If you are shopping for a new barbell, one of the options you’ll see is whether or not to get one with a center knurl. To many people, this option is confusing. What is a center barbell knurl? Why would you want one or not? Does it even matter?
A center barbell knurl helps prevent the bar from slipping on your back while squatting and also helps to align the bar properly when lifting. Traditional powerlifting movements tend to benefit from a center knurl, while Olympic lifting and CrossFit training do not.
Barbell Knurl and Why It’s Important
Barbell knurl provides grip on the bar. It usually only covers certain portions of the bar and is absent where it’s not needed. In other words, you’ll find knurling where you might grip the bar with your hands, and the bar is smooth where you don’t.
For the article you are reading now, the real question is why you might want knurling in the center of a barbell where you don’t normally grip the bar with your hands.
The Benefits of a Center Barbell Knurl
There are three primary benefits of having a knurl pattern etched at the center of a barbell.
- Squat grip. When back squatting (the bar is held across the back of your shoulders), a center knurl can help the bar grip your back. The benefit here is that it prevents the bar from slipping or shifting while you squat.
- Bar alignment. A center knurl can help make sure the bar is centered on your body during a number of different lifts.
- Suitcase holds. There are some movements (although not typically common) that require you to grip the bar at its center point. One such movement (that I do and love!) is the barbell suitcase hold. The loaded bar is held in a static position at your side with one hand and is done for time.
I think it’s important to point out that none of these three benefits are earth-shattering. Placing the bar higher up on your back during the back squat combined with a solid bracing technique will keep all but the heaviest bar in place. Bar alignment can be achieved with a small mark or piece of tape just as easily as a patch of knurling. And suitcase holds can be performed with heavy dumbbells or kettlebells instead of your barbell.
Personally, I only opt for bars with a center knurl as I do enjoy its benefits. I also almost exclusively recommend power bars for garage and basement gym owners (see why in my article here). Power bars always have a center knurling.
The Drawbacks of Center Barbell Knurl
With all of the above said, some situations don’t benefit from a center knurl.
- It’s uncomfortable on Olympic lifts. You probably won’t like a center knurl on your bar if you regularly perform the snatch or the clean & jerk. During these lifts, the center of the bar will rub across your chest, making a center knurl more uncomfortable than a bar without.
- It can be uncomfortable during a front rack. On front squats, you have the bar racked in front of you and touching your chest. For some, this can make the presence of a center knurl uncomfortable. I don’t find this to be the case at all, but many people do, so it bears mention.
- It can be uncomfortable if you lift without a shirt on. I’m torn on this one. On the one hand, yes, the knurl will irritate your back while squatting without a shirt. But on the other hand, I’ve found that a barbel with no knurl slips right off of sweaty skin and would never squat without a shirt in the first place.
I think that the benefits of a center knurl outweigh the drawbacks, but as you can see, it depends on the type of lifting you are doing. Plus, there is a lesser-known third option.
The Type of Center Knurling Matters
Most people shopping for a barbell see that getting a center knurl is an option. What they often don’t see is that there is a choice in the type of center knurl you get.
Some bars have a center knurl that is the same as the knurl pattern on the rest of the bar. Other barbells have a much more passive knurl in the center. This passive center knurling is the option that I prefer and recommend.
Most home gym owners are not exclusively Olympic lifting. 90%-95% of the movements we are doing in our home gyms are powerlifting movements (squat, press, deadlift).
With a passive center knurl (smoother and less rough to the touch), you get the best of both worlds. It will not irritate your skin but will still provide the grip and alignment benefits you want a center barbell knurl for.
This is one of my favorite features of my most recommended barbell, the stainless steel Rep Fitness power bar V2. This one bar can serve nearly all of your lifting needs. In my opinion, it’s much better to have one nice bar that can serve all of your needs instead of buying two cheaper bars, one with and one without a center knurl!
A Quick Guide to What Type of Center Knurl is Right For You
If you are a competitive Olympic lifter or competitive CrossFit athlete, go with a bar with no center knurl.
If you are a competitive powerlifter, or you squat very heavy (more than your bodyweight loaded on the bar), I’d recommend an aggressive center knurl that matches the rest of your bar.
For everyone else, which is pretty much everyone reading this article, I’d recommend a standard power bar (see why here) with a passive center knurl.
Quick Tip: If you have a bar with no center knurl, but want some of the benefits, take some cloth tape and wrap the center section of your bar. It’s not quite the same, but it’s certainly cheaper than buying another bar!
Part of the reason I built GymCrafter is to help make your equipment choices easier. I want you to spend your money on what matters and not waste it on what doesn’t.
In the end, while it’s something to consider, the center knurl isn’t that big of a deal. Yes, it has some benefits. But none of those benefits does you any good if you don’t first focus on the more critical aspects of buying the right bar for you.
To that end, make sure and check out my other articles on buying a barbell. They will help you pick a bar you’ll love. Whether that bar has a center knurl or not will be secondary to things like overall knurl type, bar type, bar spin, bar finish, etc.