Let’s cut to the chase. Barbells are not cheap and buying one is a multi-year investment. They’re the gym/home gym owner’s equivalent of buying a car. Think about it. Barbells depreciate the moment they are purchase, they are designed to last for multiple years and have solid warranties (usually), and they’re all used for the same thing (like cars), but have subtle construction nuances that make them different.
Like any other big purchase, the construction nuances make the art of buying a barbell slightly more complicated than other pieces of equipment. Will a barbell technically work for any barbell-focused exercise? Sure, although, that doesn’t mean every barbell is created equal in respects to their best exercise and strength sport uses. In fact, the best barbells are really decided on how they fit your lifting needs and wants, along with your strength sport requirements.
In this article, we’ll discuss how to choose a barbell and some of the biggest considerations that should be taken into account. These considerations will begin with a barbell’s construction, then dive into a few specific types of barbell that are designed to match the needs of strength sports like CrossFit, weightlifting, and powerlifting.
How to Choose the Perfect Barbell
1. Barbell Strength
Construction should be one of the major considerations when looking around for a new barbell. If a barbell doesn’t offer, or at least suggest, that it will hold up for an extended period of time, then you might be having to buy two barbells in a time frame that is less than ideal for the bank account. So what specs are worth considering?
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 and this number can range anywhere between 120,000—230,000+. Since tensile strength is related to the barbell’s ability to resist breaking and fracturing a high tensile strength means a better barbell. Below, we’ve included a few notes on what to look for in a barbell’s tensile strength.
- 150,000> — Decent for beginners, but it might be worth spending a bit extra to make your investment last.
- 150,000-180,000 — Good and suitable for most athletes.
- 180,000+ — Well constructed barbell that should last a long amount of time.
Most companies will list their barbell’s tensile strength on their product’s page, and if we had to pick only one number to use to indicate a barbell’s durability and strength, then tensile strength is a pretty good bet to use.
The yield strength of a barbell is the amount a barbell can be loaded with until it becomes deformed. This number isn’t listed on every company’s barbell pages, so it’s not the biggest deal, but it’s always nice to see. In reality, a high tensile strength will often indirectly relate to a high yield strength as the metal and overall construction will typically be a bit higher.
The test of a barbell is how much weight the company has physically used to load and test their barbell with. Not every company will list their barbell’s test, so it’s not the biggest deal if you can’t find it on the respective barbell page. Often times, high tensile and yield strength will be a pretty good indicator that a barbell’s test will be naturally high.
The materials used on a barbell can also be an indicator for a barbell’s strength and durability. Most barbell will be constructed with some form of steel and the higher end barbells will be made with a stainless steel. On top of the barbell’s base material, the coating can also be an indicator for breakdown. Barbells that use black oxide, cerakote, and zinc all tend to provide a solid durability to the outside of the barbell’s base. Another factor worth keeping an eye on is the sleeve coating. Chrome tends to be the most commonly used material on sleeve for its durability and ease of use when sliding plates on and off.
Barbell Strength Buying Guide
When looking into a barbell’s strength, we’d recommend creating a hierarchy of strength factors to consider. First, look for a high tensile strength, as this is the most readily used construction spec across multiple companies and it suggests long-term durability. Second, assess the material the company uses to construct their barbell with and see if there are additional notes on how this material is sourced and used. Third, consider the barbell’s yield and test strength. If we had to pick only one number to really assess, then we’d recommend sticking to a barbell’s tensile strength.
BarBend Tip: If you’re shopping for multiple barbells at once, then make a spreadsheet with these construction attributes and list them out to get nice side-by-side comparisons!
The type of a knurling a barbell uses can also be considered when making a barbell purchase. In respects to a barbell’s breakdown, knurling can be one of the first attributes to go, especially when not properly cared for. Typically a company will list a barbell’s knurling type, or provide additional details about the knurling they use. While there’s no real knurling definition, typical types include things like standard and aggressive. We’ve listed where each can be used with the most benefit below.
- Standard: Recreational lifting, casual powerlifters, weightlifters, and functional fitness athletes
- Aggressive: Powerlifting, squats, and deadlifts
Center “Olympic” Knurling
If you see the term, “Olympic knurling,” on a barbell page, then this will often indicate the the barbell doesn’t include a rough middle knurling (it will be removed or smooth). This is ideal for weightlifters and functional fitness athletes, so if you lift with these styles most often, then you may want to consider this construction feature a bit more heavily. Smooth center knurling will prevent scratching of the neck during cleans, jerks, and presses. On the flip side, if you’re doing a lot of squats, then finding a barbell with a rigid center knurling can promote the barbell’s grip on the back.
Barbell Knurling Buying Guide
If you plan to use your barbell for mostly casual recreational lifting, then aim for a barbell with standard knurling. For powerlifters, they may want to consider an aggressive knurling depending on their lifting needs and if they compete. Powerlifting meets will use newer barbells with either more rigid or aggressive knurling. Weightlifters and functional fitness athletes can go either way and this will come down to preference and center knurling.
BarBend Tip: If you use chalk or store your barbell outside, then be sure to brush it off after every workout to prevent chalk and dirt clogging the knurling ridges.
