How to Buy the Perfect Barbell For Your Home Gym

In Equip Your Gym, Guides by Tim Steward

Last updated on March 10th, 2021 at 02:36 pm

Even if you limit your search to Amazon and a few quality barbell manufacturers, there are easily over 100 different barbells to choose from. When putting together a home gym, it can be hard to figure out which one is right for you. Especially considering it’s one of the most important purchases you’ll make when it comes to weight training.

A barbell is what connects you to the weight you are lifting. Picking the right one can add immensely to your training. Picking the wrong one can be a waste of time and money. How do you decide which one is right for your home, garage, or basement gym? Read on! (if you just want the cheat sheet, check out my recommended barbells page here or you can check out the barbell that I use daily and highly recommend to anyone that asks.)

The best barbell for most home gym owners is an Olympic bar with 2″ diameter sleeves, medium depth knurl, a diameter of 28.5-29mm, a weight capacity of 700 lbs or more, and a stainless steel or hard chrome finish. A bar with these specs will be perfect for the average lifter and last them a lifetime.

Barbell end

What type of training will you be doing?

This is the first question to answer in your quest for the barbell that best suits you. Luckily it’s a pretty easy question to answer since there are basically 4 categories a lifter could fall into.

Average lifter

This category represents a good sized percentage of the people working out at home. It’s also the category I fall into. The average lifter is the person who just wants to keep in shape and lifts 2-3 times per week at home.

Movements the average lifter will perform most often:

  • Bench press
  • Overhead press
  • Row
  • Squat
  • Deadlift
  • Curl
  • Shrug
  • Tricep press

The average lifter simply needs a bar that works. Nothing fancy or expensive. It needs to hold the weights, be comfortable on their hands, and last a long time.

Powerlifter

This is the person who is working towards sheer strength and/or size by lifting heavy. Before the advent of CrossFit, this was the bulk of the lifters you’d find in a gym. A dedicated power lifter will train with heavy weight 3-6 times per week.

Movements a powerlifter will perform most often:

  • Deadlift
  • Squat
  • Bench Press

The powerlifter needs a solid, stiff bar that can take a good amount of use (and weight!). They have specific needs in several key areas of bar construction. They will usually need to spend a little more on their bar than the “average” lifter described above.

Olympic lifter

The Olympic lifter’s needs are similar to that of someone doing CrossFit style workouts. These folks are the hardest on their gear. Their plates and bars will take a significant beating. That’s because most lifts end with the loaded bar being dropped to the ground.

Movements an Olympic lifter or CrossFit athlete will perform most often:

  • Snatch*
  • Clean*
  • Jerk*
  • Deadlift*
  • Overhead press*
  • Front and Back squat
  • Overhead squat*

*The bar is usually dropped, not lowered, once these lifts are complete.

This type of lifter needs an extremely durable bar above all else. They also have specific needs when it comes to grip, whip (bar flexibility), and spin. Their needs are much different than that of the “average” or powerlifter.

I will also note that most Olympic lifters and CrossFit athletes will not like being classed together here. They usually use slightly different bars (see the end of this article for details) and there are differences in their skills, training, and lifts.

I’m not trying to offend anyone, but instead give a basic overview to help people determine the type of lifter they generally are.

Competitive lifter

Competitive lifter

The competitive lifter is probably not reading this article to help them pick a barbell. They will usually have a coach or trainer helping them select. It’s not out of the ordinary for a competitive lifter to have many different bars.

Each lift they compete in will have a dedicated bar. They’ll also have several specialty bars for individualized training needs.

For most of us, this is overkill. Sure it’s cool to have a rack full of barbells on the wall, but that’s an expensive rack. Worth it if you’re competing. Not at all worth it if you just want to get in a good workout a few times a week!

Which type of lifter are you?

Your first step in buying the right barbell is to determine which of the above types of lifter you are. Most people will easily be able to classify themselves.

For those that feel they fall into more than one category, I’d recommend leaning towards the one you do most. If it’s an equal split (let’s say you spend a couple days per week doing powerlifting and a couple doing Olympic lifts), then you may want to invest in two bars. Another solution is to go with a solid all purpose training bar.

In my experience, a vast majority of people training at home only need one good barbell. Keep in mind that you can do Olympic lifts with a powerlifting bar and vice versa. Don’t get too caught up in all the choices. Pick one and go train!

