The Ultimate Guide on How to Choose a Barbell

A barbell is sizable purchase, so it's important to know exactly what to look for.

Buying a quality barbell is a pricey investment that you want to last for a long time. You also need to make sure that you’re buying the right barbell for the task at hand. After all, the barbell is the bridge between you and the weight you lift. When you have hundreds of pounds loaded over your chest or on your back, you want to be able to trust the barbell that’s supporting that weight. 

In this article, you’ll learn how to choose a barbell and some important considerations to consider — notably, the barbell’s construction, the different types of barbells, and the warranties. We’ll also tell you how to care for your barbell once you pull the trigger on a purchase. After all, you want this thing to last! Here’s a full breakdown of what we’ll go over in this guide:

The Anatomy of a Barbell

Before delving into the specifics of choosing the right barbell for your goals and purposes, let’s first examine the basic anatomy of a barbell. Understanding the parts of a barbell will help you better absorb the information that follows.

The Anatomy of a Barbell

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Parts of a Barbell 

  • Shaft: The main length of the barbell. 
  • Sleeves: The portion of the barbell where you load plates onto.
  • Bearings & Bushings: The mechanisms that sit inside the barbell and allow the sleeves to spin. Bearings result in faster spin, and bushings, which are more common, allow for less spin.
  • Collar: Prevents the plates from sliding onto the shaft. 
  • Knurling: The crosshatch pattern of the shaft that allows for better grip.
  • Knurling Marks: Smooth rings on the barbell that sit approximately 36 inches apart. They’re used to help you better find your grip width.
  • Fastener: Holds the sleeves in place that’s attached to the shaft. 
  • Endcap: A circular piece of plastic or metal at the end of the sleeves. It helps hold the sleeves in place.

Dimensions 

  • Length: A barbell’s length ranges from four to eight feet, with the most common being 7’2” (Olympic barbell length). 
  • Diameter: The diameter of a barbell ranges from 25-32 millimeters, with 25mm (women) and 28mm (men) being the most common ones. 
  • Sleeve Diameter: Olympic and powerlifting bars have sleeves with a 50mm diameter. 
  • Weight: 20 kilograms/45 pounds is the standard weight for barbells. Power bars, which are meant to withstand the rigors of heavy powerlifting sessions, can weigh 55 pounds. 

The Construction of a Barbell

If a barbell doesn’t offer, or at least suggest, that it will hold up for an extended period, then you might be shelling out for another barbell sooner than you’d like. What follows is an in-depth look at all of the different aspects of a barbell’s construction, which you should consider carefully.

Tensile Strength

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).

Since tensile strength is related to the barbell’s ability to resist breaking and fracturing, a high tensile strength equals more durability. Below are a few notes on what to look for in a barbell’s tensile strength.

  • 150,000> PSI: Decent for beginners, but it might be worth spending a bit extra to make your investment last.
  • 150,000-180,000 PSI: Good and suitable for most athletes.
  • 180,000+ PSI: 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 you had to pick only one number to indicate a barbell’s durability and strength, then tensile strength is a pretty good measure.

Yield Strength

The yield strength of a barbell is the amount a barbell can be loaded with until it deforms. This number isn’t listed on every company’s page. 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.

Test Strength

Test strength refers to how much weight the company has loaded the barbell with. Not every company will list their barbell’s test. Also, high tensile and yield strength will be a pretty good indicator that a barbell’s test will be naturally high.

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Materials and Coating

Most barbells are built with some type of steel. Higher-end barbells are typically made with stainless steel. For the coating, barbells that use black oxide, Cerakote, and zinc all tend to provide solid durability. Another factor worth keeping an eye on is the sleeve coating. Chrome tends to be the most commonly used material on the sleeve for its durability and ease of use when sliding plates on and off.

When looking into a barbell’s strength, you should create a hierarchy of strength factors to consider. 

  • First, look for 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 you had to pick only one number to assess, then it’s recommended that you stick to a barbell’s tensile strength.

Knurling

Knurling is the rough crisscrossed etching on a barbell. It’s not the comfiest to grip, but those marks can help you hang onto the barbell better. Here’s what you need to know about knurling. 

Knurling Type

If not properly cared for, the knurling on your barbell can be the first thing to go. Typically a company will list a barbell’s knurling type and provide additional details about the knurling they use. Types of knurling typically include standard and aggressive. Below is a list of each one that can be used with the most benefit.

  • Standard: Recreational lifting, casual powerlifters, weightlifters, and functional fitness athletes
  • Aggressive: Powerlifting, squats, and deadlifts

Center “Olympic” Knurling

“Olympic knurling” indicates that the barbell doesn’t include rough middle knurling (it will be removed or smooth). Smooth center knurling will prevent scratching of the neck during cleans & jerks and presses. Therefore, this knurling type is ideal for weightlifters and functional fitness athletes. 

On the flip, powerlifters (or anyone) who performs a lot of squats will want knurling in the center so that 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. 

