemingly endless coatings should I buy?
And then they threw in the term “barbell whip”. No one seemed to want to define or measure it, but they certainly talked about it. And that led me to ask, “What the heck is barbell whip and should it matter to me?”
Barbell whip is a combination of how much and how easily a barbell will flex under load without permanently bending. The more whip a bar has, the more the load will shift with momentum. A highly skilled lifter uses bar whip to aid in their lifts while it is mostly unimportant to the average lifter.
The real question is what does this mean to those of us out to buy a barbell?
For that to make any sense, we need to start by defining some basic terms.
The tensile strength of a bar (measured in pounds per square inch or “psi”) is the amount of pressure that can be applied to a bar before it bends to a point that it cannot come back to its original shape. Barbell manufacturers test this by securing the ends of the barbell and then using a piston to press on the center and bend the bar.
They then release the piston and see if the bar returns to straight or if it stays bent to some degree. The rating they give the bar gives you an idea of how well the bar will perform under large loads. It is also a generally good indicator of how much repeated use the bar can stand up to. Finally, it will tell you how well a bar can stand up to the abuse of being dropped while loaded with weight.
In general, the higher the tensile strength the better. That said, if the tensile strength is too high, the bar will refuse to bend at all and instead will break or crack. This is not desirable. In the end, a balance between flex and strength is the goal. You want the bar to be able to flex but also to return to true.
To give you an idea of what these ratings look like, the Rogue Ohio bar (an extremely popular bar for home gyms) has a tensile strength of 205,000 psi. My recommended multi purpose barbell, the American Barbell California Bar, has a tensile strength of 190,000 psi. General recommendations are not to buy a bar under 165,000 psi. Anything over 180,000 psi is typically suitable for a home gym.
The yield strength of a bar, also measured in psi, is the amount of pressure at which the bar starts to bend. The lower this number is, the quicker a bar will start to flex under load.
Unfortunately, barbell manufacturers don’t usually disclose this number. Instead they will tell you if a bar is “stiff” or not. Another way they classify barbell yield is in telling you what type of lifting a particular bar is made for.
In short, this means basic compound barbell movements. Things like deadlifts, squats, and presses. If a bar is classified as a power lifting bar, it is typically a stiffer bar with a higher yield strength. Check out this guide over on Elite FTS for a much more complete explanation than I’m giving here.
For most people working out at home, these are the types of lifts most likely to be performed. They are safer and also easier to perform without a spotter.
Olympic lifting combines very technical barbell lifting with explosive movements. Things like the clean and jerk, power cleans, or snatches fall into this category. Bars classified as olympic lifting bars are typically more flexible and will have a lower yield strength. For a detailed look at what, exactly, Olympic lifting is see this very thorough description here on Wikipedia.
What is Barbell Whip?
Barbell whip is the difference between yield strength and tensile strength. The bigger the difference, the more whip a barbell has.
In other words, if a barbell starts to flex under load relatively easily but can handle a lot of weight before it bends permanently, it has a lot of whip. This means that if you lift a barbell with a lot of whip the weight on the bar will first cause it to bend and then the bar will fight to return to straight and bring the weight with it.
The weight on a high whip bar can be considered less stable as it moves because of the bar AND because of the lifter. This is wanted in some instances and absolutely not wanted in others.
Barbell whip allows the lifter to introduce momentum into their lifts that is caused by the bar, not by them. A skilled lifter can use the whip of a bar to help propel the weight upward. This is desirable in Olympic lifting. It is not desirable in much of power lifting (serious dead lifters may disagree). Someone doing a heavy press or squat does not want the weight moving on a flexing bar.
How is Barbell Whip measured?
It’s not. That’s the problem. There is no measurement for it. You will simply see bars described as having it or not. Sometimes, you will see people place the bar, unloaded, on the ground and kick it. They then look to see how much flex happens. This is not a good way to measure whip. If the bar has a high yield strength, kicking it won’t get it to bend. That same bar could have a very high tensile strength and still have a good amount of whip.
Yep, it gets confusing. I’ll try to fix that so read on.
Does Barbell whip matter to me?
The short answer here is most likely not. There are a lot of reasons for this. A big one is how much weight it takes for barbell whip to even have an impact on your lifting. Whip doesn’t even start to really show on a bar until it is loaded with 220 lbs (100 kg) or more. A large number of people who train at home will never load up that much weight for an Olympic lifting movement. It just won’t happen for most people.
Another important point is the type of training people are doing. Most people training at home are doing a mix of lifting. That means they need a good all around barbell (see my recommended gear page for what I think are the best options). All around, work horse, type bars won’t be classified as high or low whip bars. They will be somewhere in the middle. And this is where most people’s needs fall.
Lastly, some of the only people who need to worry about whip are those that are competing. These are the folks with a high enough skill level to make use of a whippy bar. Of course there are the hard core hobbyist lifter exceptions, but on the whole most of us would never see the benefit of a high whip bar anyway. Same goes for a pure, low whip, power lifting bar.
Of course, if you are loading up 800 lbs for a squat, you’ll want a very low whip bar. But if you are lifting that kind of weight, you already know that. For us normal humans, we won’t notice a difference between a pure power lifting bar and a good multi purpose training bar.
Who should care?
I don’t want to give the impression that it never matters, so let me clarify quickly…
If you are a pure power lifter and you are going to be lifting massive amounts of weight, you should look for a stiff bar with low whip. The bar you buy will be classified as a power lifting bar. Make sure you buy a nice one so that it stands up to the punishment you are about to dish out. The Power Bar by American Barbell would be a great choice.
If you are an Olympic lifter or Crossfitter and are going to be doing Olympic style lifting exclusively, you’ll want to add a high whip bar to your arsenal. It shouldn’t be your only bar, but you’ll want one when you are training for competition. The Performance Bearing bar by American Barbell is perfect for this application.
If you fall with the other 90% of us, you will want a solid, all purpose training bar. One that is neither super stiff nor super whippy. These will often be called “functional training bars”. This is what I use in my gym and I love it. To see what I own and recommend, check out my recommended gear page here.
Manipulating bar whip
There are two ways for bar manufacturers to manipulate bar whip aside from the tensile and yield strength of the metal they use for their bars. Bar diameter and length.
Normal bar diameter for an Olympic lifting bar is 28mm. Power lifting bars typically come in at 29mm. Functional training, all purpose bars are usually 28.5. This is directly related to desired bar whip. The thinner the bar, the more whip it will usually have.
Bar length also varies. The longer the bar, the further out from center the load is. That allows the weights to have more leverage on the bar and therefore flex it more easily. Longer bars are usually designed that way to have more whip.
Don’t go overboard
In the end, you’ll know if you need to worry about bar whip. You will be an experienced lifter who has begun to seriously specialize in the type of lifting you do. If this is not you, don’t worry about seeking out a certain amount of whip. If this is you, ask your coach before you buy your next bar. They will be your best resource for what to buy.
Also, please take all the YouTube reviews out there with a grain of salt. Each of those reviewers will have their own personal preferences and their own lifting specialty. Either that or they are just regurgitating what someone else told them. Buy the bar that’s right for you, not the one that’s right for them!
I can’t stress enough that if you are a normal human who just wants to work out at home, get a low to medium whip functional training bar. It will work great for you for years. It will also be the only bar you’ll need to buy.