One last note when it comes to identifying the type of lifter you are. I’d recommend going with the type of lifting you aspire to be. In other words, if you fall into the “average” column now, but see yourself moving towards CrossFit workouts, then put yourself in that category.

The idea is to buy only one barbell if you can. Again, that’s all most people will ever need. If you think you might be doing Olympic lifts down the road, buy the right barbell for that. That bar will work great for you now and will grow with you down the road.

This is exactly why I went with a powerlifting bar. While I squarely fall into the “average” category, I can see myself wanting to push my squats, deadlifts, and presses down the road. I can also tell you with 100% certainty that I’ll never be doing any Olympic lifts.

Since I aspire to the powerlifting category, that’s how I classified myself when it came to buying a bar. I’m thrilled with my bar and I don’t see myself needing anything different or new down the road.

To see the barbell that I own as well as the bars I recommend for each category of lifter, check out my recommended barbells page here.

Do you need multiple bars?

As I noted above, some people may benefit from having multiple bars. If you do enough different types of lifting at home, it might not be a bad idea. If you’re a competitive lifter, it’s a necessity.

Barbell
One is all you need.

So what about all the people you see on YouTube with a wall full of bars? Is that really necessary? The short answer is probably not. I’ve said it a couple times already and I’ll say it again…

The vast majority of home gym owners only need one straight Olympic style barbell.

That said, there are a couple of specialty bars that I think can benefit quite a few of us that train at home. When I put together my garage gym, I knew up front that I’d be using a primary straight barbell along with two specific specialty bars.

I firmly believe that if you are going to spend time training every week, having the right tools for that training will benefit you greatly. When it comes to barbells, I wrote an entire article that you can see here explaining why I think you might want a total of three.

3 types of barbell

Here’s the short version. The 3 bars I think all home gyms should eventually have are:

  • Straight bar
  • Trap bar
  • Curl bar

This article is strictly about the Olympic straight bar, but I have articles on the other two if you’re interested.

Click here to read about the trap bar.
Click here to read about the EZ curl bar.

What is an “Olympic” bar?

Now that you know the type of lifting you’re buying a bar for, it’s time to get a basic grasp on bar construction and terminology. A great place to start is the term “Olympic”.

In reference to the barbell, the term “Olympic” does not mean you’ll be using it for Olympic lifts. For the purposes of this article and in helping you select the right bar, it simply refers to the size of the sleeves.

An Olympic bar has 2” diameter sleeves. That’s the ends of the bar where the weights slide on. This is as opposed to a standard barbell where the entire bar is the same diameter.

A standard bar is typically just over an inch in diameter across its entire length. These are the bars that most of us got as kids. It’s what you’ll find all over Craig’s List, Ebay, and your local garage sales. It’s what I got for Christmas in a set from Sears one year a loooong time ago!

A standard bar is NOT what you want for your garage gym. That means the first decision when shopping for a new bar is easy. Eliminate ALL standard barbells. Only look at Olympic bars with 2” diameter sleeves.

What’s your budget?

Piggy Bank

Before we get too deep into the different barbells that are available to you, let’s take a quick minute to talk about your budget.

Something I don’t like about a lot of the people I see online with a wall full of barbells is that many of them tell you that you need to up your budget to get a “good” bar. That’s simply not the case.

Now, you can’t go super cheap. But you can go low priced and still get a great bar. You can get a very good all purpose Olympic bar for a surprisingly low price (see one I really like on Amazon by clicking here). Good quality powerlifting bars start at about $250. For CrossFit and Olympic lifting, expect to be at $300 or more.

Unless you are competing, you absolutely don’t need to spend $400, $500, or even $1000 on your bar!!! To spend that much on a bar is a complete waste of money for most home gym enthusiasts.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying to avoid those price points. There are some really amazing bars out there and if you have the money, you’ll enjoy owning them. I’m simply saying that if money is tight, you don’t have to.

I also want to point out where your bar is going…. It’s going in your home where you and maybe your significant other will use it. It’s not going into a CrossFit box or a commercial gym. This detail is really important!

When you look at barbells over on the Rogue Fitness site, keep in mind that almost all of those bars are designed to go into a commercial gym. They are built to take use and abuse that you’ll never impart in a lifetime of basement workouts.

