It’s a fundamental piece of strength training equipment seen in gyms all over the world. But do you know all there is to know about the Olympic bar? The bar you use in your gym may look like one – to the untrained eye – but does it match up to the genuine article?
There actually exists two types of official bar – the Powerlifting bar used for squats, deadlifts, and bench presses, and the Olympic bar used for weightlifting – which this article will focus on.
So read on, and you’ll be well on your way to becoming an Olympic bar guru.
Dimensions of an Olympic Bar
How long is an Olympic bar?
The official length is 2.2 m or 7′ 2 inches from end to end.
The bar is made up of a steel shaft with rotating “sleeves” at each end. Each sleeve connects to the shaft via a “bushing” or “bearing” section – which in turn enables the sleeves to spin.
The length of the shaft – the area where you place your hands – is 131 cm (a little over 51 inches). A key dimension of a bar is the shaft diameter. The diameter for official Olympic weightlifting bars is 28mm - and it’s also the narrowest. A narrower bar can rotate quicker - this is ideal for weightlifting.
For unofficial bars, it’s common for the diameter to vary beyond the 28mm standard.
You’ll find 28.5 mm, 29mm, 30mm and even 32mm diameter bars in many gyms. Thicker bars can appeal to lifters with different grip preferences, but it’s also a way of increasing the strength of the bar.
Some manufacturers can use the extra thickness as a sort of cheat – to compensate for weaker grades of steel, used in the manufacturing process. This can cause issues for those who buy a cheap “Olympic bar” and realize that the bar is too thick for their grip. Also a thicker bar won’t rotate as fast, meaning poorer performance during the execution of fast lifts like cleans.
How much does an Olympic bar weigh?
The official weight is 20kg or 44lb.
Unofficial bars – like many generic strength training bars found in commercial gyms – can weigh less, even though their manufacturers may describe them as 20kg Olympic bars.
You’ll also hear the term “competition bars”. These are calibrated for weight and issued with a certificate as proof of accuracy – which bumps up the price. Bars that are not checked for their weight, cannot be used in formal competitions, and are referred to as “training bars” – but they are essentially the same thing.
The collars that keep the weight plates in position, each weigh 2.5 kg (5.5 lb) – so the total weight of the bar plus its collars will weigh 25kg (55lb).
The knurling (or knurl) is a key feature of any bar – it is the diamond-shaped criss-cross pattern machined onto the raw steel. It’s function is to improve your grip.
There are 3 areas with knurling.
A narrow, 12 cm-wide center knurl in the middle of the bar (useful for stabilizing the bar on your back when doing squats) plus two wide-grip-sections (each with a width of 44.5 cm) that extend to the end of the shaft.
These provide grip for lifters who perform the snatch – it’s a very wide grip and many standard bars won’t have this knurl extend all the way to the ends.
Within these knurled sections are 5mm-wide smoothed grip marks or rings – one on each side of the lifter.
Each mark is located 45.5 cm from the center of the bar and the distance between the rings is 91cm (36 inches).
Knurls can be soft or coarse – and in extreme cases can feel like cheese graters for your hands – but the quality Olympic bars will have a softer, comfortable knurl. The sharper knurls are usually a feature of power bars – where extra grip is necessary for lifting heavier weight during slower lifts.
The only smooth areas of the shaft are located either side of the center knurl – these measure 15cm in width it is here where you can place your shins during lifts. As the bar is lifted upwards – the shins won’t get grazed if contact is made with the legs.
Even though an Olympic bar is made of steel, its surface is often covered with a protective layer or coating.
Coatings are applied to prevent rusting and to make the bar look good.
Bright zinc, black zinc and chrome plating are common coatings, with chrome being the official coating for competition Olympic bars. Shiny chrome makes for a nice-looking finish, but it can make a bar feel more ‘slippery’ in the hands.
An uncoated bar is referred to as a bare steel bar or stainless steel bar (if it has been manufactured out of a steel/chromium alloy). Uncoated bars need to be cleaned and oiled regularly to prevent a build up of oxide layers.
The sleeves are where you place the weight plates, and are the moving parts of an Olympic bar.
They are 41.5 cm in length and have a diameter of 5 cm.
Weight plates that fit onto the sleeves, have a center hole of just over 50mm. The sleeves can be smooth or finished with fine grooves, so the plates ‘stick’ more and don’t slide around as much.
The ease of spin of these sleeves will determine how good a bar is for performing fast, dynamic Olympic lifts.
Will a bar strain my wrists?
A simple test is to give the sleeves of an unloaded bar a quick spin. If they spin freely with relatively little noise – you potentially have a great bar for doing cleans. Correct technique is paramount though to keep wrist strain down to a minimum.
When you lift a bar from the floor and perform a clean, you bring your wrists and elbows underneath it as fast as possible – at the same time the bar will rotate rapidly about 180o.
The plates at the end of the bar must stay still, so that any torque exerted on the wrists is kept to an absolute minimum. This is where the sleeves do their job – the quicker and smoother they can spin, the better for the lifter.
But what allows this smooth rotation of the sleeves?
This is where the bushings or bearings inside the sleeves do their job.
Bushings and Bearings
What’s a bushing? A bushing is a hollow cylindrical-shaped lining that can be fitted inside the sleeves of a bar – it reduces the friction between the sleeve and the rotating shaft within it. Usually made of brass, they’re the less expensive option compared to needle bearings. So if you hear the term ‘bushing bar’ – you’ll know it refers to bushings inside the sleeves.
Bushings needs lubricating with a bit a oil, now and again, to keep them working effectively and to maintain them in good condition. When not in use, Olympic bars should be stored horizontally, rather than vertically – otherwise lubricating oil in the sleeves can leak out.
Needle bearings allow for the smoothest rotation.
The precision engineering that goes into them makes them the more expensive option – they are found in the higher quality ‘bearing’ bars and are almost always used in top of the range bars for weightlifting competitions.
But what is a needle bearing?
A needle bearing consists of a cylindrical ‘cage’ that has long thin cylinders or rollers sitting around its circumference. The rollers or ‘needles’ reduce the friction between two rotating surfaces i.e. the shaft of the bar and the sleeves, in which it sits.
Some manufacturers are now making needle bearings that have a lubricating ‘gel’ – and because it’s a gel – it won’t leak out of the sleeves.
Now that you know a lot more about Olympic bars than your average gym user – you’ll be able to cast an analytical eye over a bar – whether it’s in your local gym, a shop or a spec that you see online.
If you’re looking to buy your own bar, then check out the article Which Olympic Bar Should You Buy For Your Home Gym?