Barbell Hunting 101We will not go into the anatomy of a barbell and review of our favorites. Instead, here are some simple ways to identify a quality barbell online or “in the wild,” when you don’t have all the information about the bar or reviews at your fingertips.
What to Look for When you are Looking for a Barbell
Over a decade ago, with the rise of Crossfit strength-based fitness movements, the barbell home gym saw an explosion. Now, an implosion—people stuck at home or not wanting to use commercial gyms or not wishing to have their training interrupted by world events—has caused another home gym revolution. In the same way that people are stocking their pantries with dried goods, serious lifters are stocking their home gyms with racks, plates, and bars—making their fitness plans anti-interstitial, in case of plague, pestilence, or executive order.
While equipment manufacturers catch their supplies up to the new demand, many home gym owners are scouting online sellers, hunting neighborhood sales, or watching their email alerts, ready to pull the trigger as soon as a bar comes available. When you have an abundance of options, which bar to buy is mostly a question of the style and features you need (or think you will prefer) for your training, price, and any reviews you can find about it. But when supplies are scarce, and you need to make a quick decision on what is available, it helps to know what to look for in a good barbell.
Here, we will not go into the anatomy of a barbell and review of our favorites. There are many other places to find that information. (Start with garagegymreviews.com/.) Instead, here are some simple ways to identify a quality barbell online or “in the wild,” when you don’t have all the information about the bar or reviews at your fingertips.
Context: Strength Training vs. Powerlifting vs. Weightlifting
Our focus here is on finding a bar for general strength training. General strength training means that squats, bench presses, deadlifts, and overhead presses are the bread and butter of your training, with occasional power cleans and the power snatches. Many different kinds of bars serve many different purposes. Some can be specific to a single lift, such as a deadlift bar or a bench press bar. Weightlifting bars are designed for the clean and jerk and the snatch. Being able to tell these different bars apart may help you find the one that’s best for your general strength training.
All-Purpose or Multi-Purpose Bars
A high-quality, all-purpose bar is the Goldilocks standard for general strength training. They are not too expensive, they are built for all the lifts you will use them for, and the knurling is aggressive enough to be useful but is not going to tear your hands to shreds on volume deadlift day. One way to recognize a multi-purpose bar is by its dual knurl marks on either side of the shaft. The inner markings are powerlifting marks. The outer markings are for weightlifting. The two sets together ought to signal that the bar accommodates lifts from either sport and will, therefore, serve all your training needs.
The problem, of course, is that most low-quality barbells are also “multi-purpose” bars. Some companies will identify their “Econo” or “beater” bars for what they are, but if you don’t know what to watch out for, you might end up with a too-thick, too-stiff bar that you are going to want to replace before long or one in which the sleeve assembly comes loose in the middle of a set.
The best all-purpose bars ranged in thickness from 27mm to 29mm in the circumference of the shaft. A thinner bar requires better tensile strength so that it does not deform, usually making it more expensive. It will also have a much better feel in your hand for deadlifts. Rogue’s Ohio Deadlift bar is a joy to deadlift with at 27mm in diameter. Thick low-quality bars will often come in around 32mm. The difference is that they will not return to their shape as readily once they bend. The thicker, stiffer bar compensates for lower-quality metal. 32mm may not seem like much of a difference, but if a bar that feels too thick in the hands, it probably is.
Note that some very nice, specialty squat bars and bench press bars will also be thicker. Often powerlifters prefer a stiffer bar for these lifts. Even though these bars are high-quality, they are not replacements for a good multi-purpose bar for the bulk of your training.
Many low-quality barbells have decorative or hard chrome plating to make them look nice. Chrome plating tends to fill in the spaces between the knurling, making the bar slicker in the hands than you will want it to be.
Stainless steel may also look shiny, and many excellent bars are stainless steel. New stainless steel bars will be expensive. For used bars, look for chipping on the shaft, chrome will chip with hard use. If a bar is shiny and cheap, it most likely is not the bar are looking for.
Hex Bolt Assembly
Few (if any) quality barbells have a visible hex bolt at the end of the bar. This is a bolt you could tighten with an Allen wrench, and it will loosen as you use it. A snap ring assembly or a split sleeve assembly as in the old york barbell, means you are on the right track. (See the image below of Matt Moore’s restored barbell for what the split sleeve design looks like.)
Lay the bar on the floor, and spin the shaft with your foot. If the sleeves wobble, you have a bent barbell. Bent bars are okay if you know which side the bend is on, and you are not planning to deadlift, clean, or snatch with the bar. Maybe you can use the bend to get a deal and have a new workhorse squat bar. But, a bent barbell should not be the centerpiece of your home gym.
What to Look For
How Far Apart are the Knurling Marks?
We mentioned above that a multi-purpose bar would have two sets of knurl markings (sometimes called finger marks). The inner set is powerlifting markers, showing the widest grip allowed for the bench press. The outer marks are weightlifting marks, showing the widest grip allowed in the snatch. These marks should be 32″ and 36″ apart, respectively. A sure sign of a poor bar is one in which the markings are not set to the correct standards.
The knurling marks can also let you know what kind of bar you have if there is only a single set. A powerlifting bar (or power bar) will have the single set of markings at 32” and will have a center knurling in the middle of the barbell. A weightlifting bar will have the 36” marks and no center knurl. Between the two, a power bar is better for general strength training.
Center Knurl or Nah?
Not all multi-purpose bars will have a center knurl, the purpose of which is to improve friction on your back for a squat, keeping the bar in place. Multi-purpose bars that lack a center knurling do so because it can cause chafing when racking a clean or while performing front squats. Whether your bar has one is mostly a matter of personal preference. If you find a good bar without a center knurl, you can always spring for a training shirt with a grippy texture on the back.
How Long? (Maybe It’s a 15kg Bar)
The standard use barbell is 2.2 meters long (7.2 feet) and weighs 20 kilograms (about 44 pounds). Some powerlifting bars, especially deadlift specialty bars, will be longer to allow for more plates to be loaded. Often, you will see a rack of barbells in which some are longer and shorter.
The shorter barbells are likely women’s weightlifting barbells, coming it at about 6.9 feet. These barbells are shorter and thinner around than what we consider a standard or “men’s” barbell to comply with international weightlifting standards. They weigh 15 kg and serve no purpose beyond being a specialty bar for women’s weightlifting training or events. In a pinch, a women’s bar can provide a lighter option for lifters who cannot press or bench press the 20 kg bar. However, if possible, we recommend a specialty training bar in the 10 kg or even lighter range for those lifters, because it will give you more loading options than a 15 kg barbell.
Does it Spin Well?
You will not be able to see inside a barbell to know whether it has bushings or bearings to help the sleeves spin, at least not while shopping. In general, bearings spin better and are more expensive, but most multi-purpose bars have bushings that work just fine. As we mentioned above, avoid bars that have a visible hex bolt assembly at the end of the bar. If you look at the end of the sleeve, you should see either a snap ring holding the bar in place or a split sleeved design. The snap rings allow for disassembly and cleaning.
Is It Rusted? (Not Necessarily a Bad Thing)
Few cheap bars come in bare steel, which may make an oxidized or rusty barbell may be a great deal. If the bar is otherwise a good quality bar, argue the owner down in price because it “looks old.” Then use Coach Matt Moore’s guide to restoring a rusty barbell will take care of any cosmetic issues.
A good quality barbell is a one-time purchase. You may add to your collection of bars, but you should rarely have to replace one. We hope with these few tips you are better able to find the right bar for your gym. Happy hunting.