Whip and Rotation

“Whip” refers to the bounce that occurs in a barbell mid-lift. This is commonly seen during the transition phase of a clean & jerk or during speedy squats loaded with lots of weight. “Rotation” speaks to the barbell’s sleeve’s ability to spin freely without friction. More or less, whip and rotation aren’t better or worse. Here’s what you need to know.

Barbell Whip

Every barbell will come with a variety of whip, ranging from a lot to virtually none. Whip can either be useful or problematic, depending on your training goal. 

For weightlifters, a barbell’s whip can be beneficial for the snatch and clean & jerk since that bounce creates momentum to help the lifter carry the bar overhead. On the other hand, the whip can be disruptive during more static movements like the bench press and squat.

A thinner barbell will have more whip compared to a rigid barbell, such as a power bar.  

Barbell Rotation

Barbell rotation 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 time. Bearings 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.

For the recreational lifter and powerlifter, bushings are often the best bet. Bushing barbells are typically more cost-efficient, and the type of lifting being performed with these populations doesn’t necessarily require a fast-rotating barbell for success.

Barbell Whip and Rotation Explained

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Common Barbells Explained

Now that you know the major construction features of barbells, it’s time to learn about the different types of barbells. There are typically three major barbell types: standard, weightlifting, and the power bar. 

This section will breakdown each barbell’s best use and relate those individual characteristics to the construction features listed above. The culmination of construction specs and best uses can help you easily decide what suits your needs and wallet best. 

Standard Barbell

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 gyms, then there’s a good chance you’ll be using a standard barbell. 

These barbells typically offer medium-level knurling, bushings in the sleeves, and have a moderate whip. They’re a great choice for lifters who don’t have a specific specialty. 

Weightlifting Barbell

A weightlifting barbell serves those who train the Olympic lifts for a majority of their training. If you’re a casual weightlifter and not very serious, it’s still recommended to look into a standard barbell. Barbells with bearings 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 Bar

Power bars are most relevant to powerlifters. These barbells are designed to have relatively no whip, which can cause wonky form mechanics. If you compete in powerlifting, specifically the United States of America Powerlifting (USAP) and International Powerlifting Federation (IPF), then training with a power bar can be useful because it will carry over to competition. These bars can weigh up to 55 pounds.

Different Types of Barbells
Most lifters will want to choose one of these utilitarian barbells.

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Other Types of Barbells

If you’ve ever stepped foot into a powerlifting or strongman gym, then chances are you’ve spotted a few unusual-looking barbells. That’s not to say these tools aren’t effective — because they are — but if you’re buying your first barbell, stick with one of the options above. Here’s a guide to other types of barbells that aren’t as common.

EZ Curl Bar 

The EZ curl barbell has an angular shape where you grip the barbell. The benefit of this is that it targets different angles of your biceps when performing a biceps curl. Also, it’s thought to be more comfortable on your wrists since your hands are turned slightly inward (supinated), which is a more natural joint alignment for your wrist and elbow. 

Trap Bar

This hexagon-shaped bar is mainly for deadlifts. The high handles allow lifters with poor hip mobility to set up more easily. Also, lifting centered inside the weight (instead of sitting in front of you) is a more mechanically advantageous position. It’s not a competition-approved deadlift, but trap bar pulls are easier and, for some, safer. 

You can also perform a variety of different exercises with the trap bar. It’s not just for deadlifts.  

Thick Grip Bars

As the name suggests, thick grip bars — like an axle bar — are thicker than traditional barbells. Grasping a thicker surface area will tax the muscles in your forearms and hands, resulting in a stronger grip

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Safety Squat Bar

This barbell has a padded neck area with handles that jut out in front of the lifter’s face for them to grab. Grabbing those handles as opposed to reaching behind you is easier on the shoulders. 

Swiss Bar

You won’t see this option in many gyms, but it’s a cool barbell. Also known as a football bar, the Swiss bar offers neutral-grip handles at various widths — narrow, medium, and wide. If you have achy shoulders or wrists, this is a great option. 

Tsunami Bar

Another gym rarity, the Tsunami bar, has an extreme amount of flex, which challenges a lifter’s stability during any lift. If you do have access to this bar, go light and focus on form and feeling your abs work.

About Barbell Warranties

Types of Warranties

Every company will offer different levels of warranty for their barbells. Oftentimes, 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 come with lifetime warranties. Lower-end barbells might come with one to three-year-long warranties. If you want a solid warranty, then you should check out bigger companies like Rogue Fitness because they’ll typically offer better long-term warranty options.

Pretty much every barbell 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.

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.

How to Clean Your Barbell

Take care of your barbell, and it’ll take care of you. Adhere to the pointers below, and you’ll find that your investment will go that much further. 

Wipe Off Excess Chalk

Anytime you apply chalk to your hands or traps for deadlifts or squats, the residue will get stuck between the knurling. Chalk absorbs moisture — so any chalk on your barbell will absorb humidity and then allow it to marinate on your steel barbell, leading to rust. That’s no good. 

