When selecting a barbell for your garage or basement gym, you’ll typically end up choosing between two basic categories: Power bars and Olympic weightlifting bars. Knowing the differences and which will work better for you is important for many reasons.
The best type of barbell for most basement and garage gym owners is a power bar. It’s well suited for almost every type of lift and can serve as the only bar you’ll need in your gym. Olympic weightlifting bars are much more specialized and only suitable for people doing very specific types of movements.
A note on the word “Olympic.”
The term “Olympic barbell” specifically refers to the diameter of the sleeve on the ends of the bar where the weights are mounted. An “Olympic” barbell has 1.96″ (50mm) diameter sleeves.
This terminology is used to differentiate from a “standard” barbell where the ends of the bar are only 1″ in diameter. Standard bars are not recommended and therefore are very limited in their availability.
“Olympic barbell” is a term that can be used to describe both power bars and Olympic weightlifting bars. When you are shopping for your barbell, knowing this will help make sure you consider all the appropriate options for you.
In other words, don’t get thrown off when you see the term “Olympic power bar.” This simply means you are looking at a power bar that has 50mm diameter sleeves.
Key Features of a Power Bar
A “power bar” is a barbell designed for the basic movements involved in powerlifting. These are the bench press, deadlift, and squat. These three movements inform every design feature found on most power bars.
The key features you’ll find on a power bar are:
- Low “whip” (see my full explanation of this term here). Basically, power bars are more rigid and flex less. Bar rigidity is caused by a combination of the steel’s tensile strength and the diameter of the bar. Since 95% or more of home gym owners are not lifting heavy enough for this spec to make a difference, it’s not all that important.
- 29mm or larger shaft diameter. Occasionally you’ll see power bars at 28.5mm, but never smaller. This larger diameter adds to the bar’s stiffness and makes it easier to grip in some cases.
- More aggressive knurling (see my complete guide on barbell knurl here). Just how aggressive will depend on the bar you buy, but on the whole, powerlifting movements require more grip from the bar and the aggressive knurl on power bars helps with this.
- Center knurl. Having a section of knurling at the center of the bar allows for both bar alignment and bar stability/grip when doing squats. The knurl will grab onto your back where the bar sits and help prevent it from slipping or moving around.
- Knurl rings are 32″ apart. This is a standardized distance determined by the IPF (International Powerlifting Federation). Knurl rings are smooth rings that appear within the knurling on either side of a barbell and help to align your grip. Unless you are competing, the distance between the rings won’t matter to you at all.
- Bushings for sleeve spin. Bushings will allow the bar sleeves to spin freely, but not nearly as much as the bearings found in Olympic bars. It’s critical in any type of lifting that the sleeve rotates freely. That prevents the weights from spinning the bar in your hand and causing you to lose your grip. It’s an important safety feature. Since powerlifting doesn’t involve overly explosive movements, a moderate bar spin works great, and bearings aren’t needed.
Key Features of an Olympic Weightlifting Bar
An Olympic weightlifting bar is designed for the basic movements involved in Olympic weightlifting. Those movements are the snatch and the clean and jerk. The features of an Olympic weightlifting bar are designed to aid in those two Olympic weightlifting events.
The features you’ll find on an Olympic weightlifting bar are:
- High “whip.” Whip can help an expert lifter lift more weight by using the bar’s flex to aid in the initial pull and momentum of the lift. Most home gym owners will never notice the whip of their bar. For a full explanation of bar whip, see my article here.
- 28mm shaft diameter. This smaller diameter adds whip to the bar.
- More passive knurling. Because Olympic lifting requires fast, aggressive movements, a less aggressive knurl allows the bar to move in your hand without taking a layer of skin off with it. This reduces the overall grip of the bar and is a trade-off.
- No center knurl. Because the bar will rest on and move across the chest during the clean and jerk, a center knurl tends to cause discomfort and chafing. For this reason, most Olympic weightlifting bars have no center knurl.
- Knurl rings 36″ apart. This is a standardized measurement determined by the IWF (International Weightlifting Federation). If you are competing, you’ll want your bar to match this, so the bars you use in competition will match. If you aren’t competing, the actual distance between the rings doesn’t matter.
- Bearings for sleeve spin. Because of the explosive nature of Olympic weightlifting, it’s desirable to have the bar sleeves spin effortlessly. This is where bearings come in. They allow much freer spin than bushings. They also add significantly to the price of the barbell.
Why a Power Bar is the Best Choice for Most Garage and Basement Gym Owners.
Olympic weightlifting movements (and by default, many CrossFit workouts) are highly technical. They require a good deal of coaching to do them safely.
So much so that many professional Olympic lifters spend the first several years of their lifting careers using unloaded PVC pipe instead of a barbell. This allows them to dial in their form precisely so that they reduce the risk of injury and can lift more weight safely when they move to using a loaded barbell.
For this reason, Olympic (and CrossFit style) lifting is not recommended for most home gym owners. Sure, there are those of you out there with the proper training and experience. But you are in the minority.
In addition to that, powerlifting movements provide a much broader foundation of strength and fitness than Olympic lifts do. Getting into your garage or basement gym and getting good at pressing, pulling, deadlifting, and squatting will net you much more significant results and strength than virtually any other option.
When paired with a power rack (see my complete guide to picking your ideal rack here and check out my recommended racks here), powerlifting is a much safer option for those training at home.
Because powerlifting is more effective and safer, using a power bar as your primary barbell makes sense. It should be the first bar you buy for your garage or basement gym. It will often be the only bar you ever need to buy as well!
My favorite Power Bar
You can see my complete list of recommended bars here, but I always recommend the one I use myself when it comes to power bars. The stainless steel power bar V2 by Rep Fitness. It’s the bar I reach for during every workout, and I absolutely love it!
If you are putting together your home gym, I can think of almost no situation where a power bar isn’t the right bar to build your gym around.
And remember, your barbell is what connects you to the weight you are lifting. It’s one of the few things you actually touch while training. So don’t go cheap. If you buy one well-made power bar (and take care of it), it will last you a lifetime and will be the only bar you’ll ever need!
Should I buy more than one barbell for my garage gym?
Start with a quality power bar and go from there. Most people find that this is all they need, even if at first they think they’ll need multiple bars. If you find over time that your power bar simply isn’t doing something you need it to, then it’s time to look at adding to your bar collection.
How much does a “good” powerlifting barbell cost?
If you stick between the $300 and $500 price point, you can get an excellent bar that will last virtually forever. I don’t recommend bars under $200 if you can avoid it and bars between $200 and $300 need close scrutiny before purchase. Some are quite good and many are mediocre at best.
Should you have both a power bar and an Olympic weightlifting bar?
If you are doing both types of lifting, yes. If not (and that is the case for almost everyone who will be reading this article), then no. You are much better off taking the money you’d spend on a second barbell and investing it in a great bench or set of dumbbells.