In one month, a bar in a CrossFit box will see use that you’ll never give it in a lifetime of training. Not to mention commercial gym goers don’t take care of the equipment. Bars built for these environments are overkill for your home use.

Not only will you never approach the volume of commercial gyms, you will also take care of your bar. Those two things mean that lower priced bars are absolutely perfect for our home gyms.

Barbell on back
It will just be you and your bar, don’t over buy.

I’ve owned $500+ bars. They are nice. But they are no nicer or more functional than the $250 bar I own and use now (*update – since writing this article, I still own and occasionally use that bar, but most of my training is now done with this stainless steel bar from Rep Fitness. I’d be hard-pressed to recommend anything else to 99% of the home gym athletes out there). Keep this in mind when you are shopping for your bar.

In fact, I don’t think there is a better place to buy an incredibly well built, reasonably priced barbell than American Barbell. Of all the bars I’ve used (and that’s a lot), these guys are my go to for every possible barbell need! Give them a visit, you won’t be disappointed!

Basic barbell construction

In order to pick a barbell that you’ll love and use for years, it’s important to have a general knowledge of the anatomy of a barbell. Knowing basic barbell construction will help you match up the bars you are looking at with both your type of lifting and your budget.

Dimensions

MEN’S BARS

  • Length – 2.2 meters (7.2 feet / 86 in)
  • Weight – 20 kg / 44.1 lbs or 45 lbs
  • Diameter – 28, 28.5, or 29 mm
  • Sleeve diameter – 2 in / 50 mm

WOMEN’S BARS

  • Length – 6.5 feet
  • Weight – 15 kg / 33 lbs
  • Diameter – 25 mm
  • Sleeve diameter – 2 in / 50 mm

When looking at the diameter of the bar, you’ll typically see bars listed at 28mm, 28.5mm, and 29mm. While it might seem like a small difference, it’s not. The diameter of the bar impacts its stiffness, otherwise known as whip.

A smaller diameter bar gives the bar more whip. You’ll find this on dedicated deadlifting bars along with Olympic lifting bars. A larger diameter bar makes the bar more rigid and better suited for powerlifting. Click here to see my article on bar whip for a full explanation.

Material

Universally, barbells are made from high tensile strength steel. Tensile strength will range anywhere from 125,000 psi to 200,000 psi and over. You’ll hear different people give differing opinions on what strength is the best.

In general, a budget bar will be on the lower end of that spectrum and isn’t meant for massive amounts of weight (think sticking to 350 lbs or less as a general rule for low tensile strength bars). Nicer bars will be in the 180,000+ PSI category with the highest end bars coming in at 210,000 PSI or so.

Whip

A function of the bar diameter, length, tensile strength, and something called “yield strength”, whip basically describes how flexible a bar is while still being able to return to straight. I wrote an article giving a full explanation that you can read here.

Olympic lifts and deadlifts can benefit from a bar with more whip. Powerlifting is better served with a stiff bar. CrossFit bars usually fall somewhere in between.

There is no standardized way to measure whip and it often comes down to preference with different lifters. For those of us buying a single bar for home training, there are many other factors that will be more important and noticeable than bar whip. In fact, for the majority of home lifters, whip will not be a consideration at all.

Knurling

Knurling is the cross hatched area etched into the bar itself. It’s where we grip the bar and is a big part of deciding on the right bar for your gym.

Bar knurl examples
Different knurl patterns and ring locations.

The first aspect of knurling to notice is how aggressive it is. I would rely on reviews for this and not the description written by the bar manufacturer. A “medium” knurl as described by Rogue is a world apart from the “medium” knurl as described by American Barbell.

Basically, the more aggressive the knurling, the sharper and harder on your hands the bar will be. To some extent a more aggressive knurl can assist in grip. That can come at the expense of the skin on your fingers and palms.

Likewise, a passive knurl will be easier on your hands, but will not provide much grip. For most, a medium knurl is the most desirable. Many companies don’t give a choice in this category. They have predetermined what they feel is the best for each type of bar. Some companies simply use the same knurl on all of their bars.

Knurl ring on barbell
Knurl ring

Another aspect of knurling that will be important to your bar selection is knurl placement and rings.