Take a stiff-bristled nylon brush and dust off the knurling so that all of the chalk comes out of the knurling. Don’t worry about sweeping bristles over your barbell. It’s steel. You should be more worried about the bar accumulating rust, which can damage the coating.

Apply Oil to the Bar

If you’re a home-gym or small gym owner, this step only needs to be completed once or twice per month. Gyms with more foot traffic (or, should we say, hand traffic) may want to oil their barbells weekly. 

Take a rag and spray some 3-in-1 oil — a common household lubrication formula — onto it. Wrap the rag around the middle of the barbell, and drag it down and back the entire shaft. You don’t need to wipe down the sleeves. Let the barbell sit overnight and then repeat once more in the morning. 

Clean the Sleeves

This step only applies to barbells with bearings, not bushings, such as Olympic bars. This is a more involved process and doesn’t need to be done often. However, it’s important to take the sleeves off of your barbell and lubricate the insides, so it spins fast and smoothly. Chalk and dirt can get inside the sleeve, slowing down rotation. Here’s a video from Rogue fitness that shows you how to clean the sleeves. 

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How Not to Treat Your Barbell

To get even more mileage out of your new steel buddy, avoid making the following mistakes.

Don’t Leave Your Barbell Loaded with Plates

Once you’re done lifting, strip the barbell of all plates. Over time, the consistent pressure of the plates can lead to slight bends in the bar, which will compromise your barbell’s integrity. This is especially true if you leave a loaded barbell suspended in a rack.

If you’re a gym owner, it’s common courtesy for members to leave the barbell bare for the next person. Nobody wants to strip off four plates on each side before warming up. 

Don’t Do Rack Pulls on Spotter Arms

It’s not uncommon to see someone in a big box gym doing rack pulls in a power rack — with the barbell resting on spotter arms set to knee height. However, slamming a bar loaded with hundreds of pounds into sturdy spotter arms will only lead to dull knurling and a bent barbell. 

Rack pulls are a great exercise, don’t get it twisted, but perform them off of blocks or bumper plates instead. Your barbell (and bank account) will thank you. 

Don’t Store Your Barbell at an Angle

Leaning your barbell into the corner of your garage or gym can lead to damaged walls, mirrors, and floors (if the barbell tips over). Instead, you can store it vertically in a barbell holder or horizontally in a squat rack or bench press rack (unloaded). 

The Best Barbell Exercises

Now that you know a thing or two about the makeup and types of barbells let’s dive into some exercises you can get started with once you find the barbell that’s right for you. 

Barbell Bench Press

The barbell bench press is a staple in lifter’s routines. Whether you’re a strongman, powerlifter, CrossFitter, or a person looking to put on chest mass — you probably bench. And that’s good. Like the rest of the barbell exercises on this list, the bench press lets you lifter heavier than you could with other tools. It recruits the triceps, chest, back, core, and shoulders. The bench press will develop raw strength. 

Sets and Reps: three sets of six to eight reps.

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Bent-Over Barbell Row

If you’re looking to build a broad and ripped back, then this is the exercise for you. The barbell row requires you to fight against gravity to pull immense amounts of weight towards you. You can load a barbell with more weight than you can handle with dumbbell rows (and most other rowing variations), making it a great way to overload the back musculature. Also, gripping a heavy-ass barbell will boost grip strength.

Sets and Reps: four sets of eight to 10 reps.

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Barbell Overhead Press

The overhead press is one of the best exercises you can do to build a well-developed physique. That’s because broad shoulders enhance your body’s V-shape. Not to mention, meatier delts will carry over to other major exercises like the barbell bench press

Sets and Reps: three sets of six to eight reps.

 

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Barbell Squat

Barbell squats — back squats and fronts squats — are considered the king of all exercises to develop brute leg strength. This exercise will hit all the major muscles in your lower body — glutes, quads, and hamstrings — and will build results in some explosive power to boot.

Sets and Reps: three sets of five reps.

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Barbell Curl

Although it can be hard to use heavy weight and get enough reps in on dumbbell exercises for your biceps, the barbell curl is a different animal. This isolation exercise will allow you to use resistance that’s heavy enough to make your arms respond and grow. Additionally, this exercise develops your forearms, which leads to enhanced grip strength

Sets and Reps: two sets of 10 to 12 reps.

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Barbell Skull Crushers

The triceps make up two-thirds of your arms, so if you want bigger arms, increasing the size of your triceps will go a long way. More triceps mass will help your bench press, too, as the triceps become the primary mover during the lockout phase of the bench. And there’s no better way to increase the size and strength of your triceps than the barbell skull crushers.

You can place a greater load on the back of your arms. Also, lowering your arms behind you better stretches the triceps, which leads to a gnarlier pump, so more nutrient-rich blood flows to the area for optimal recovery.

Sets and Reps: two sets of 12 to 15 reps.

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Final Word

Buying a new barbell can be overwhelming. 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 insight into the many construction characteristics to consider when looking at new barbells.

Our advice: decide what type of barbell matches your needs most, then rate construction characteristics side-by-side from different companies.

Featured image: Victor Freitas/Unsplash