When you first start lifting weights, it can feel like there are a million different types of bars and plates out there. What do they all mean? Which one should you buy first? There are so many options; how do you know which is the best for you? Different people have different answers, but here are some pointers to help you choose your first barbell.
Know why you're using that bar
The first thing to consider is why you're using that bar. Are you using it for Olympic lifts, bodybuilding, powerlifting or functional training like crossfit? Is it a general bar? A bar used for Olympic lifts will have a smaller diameter. This is because the smaller diameter allows you to have a more narrow grip, which is essential for catching and receiving the barbell in the clean and snatch lifts. A general bar will be great for anything, but an Olympic bar is best for Olympic lifts and a powerlifting bar is best for powerlifting.
Weight of the bar
The next thing to consider is the weight of the bar. If you are using a general bar, then you don't have to worry about this, but if you are using an Olympic or powerlifting bar, you will have to consider its weight. Olympic bars are generally made of lighter but more flexible steel, while powerlifting bars are generally made of heavier but stiffer steel. The weight of a bar is very important as a lighter bar is easier to lift. A lighter bar is better for beginners as it will allow them to focus more on technique, which is important as in reduces the risk of injury. Standard Olympic barbell for men is 20kg and women is 15kg.
The diameter (thickness) of the grip shaft usually ranges from 25mm to 32mm on different bars. 25mm is reserved for women’s Olympic weightlifting bars. Women typically have smaller hands that can’t do a hook grip on a 28mm bar as easily, and 25mm was developed to take that into consideration.28mm is the standard grip size for a men’s bar and generally provides the best grip for pulling movements like the deadlift and clean-and-jerk, and it lets the bar flex or “whip” somewhat during heavy lifts to help facilitate dynamic movements like the clean-and-jerk.
28.5mm is more common than a true 28mm. Non-competition standard Olympic lifters with larger hands would prefer this size. General all purpose size recommended for functional training or bodybuilding.
29mm is a de facto size for powerlifting. The extra thickness is a little more comfortable for presses so the bar doesn’t dig into your palms as much, and it’s a little stiffer to prevent whip. It’s still small enough that you can get a good grip on it for deadlifts.
30mm is sometime preferred pressing exercises. However, its a little too thick for deadlifts and cleans. This is also about the size that cheap bars in Olympic weight sets are. A thicker bar is one way of increasing the strength of a bar without using better steel. That isn’t the only reason for a thicker bar, but in the case of cheap bars it is.
Then consider the bar length. Olympic bars are usually around 2.2m long for men and 2.01 for women, while powerlifting bars can be as long as 2.3m long. The length of the bar is also important for the type of lifts you are doing. Olympic lifts are generally shorter in length and are done in a very explosive way, where powerlifting lifts are generally longer in length and are done slowly.
The tensile strength of a barbell entails how much a barbell can hold before it breaks or fractures. Companies will typically list their tensile strength in the construction specifications for their barbell. This number usually ranges anywhere between 120,000-230,000 pounds per square inch (PSI). 170,000 - 190,000 is considered suitable for commercial usage.
Whip and flexibility
The next things to consider are the whip and flexibility of the bar. The whip is how much the bar will bend when you put weight on it. The higher the weight of the bar, the more it will bend. A high-quality bar will have a decent amount of whip, which is good for Olympic lifts as it means the bar will be able to handle heavier weights.
Bearings vs Bushings
These are the two most common types of mechanisms that allow the sleeves of Olympic bars to spin freely. Allowing the sleeves to spin freely from the bar shaft is necessary during Olympic lifts (snatch, clean and jerk). Bearing surfaces reduce friction and allow the user to transition freely underneath the barbell. Both bearings and bushings allow the sleeves to spin with varying degrees of friction, but they differ in construction. Oilite bushings such as those in our Helios and Arete bars are self-lubricating. They’ll provide adequate sleeve rotation for nearly any facility, and require very little maintenance. On the other hand, Olympic weightlifting bars featuring needle bearings exhibit superior sleeve rotation to that of bars with bushings. The needle bearing provides a high-rpm sleeve that is commonly found in competition Olympic bars.
Knurling is the rough crisscrossed etching on a barbell.
Types of knurling typically include standard and aggressive. Training or high repetition movement barbell tend to more passive knurling, whereas competitive or low repetition movement a more aggressive pattern is preferred. Another factor to consider is the center knurling. Olympic bars designed for weightlifting exhibit a lower-gauge knurl than powerlifting bars and often feature a center-knurl if intended for competitive use. The center knurl provides firmer contact with the bar when catching cleans and squatting. On the flip side, Smooth center knurling will prevent scratching of the neck during cleans & jerks and presses. Therefore, this knurling type is ideal for functional fitness athletes.
Center knurling is also suitable for lifters who performs a lot of squats as it grips to the back better. For that same reason, you don’t want to use a barbell with center knurling for bench presses. When it comes to conventional deadlifts, center knurling may also scrape the shins.
The finish of the bar refers to the coating on the bar. The most common types of finishing on barbells are black zinc, chrome, ceramic, titanium gold and solid stainless steel. Zinc is the less expensive option and is standard for most bars. In terms of durability and corrosion resistant, zinc is the least, follow up by chrome, ceramic, titanium gold. Stainless steel is the most expensive and corrosion resistant option but is not widely used. In terms of value, titanium gold being the most cost effective coating for its durability, being as least 4 times more lasting then normal chrome coating. Ceramic being the next, with the added option of customizing your color scheme.
Everything else you need to know
You might also want to consider things like the color of the bar, the length of the shaft, whether it has grip handles and what type of end cap it has. The color of the bar could help people distinguish between their bars if they are using several at once. Our Arete barbell has the added feature of colored silicon ring bands to help differentiate between barbell for different users. Keep these things in mind when choosing your first barbell, and you should be able to find the best one for you.