With the sheer number of weightlifting bar manufacturers on the market today, dissecting the uses of the different types of bars available can be difficult. Even if it’s easy to understand they’re used for, it’s sometimes hard to determine what the different specifications are saying about the product’s quality and performance. Let’s break down the common specifications related to weightlifting bars.
Commercial Weightlifting Bars should have the following characteristics:
- A high tensile strength (between 170,000 and 190,000 PSI)
- Feature a zinc or chrome plating, or be made of stainless steel to prevent unwanted corrosion.
- Be 86.5” in length, and between 28mm and 28.5 for use in Olympic weightlifting (snatch, clean and jerk, and variations). Can be greater if used specifically for powerlifting (squat, deadlift, and pressing variations)
- Weigh 20kg (45lb) for men’s bars, 15kg (35lb) for women’s bars
- Feature a bronze bushing or needle bearing to allow the sleeves to rotate freely from the shaft
Tensile strength is actually the amount of pressure necessary to pull the steel apart if you pulled the shaft outward from each end. Although tensile strength tells us a lot about an Olympic bar’s strength, it doesn’t directly tell us about its capacity to remain straight under pressure. Yield strength is actually the measure that tells us the amount of pressure necessary to cause a permanent bend. Manufacturer’s use tensile strength as an indicator of the quality of steel because tensile strength highly-corresponds to yield strength. So the higher the tensile strength, the less likely the bar will permanently bend under load.
A PSI rating of 170,000 to 190,000 is appropriate for commercial settings. Anything below that value is subject to quality issues in the short-term and long-term.
Weightlifting Bar Capacity
Many manufacturers and sellers will market their product with a weight capacity. Often they’ll ready something like “1500 lb weight capacity”. What they’re saying is that their bars, if placed on a fixed pivot like a bench or a box, can withstand static loads of up to this figure before taking on permanent bend. Weight capacity is not a quality metric when determining quality for several reasons. The first is that the test outcome is largely dependent on the size of the pivot point. A wider pivot such as a plyometric box will create a higher static test result than a narrower bench. Static tests also don’t translate to the dynamic nature of barbell use. Barbells, particularly Olympic weightlifting bars, are not used statically, and as such a static test figure is not an accurate representation of what loads can be safely used dynamically.
Bearings vs. Bushings
Allowing the sleeves to spin freely from the shaft is necessary during the Olympic lifts (snatch, clean and jerk, and variations). Fixed or poorly designed sleeves that create significant friction will prevent the user from freely transitioning underneath the barbell. Both bearings and bushings allow the sleeves to spin with varying degrees of friction, but they differ in construction. Needle bearings will exhibit superior sleeve rotation to that of bushings.
Are bearings worth the price? For most commercial settings a bushing will be the most reliable option and won’t sacrifice performance for nearly all users regardless of skill level. However a needle bearing is the commonly accepted standard for competition Olympic barbells and are the ideal solution for high-level weightlifters.
Knurling is the texture that allows the user to maintain a firm grip during weightlifting exercises. The depth or aggressiveness of the knurl often depends on the specific sport a bar is intended for. Olympic weightlifting bars 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 when catching cleans and squatting, however it was originally used for one-handed lifts decades ago. Powerlifting bars have a more aggressive knurl pattern which provides a better grip during heavy deadlifts, and may have slightly more knurled distance in order to accommodate smaller grip widths on deadlifts.
Bar Diameter and Whip
Diameter influences whip, or the degree to which the bar oscillates under dynamic forces. It should be noted that regardless of what manufacturers might say, bars with similar diameters will have similar flex or whip. Smaller diameters feature greater whip by nature while larger diameters allow for less whip.
- Typically feature a 28mm diameter, which is the lowest diameter allowable within IWF standards
- Natural oscillation of heavy loads is desirable as the natural change in momentum can assist lifters in moving load dynamically.
- Typically feature a 29mm diameter which is the largest allowable within IPF standards
- Designed to be more rigid as bar bend is not preferable during heavy deadlifts and squats. Whip makes it more difficult for the user to break the ground on their initial pull and maintain form during squats and presses.
- Feature a 28.5mm diameter as they’re intended to be effective as both a weightlifting bar and a powerlifting bar
IWF and IPF both have standardized 2.2 meters as the appropriate length of a competition bar. Most training bars and all competition bars follow this standard which converts to just over 86.5”.
The finish refers to the plating or lack thereof on a barbell. The finishing process impacts longevity as untreated steel will oxidize and rust which can negatively impact the durability and performance.
- The least resistant to corrosion
- Offer an excellent grip due to the lack of protective plating dampening the knurl gauge
- Will need to be well-maintained even in a temperature-controlled commercial setting.
- Coating applied to the shaft under 400 degrees Fahrenheit in order to avoid altering the steel chemistry
- Does not provide as robust a plating as zinc or chrome
- Knurling will be more pronounced than plated steel, but less than that of bare steel
- Dipped in a zinc bath which gives the bar a silver finish that will protect the shaft from corrosion
- Often designated for commercial use due to their durability and resistance to oxidation
- Zinc layer will slightly reduce the aggressiveness of the bare knurl, but quality knurl will still provide sufficient grip
- Highly-resistant to oxidation
- Can take away the knurl gauge more than zinc or black oxide finishes, but a quality knurl can will still provide excellent grip
- Most competition-level Olympic weightlifting bars are chrome-plated