Knurl rings are smooth rings in the knurling that guide your hand placement for different types of lifts. There are typically two types of rings found on barbells… powerlifting rings (standardized at roughly 32″ (exactly 810 mm) apart by the IPF) and Olympic lifting rings (standardized at roughly 36″ (exactly 910 mm) apart by the IWF).

Bars can have one, the other, or sometimes both. These rings help the lifter maintain consistent hand placement from lift to lift.

Lastly is the center knurl. Some bars (typically the multi purpose and Olympic lifting bars) have no center knurl. This is so that as the bar rubs on the body in lifts like cleans or deadlifts, only the smooth portion of the bar rubs against the skin. This prevents scrapes and scuffs.

Powerlifting bars will usually have a center knurl. This allows the bar to have traction and stay in place on both front and back squats. This is a nice feature to have when there are a few hundred pounds resting on your back.

To see an in depth guide to picking the perfect knurling for your bar, check out my article on barbell knurl here.

Sleeves

Sleeves are the 2 inch diameter portion of the bar you’ll find on either end. It’s where you load the weight plates. How the sleeves are mounted on the bar plays a role in which bar is right for your type of lifting.

All good bars have sleeves that spin. This is important as the spin helps the bar rotate through space as you lift. The spin keeps the weights themselves from rotating and spinning the bar in your hands. It’s both a functional and a safety feature.

The spin of the sleeves is determined by how the sleeves attach to the bar. Some bars use bushing of different materials to allow the sleeves to spin. Other bars, those with much higher spin, use needle bearings.

Olympic type lifting benefits from a lot of spin. As the loaded bar is moved aggressively through space, it’s beneficial for the sleeves to spin easily. Spinning weights could impart inertia that would be dangerous to the lifter.

Powerlifting bars typically have less spin. If the plates rotate too easily, the bar can feel unstable on lifts like the bench or overhead press.

How easily the sleeves spin is another factor that’s much more important when lifting heavier weights. An average home gym owner may never actually notice the difference between a bar with bushings or bearings.

Let your type of lifting, along with how much weight you can move, be your guide. The more weight you are moving, the more this will matter to you.

Bar sleeve and bushing
Bar sleeve with bushing

Bar finishes

Let’s be honest. We want our bar to look awesome. Some people like the gritty look of a black barbell. Others like the shine of hard chrome. Still others may prefer a more colorful bar.

Regardless of your preference, it comes with a corresponding price difference and level of durability. Here is a quick listing of the most common bar finishes in relative price order from low to high…

Decorative Chrome

Not desirable, but pretty. Looks nice for a while, but will chip and crack easily. Once worn, the bare steel underneath will corrode quickly. I’d stay away from bars with this finish. This is the primary coating you’ll find on low priced bars across the internet. Buyer beware.

Black Oxide

Looks cool for sure. It also carries a lower price point when compared to other finishes. The black will wear over time and the bar will require regular maintenance to keep it looking nice. While I love the look, I don’t love how it looks after regular use. That said, it’s a viable finish that will get you a great bar at a great price.

Black Zinc

Want a black bar that wears better than black oxide? Enter black zinc. Zinc is a more durable coating and will wear much better than black oxide. It’s a step up in price, but if you want a black bar whose color lasts longer, this is a good choice. My curl bar is a black zinc coated bar from Fringe Sports that I think looks amazing. I’m very happy with this coating over some of the black oxide stuff I’ve had in the past!

Bright Zinc

Same as black zinc, but shiny and bright. Still reasonably priced and will maintain its luster over time with care. It will eventually wear, but it should give you years of use before it does.

Hard chrome barbell sleeve
A hard chrome sleeve.

Hard Chrome

This is the sweet spot in my opinion. No, it’s not black (I wish it was, that would be awesome!), but it’s a durable coating that will last a very long time. It’s not highly corrosion resistant (although all barbells require regular cleaning and care, regardless of the finish), but it’s no slouch in that department either.

That said, it will not crack or peel over time. With care it will look great for years. Regardless of the shaft material, many barbells will use hard chrome on the sleeves purely for durability reasons.

Stainless Steel

It’s very hard to make a great bar out of stainless steel. It’s also very expensive. Stainless steel bars are highly corrosion resistant in all but the most humid or salty atmospheres.