3. Whip and Rotation
Every barbell will come with a varied of whip and this can range from a lot to virtually none. Whip can both be useful and problematic depending on your training goal. For weightlifters, whip can be useful for the snatch and clean & jerk, and using a barbell with whip will most closely resemble what will be used in competition. On the other hand, powerlifters and folks lifting a lot of weight (think 550 lbs+) will vary, but if you compete in the USAPL or IPF, then you should look for power bars, or bars that have little to no whip. The recreational and functional fitness athletes can get away with using bars that have normal amounts of whip.
The rotation of a barbell really only matters for one type of athlete and that’s the dedicated weightlifter. The sleeves of barbells are often constructed with either bushings or bearings. Bushings provide a moderate rotation and will be quicker to lose their smooth rotation over a long period of time. Bearings on the other hand are designed to spin fast and match the catching needs of the snatch and clean & jerk. If you’re a weightlifter, then look for a barbell with bearings, and if you’re a functional fitness athlete, then looking for fast rotating bushing sleeves can be useful.
For the recreational lifter and powerlifter, then bushings are often the best bet. Bushing barbells are typically more cost efficient and the type of lifting being performed with these population don’t necessarily require a fast rotating barbell for success.
Barbell Whip and Rotation Buying Guide
Out of our barbell construction whole list, whip and rotation are probably the most niche construction characteristics. They can be incredibly useful dependent on your strength sport and lifting needs. Below, we’ve created a quick chart to help you assess if whip and rotation are important for your lifting style.
|Whip + Rotation||Useful for Who|
|A Lot of Whip + Rotation||Weightlifters + Functional Fitness Athletes|
|Some Whip + Moderate Rotation||Powerlifters, Recreational Lifters, Functional Fitness|
|No Whip + Moderate/Little Rotation||Powerlifters|
4. Barbell Sex Differences
Male and Female Barbells
In respects to sex differences, not every barbell is created the same. For example, women’s barbells will typically weight 15kg/35 lbs respectively, while men’s will weight 20kg/45 lbs. If you compete in weightlifting or functional fitness, then these barbell weights will be relevant for your lifting. If you compete in powerlifting, then a 20kg barbell will be used for both men and women. Most big commercial gyms only offer standard 45 lb barbells, and more niche/high-end gyms offer women’s barbells.
- Men’s Barbell: 20kg/45 lbs
- Women’s Barbell: 15kg/35 lbs
5. Different Barbell Types
Now that we’ve covered the major construction features of barbells, we can discuss the different types of barbells. In the grand scheme of barbells, there are typically three major barbell types and these include: Standard, Weightlifting, and Power bar. Note, there are squat bars, deadlift bars, and other niche barbells, but for this article we’ll cover the major three.
The goal for this section is to provide a rundown of each barbell’s best use, then relate those individual characteristics back to the construction features listed above. The culmination of construction specs and best uses can help you easily make a decision that suits your needs and wallet best.
The standard barbell is best for pretty much any form of lifting outside of serious powerlifting and weightlifting — consider it the jack of all trades. If you attend most niche and commercial gym, then there’s really good chance you’ll be using a standard barbell. These barbells typically offer a medium-level knurling, bushings in the sleeves, and have a moderate whip. Basically, they’re the jack of all trades and can be used for major compound lifts and isolation lifts.
A weightlifting barbell will serve those who train the Olympic lifts for a majority of their training. If you’re a casual weightlifter and not very serious, then we’d still recommend looking into a standard barbell, as bearing barbells can be expensive. Weightlifting barbells will have a smooth center knurling (or none), have a lot of whip, and fast rotating bearings or bushings in the sleeves.
Power bars are most relevant to powerlifters. These barbells are designed to have relatively no whip and that’s to support heavily lifts without whip causing wavering in form mechanics. If you compete in powerlifting, and more specifically the USAPL and IPF, then training with a power bar can be useful because it will have carry over to competition.
6. Barbell Warranty Guide
Types of Warranties
Every company will offer different levels of warranty for their barbells. Often times, a barbell’s warranty will correlate to the bar’s price, use, and main purpose. For example, high-end weightlifting and power barbells will usually contain lifetime warranties, while lower end barbells might come with one to three warranties. If you’re really interested in warranties, then we’d recommend checking out bigger companies like Rogue Fitness’ barbells because they’ll typically offer and come along with better long-term warranty options.
Pretty much every barbell we’ve reviewed comes with some form of warranty that covers the consumer from construction defects and design issues. A typical barbell warranty will not cover misuse of a barbell like dropping it in a squat rack and causing it to bend and so forth.
Barbell Warranty Buying Guide
There’s no beating around the bush on this one. A barbell’s warranty typically relates to how much you’re investing in the barbell. Better made and higher end barbells will be constructed for serious athletes and will offer quality construction attributes. If you’re not that serious about lifting, then lower end warranties will often be fine, but if you’re sinking a lot of money into your barbell, then looking at better warranties is always a safe idea.
Buying a new barbell can be scary. It’s a big investment and at the end of the day you want your money to go the distance. Hopefully this guide has provided some insight into the many construction characteristics to consider when looking at new barbells.
Our advice, decide what type of barbell that matches your needs most, then rate construction characteristics side-by-side from different companies.
Feature image from Roguefitness.com.