There are different grades of stainless steel, so beware the cheap stainless bar. That said, my primary bar is now a Rep Fitness stainless steel power bar. It’s stainless end to end and an amazing bar at an amazingly good price. I can’t recommend it highly enough! You can check current pricing and availability here on the Rep website.

If corrosion resistance is a primary concern, stainless bars are a great choice. You’ll be happy you spent the extra dollars, especially when your bar looks brand new years into its life.

Cerakote

A coating pioneered for firearms, Cerakote is the most durable of all barbell coatings. It can take an absolute beating, will most likely never corrode or rust, and has a desirable grip to it that makes it perfect for coating barbells.

In addition to its durability properties, Cerakote comes in as many colors as you can think of. Want a bright green bar? Cerakote is the answer. How about orange? Yep, Cerakote.

At the time I’m writing this, only two companies are producing quality Cerakote bars. Of the two, I think American Barbell is the far superior choice. They’ve been making bars much longer than most other companies and have pioneered many barbell innovations. This includes being the first to use Cerakote on a bar.

Cerakote colors
American Barbell Cerakote colors

If price was not a limiting factor, I’d always opt for this option. I’d go with a black Cerakote bar every time if the budget allowed. Alas, for me it does not, but it could very well be the perfect choice of bar finish for you. It’s available in all types of bars, so if you think you’d like the benefits of this finish, go for it!!!

What determines a bar’s price?

As I noted at the beginning of this article, you have well over 100 different bars to choose from. Some are very cheap and some very expensive. Why the big difference?

In a word, build quality. The quality of steel makes a big impact. So does the quality of the welds, bearings, knurl, and sleeves. Barbells take a beating and build quality matters. A lot.

The finish is another big factor in bar price. Cerakote can cost double to triple what black oxide does. Is it worth it? Yes. Does that mean you have to buy a Cerakote bar? No.

A function of both build quality and finish is longevity. How long do you want the bar to last? With care, even a budget priced bar can last a long time. With that same care, a great bar will last you a lifetime.

Types of bars available

Luckily, the bar manufacturers have tried to make things at least a little easier for us. When it comes to a traditional straight Olympic barbell, they really only make 4 types.

CAP Barbell OB86
This is a great budget bar

Budget bars

Most of these are a waste of money, but there is one that stands out (click here to see my recommended bars page for details). If you go this route (and it’s not a bad choice if this is all that’s in the budget), you won’t have any choices as to bar diameter, knurl, rings, sleeve spin, or finish.

While you don’t get a lot of choices, the good news is you can still get a really nice, functional bar that will serve your home gym well!

Powerlifting bars

As the name implies, these are built for powerlifting. They are usually a larger diameter bar and will typically have a center knurl. Knurl marks will be spaced for powerlifting and can be more aggressive. Sleeves will typically spin slower on power bars.

Olympic lifting bars

Built for the Olympic lifts, these bars are a smaller diameter and more flexible (aka “whippy”). They will lack a center knurl and the knurl marks will be spaced for Olympic lifting. The knurl may be more medium to passive here. Sleeves on this type of bar will typically spin faster and more freely.

Functional training bars (aka CrossFit bars)

Rogue owns the rights to labelling things as “CrossFit”, so the rest of the bar manufacturers call this type of bar a “functional training” or “multi purpose” bar.

These bars bear a lot in common with dedicated Olympic lifting bars with a couple of exceptions. They will have a medium whip and their collars won’t spin as fast.

In other words, they fall somewhere in between power bars and Olympic lifting bars. In fact, many bars of this type have both Olympic and Powerlifting knurl rings.

Competition bars

These are expensive and lift specific. If you need one of these types of bars, you already know it. If you aren’t competing, these are big time overkill in a home gym!

The choice is yours

Now you hopefully have all the facts you need to choose the right barbell for your home gym. Even though this was a long article, it really boils down to a few basic steps.

  • Determine the type of lifting you do.
  • Pick a bar suited to that type of lifting.
  • Select a finish that meets your needs and budget.

That’s it! If you still need some suggestions, I’ve tried and tested a ton of different bars made by almost every manufacturer out there. Check out my recommended barbell page to see what I own and use as well as what I recommend for those with different needs than myself.

Enjoy your new bar and happy training!!!

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